Entrepreneurship and Education: Q&A with Badr Jafar

World of Work April 20, 2017

Badr Jafar on the role of social enterprise in addressing socio-economic challenges, and why education must change. 

•  Briefly describe your journey as a social entrepreneur.

Born in Sharjah into a family business, I had a very early education on the general nuances of doing business. The social impact element was something I picked up along the way, as I experimented with several work placements following university – from oil and gas to retail. I went on to launch a series of diverse start-ups in the UK with the help of small business loans, including a fashion accessories business and a B2B e-commerce platform for the energy sector.

The convergence of these seemingly disconnected experiences is a passion I now espouse for the unique power of business innovation to create solutions to our greatest challenges, be it social, environmental or economic.

In simple terms, there is a common theme in the businesses I choose to get involved with today: a deep sense of purpose. The problem I see today with business activity is not that it is immoral, but that it tends to be amoral, or generally unconcerned with the rightness or wrongness of its activities. I believe wholeheartedly in the saying that poverty is not only a lack of money, it’s a lack of sense of purpose. And I, therefore, believe that a business without a sense of purpose is a poor one, regardless of how much profit it might be making.

Questions are now being explored as to how to find a new path that recognises the deeper non-material roots of well-being and ways to balance and satisfy the needs of human beings within the limits of what nature can provide on a sustainable basis. As business is at the forefront of engaging with individuals and communities across the world on a daily basis, it has the potential to be a significant change agent during this unprecedented time in human history.

I’m excited by the fact that more and more companies are gradually embracing this belief that a socially centred purpose is ultimately a competitive advantage in today’s rapidly shifting landscapes, and that such a purpose is compatible with profitable growth. And so, a socially relevant purpose is increasingly transcending profit as an end goal of company activity. Why? Simply because the business community is recognising that profit is fundamentally an output and not a purpose. That profit is a symptom of success, not the cause.

In a nutshell, I believe there is a renewed social contract between business and society. An awakening to a larger perspective and a bigger view of the role that companies play in the world. And with that, more and more CEOs want to attain ‘good growth’: real, inclusive, responsible, and lasting.

•  What are some of the key strategies that help entrepreneurs manage their projects successfully?

Mentorship and the power of early-stage guidance is an essential part of entrepreneurial success. Research conducted by Ernst & Young suggests that 88 percent of entrepreneurs who have mentors and the right support systems have been successful in establishing their businesses, while 50 percent of those without the necessary support have failed. Mentorship gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to really engage and learn from both the success and failures of those who have come before them.

The Gulf region is lucky to have several initiatives which provide networking and mentoring opportunities for entrepreneurs, but it is crucial that we continue to foster these in order to sustain a healthy entrepreneurship culture and SME sector.

•  There are significant efforts being taken across the region to encourage youth entrepreneurship. In your view, what are the most effective strategies to support young entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship has increasingly become a priority for policymakers in the MENA region, who see SMEs as key to solving the challenge of improving competitiveness, raising incomes, and generating employment. Besides direct policy interventions through guarantee schemes, lower reserve requirements and subsidised lending, efforts are being made to implement more sustainable structural improvements including greater coverage and depth of credit bureaus, improvements in the collateral regime (especially for movable assets), and increased competition between banks and non-banks.

The private sector is also making strides towards filling the financing gap through venture capital, angel investments and incubators, which have propelled several regional small business successes, such as Souq.com, Careem and Network International. New forms of financial support for SMEs have also taken the foreground such as crowdfunding platforms like Aflamnah and peer to peer lending marketplaces like Beehive.

Organisations such as Endeavor, which I have the honour of chairing in the UAE, and WISE help to cultivate responsible, well-informed and successful business leaders who can truly have a long-term impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem within the region. These organisations connect some of the most accomplished and innovative businesspeople in the region as mentors, to promising, high-impact companies through a targeted and need-based approach in order to help them scale up. Consequently, they play a crucial role as catalysts for long-term economic growth across the region.

At Crescent Enterprises, we continue to work with and encourage such initiatives, understanding that to create a strong, resilient entrepreneurial environment in the region, the government and the private sector have a responsibility to work together to ensure that our entrepreneurs are sufficiently supported through mentorship programmes, networking opportunities and access to financing.

Beyond the support rendered in kind and through mentorship, we also need to regard the important role budding entrepreneurs and SMEs play in impacting the socio-economic dynamics of the Middle East. To this end, startups and small businesses must be honed to grow from solution-takers to becoming solution providers in the larger sustainability and governance context. The Pearl Initiative, which is a non-profit that I founded along with other business owners and CEOs in the region to help create a business culture of transparency and accountability, seeks to convey this critical message through its new Corporate Governance for SMEs programme that is being launched this year. More often than not, SMEs are unaware how critical corporate governance is to the success of their business, and how many opportunities to secure finance, reduce risk and increase the value of their business would be available to them if good corporate governance measures were in place. This programme seeks to get in there early enough to reduce the dampening effect of long-term governance challenges that we see affecting established businesses across our region today.

•  Is entrepreneurship the answer to youth unemployment in the Arab world?

I think in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Gulf region holds a golden opportunity to assume a stronger position in the global economy through effective entrepreneurship. On one hand, the majority of the population in the GCC nations are young and quickly adapting to technological disruptions. To add to this, we are still in a state of development that allows us to directly graduate to the latest advancements, compared to developed economies that are faced with the challenge of retrofitting new technologies to an outdated infrastructure.

The region’s governments and businesses need to acknowledge the edge we hold in these respects, and invest in solutions that can accelerate the transformation. We need to create a start-up ecosystem that not only provides new opportunities for the youth, but helps us create products and brands that matter to the rest of the world. We need to improve the region’s investment appeal, through businesses that have creative capabilities and sustainable fundamentals, to grow and thrive in a challenging economy. At Crescent Enterprises, for example, we have developed CE-Ventures, an internal business incubator, which develops socially-conscious, technologically-driven businesses that change the way the world views the Arab world.

Even across the Middle East and North Africa region, there are numerous opportunities to develop talent and innovation. A case in point is the Gaza Sky Geeks, a private sector-led accelerator that has not only produced ground-breaking ideas, but has provided the conflict-stricken community with hope through technology. Today, these innovations are being successfully adopted across borders, proving the point that technology can act as a great equaliser even in the most difficult environments.

Furthermore, I believe technological innovation always happens at the intersection between science and the arts. We know that all the way back to the Golden age in the 8th and 9th century, during the reign of Harun Al Rashid and his sons, the explosion of innovation happened because of the appreciation of the arts and humanities being necessary for scientific advancement – Beit Al Hikma, arguably the first proper university in the world, encapsulated this belief. The same with the Renaissance period in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, where scientific discovery and a cultural revolution happened hand in hand. We must never forget the crucial role that the arts play in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the fact that the Middle East and GCC region are uniquely positioned to embrace great examples of our past and apply them today.

•  The nature of work is changing with this rapid digitization the world is seeing. What are the most important new skills needed to thrive in the near future?

In last year’s meeting, The World Economic Forum projected that 7.1 million jobs are likely to be lost through redundancy, automation or disintermediation, while 2 million new jobs would be created. We face a huge responsibility to turn our attention to the new jobs and the host of new opportunities that will be presented to future generations.

The fact is more than a third of the skills that are deemed important today, will no longer be so in a few years from now, with strong analytical capabilities, critical thinking, creativity and social skills taking precedence. World economies need to see this as an opportunity to upskill the existing workforce, while also putting resources towards the development of new talent. The fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is stalling in our region by the lack of skills in the market just goes to show that we cannot have one without the other – successful technological transformation is impossible without due investments in people.

These interventions need to start early, even at the elementary school level, with a greater push towards STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) education. Take for example the schools in England, where coding is now a part of the compulsory ‘computing’ subject in the national curriculum, with children as young as five years old being taught to code. It is a huge shift from what we know and understand, which is why governments, businesses and academia alike need to foster creativity and innovation that gives people the ability to progress.

•  You’ve been advocating social entrepreneurship for many years now. Why is it important to you? And how can this be built into education systems?

As I mentioned earlier, I am convinced that the success of a business rests quite simply on the purpose it delivers. I believe it is a business imperative to become socially responsible and contribute to the sustainability of the society and environment. This is a very important lesson that is often ignored in the school setting. We find that education systems are caught in an archaic model that is disengaged from the realities we face today. That poses a huge risk, as well as an opportunity.

Both governments and businesses have a chance to engage in real dialogue with students, to show them by example that it is possible to become changemakers, even as we face the challenges of unemployment, strife, resource depletion and so on. To enable this exchange, the Pearl Initiative launched the Business Pledge, which is essentially a public commitment for Gulf businesses to adopt sustainability practices. Rather than just ticking the box and moving on, the CEOs that have signed the Pledge have also agreed to meet on an annual basis with university students from the region, and to talk to them about what they’ve done in the last 12 months in the spirit of this commitment. This transfer of experience and shared value, in my opinion, can transform the education systems, and really effect meaningful change in the long term.