“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut,” says Samar Abdelfattah, recalling when she was child walking past the Cairo University Aerospace department every day. “One day, I will study here,” she said to herself.
We’re sitting at the edge of a Cairo rooftop overlooking the dust-covered city, and Abdelfattah looks irreverently tranquil, her confident voice rising above the clattering engines crammed on 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.
The entrepreneur, who's currently studying aerospace engineering, saw her career take 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.
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.
“It was the company we all dream about joining, but none of us knew what the Hyperloop was. However, we decided to join anyway and began designing new concepts for transportation. All we knew was 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.
The soon-to-be engineer led the only team from Africa and the Middle East to participate in SpaceX's competition to design the Hyperloop.
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. The Egyptian team, which Abdelfattah had assembled, was comprised of a group of young male engineers - and her.
And against all odds, competing against a slew of Ivy League colleges with more resources and more funding, the Egyptian team emerged as one of the winner, in the 'Design Concept Innovation Award' category. At the announcement ceremony in California, she was the only one who was able to make the journey, and in a sea of teams represented by groups of eager collegiates wearing university jumpers, the Egypt team was represented solely by her, a veiled Arab woman.
...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 have to put in more effort than anyone else just to prove that you are as good as everyone else.
“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. When they announced the winners I realised we’d actually created a lot of great designs,” she 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 us to keep going in the project. Whenever I take a step forward, I realise we are as good as the rest.”
Having won an award at the SpaceX moonshot competition in 2016, Abdelfattah now launched her company, Hypernova, to push the boundaries of transportation.
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 entire 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 only 3 years of experience in the field,” she points out.
“Your work proves who you are as an passionate engineering. 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 in 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, when her team was working on the SpaceX Hyperloop project, they 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 in, the more you realise yourself and explore your talents and characters, and get to know yourself,” she says.
“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,” says the young entrepreneur.
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 it’s part of who I am,” she says.
Her unruly, disquiet spirit took on other interests aside from space, becoming a high-jumping athlete and a violin player long before entering university. And despite the 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 a stage in my life, after I lost a loved 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.
My parents always pushed me to make an extra effort for the things I really want. Life is not supposed to be easy anyway...
Having won an award by Dubai’s Hyperloop Dubai programme, the entrepreneur is now embarking on a journey in 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.