Why CSR is great for smart SMEs

Why CSR is great for smart SMEs

  • Small businesses can immensely benefit from incorporating CSR as a part of their overall business strategy.
  • CSR activities can give a powerful message to your employees and in turn get a higher sense of belonging and loyalty to your project from them
  • While it might not always be possible for SME’s to donate cash for such initiatives, many companies are deploying winning strategies to bolster their own contribution in kind, either through barter or by volunteering time to an existing CSR project initiated by another organisations.
  • Engaging your suppliers can also amplify the impact of your CSR initiatives, while helping strengthen your relationships with them.

Should an SME owner embrace the concept and opportunity of getting involved and supporting Corporate Social Responsibility projects?

Some of you may have followed the news when it was announced last year that the US government was on the verge of defaulting on their debt. For average people around the world, this was one of the most confusing topics in recent times, considering the three tumultuous years of financial storms, earthquakes and tsunamis and let’s not forget, scandals.

What got my attention was that Apple Computer had within its own arsenal, stockpiled more cash in-house than the entire US government. Could it be that Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, once a scrawny geek of a kid who scrapped conventional wisdom to go out and innovate as an SME, to fulfill a dream that everyone should own a computer, could ride in like a white knight and save the whole country? Does charity begin at home?

Innovation and courage make it possible for an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs to support social programmes with millions of dollars each year. But what if you have a small business, and your focus is just on survival? What if you are struggling for loans or investors for your own project, and cannot even conceive the possibility of crossing the threshold of success and being able to give back?

When does it make sense to get involved as a small business and give back to your own cause or community? Well, for my part, and for many of the consultants on my team, we believe in looking for opportunities even before rolling out a start-up and building that into the mix as an integral part of the holistic structure of the entire business strategy.

To understand these reasons, one should reflect on some of the advantages of actually shaping your company culture with this type of commitment.

Powerful message

For a start, think of the message you will be sending out to your employees who will begin to realise that they are part of something more than just a 9.00 am to 5.00 pm job. This will often give them a higher sense of belonging and loyalty to your project and endeavor that makes them proud to say to total strangers, family and friends, what they do, who they are and why they love what they are doing now.

This, HR managers will tell you, is a powerful factor in human capital retention, and a recruitment magnet is always more powerful, when the team within, are all ‘game on’ and buzzed about the company. Among your clients, there is a percentage who will appreciate that some part of your margins which they contribute to, are recycled in a place that has a ‘feel good’ or worthy cause impression, again amplifying another good reason to do business with your company. This can grow to the next level, namely getting clients involved in social action projects, which are miracles of good CSR work in so many communities.

So, how much do companies need to invest in a CSR project, and how is it possible to do this before making a profit? The answer that I propose is that, although it’s nice to be able to donate cash, often, in the lifecycle of young start-ups, it’s not feasible. Many companies are, however, deploying winning strategies in order to bolster their own contribution in kind, either through barter or by volunteering time to an existing CSR project initiated by another organisation.

In the MENA region there are dozens of such organisations that have created CSR projects that would appreciate the focus and participation of one hour of someone’s time. This could range from having your team agree to spend half a day repainting a home for the elderly within your community, hosting a car wash to donate money to a needy school, creating a used book drive to donate to an orphanage. In fact, subject areas are endless and there is never enough. The unseen advantage in all of this is, there is a magical, intangible and yet amazing feeling of giving back to something or someone.

We, as business people, are able to feel a little taller in the process of this work, and at the same time, we have the advantage of not only putting a smile on the receiver’s face, but also spreading pride and significance amongst our teammates and our network for our participation.

Brand recognition

This is not thankless work either. Many participating SMEs are able to elevate their brand recognition and perception, by associating with causes that speak to their audience. This is a key factor of creating a strategy that works for your company. Find a CSR synergy that fits to the services or products that you deliver to the market. Build this into your overall business plan and connect with people on various levels as a result of your winning strategy. Be warned that there is a fine line between being genuinely involved in a CSR project and exploiting it so that you purely get a part of cash rewards.

It is better when companies form committees where employees and officers are part of the steering process, to make the best case scenario recommendations to the shareholders, about not only installing a CSR department, but guiding it and sustaining it. Another helpful hint if your SME adopts this practice is your key secret agents who can make your efforts even more powerful – your suppliers.

You will be amazed that when your team is committed, and has the ability to share a clear vision about what, why, and who, your suppliers will ask when and how they can help. Therefore, you, as the owner of an SME, are able to light a candle in your own store and by the power of passing the torch, ignite second and third party attention and support all around your organization’s CSR wagon.

And yes, remember, charity begins at your front door.

The article is written by Michael J. Tolan for Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review


Tips & Learnings from Successful MENA Entrepreneurs

Tips & Learnings from Successful MENA Entrepreneurs

  • Believe in yourself
  • Have a vision
  • Burn the boats
  • Know our business inside out
  • Think big (regional and global) and not small (domestic)
  • View competition as an enabler
  • Focus on creating a structure
  • Have the right mix of talent and attitude in your team
  • Be observant, have an open mind and continue reinventing yourself
  • Surround yourself with positive people, and block your ears to the naysayers

Middle East entrepreneurs, empowered by technology, are ready to take entrepreneurial challenges and improve their lives and society, by launching firms focused on bringing never-heard-of concepts to life. Over hundreds of start-ups make a beginning every year. However, do all of them have the ability and planning to survive or get past the 10 year mark? What is the learning’s from the ones who have been successful in doing so? It will become clear when we discuss the experience shared by some successful MENA entrepreneurs and experts.

Believe in yourself. People will follow you when they believe you and they do believe you when:

  • You believe in yourself.
  • They have to believe in your path.
  • They believe your approach, system, methodology.
  • They believe in your capability to execute the process, system, approach offered.
  • It is tough to re-define reality and hence, having a strong self-belief is the key.

Have a vision of what the market will be like in 5 years or 10 years. An entrepreneur needs to make others believe in their vision and thus, he needs to create that vision. Making a desire into reality is the job of an entrepreneur, not only to push himself to achieve greater heights, but also to make his followers believe in him.

Burn the Boats. The entrepreneur should not leave himself any option other than success. The aim should be to conquer or perish. While executing a project it becomes important to have a plan B; however, for the entrepreneurs, it is not advisable to have a plan B as all it does is hamper plan A. The key is to remain committed and dedicated to one line of action and doing away with all the disturbances. According to JC Butler of Dubizzle, a Dubai-based start-up that offers free classifieds on its web platform, “Rid your heart of ‘I will try my best’ until all that’s left is ‘I have decided’. If one has a deep belief in his vision, then failure is not an option.

Know your business inside out. You may or may not have university degrees but you need to understand your business in and out. It may require spending lot of time and significant investments in learning about your industry and the tricks of the trade. A few ways to understand the industry can be attending trade shows, hearing speakers and being ruthless in the quest of relevant information.

Think big (regional and global) and not small (domestic). The success stories of Middle East entrepreneurs suggest that they had a plan to expand to at least five countries. This has benefited entrepreneurs from the smaller countries such as Jordan and Lebanon who have achieved more success than entrepreneurs from Saudi Arabia. This suggests that not being over-dependent on the domestic market, however large it may be, is a key to success for MENA entrepreneurs.

View competition as an enabler. This is especially true if you plan to launch a venture in a niche market segment, as any competition will help grow the overall market, and will likely bring in more business for you than taking away. However, if the competitor is big firm that poses a real threat, then get flexible and nimble. In such cases, it always helps to have a great company culture, which becomes your brand and cannot be copied.

Focus on creating a structure. Business initiatives revolving around the intangible concepts need a structure to hold them together. The structure helps to add frameworks and tangibility to these ideas. For example, Pharmacy1 stores have same appearance and customer experience with things located in the same place in every store, irrespective of the size of the store. Hence, it is necessary to ensure a structure in all aspects of business, be it action plans, resources or roles. The structure also enables smooth transformations when required.

Have the right mix of talent and attitude in your team.  It is important to pick people who can be groomed as future leaders. According to Tahir Shah, the founder of Pop-up Pakistani street food concept Moti Roti “People make things happen, you cannot learn and do everything. Hence, it becomes imperative to begin with a team with the right talent across right areas”. It is seconded by many other successful entrepreneurs like Amjad Aryan of Pharmacy1 and JC Butler of Dubizzle who believe in hiring people smarter than themselves.

Be observant, have an open mind and continue reinventing yourself. It has been observed that after initial success in the business, the mind tends to get complacent and keeps reveling in the success. Here again, competition play its role in making you realize your position and the potential of the market you operate in. So, continue to reinvent yourself to stay in the game.

Surround yourself with positive people, blocking your ears to the naysayers. That’s the advice from Amjad Aryan, a businessman who wanted to start a pharmacy business when he was a 23-year-old Palestinian immigrant cleaning carpets in Chicago. There, he had a chance to experience the efficiency, expertise and product selection at CVS Pharmacies.

Case Study: Pharmacy-1 & Amjad Aryan’s goal of creating the CVS of the MENA region

While he was studying at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in Boston, Amjad Aryan got a chance to do an internship at CVS. He joined there as a manger and became a store manager later. In 1997, he bought his first pharmacy, Roberts Drugstore in Miami, a large self-service store with a supermarket and cash machines. He renamed it as Pharmacy 1 and expanded with four new branches.

He sought to bring this concept to the Middle East, where he found out that the pharmacies were small family-run business characterized by a laid-back attitude towards service and an old-fashioned view of the retail pharmacy. After he had identified the need for quality pharmaceutical healthcare and customer service in the region, he also believed in its success. Using his savings, Amjad opened the first Pharmacy 1 in Amman in 2001. It has now the largest pharmacy chain with over 110 branches in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This has created over 800 jobs and the chain is the largest recruiter of pharmacists in the region.

What has Amjad done?  He had adapted an already successful business model, adopted some of its best practices and customized it based on the regional requirements.

One of the biggest challenges faced was acquiring talent in the region. In order to address this, he started a pharmacy university internship program with a three-month simulated pharmacy at colleges. He also hired people better skilled than him. All his seven VP’s were specialized in their fields. These executives focus on their work, while Amjad looks after the expansion projects.

All the Pahrmacy1 outlets have the same appearance and customer experience. In the first couple of years, Amjad standardized customer care, prevented prescription errors and speed up product replenishment, which brought consistency. Today, Pharmacy1 is known for convenience, professionalism, expertise staff (result of extensive employee training), and excellent customer service.

However, Amjad does not seek to build a successful company only; rather he seeks to build CVS of the MENA region. Amjad’s belief in the power of “I can” and in giving second chances; makes him give time back to society, make difference by empowering youth and change mindsets to promote the potential and ability of youth in Jordan.

Source: Arab Business Review Research

The article was originally published at: Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review

Renewable Energy Adoption: Why it means much more than a simple diversification of energy base for the Arab nations

Renewable Energy Adoption


  • The abundance of renewable resources in the region, coupled with negligible environmental impact, are the key enablers for renewable energy adoption in the region.
  • Most Arab nations have announced big ticket renewable energy projects and have set ambitious renewable energy targets to reduce dependence on the oil economy.
  • However, apart from diversifying their energy base, Arab governments can utilize this opportunity to address macro issues such as youth unemployment, and lack of entrepreneurial and R&D ecosystems in the region, and build a more sustainable future.

Arab region has been a late but strong starter on renewable energy bandwagon: While the developed countries of the Western world have a significant head-start when it comes to embracing renewable energy technologies, the Arab world has been late to join the race. This lack of initiative was largely driven by easy availability non-renewable energy resources, which get heavy government subsidies creating an entry barrier to ‘relatively expensive’ alternate energy sources. This was also backed by lack of technological knowledge and policy framework in many countries.

In the last few years, the region has made strong progress towards adopting renewable energy and many countries in the MENA region have acknowledged the potential of renewable energy to ensure sustainable energy sources for many years to come. The major factors that are driving the growth of Renewable energy in the region:

1. Energy security for net-oil importers: With growing population and rapid urbanization, energy demand in the region is increasing faster than ever. The demand growth is driven by increasing need for electricity for domestic use and devices, heating, cooling, and desalination of water. Meeting this demand will become even more difficult for most countries considering the rising oil prices. Therefore, investing in alternate sources of energy can help these countries ensure energy security for future. This is the key driver for growth of renewable energy in countries that are net-oil importers.

Chart 1: Renewable Energy Investments – Oil Importers vs Oil Exporters

Renewable Energy Adoption 1

Source: Arab Business Review, REN21

Net-Oil Importing countries: Djibouti, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Palestinian Territories, and Tunisia

Net-Oil Exporting countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE, Yemen

2. Substitute for domestic oil usage for net-oil exporters: For countries that are net-exporters of oil such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE renewable energy sources can be used to substitute the oil used for domestic electricity generation. With the declining cost of modern renewable energy technologies this investment makes even more sense as it can boost present oil-export volumes, while ensuring a sustainable solution for domestic energy consumption for future.

3. Abundance of renewable resources: While the Arab region is characterized by its rich oil and gas reserves, the abundance of renewable resources in the region had gone unnoticed until very recently. Due to its geographical location, the region gets highly concentrated sunlight and has several sites with suitable wind speeds for developing highly efficient wind farms.

4. Favourable policy frameworks: As per REN21, by mid-2013 all 21 MENA countries had set renewable energy policy targets, and 18 countries had introduced renewable energy promotion policies to help achieve their respective targets. If all the countries are able to meet their targets, the renewable energy capacity of the region will reach a massive 107 GW up from 2012 levels of approximately 1.7 GW.

Chart 2: Projected Non-Hydro Renewable Energy Capacity in the MENA Region

Renewable Energy Adoption 2

Source: REN21

5. Reducing environmental footprint: According to World Bank, 85% of GHG emissions in the MENA region come from energy production, transformation and use. Gradual substitution of oil based domestic energy – which has significantly high carbon emissions – with renewable energy is definitely the right prescription for MENA economies, which are often criticized for doing little towards pushing the sustainability agenda.

With all these factors combining to create an ecosystem that will drive renewable energy growth in the region, governments in the region have the opportunity to build a local supply-chain for the renewable energy industry.

This will enable them to address several macro challenges by taking steps such as:

  • Breeding local entrepreneurs: The governments should create more business opportunities for local entrepreneurs, so that they can be a part of this growth story and reduce dependence on expats in the long run. For example: The Saudi Government has created an environment. For example, the Tunisian Government launched the PROSOL programme in 2005 aimed at building local solar energy supply chain, while revitalizing the solar thermal market in the country. Encouraged by the Government’s initiative TuNur Ltd. – a joint partnership between a group of Tunisian investors and UK-based Nur Energie, aimed at constructing a 2,000 megawatt Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant in 2015. This project is expected to create 1,500 direct and 20,000 indirect jobs for the manufacturing and operation of the plant.
  • Creating an efficient R&D ecosystem: While extensive R&D programs related to the renewable energy are being undertaken across the globe and the governments have an option to buy the solutions, there is still scope for improvising and localising the available technologies to deliver best results in the atmospheric conditions that prevail in the Arab region. The Government can take this opportunity to facilitate local R&D by investing in the required infrastructure.
  • Skilled employment: The government can also invest in institutions that can support the demand for skilled workforce required by this industry. This will help them address the problem of youth unemployment which most of the MENA countries are facing right now.

Case Study: Local Content Promotion by Saudi Arabia

In 2012, Saudi Arabia unveiled its renewable energy targets of installing 54 GW of renewable energy by 2032, which break down as 25 GW of concentrated solar power (CSP), 16 GW of solar photovoltaic (PV), 9 GW of wind 3 GW of waste to energy, and 1 GW of geothermal energy.

While achieving these targets, the government also plans to address the larger goal of boosting the local economy, and has come out with a white paper detailing the proposed competitive procurement process. The procurement has been designed to not only get the most competitive price for the projects, but it also has check-in mechanisms to ensure promotion of local content. Some of the salient features of the procurement programme are:

  1. Project bids will be assessed based on price as well as “rated criteria,” which include the developer’s financial capability, experience, development status, and the project’s local content. The rated criteria will have 30% weightage in the overall bid score.
    • The local content will be evaluated as a percentage of local spend from the overall project budget, and bidders achieving 60% local content will be rated highest.
    • The local content requirement will encourage bidders to launch joint ventures with local players and establish manufacturing plants, which will give a fillip to the local economy.
  2. The project winners will also be required to invest back in the local economy through training facilities, research advice, and procurement from local manufacturers.
  3. Two separate funds sourced by taxing project revenue have been created to train local employees on solar PV and CSP technologies, and fund local renewable energy R&D projects.
  4. Developers are incentivized for employing local labour – employers who are top 5% in terms of local jobs will be compensated higher than average for every employee.

We believe that these features can help Saudi Arabia address its larger problems of unemployment and lack of entrepreneurship culture, to a certain extent and other MENA countries facing similar problems can learn from them.

SourceREN21, K.A.CARE

The article was originally published at: Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review

UAE – Innovating to Grow & Diversify

UAE – Innovating to Grow & Diversify

  • The UAE has been able to quickly and successfully transform itself from an oil-based economy into an innovative, knowledge-based economy; actively promoting innovation through policies and initiatives aimed at developing the three pillars of the innovation ecosystem – human, financial and technological capital
  • Being the first-ever World Expo to be held in the MENA region and themed as ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, Dubai Expo 2020 is expected to strengthen the innovation ecosystem in the region.
  • UAE’s private sector will need to play an increasingly important role in supporting the government’s agenda and promoting the national innovation ecosystem to ensure that the UAE is able to maintain and strengthen its position as a hub for innovation, not just in the Middle East, but across the world.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which used to be known as an oil-based economy, has been able to quickly and successfully transform itself into an innovative, knowledge-based economy over the past decade. In fact, knowledge-based revenues now constitute a greater proportion of the nation’s GDP than oil revenues, having grown from 32.1% in 2001 to 37.5% in 2012. In its move towards becoming a knowledge-based economy, the UAE has diversified its economy, becoming a key player in the real estate and renewable energy sectors, in addition to becoming a global hub for trade, financial services and tourism. This vision to become a knowledge economy is evident in the UAE’s Vision 2021, which aims to build a nation where ‘knowledgeable and innovative Emiratis will confidently build a competitive and resilient economy’.

The nation has been actively promoting innovation through policies and initiatives aimed at developing the three pillars of the innovation ecosystem – human, financial and technological capital. 

Let’s talk about the human capital first as it is the most critical and fundamental pillar for all innovative changes. UAE has advanced its human capital on numerous fronts. Thanks to consistent investments across all education levels, UAE boasts one of the most advanced education systems in the MENA region. Moreover, advancing women’s education and economic participation has led to women taking up leadership roles throughout the country.

The UAE government’s budget allocation to education makes up more than 20% of the overall budget amount — this is way above than the benchmark average of 13%. Besides overhauling primary, secondary, and higher education systems, the nation is facilitating expansion of higher education institutes by establishing world-class local universities, attracting foreign universities to open branches in the nation, and entering into international partnerships. For instance, the Masdar Institute was established in 2007 in close cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). All these efforts have paid off, with the UAE’s rank on the Education sub-pillar of the Global Innovation Index going up from 65th in 2011 to 15th in 2013.

Second key element of knowledge economy is the financial capital because even the highly skilled human capital can fail to perform to its full potential without sufficient funds. Several sources of funding are available in the nation, including government funds, equity investing and crowd funding. Government funds typically provide early-stage funding and include the Khalifa Fund, the Expo 2020 fund, among others. In terms of equity investment, venture capital is the most accessible, despite the low risk tolerance of VC funds. The number of regional VC funds actively investing in the region is going up. Also, the number of VC deals has increased by 50% between 2010 and 2012, with 47% of the investment focused on technology.

Along with human capital and financial capital, technology accounts for another critical element for facilitating ground-zero innovation.  Although the UAE’s R&D expenditure as a percentage of its GDP (0.47% in 2011) is still below international benchmarks (global average of 2.08% and the OECD average of 2.32%), it is launching several targeted initiatives to develop its R&D efforts. Besides driving R&D in universities, the UAE government is keen to establish scientific hubs, for example, TechnoPark was set-up as a science and technology park managed by the Dubai Institute of Technology (DIT). Also, the Masdar Institute is developing a technology for desalinating sea water using renewable energy sources, and building the London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm.

The UAE’s innovation ecosystem has been encouraging many residents to become entrepreneurs. UAE-based technology start-up launches are expected to increase at a faster rate than the MENA average. By 2015, the UAE is expected to witness 185 new technology-based start-ups. Furthermore, the UAE government has reviewed its intellectual property and copyright laws with an aim to align them with international standards.

Exhibit 1: Snapshot of Some UAE Start-ups

UAE – Innovating to Grow & Diversify 1

Source: The Global Innovation Index 2014: The Human Factor in Innovation, Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

The UAE topped the World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) among Arab countries, ranking 42nd globally with a score of 6.94. On all the four pillars of the knowledge economy—the economic and institutional regime, education, innovation, and information and communication technologies (ICTs), UAE was ranked among the top four Arab nations.

While the UAE leads the Middle East with a global ranking of 46 in overall innovation performance, Dubai is the first city in the region to establish first knowledge centers, including Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and Knowledge Village.

Further, the Dubai Expo 2020 is expected to benefit several sectors of the economy such as hospitality, tourism, trade, shipping logistics and real estate; nearly $7 billion (Dh25.7 billion) has been allocated for development and infrastructure projects in Dubai so far. Being the first-ever World Expo to be held in the MENA region, the Expo will also add more than Dh140 billion to Dubai’s GDP, create nearly 277,000 new jobs and draw over 25 million visitors.  The theme of Dubai Expo 2020, Connecting Minds, Creating the Future emphasizes the importance of partnerships and innovation for building a sustainable world today and in the future­. Especially Dubai Expo’s new 100-million-euro Expo Live initiative will help drive innovation by uniting research institutes, companies, citizens and entrepreneurs across the globe in finding solutions to global challenges.

Exhibit 2: World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) Ranking of Arab Nations

UAE – Innovating to Grow & Diversify 2

Source: IMF, MRD/Orient Planet

Overall, if we look at the UAE’s innovation ecosystem, it seems that the pieces of the puzzle are falling into the correct places. The nation now boasts a number of unique advantages, such as strong education system, a diverse talent pool, a growing innovation culture, and a number of targeted R&D initiatives. While the UAE government has been capitalizing on these strengths and issuing relevant policies that address the issues of talent, funding and stakeholder cooperation, the private sector will need to play an increasingly important role in supporting the government’s agenda and promoting the national innovation ecosystem to ensure that the UAE is able to maintain and strengthen its position as a hub for innovation, not just in the Middle East, but across the world.

The article was originally published at: Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review

We Can Do It as Arabs

We Can Do It as Arabs

  • Lack of successful entrepreneurs, especially in the technology space has been challenge faced by our region for a long time, despite abundance of human as well as financial resources
  • The main reason for this lack of self-belief in Arab Entrepreneurs in their ability to innovate or emulate the success of Western counterparts.
  • Another reason is that most Arab investors do not like to act as Venture Capitalists, but “play it safe”, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to get access to capital for growth.
  • If these problems can be addressed innovation and entrepreneurial success for Arabs should be easily achievable.

One thing that has always intrigued me whilst I was abroad, during the first half of my life, was why we as Arabs seemed not to be able to produce any measurable, perceivable success in the various facets of technology.

At the time (exactly 30 years ago) I was just embarking upon a prospective surge in my carrier, as a post-doctorate researcher at the former McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company and part-time Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, U.S.A.; I decided to return to my home country, Egypt, to try to do find out why we, as Arabs, were lagging behind and to try to do something that would make us stand out!

Over the years, I discovered a few problems that are holding us back from making positive steps forward in the advancement of technology; the most prominent problem is the inherent lack of the ability that we are able to achieve any progress, because of the lack of resources, such as money, human competency, amongst other ‘excuses’. However, I soon found out that the Arab nations possess a plethora from both these resources, which seemed to me to be very strange.

Upon further analysis, I discovered that the real reason was that we lacked the self-confidence to achieve success, as entrepreneurs; one very dear friend, with great honesty, once confessed that we have the “Khawaja’s (foreigner’s) hat embedded inside our hearts”! As such, we are incapable of achieving success to the level of the Western countries. This is where I strongly disagree with this falsity.

As a challenge, I decided to travel the road of entrepreneurship in order to experience it for myself and discover the realities. To do this, I changed my career to Arabic Computational Linguistics, as I believed it was fervently needed for our Arab nations; thirty years ago, I was labelled as mad, as the field was not known then. What made it worse was that I had the dream of developing an Arabic search engine that would someday be the “Google” of the Arab nation!

Here is when I started to meet the real problems that entrepreneurs suffered in the Arab world; in addition to the lack of aforementioned lack of self confidence amongst entrepreneurs, I also faced the lack of confidence, on the part of investors, in the capabilities of entrepreneurs. I believe that this is one of the main hindrances that is holding back the formation of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Arab nations. I spoke about this particular problem when I was invited as a panellist at the annual meeting of the World Bank Group in 2011.

Arab investors are “playing it safe” and are treating the financing of entrepreneurs as a bank which should guarantee a return on investment, only with a much higher rate than a bank. This redefines the term “venture capital” to “extremely safe capital”, which, in my opinion, defies the objective of the entrepreneurial exercise. I wish to mention something that a well-respected marketer once told me: The Chinese word for “Threat” is composed of the two words “Danger” and “Opportunity”.

This “Take the Safe Side” attitude, I believe, will never allow the Googles or Microsoft’s to emerge in the Arab world; what we really need is to produce real technology and not just a whole lot of applications, of which there are already a dime a dozen. What we really need are daring real risk takers who are willing to finance regional projects (“regional” meaning for the whole MENA region), that are capable of catapulting the Arab nation to the realm of real technology.

I also wish to stress that technology cannot be imported, but is created in its own environment; this is why I have embarked upon linguistic technologies for the Arabic language, as it is unique to the Arab world. Its applications are innumerable, as we have recently discovered in the areas of sentiment analysis, trending and various analytics, let alone search results that return meaningful and useful search results for the Arab user.

I believe that if we overcome the problems highlighted in this article, we can do it as Arabs!

Source: http://www.infodev.org/highlights/out-valley-death-meeting-challenges-financing-innovation

The article is written by Hossam Mahgoub for Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review

Being an Entrepreneur in the Gulf

Being an Entrepreneur in the Gulf

  • There are numerous challenges in the Gulf blocking the entrepreneurship path for development.
  • Entrepreneurship is about leading, accepting high levels of risk and living up the challenge.
  • Gulf governments are not doing enough to support gulf entrepreneurs; albeit some good initiatives.
  • Entrepreneurship should be looked at as an integral part of the economy, leading to innovation and job creation.

For those of us who have studied abroad, being an entrepreneur in the Gulf has its own set of challenges. I still remember the first six months I spent in Kuwait after coming back from Denver in 1999. Everything was so different from what I had become used to. It felt like being in another universe. Not only was I suffering from reverse culture shock, but I was also surprised at how different my expectations had become. Coming from a place where you can get anything done over the phone or by email in a matter of hours or days to a place where getting anything done takes months, requires your personal presence, and involves a lot of paperwork. I had to completely readjust to my new reality and reassess my priorities.

At the time the best way to grow was to join a large company. Starting a business was very risky at the turn of the millennium and you couldn’t do it as your main source of income. I literally made good use of the phrase “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” If I learned anything about diversification it was to mitigate the risk of a high probability of failure for startups. As I uneasily joined the rest of the country in looking for a secure job, I began to wonder how I could pursue my own personal dream without the necessary ingredients to do so. Having a good idea simply wasn’t enough. The lack of the necessary entrepreneurial infrastructure and a clear path for startups meant that even the best of business plans would face enormous risks. But what is an entrepreneur if not someone who has a proclivity for risk-taking?

Entrepreneurs are contrarians by nature and always go where everyone else says there is nothing to go to. But even contrarians have their limits. Entrepreneurs are generally creative, extroverted, risk-takers by nature and they tend to see opportunity where others do not. The only way to have more of them is to reduce the impending risks that they have to overcome. This is where governments need to step up their efforts. The Gulf countries have undergone a drastic modernization phase over the past sixty years to catch up with the rest of the developed world. Obviously there are still significant issues in the developed world that remain to be overcome—one of them being the lack of a sound ecosystem for entrepreneurs to thrive in.

The Gulf countries that control the largest oil reserves in the world—with billions of dollars in revenue—certainly have no shortage of funds. With such huge surpluses accumulating over the years, there was no urgency to cultivate the private sector or free enterprise. People who traditionally had small businesses saw a better opportunity in a safe government job. When the governments provided more than people’s needs while the cost of living was cheap it tipped the risk-return equation in the favor of a safe job. Those with larger businesses were better positioned to take part of the growing petro-economies. The result is a huge government sector with a few very large family oligopolies controlling the rest.

The Gulf, for the most part, is tax-free. Therefore, the governments have no real incentive in maximizing tax revenue. Cultivating small businesses was low priority because there was no added value. As the population grows, with the biggest chunk under the age of 25, the cracks in the system are beginning to show. The increase of cost of living over the years through inflation as well as an increase in jobless figures means that the only way governments can sustain the storm is through the proactive development of SME’s. More importantly the governments need to provide the right ecosystem for entrepreneurs. A focus on the needs of entrepreneurs would lead to job creation and, eventually, a good tax revenue source that would benefit the whole economy.

Four essential elements are needed:

  1. Ease of setup
  2. Funding
  3. Skilled labor
  4. Real estate

Entrepreneurs can’t be created out of thin air. It takes time to cultivate entrepreneurship. But reducing barriers to entry and risk levels would be taking huge steps toward cultivating that entrepreneurial spirit. However, there are some very good initiatives in the Gulf such as Thukhur for Entrepreneurship & Corporate Innovation, the national program for entrepreneurs in Kuwait and Dubai SME, a Department of Economic Development agency in Dubai. These programs not only build the foundations for entrepreneurs, but also serve to motivate new entrepreneurs by highlighting the success stories and the importance of entrepreneurship in society.

Entrepreneurs have been and will always be the driving force in an economy. I took the rough road to building my business and despite how difficult it was, I would do it all over again without hesitation. It’s not just the money, it’s the satisfaction of creating something out of “nothing.”

The article is written by Basil Al Salem for Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review

Are you a business pirate or good captain?

Are you a business pirate or good captain


  • Research shows that many former employees reported that they were rarely engaged, inspired or recognized in a way which matched their professional and emotional needs.
  • Today’s employee is more aware about what he expects from the employer. The items that top the list are respect, honesty, appreciation, encouragement and a feeling of being on a path of growth within the organisations that they serve.
  • Most successful entrepreneurs would agree that their employees are their prize assets, to be treasured and supported. 
  • To succeed as an entrepreneur, you need to think about the people in your company as your potential passengers on a huge rowboat, and as a Captain of the boat you need to give your passengers compelling reason for why this journey will be interesting, rewarding and even fun.
Workshops on performance management generally end up bombarding you with terms like KPI Measurement, 360 Evaluation and other statistically based tools that you can use to get more out of people. It’s important to consider the following when business owners grapple with the question of how to get their own employees to perform more, do more and give back more:
Think of the time when someone else was calling the shots and before you became an entrepreneur.
Were they always fair, honest and engaging?
Did they inspire you, reward you and make you feel as if your role was both important and appreciated?
If they did, chances are rather high you might still be working for them and not be your own boss today.
The answer might be that many employers get distracted by their own pressures and often suffer a short-term memory loss of what it’s like to work for someone else.
Countless surveys have revealed that many former employees reported that they were rarely engaged, inspired or recognized in a way which matched their professional and emotional needs.
One ‘old school’ motivation technique for getting the most out of people was the fear- drama scenario was based on “do this or you’re fired!”
Today people who work in your company have more awareness of what they expect from an employer. The items that top the list are respect, honesty, appreciation, encouragement and a feeling of being on a path of growth within the organisations that they serve.
This is not a wish list, but common sense for any employer to embrace, empathize with and deliver. Employees today, as a rule, spend more time at the office than with their actual family. Employers who will retain their team members should not lose sight of the fact that they are the parents of these people too who devote their waking lives to make commerce possible within the enterprises.
If this sounds too warm and fuzzy to some employers who see their staff as problems, overheads and liabilities, experts suggest that the owner might be doomed. They will experience high turnover, under performance, and be only left with incompetent staff who tolerate such pre-historic attitudes in people management, and care less about taking the company from where it is today to better one tomorrow. Or worse, harbour resentment about you more every day.
Do your employees all share your vision? Do you even have one now, as many entrepreneurs may have originally had a vision, but circumstances have put them in survival mode and turned them into fear and panic merchants.
If you are committed to being in business, think about the people in your company as your potential passengers on a huge rowboat.
Where are you taking them? Is there a safe way to get there? Are they boarding willingly?
Are they excited about the journey ahead?
Do they have a reason to paddle faster, more consistently and in rhythm with the rest of the rowing crew?
Is there any reason for them to wake up earlier, prepare for duty by doing pre-warm up exercises or studying navigation which is not even their job, but you got them interested, fascinated, totally engaged and excited.
Pirates may have whipped their crews in the past, or their captives on board, in order to move their ships when the winds died down. If this technique works for you today in your business, well, good luck!
However, most successful entrepreneurs would agree that their employees are their prize assets, to be treasured and supported. Funny, weren’t pirates actually looking for treasure?
Consider another scenario, what I call the ‘BBQ Test’. Imagine that some of the employees in your company were invited to a neighbourhood barbeque. Some of the other guests who worked in different companies began to chat about their work experiences as many often do. Then they turn to one of your employees and ask the magic question, “Hey, what’s it like working for your boss, my sister in law is looking for a job, would you recommend she apply for work there?”
The test is actually a testimony of your investment in goodwill, forward thinking, deliberate campaign of nurturing your team relentlessly by creating an eco-system of sharing and inspiring a compelling future. As a business owner, you will never be the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’, but today you have the opportunity to prepare your troops for this scenario.
This is not to say that KPI metrics will be overlooked, for that is the reason you need employees. However, the nuance is if they like it, sense they are appreciated and made to also feel part of a family that respects and encourages their future in that organization.
So the next time you feel frustrated by lack of productivity within your ranks, imagine that you have a boat, and are actually selling tickets to a join you on an
amazing voyage.
As the seller, you will have to give your potential ticket buyer a compelling reason why this particular voyage will be interesting, rewarding and even fun.
You would have to explain to these ticket buyers that as captain, you would ensure that the voyage would be safe, that they as passengers and ‘crew- members’ will be well looked after, appreciated and trained to do other tasks along the journey.
They will be part of a team that loves to win, a team that feels part of a family. Could you sell tickets to your team today?
If not, you perhaps need to rethink how you are engaging your passengers and getting them prepared to willingly row into the future and win races with you because you made them love it.
Be a great captain!

The article is written by Michael J. Tolan for Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review



The ‘Social’ Enterprise is here

The ‘Social’ Enterprise is here

  • ‘Social Business’ or ‘Enterprise 2.0’ is nothing but an additional layer of communication and sharing capabilities that is added to already existing online software which enables social-style interaction incorporated into enterprise software.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS) has been a prevalent model in modern organizations for a few years now, and major enterprise software vendors are incorporating core business functions of the organization into an interface accessible from any device.
  • ‘Consumerization of business’ is the next milestone in the enterprise software world, where functions available on social media channels such as chatting and messaging, posting on forums or user groups and collaborating on shared content are now being integrated into the enterprise software suites.

We live in the age of ‘social’ software and ‘smart’ devices, which could make you cynical when you hear terms like ‘social-this’ or ‘social-that’. However, sometimes the use of ‘social’ as a prefix is indeed merited.

An excellent example is the maturing field of social-style interaction incorporated into enterprise software, to create what is being considered a ‘Social Business’, or ‘Enterprise 2.0’.

Basically, it is an additional layer of communication and sharing capabilities that is added to already existing online software which enables employees, customers and suppliers to collaborate and organize information, using web and mobile platforms.

Software as a Service (SaaS) has been a prevalent model in modern organizations for a few years now. Every major software vendor now enables company staff to work from anywhere by incorporating core business functions of the organization into an interface accessible from any device.

What was missing, though, was the adoption of some of the best ideas and functions available through social media from the consumer side. Chatting and messaging, posting on forums or user groups and collaborating on shared content are all clear examples of what can be taken into the organization for its benefit.

Analysts and consultants call this the ‘consumerization of business’; but to keep it simple, it’s just businesses being smart and capitalizing on the changing nature of the typical employee.

People want the same communication experience they enjoy in their personal lives, to be available in their professional life; to share data with co-workers, and seamlessly communicate through messaging instead of just using email. If this increases their productivity and happiness, companies should realize its impact on the bottom line.

With the entrance of millennials into the work place – those born between the early-eighties and the turn of the century- it has become imperative to adopt such communication and collaboration abilities to retain younger employees.

That’s why the biggest players in enterprise software are getting in on the act.

In 2012, Microsoft acquired Yammer, a private social network, which puts people, conversations, content, and business data on one platform. At the time, more than 200,000 companies worldwide were already using Yammer to collaborate with employees. It was an example of businesses seeking out a solution, even from a small vendor, if the bigger software companies weren’t providing it.

So, Microsoft jumped at this opportunity demonstrating that social media in the enterprise is much more than a fad. Yammer is now part of Microsoft’s Office division, and is major part of its Office 365 strategy, within the SharePoint Online service.

Oracle, another major player in enterprise software, has recently purchased Involver, to create what it calls ‘a cloud-based social platform across marketing, sales and service touch-points’. Oracle is now presenting an expanded social platform using Involver’s SML (Social Markup Language). The result will be a more comprehensive, and consumerized, experience.

The enterprise software specialist SAP has also launched “Jam” which is a secure, social collaboration solution that extends across SAP’s entire technology landscape to give social capabilities.

IBM already has a Social Business division, and its aims in this field are well articulated. IBM says it wants to “connect employees and customers to share their best ideas and new processes’.

It would appear that the customer is now, finally, in control! Enterprises will also reap the benefits of enhanced feedback for the purposes of product and service development.

This is an ‘open’ age of information. So, enterprises are going to have to open up too.

There are, of course, software security challenges involved. But that’s part of this evolution, whereby the benefits truly outweigh the potential concerns, which can be tackled.

Empowering employees and communicating better with consumers must be every company’s goal. Positive experiences create satisfied customers, and more revenues. That’s the optimal goal that corporate IT departments aim to achieve.

For decades, businesses have claimed to be ‘at the service of the customer’. Now, such claims are being truly tested as technology weeds-out those who cannot deliver on that promise. Beware the rise of the ‘social enterprise’, you have been warned.

The article is written by Zeid Nasser for Arab Business Review

To read more thought-leadership stuff by leaders from Arab Region, please visit Arab Business Review