The District celebrates two years of bringing together entrepreneurs and freelancers.
By Dominika Maslikowski
Working on a laptop while soaking up the sun atop a building with a Nile view isn’t most people’s idea of a typical day at the office. But the entrepreneurs and freelancers who use the collaborative workspace The District for work and meetings say the laid-back atmosphere boosts their motivation and creativity. For dozens of start-ups and small businesses, The District offers networking opportunities and a prestigious location without the hefty price tag of renting out an office from scratch.
The District, a three-floor workspace in Maadi, launched in November 2011 and celebrated its two-year anniversary on March 15. Today it offers its 43 members office space and several conference rooms for daily and evening use, as well as a kitchen, rooftop terrace and small library for swapping books. There are inspirational quotes and graffiti on the walls, plenty of colorful couches and a blackboard that lists community activities like weekly lunch dates and meditation classes.
Freelancers who get tired of their home offices drop by when they want to be more productive. Start-ups that launched after the January 25 Revolution, or companies that have downsized, also call The District their base, giving them access to conference rooms, desk space and equipment without having to rent and equip an office of their own. One mother working on a master’s degree uses the facility by the hour while her daughter attends dance school next door.
It wasn’t easy at first for founder Mazen Helmy to explain the concept of a coworking space to Egyptians. So he held events where members could explain what The District was about until the project grew by word-of-mouth. There are now about a dozen similar initiatives that have sprung up across Egypt, he says.
“As it grew, I experienced the real value of creating and bringing people together. The real value is in the ecosystem and the community we are building, and how people are coming together through shared interest. We broke the 5pm wall and the separation between your professional and social life. What we’re trying to do is bring your life onto one plate, where you can work, have a coffee and enjoy the rooftop and listen to music,” Helmy said at the anniversary event. “We’re growing with this because we’re adopting a flexible formula. No one’s really glued to one desk. In a conventional office space that’s what people are missing. You get dragged into a routine life and lose inspiration.”
Renting an office downtown was one option for Bill Zimmerman, co-founder of Venture Capital for Africa, a community of entrepreneurs and investors building companies throughout the continent. But he says The District sounded more interesting and he’s now proud to call it his base. Interacting with other community members has also offered inspiration and insights that have helped in VC4Africa’s projects, he says.
“If you take a number of talented individuals and put them under the same roof, there’s a natural cross-pollination of ideas that takes place. Part of it is just mixing with people that have diverse skill sets, but there’s also the social side and The District is really a shining example of a healthy and growing community. And when you can be part of that, who’d want to work in a boring office?” Zimmerman says. “A lot of my conversations with Mazen have helped me to better understand the Egyptian context, and we get a lot of feedback with everything we do. In order for us to best serve the community, we have to understand them. I’ve learned a lot just from conversations with Mazen down at the cafe.”
It’s critical for an entrepreneur to have access to a decent conference room and all office equipment without having to put down a deposit, and that can be an incredible springboard, Zimmerman says.
May GahAllah, founder of Nubian Treasures, says image really matters for an entrepreneur and money gets you money. GahAllah works between Cairo and Aswan for the non-profit that trains Nubians to make crafts from their culture, and uses The District for meetings whenever she’s in Cairo. The sleek and clean office spaces and conference rooms give a good image and credibility to any venture, she says.
“I’m saving money and time by getting all the equipment here. If you’re working in something related to art, you need a good-looking place in a good area, and I’m not going to bear all the expenses,” she says. “It’s also a different environment where you can re-energize by talking to people, and the place is very homely and cozy while still being professional. If you feel at home, you work more and it affects productivity. It’s a very relaxing place and even in the winter, you can take the beanbags outside and work in the sun on the rooftop.”