It would take us a while to adequately describe the numerous accomplishments of Fadi Ghandour. As the CEO of Aramex for 30 years, Ghandour has brilliantly steered the company to its leadership position as the preeminent courier company in the region. He is also the Co-Founder and Director of MENA Venture Investments, a seed capital investment company investing in early stage tech companies in the MENA region and is the Chairman of WAMDA.com, an entrepreneurship support platform for the MENA region. eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata talks to the mogul about his entrepreneurship experiences…
I know that you have been encouraging entrepreneurship and I know that some of it has been directly through your own personal funds but you’ve also been working with organisations, so tell me a little bit about that.
I’ve been supporting entrepreneurs directly and indirectly for four years. I felt that it is natural for me because that is what I am. I am an entrepreneur, I love supporting entrepreneurs and I see their potential. I am also a very patient investor and a very patient supporter because entrepreneurship takes a very long time to flourish. I learned a lot from my experience with Maktoob (Maktoob Inc. is an Arab Internet services company). Maktoob took about 12 years for it to become what it is today and I could see its potential from the start. I think that that there is a huge demand now for three or four core things for entrepreneurship which I think I can provide from the years of experience that I’ve had. One is access to capital, which is essential to give, and secondly, there are a lot of entrepreneurs that are looking for more mentorship, but mentorship in the wider sense, in terms of access to networks, recruiting new talent, building teams and incentivising staff, that’s stuff I’ve done over the years by running a business.
Let’s say that an entrepreneur has an idea, how do they pitch it to your fund?
We are an open system, the entrepreneurs who want to find us can find us very quickly, they will pitch and write to us, if we like the idea – while we don’t invest in the idea stage – we will invest at a later stage. Somebody has to have something that is already happening, not to tell us “I am thinking of doing that.”
You said in WAMDA that you are not a fan of seeing five year business plans.
No. They don’t work. I will look at them because I want somebody to be thinking about that. But the numbers will not mean much to me because who knows what the numbers are going to look like. I want to know how your product is going to look in five years and if that doesn’t work what are you going to do? How will you pivot? How will you change? How will you adapt? How flexible are you? How does your platform allow you to do different things if what you are doing now does not work?
From your experience as an entrepreneur, is there more talk about entrepreneurship now in the Middle East than when you started?
Well, a lot of people talk and few people do. The talkers are busy talking and the doers are few unfortunately. I wish the talkers are also doers so that we are all busy doing rather than talking.
Are you able to influence the talkers to become doers?
I am busy doing and I am busy proving to people that it is doable. I would love that whoever is out there would do. I would encourage them because that is a space that is important because if you want to solve the employment problem in the Arab world, you need to bring people to start businesses. Business is what creates employment. You need to think about businesses to employ people not to think of employing people. Businesses require enterepreneurs therefore we need to give them access to knowledge, and give them skills so that they can become entrepreneurs and build their own businesses so they can hire people.
People always talk about the Middle East being a very entrepreneurial culture why do you think then that we don’t have more entrepreneurs?
Because historically the prophet Mohamed was an entrepreneur and a trader so it’s in our culture. We are taught that historically, Islam is a religion that believes in private property and private enterprise. What happened is that over the years the governments felt that they needed to be the employers due to various reasons which we don’t want to discuss here but eventually it became a trend in the Arab world. This is a new thing that started only 50 years ago. Before that, Arabs were never employed in the government. They were traders. People either worked as farmers on their land or in trading their products. Suddenly the government came and said “no I know best”. They came up with centralised plans with large bureaucracies and that killed the concept of entrepreneurship. The education system prepares people to go to work for the government. The skills of the entrepreneurs are different than those of people who work in the government. So we not only need to teach people entrepreneurial skills, we need to teach them 21st century skills such as languages, computer programming, soft skills, how to interview, how to present yourself, these are the skills that are needed today so that people become employable.
It seems that in the Middle East, in tech especially, the goal of young people is to work in a multinational company because they’ll get paid well with lots of benefits. How can you convince these young people to not take that route and start their own business?
I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to convince people to not go and work for big companies and enjoy a good job and a good life. But I also want to say that if this individual wants to leave his work he needs to have the skills to start his own business. I can’t force entrepreneurs to be entrepreneurs, but I want to give them the skills if they have decided to become and are able to be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial skills are skills that are needed today in the workplace. If I am teaching you entrepreneurial skills and you go to a multinational you are going to excel, because entrepreneurship is about teaching our students and our kids to think critically, how to ask questions, how to question certain things and do them better, this is what entrepreneurs are about at the end of the day. Big companies need entrepreneurs but if these people have learned and acquired a certain amount of knowledge in those big companies and decide “I want to be an entrepreneur today,” I want them to be able to say I have the skills to do that.
What is your advice to entrepreneurs in the MENA countries going through all sorts of challenges and crises and an uncertain future? Is it really the time to take the risk to start your own business?
I think that if you want to start your business, take the plunge knowing that it is a difficult decision, but also know that an ecosystem is being built. You are in it for the long run. You need to know that it’s a tough life if you choose to be an entrepreneur. If you believe in your idea and the business that you are starting, just keep at it. Keep your focus and keep knocking on doors and eventually one will open and you will be able to succeed.