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The secrets of the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers Community

Each year since 2000, the World Economic Forum has selected high-potential, early-stage companies that are poised to make a social and business impact through innovation.

The Technology Pioneers are an impressive bunch. Alumni of the program include Airbnb, Google, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Spotify and Twitter, so there’s clearly something very special about the community. Pioneers take part in the Forum’s initiatives and events, including the annual meeting in Davos, where they bring new perspectives and cutting-edge insights to crucial global discussions.

Could you become part of it? Henadi Al-Saleh, Chairperson of the Board of Directors at Agility, sits on the Selection Committee and helps to pick Tech Pioneers such as Niama El Bassunie, CEO of the online African marketplace WaystoCap, a four-year-old company headquartered in Morocco that helps small importers, exporters, wholesalers and retailers with sourcing, ordering, insurance, payments and delivery. We caught up with both women to get the inside scoop.

Henadi’s view.

What makes the program so important?

Like the Forum, I believe innovation is critical to society’s future well-being and to driving economic growth. The Tech Pioneers are moving the dial in areas like the Internet of Things, robotics, and artificial intelligence, so they’re an important part of this.

Entrepreneurial thinking drives progress because it addresses pain points innovatively and sustainably, but there must be a good support system for ideas to become reality. The program is a great way of doing that.

It’s also such an important way to give individual entrepreneurs the recognition they deserve, and to use their work and successes to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Why is Davos a good platform for the Tech Pioneers?

Davos and other World Economic Forum events are brilliant opportunities for the Tech Pioneers to showcase their ideas and products to business and government leaders, but more importantly these events brings their perspective to the global dialogue. With their participation, Davos becomes a more inclusive platform for a segment of the economy that is critical to our future.

At Davos, I come across so many important ideas, and it’s even better that these come from a range of perspectives. And this year, Agility attended a Forum event with executives from Homoola, a digital load-matching startup we’ve invested in. We knew it would be a great opportunity for them, but that they could offer lots, too. The same is true of the Tech Pioneers – I saw them talking with some of the world’s most important decision makers about governance of new technologies, robotics and the future of the workforce, and about how data is managed and regulated.

What do you enjoy most about being involved with the Tech Pioneers?

It’s exciting to see Pioneers getting so much from the program, but I’ve discovered some interesting ways of thinking from them, too. Agility champions SMEs because they’re the lifeblood of the global economy and they’re often very innovative. We mentor and invest in smaller companies because we can learn a lot, and it’s the same with the Pioneers.

I met Niama at Davos, and her company WaysToCap is making a real difference to African trade already. It’s an online marketplace which currently specializes in facilitating trade in North Africa and French-speaking West Africa. Agility has logistics infrastructure and order fulfilment expertise in the same geographic area. So you end up having very productive conversations, and there’s lots of potential for mutually beneficial collaborations.

Niama’s view.

Why did you decide to apply for the Tech Pioneer community?

WaysToCap believes in the power of technology to affect change, which makes the Tech Pioneer community a great fit. Our marketplace platform uses technology to unlock African trade, and we believe helping businesses access international trade creates a more competitive playing field. So the community’s focus on real-world impact was perfect for us.

We also knew it would be valuable to join a community. Having just finished the Y-Combinator accelerator (which provides seed funding, advice and contacts for start-ups), I saw the impact a network has on business development. The Pioneers community was especially exciting because it’s so focused on technology and impact.

What do you enjoy most about being a Tech Pioneer?

As a Tech Pioneer, you can be involved at so many different levels. If you’re interested in high-level policymaking, you can join committees for a particular issue. At a business level, there are groups which focus on your sector – for example, WaystoCap is part of the ecosystem for platforms. We’ve learned a lot which can improve our offering, but we’ve also been able to influence the discussion and contribute an African perspective, which is under-represented at times.

At a micro level, you can contribute towards the UN’s economic sustainable development goals in very diverse ways. We launched the WaystoCap Fellowship Program in our Benin and Morocco offices. It is designed to improve economic growth through employment.

What was it like going to Davos?

Davos is an incredible experience. It’s full of opportunities to get involved, make connections, learn from others, and contribute to interesting panels. It’s not every morning I get to discuss African trade with presidents and prime ministers over breakfast. If that’s not an incentive for startups to get involved in the Tech Pioneers community then I’m not sure what is!