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EUVC #203 Kushal Shah from e&: Insights on Navigating MENA's Thriving Tech Landscape

EUVC #203 Kushal Shah from e&: Insights on Navigating MENA's Thriving Tech Landscape

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As the countdown begins for the Expand North Star event in Dubai, there's a palpable excitement in the venture capital community. From October 15th to 18th, a unique confluence of global investors will converge on the heart of the UAE. At the forefront of this event is Kushal Shah, an iconic figure within Dubai's investment landscape and Managing Director of E& Capital and founder of Dubai Angel Investors.

His journey, deeply interwoven with the city's entrepreneurial evolution, offers profound insights into what it means to be a venture capitalist in one of the world's most dynamic hubs.

Andreas and Omar Hassan from MTF, sat down with Shah for an exhaustive conversation. What unfurled was not just a narrative about investments and financial wins, but a reflection of a city’s transformation, a venture ecosystem’s evolution, and one man’s enduring commitment to innovation.

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The Expand North Star event, with its reputation for fostering international collaborations, serves as the perfect backdrop for Shah's revelations. As the event shifts to a more vibrant location within Dubai, attendees are assured a blend of structured engagements and the 'organized chaos' synonymous with grand tech congregations.

Yet, beyond the grandeur of the event, it is Shah's personal journey that holds the mirror to Dubai's entrepreneurial spirit. From his early forays into food franchises in London to pivotal tech investments in the heart of the Middle East, his trajectory underscores the essence of venture capitalism – adaptability, risk-taking, and an innate ability to recognize opportunities.

This deep dive also ventures into the intricacies of the MENA region, with Shah highlighting the nuances of investing in a diverse and sometimes volatile landscape. The message is clear: success in MENA is as much about understanding its cultural heartbeat as it is about financial acumen.

Furthermore, in a world often driven by ruthless competition, Shah's philosophy of 'Investing with Karma' stands out as a refreshing perspective. His emphasis on ethical engagements, genuine interactions, and the cyclical power of positive karma aligns seamlessly with the region's ethos.

The quickfire round, an essential fixture of our conversations, unravels Shah's personal mantras and insights into the venture world. His advocation for collaboration, even with competitors, is both counterintuitive and reflective of a mature investment landscape where the larger goal is innovation and growth.

Join us as we journey through Shah's experiences, drawing invaluable insights for both seasoned and budding investors. With the North Star event just around the corner, this is your prelude to the promise and potential that awaits in Dubai.


  1. Expand North Star Event in Dubai:

    • The North Star event, a venture capital gathering, is seeing a change of venue to a more dynamic area in Dubai Harbor.

    • With over a thousand exhibitors, more than 500 global funds, and approximately 2000 startups from over 70 nations, it has become a major event in the global tech space.

  2. Kushal Shah's Venture Journey:

    • Shah's transition from the corporate realm to venture capital began unexpectedly with a bagel shop idea, leading to a successful Subway franchise business in London.

    • His tech investment career started with backing a TV shopping channel in the early days of e-commerce.

    • Shah is now the Managing Director at E& Capital, a significant telecom operator, with his investment focus spanning late-stage A to early-stage B startups.

    • Kushal founded Dubai Angel Investors, one of the region’s premier angel clubs.

  3. Understanding MENA's Investment Landscape:

    • The MENA investment landscape demands relationship-building, cultural sensitivity, and an understanding of economic and political dynamics.

    • Staying clear of political affiliations and prioritizing economic ties is crucial when investing in MENA.

    • Building authentic, business-oriented relationships and aligning with growth-focused individuals leads to success in the MENA region.

    • Patience, relationship-building, and strategic alignment are essential for long-term success in MENA's evolving investment ecosystem.

  4. Investing with Karma:

    • Shah stresses the significance of karma in the venture world, highlighting the importance of ethical behavior, respect, and integrity in business relationships.

    • Investing positively within the ecosystem can lead to unexpected alliances and partnerships, driving ventures forward.

  5. Quickfire Insights:

    • Shah underscores the value of sleep and focusing on what’s core. Sometimes I forget the extra amount of energy you throw by doing things that are not necessary.”

    • For emerging VCs fundraising, Shah emphasizes the importance of telling a compelling story, not merely track record and achievements. They want to drink tea with you and read the tea leaves.”

    • In venture, collaborating with competitors can be more beneficial than assumed, especially when challenging established incumbents in sectors like FinTech.
      “Our real enemy is the incumbents out there that are not letting the technology guys thrive”

Why Expand North Star is the perfect place to experience the promise of the MENA region ✈️

With the EUVC delegation's imminent participation in the Expand North Star conference in October, we of course used this opportunity to better understand what we’ve got in store by asking Kushal to give us his take on the conference.

In answering, Shah first takes us through the event's monumental numbers, highlighting over a thousand exhibitors, more than 500 global funds, and a staggering 2000 startups hailing from over 70 countries. Shah's comparison of the experience to walking into the renowned Mobile World Congress for the first time lends credence to the scale of North Star, further cementing its significance in the global tech landscape.

“You'll get to get a feel for Dubai at its peak”

With North Star's relocation to Dubai Harbor this year, Shah emphasizes the festival-like ambiance that attendees can expect, basking in the sunshine and open-air setting. As he eloquently puts it, the event's charm lies in the opportunity to experience not just Dubai, but the world itself, through the myriad of perspectives and voices present.

The palpable energy and positive vibe of North Star are attributes Shah underscores, giving potential attendees a taste of what awaits them in mid-October. As he extends a heartfelt invitation to venture capitalists, angel investors, and enthusiasts alike, Shah's excitement for facilitating the best experience in Dubai during the event is both genuine and inviting.

The stage is set, and with October 15th marking the opening day of Expand North Star, the venture capital community is on the cusp of an enriching experience. With this insightful interview as a precursor, Shah's journey and insights serve as a compass guiding venture capitalists and angel investors toward the vibrant investment landscape of Dubai. As the days draw closer to the event, anticipation is high, and the knowledge-sharing, networking, and opportunities await at Expand North Star.

Kushal’s Journey into Venture

Kushal Shah's venture journey traces back to his roots in an entrepreneurial family, where the spirit of innovation and risk-taking was instilled in him from an early age. The allure of venturing into the unknown was magnetic, prompting him to step out of the confines of a corporate job and into the realm of startups.

Hailing from a corporate background, Shah's entrance into the world of venture capital took an unconventional turn when he, alongside a Muslim and Jewish friend, embarked on a journey to set up a bagel shop. However, serendipity had other plans as the trio veered toward the burgeoning realm of franchising, particularly Subway restaurants. With a relentless entrepreneurial drive, they turned a single Subway franchise into a network of 24 restaurants across London over a seven-year period.

Shah's early ventures may not have been tech-focused, but the principles of location analysis, data-driven decision-making, and understanding market dynamics formed the bedrock of his investments. Lessons learned during the Subway venture, from evaluating footfall patterns to mastering the art of scaling, would later become invaluable as he ventured into the tech landscape.

The turning point that brought Shah to Dubai was a telecom project that he and his colleagues undertook, leading to his immersion in launching telecom operators across the globe. This experience not only cultivated his venture mindset but also acquainted him with the pressures and challenges of rapid deployment and growth. Dubai, initially a one-year stopover, transformed into a long-term destination as Shah witnessed the city's extreme business cycles, population shifts, and evolving economic landscape.

“Dubai is one of those places you come for one year and you stay, and stay, and stay. So I've seen three business cycles in Dubai; extreme ups and downs; extreme emotions in people, new people moving in and out.”

Shah's true entry into tech investments occurred in 2010-11 when he backed a TV shopping channel, marking his foray into e-commerce, albeit in its early days. As he invested as a solo angel, he realized the need for collaboration and efficiency. Thus, Dubai Angels was born, a consortium of like-minded investors pooling resources and expertise to amplify their impact. The group's organic growth demonstrated Dubai's burgeoning interest in angel investing and its evolution as an investment hub.

Shah's venture voyage, spanning several business cycles, has been punctuated by notable successes. His insights have evolved from emotionally attached individual investments to a more globally oriented outlook. He acknowledges the importance of understanding the larger market and focusing on high-potential opportunities that align with his expertise.

Presently, as Chief Venture Officer at E&, a prominent telecom operator, Shah's investment focus extends across late-stage A to early-stage B startups. His role encapsulates synergy between E&’s diverse divisions, making investments not only financially sound but strategically aligned with E&’s business.

Kushal Shah's journey from bagel shops to tech investments exemplifies how an entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with calculated risk-taking, can lead to ventures that span continents and industries. His narrative serves as a beacon for seasoned venture capitalists and aspiring angel investors alike, underscoring the importance of adaptability, collaboration, and the relentless pursuit of opportunities that bridge innovation and impact.

Diving deep on MENA

The MENA region, characterized by its diverse landscape of countries and cultures, presents a unique investment environment that requires a careful balance of strategy, relationships, and cultural understanding. As global investors look to tap into the region's growing tech ecosystem, understanding the nuances of investing in the Middle East and North Africa becomes paramount. In this segment, we delve into the insights shared by industry veterans as they shed light on the complexities and opportunities within the MENA investment landscape.

Kushal Shah, drawing from his extensive experience within the region, highlights the distinct characteristics of the MENA investment pyramid. At the pinnacle of the pyramid are the high-net-worth individuals who drive substantial GDP per capita. Shah emphasizes the profitability and revenue potential in sectors like healthcare and luxury goods, where the high spending power of the customer base leads to significant margins and returns.

To contextualize the region, Omar Hassan breaks down the MENA geography, categorizing it into distinct segments – the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states, North Africa. The GCC, comprising countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, emerges as a focal point due to its high GDP per capita and rapidly growing and thriving tech markets.

However, Shah and Hassan acknowledge the challenges that lie beneath the surface. The importance of relationships cannot be overstated. The region's intricate socio-political landscape, differing levels of governance, and nascent ecosystems require investors to build deep relationships that extend beyond financial transactions as well as a good understanding of the dynamics that govern the market.

"The capital is there, but it's still very much about relationship building … You've gotta remember that for every individual coming out here, pitching a fund, there's another 300 coming out."

European investors aiming to enter the GCC and MENA markets must approach the process as an expedition, guided by local expertise and partnerships.

"You never go into the wild without a guide."

Further, in the MENA region, the governance structures and political landscapes can vary significantly, so partnering with political figures can introduce unwanted risks. Political shifts and influences could alter the trajectory of investments, potentially leading to unforeseen complications. Instead, investors are encouraged to forge relationships with those who prioritize economic growth, innovation, and stability.

"Make sure [who you’re building a relationship with] is not a political person. Try to keep it economic so there's no uncertainty there."

As the investment ecosystem in MENA evolves, the advice to "come as yourself" and engage in authentic, business-oriented relationships gains prominence. By aligning with individuals who value the growth of industries and economies, investors can better navigate the intricate landscape and maximize the potential of their investments. In a region marked by cultural diversity and socio-economic dynamism, focusing on economic partnerships remains a prudent strategy for long-term success.

In essence, the lesson is clear: when venturing into the MENA investment landscape, staying clear of political affiliations and prioritizing economic ties can be a key factor in unlocking opportunities and mitigating risks.

Both Shah and Hassan underscore the need for patience and cultural sensitivity. The expectation that quick results can be achieved through a single trip is debunked. The road to success is paved with time spent on building rapport, understanding the ecosystem, and aligning interests between LPs and VCs.

"Building those relationships, whether you're raising the capital or investing in the site, you've gotta really get a deep understanding of the ecosystem and spend some time there."

The evolving mindset and appetite for tech investments in the region have led to a greater influx of capital, but the process remains rooted in relationship-building and strategic alignment.

Furthermore, the conversation raises awareness about the diversity of opportunities beyond the GCC. Markets like Egypt, Iraq, and neighboring African countries are ripe with potential, offering investors a chance to tap into burgeoning sectors with high spending power. However, as the conversation alludes, each market has its unique dynamics, requiring a nuanced approach.

Investing in the MENA region entails navigating an intricate web of cultural nuances, political realities, and economic diversity. Shah and Hassan's insights reflect the region's evolution as it shifts from a perception of risk to one of strategic value, yet they caution that lasting success will be achieved by those who respect the time-honored values of patience, relationship-building, and a willingness to immerse oneself in the region's vibrant tapestry. As the MENA tech ecosystem continues to grow and mature, these lessons will prove invaluable for investors looking to capitalize on the opportunities it presents. Stay tuned for further exploration of MENA's investment landscape on as we dive deeper into this exciting venture frontier.

Investing with Karma - Kushal’s core learnings in venture

"Karma, taking references seriously, and embracing calculated risks – these three principles have shaped my venture journey." - Kushal Shah

In the intricate world of venture investing, success often hinges on more than just financial calculations and market trends. For Kushal Shah, these three core learnings have been instrumental in his venture endeavors.

"Genuine interactions and ethical behavior create positive energy that yields long-lasting benefits in business relationships."

Kushal Shah's emphasis on karma extends beyond mere philanthropy. It underscores the value of treating business relationships with respect, fairness, and a sense of integrity. In the MENA region, where personal connections and trust are paramount, the concept of karma takes on added significance. Positive actions can lead to unforeseen opportunities that reverberate through the network, shaping the path of ventures.

Investing with karma aligns with the region's values of reciprocity and honor.

The notion of karma resonates with the MENA region's cultural fabric, emphasizing reciprocity and honor. By contributing positively to the ecosystem and supporting others, investors can build a reputation that extends beyond financial gains. As Kushal illustrates, fostering good karma can lead to unexpected alliances and collaborations that propel ventures forward.

Maintaining a positive approach ripples through the ecosystem, enriching the investor's experience and impact.

In a landscape where personal connections play a significant role in investment outcomes, karma serves as a potent reminder. Whether providing guidance to startups or making investment decisions, a positive outlook can ripple through the ecosystem, creating a cycle of trust and success.

🔫 The Quickfire Round 🔫

Question 1: What advice would you give your 10 year younger self?

Sleep a lot more. You keep your hair, you keep your rest. Sleep is important. Sometimes I forget the extra amount of energy you throw by doing things that are not necessary.

Question 2: What are your top tips for emerging VCs that are fundraising?

Everybody likes a good story, a good narrative. So tell them the full narrative from how you found a particular investment, how you scouted it, how you invested, the deal structure, and how you supported the founders when things went wrong or good. How you harvested that opportunity, how you exited it, the entire flow. And bring them into the emotions. Bring them through that. Don't just go and tell them, here's my NAV, here's my DPI, here's why I'm great.

They like the story. They want to drink tea with you and read the tea leaves. They don't just want to have a sales engagement.

Question 3: What's the most counterintuitive thing you've learned since you've been in venture?

Collaborate with your competitors, even with their employees. Again, back to the small world, back to the karma. But more important, our real enemy is the incumbents out there that are not letting the technology guys thrive, especially in things like FinTech, et cetera.

Expand North Star in Dubai - the ultimate startup and investor connector event.

15 - 18 October, Dubai

Discover the tech and investment opportunities fuelling growth across UAE, MENA, and APMEA regions at Expand North Star and GITEX GLOBAL, now the world’s largest tech and startup event

Join 1,400 exhibiting startups and 1,000 investors, at Dubai Harbour to scout for your next big deal, connect with other investors, meet public and private stakeholders to elevate your fund goals. Co-located with Fintech Surge and Future Blockchain Summit, and in association with GITEX GLOBAL; Expand North Star you’ll be serviced with an agenda over 4 action-packed days with a curated Meetings Programme, the invite-only Investor Forum, the Venture Studio and Accelerator Summit, and additional exclusive satellite events for fund managers in town.

Register now