By Mark Trainer
IIP Staff Writer
In January 2011, as the world watched the people of Tunisia oust their ruler of 23 years, a group of Tunisian Americans looked for ways they could help their home country make the transition to democracy.
Within a month, the nonprofit Tunisian American Young Professionals (TAYP) was born. “We discussed how we wanted to help Tunisia from a distance,” said one of the group’s founders, Mohamed Malouche, “and [decided] to focus on increasing economic cooperation between Tunisia and the United States.” The guiding mission of the organization, Malouche said, is to help Tunisia benefit from “the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that exists in this country.”
What Tunisia has to offer American investors is an extremely educated population. Since the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, encouraged equal education and employment for women, a large percentage of the population is prepared to work. In fact, said Leila Chennoufi, who works in Washington and has been a member of TAYP since its beginning, it’s the women who have risked the most to educate themselves and would benefit most from foreign investment in Tunisia, and women hold 60 percent of the college degrees in Tunisia.
“Women went ahead and got education,” Chennoufi said, “and now if they don’t find jobs on the market, it’s the worst that might happen to them. All their investment basically goes down the drain. There’s a lot of frustration. Without a job you don’t have freedom. You’re not able to do with your life whatever you feel like.”
The environment for business investment in Tunisia is much friendlier than it was before the revolution, and it’s the mission of the Tunisian American Young Professionals to convey that to potential investors. “What the revolution has brought to Tunisia is something very important that did not exist in the past: transparency and rule of law,” Malouche said. In the past, Tunisia’s central bank released only a bottom-line figure for economic indicators. “You didn’t know if you could trust it; in fact you were better off not trusting it,” he said. “Now they’re providing raw statistics and raw data that can provide any investor the opportunity to do their own calculations.” Additionally, there are “hundreds if not thousands of NGOs who are scrutinizing every move and every transaction. We needed those checks and balances.”
“The main difference,” said TAYP member Ihsen Ketata, who came to America from Tunisia to do her doctoral work, “is that the environment is not as corrupt as it used to be, and there are more incentives from the government to encourage investment. It’s very easy to create a company now in Tunisia.”In America, the Tunisian American Young Professionals have been spreading the word about opportunity in Tunisia. In February, they partnered with the Bilateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce and the Tunisian ambassador to the United States for a Tunisian investment road show in Chicago, Houston and Atlanta, where they highlighted the opportunities for investors in Tunisia.
“Tunisia is the most educated country in the Arab world and Africa. It has the seventh largest ratio of scientists and engineers in the region,” Malouche said.
TAYP members also look for guidance from the American business community. “We go to chambers of commerce, we go to think tanks, we go to universities,” Malouche said. “We’re seeking their feedback in terms of regulatory reform, access to finance, etc.”
TAYP has been matching young Tunisian entrepreneurs with mentors in the United States who advise on business plans and offer encouragement. “It’s all about having them believe in themselves,” Malouche said. He feels the Tunisian America Young Professionals offer a perspective not otherwise available to Tunisian entrepreneurs or American business seeking to invest. “We have the network in Tunisia and the network in the U.S. as well as the understanding of both business climates.”