Meet Samar Abdelfattah, the woman who led the only team in the Middle East and Africa at the SpaceX Hyperloop Design competition - and championed it. In a talk with Valentina Primo, the 25-year-old entrepreneur unveils her plans to develop Dubai's AI educational track.
“I wanted to be an astronaut,” says Samar Abdelfattah, recalling the inner voice that sparked as a child, as she walked past the Cairo University Aerospace department every day. “One day, I will study here,” it said.
We’re sitting at the edge of a Cairo rooftop overlooking the dust-covered city, and Abdelfattah looks irreverently tranquil, her confident voice raising above the clattering engines crammed in this rooftop right at the heart of Cairo’s tech valley, The Greek Campus. A few kilometres away, the Cairo tower rises above the polluted fog.
“I have always dreamed about being an aerospace engineer,” says the entrepreneur, whose entire career took an unexpected turn when she won Elon Musk’s SpaceX competition to build his moonshot Hyperloop, having made the only team from the Middle East and Africa to participate in the competition.
“It was the company we all dream about joining, but none of us knew what the Hyperloop was. However, we decided to join and began designing new concepts for transportation. All we knew is that it’s a capsule that runs inside a tube that is levitated at super fast speed, which runs in a vacuum or low-pressure environment; so we needed to use electro magnetic systems,” she recalls.
SpaceX had opened the competition for students in 2015, inviting them to submit proposals for the Hyperloop Pod Design competition, and it included 30 selected teams from some of the world’s top universities, from MIT, to Princeton University, Universitat Politècnica de Valencia and the University of Edinburgh. One of the winners, in the “Design Concept Innovation Award” category, was the Egyptian team, who - unlike the rest of the teams, represented by groups of eager youngsters wearing university jumpers - was solely represented by her. “When they announced the winners I realised we’d created a lot of designs. I guess the fact that we were from Egypt, and the only team from Middle East and Africa, added an extra point for us to have come this far,” says, as she recalls the moment they announced her team had won.
Could the Hyperloop realise her dreams of becoming an astronaut? Samar looks up and nods. “What made me passionate is that it’s a brand new transportation system. Most students in the Middle East, like me, avoid working in such complicated systems because we don’t have facilities or finance to develop research, but the Hyperloop is a brand new project, so there is no competitor risk because you are starting from scratch, just like everyone else.”
“In Egypt, we are very good at research, because we can do a lot of engineering work as long as we don’t need financial aid or manufacturing and developing facilities. So that’s what encouraged me to move farther. Whenever I take a step forward, I realise we are as good as the rest.”
Creating the future in a man’s world
Two awards later, Abdelfattah began building her company, Hypernova, leading a Hyperloop team that is pushing the boundaries of transportation, from Egypt to the Middle East. But being a team leader in a field mostly populated by men brings its own set of challenges. “I was a team leader for 18 male engineering students, so I had to make a lot of effort to prove that I could be a leader, despite having 3 years of experience in the field,” she points out.
“Your work proves who you are as an engineering passionate. But people will always look at you as a woman,” she asserts. “But if you have enough confidence in yourself and you are professional enough people will respect you, now matter how annoyed they are for having a leader that is a woman. You just put more effort than anyone else just to prove that you are as good as everyone else.”
Being a student at Cairo University, Abdelfattah not only found barriers posed by gender, but also her age - in fact, her team found it difficult to convince professors to sign the project they needed to submit. “‘Who do you think you are? You can’t do this. Wait until you graduate,’ they would say. They thought we were just a group of crazy people. It was very sad and frustrating to see how they look at young engineers, especially women. They think we don’t belong here.”
It was very sad and frustrating to see how they look at young engineers, especially women. They think we don’t belong here.
However, the soon-to-be engineer doesn’t find comfort in complaining, and only refers to the obstacles in her journey as a “launching pad” for what came next. “My parents always pushed me to make an extra effort for the things I really want. Life is not supposed to be easy anyway, and the more effort you put, the more you realise yourself and explore your talents and characters, and get to know yourself,” she says.
Raised in a family that nurtured her inquisitive character, Abdelfattah learned at an early age to voice her opinions - and fight for her convictions. “My father is a lawyer and my mom is a housewife, so what I’m doing is not something they are used to. But they support me,” she points out. “My dad raised me to voice my opinion about whatever subject, so whenever the men in the family would gather, he calls me to say my opinion. It’s part of who I am,” she says.
Her unruly, disquiet spirit took on other interests aside from the space, becoming a high-jumping athlete and a violin player long before entering university. And despite it was a long journey to build her parents’ trust - to embark on an unorthodox field, or travel as a young Egyptian woman alone - she says it was that awareness of the winding road ahead that built her strength. “Fighting for things became a part of who I am. I know I have to fight to gain a certain position or to go to a certain competition,” she says.
We faced a period where we thought we could create change ourselves. Now we are mostly frustrated, but the revolution did something to our souls; it gave us confidence.
Abdelfattah speaks with the wisdom of a woman who is in touch with her pains, her struggles and losses, yet unapologetically true to her warrior spirit. “There were some stages in my life, after I lost a beloved one, when I did some introspection. When you lose someone, the meaning of your life rises to the surface," she pauses. "It was also the time after the revolution. We were facing a period where we thought we could create change ourselves. Now we are mostly frustrated, but it did something to our souls; it gave us confidence,” she says.
Having won an award by Dubai’s Hyperloop Dubai programme, the entrepreneur is now embarking on a journey into the educational field, setting off to educate young students in the UAE on Artificial Intelligence. “When you help passionate, young engineers take part in something new, they get a chance to share all their dreams and innovations. They feel free to do whatever they want. The Hyperloop may not exist in the future, but I want us, engineers and students, to transform this area and set the future up to our own specs and our own vision,” she says.
Looking at her impact on a bigger scale, Abdefattah aims for education and technology to restore a long-lost bond. “Now, we are all distracted and overwhelmed with responsibilities. If you feel you are adding value and you are part of something bigger, you will just feel more comfortable and create a closer bond. We used to be a community with a strong bond but we lost it. So I hope we can use technology to rebuild this bond again,” she concludes.
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
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