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Sun 31 May 2015 09:20 AM

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A leading light: Genny Ghanimeh

Genny Ghanimeh, the founder of Pi Slice, looks back at her two-year entrepreneurial journey and shares with Tamara Pupic how her micro-lending platform has already given 200 MENA entrepreneurs an opportunity to make a difference

A leading light: Genny Ghanimeh

There’s no silver bullet for the issue of poverty.

However, for some individuals, answering the enduring ‘why am I doing this?’ question can provide a good enough reason to act towards a solution.

And as their resourcefulness expands, the impact of their work grows - all from the same inner urge to help others, which outwardly translates into determination and perseverance.

A well-documented example is Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist and social entrepreneur who refused to turn his back on village women who were making furniture but paying an illegally high interest rate.

Putting his faith in the usually overlooked parts of society led him to devise the concept of micro-finance – a model to extend loans to low-income entrepreneurs from whom banks traditionally shied away.

In 2006, Yunus was the first Bangladeshi to ever receive a Nobel Prize.

“You don’t have the lack of opportunities to help in Lebanon,” says Genny Ghanimeh, the founder of Pi Slice, a Dubai-based online micro-lending platform which allows individuals and corporations to lend to micro-entrepreneurs across the Middle East.

“I used to physically do it. [Later] I needed to establish a micro-finance institution to cover that need in me,” she adds.

Ghanimeh volunteered in a Palestinian refugee camp close to her home as a 16-year-old girl and later became a banker before establishing Pi Slice in 2013 to empower MENA micro-entrepreneurs.

She recalls the emotions that surfaced during a trek up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, when her guide started crying after she had offered to donate $250 annually for his daughter’s education.

“What is different from before is that before I was always helping from a helpless and angry place. When I decided to help this man, I wasn’t angry or helpless anymore,” she says.

“I felt there was another way to give. And this way now is empowering me, telling me that there is something we can do.

“In Kilimanjaro, I got the opportunity to help someone with so little, and so little changed his life. That moment was so intense that now all the pieces were in my head.”

Having enrolled in an MBA course at London Business School, she had already become fascinated with the online peer-to-peer lending concept spreading in the UK.

Other pieces of the puzzle, she explains, were an already existing idea to set up a micro-finance institution in Lebanon, and an expectation that the opportunity to help the poor would strike a chord among her peers in Dubai.

With all this converging together, little wonder that the idea of Pi Slice was presented as her final assignment in her course in entrepreneurship.

“I was on such a creative hype that I went back to London and I did the business plan in, I think, two days. That takes months of work,” she says.

However, entrepreneurship had already been something Ghanimeh knew all too well.

The Lebanese national with an MA degree in civil engineering from the University of Lebanon came to Dubai in 2003 on a visit, but decided to stay. “I didn’t have friends, but it felt home,” she says.

Her first Dubai-based venture, Pro ID, was set up out of necessity to expand on her engagement as a project follow-up agent of eight international groups from Europe and the US.

When asked about the experience of setting up a business in Dubai more than a decade ago, Ghanimeh opens up: “Back then Dubai was a different place than it is today. Today, it’s much friendlier for foreigners than in 2003.

“The culture was much different then. Whoever was setting up was big. There was no place for people like me starting.

“Looking back, I think I had lots of courage, but it was also miscalculated courage. I was blinded to so many things.”

Nevertheless, with the personality less adaptable to the corporate world she continued honing her entrepreneurial skills in 2007 by co-founding and managing Pi Investments, a boutique advisory for mergers and acquisitions deals in emerging countries.

Before long, with the world stuck in global recession and after a personally challenging period, doing an MBA in the UK seemed a practical decision in spite of her business success.

Thus, it was this serial entrepreneur, with a track record in Dubai’s less business-friendly years at the turn of the millennium, who developed a business plan after committing to sponsor a nine-year-old girl’s education.

“I never for a second thought it would become a reality. It needed so much that I didn’t have.

“I was just happy I did it [the business plan], but one thing led to another,” she explains, adding that doubting the viability of her idea made her join a DIFC-based investment bank as the head of business development upon her return to Dubai in 2010.

She says: “That’s it, I thought, my entrepreneurship days are over. I’m going to try to fit in within the corporate.

“I was really happy there although it wasn’t really challenging to me. But I enjoyed the stability.”

However, while working on projects such as setting up a $100 million SME fund for North Africa, Ghanimeh unintentionally kept on forming powerful alliances with all the relevant stakeholders for Pi Slice.

Adding that a brainstorming session with Tom Speechley, a senior partner at Abraaj Capital, turned into a six month long mentoring and coaching, she says: “And then that initial ignition turned into determination.”

The following stages were surprisingly effortless.

An accidental encounter with one of her previous clients ended with his offer to provide pre-seed angel funding for Pi Slice. And to top it all, a mere remembrance of a phone call she received from Jacques Attali, the famous French economist and the founder of the PlaNet Finance Group, an international organisation vital to the development of microfinance in 80 countries, makes her exhult: “I could not not start.”

A partnership agreement with Microworld.org, a European microcredit social business which is a subsidiary of the PlaNet Finance Group, allowed Pi Slice to develop a unique three-fold system.

The peer-to-peer micro-lending platform, unveiled by the two organisations in March 2013, connects MENA individuals and companies wishing to make online loans with the region’s micro-finance institutions (MFIs) that in turn use the funds to provide micro-credit to their customers.

In connecting the rich with the poor, Ghanimeh insists on the principles of transparency, accountability and sustainability while achieving tangible and measurable impact.

It starts with the rigorous selection process of MFIs.

For now, Pi Slice cooperates with three upper tier MFIs in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, while future plans include Egypt, Tunis, The Yemen, and Iraq.

The MFIs are responsible for vetting micro-entrepreneurs, and after a 40 to 60 day long funding period, they work on disbursing and monitoring loans, supporting micro-entrepreneurs in the development of their businesses, and collecting repayments.

All of this is done under the watchful eye of a Pi Slice local correspondent within an MFI who ensures operational efficiency.

On the other side of the spectrum of the region’s economic disparities that Pi Slice tries to draw together are individuals and corporates that can lend, starting with a sum as small as $20.

Their research on the MENA CSR gap shows that 33 percent of professionals still haven’t developed a personal culture of giving back, having answered ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ when asked how often they engaged in charity or community work.

Looking at the private sector, 20 percent of corporates don’t engage in CSR activities, 23 percent do that ‘occasionally’ while only 44 percent engage regularly.

With her strong business acumen urging her to think quickly, Ghanimeh adjusted the model to address these market gaps by offering corporates a ‘lending page’ to promote micro-lending opportunities to their stakeholders and engage them in a variety of ways.

She says: “We create a plan to engage the audience depending on the company’s strategy. It becomes a CSR go-to market channel.

“The benefits of this are that they can see in real time how many people are engaging, how many jobs are being created. So the money comes back to them through success stories, content creation.”

In addition to helping them use their CSR budgets in a more strategic and innovative way, the offering can cultivate the culture of purpose among a company’s employees and result in a revitalised business.

As such, it has already been recognised by du, LBC, Stanton Chase, OMD UAE, and many others.

While a small commission fee is paid by MFIs on all money raised, corporates are also charged a fee, making Ghanimeh’s model sustainable and allowing her to meet the expectations of her investors.

“None of our investors expect a return, but they all expect us to be sustainable and successful,” she says.

Two years into her entrepreneurial journey, being successful for Ghanimeh means empowering 200 micro-entrepreneurs to support their families and wider communities.

And each of the 200 stories can redefine our understanding of success.

A school teacher from a remote village in Lebanon has been granted a loan to buy a van so that she could pick up children from farther away places and drive them to school every morning.

It had taken another woman from Jordan three years to convince her husband to allow her to apply for Pi Slice’s loan and open a workshop. She now employs 12 of her girlfriends.

On the day of Ghanimeh’s field visit, the woman was proud to tell her that she had been commissioned to make a coffee set for the King of Jordan.

Ghanimeh adds: “Her husband is now her driver. He left his job to do that, and is now so proud of her. It’s because she has managed to break through his previous narrow-mindedness.

“She told me that she hadn’t known how depressed she was. She thought she could never do this thinking that it was too late, she was too old. Now she has the energy to run around, go to market.

“It’s inspiring how psychologically people change from the inside when they are empowered.”

Pi Slice regularly quantifies the social impact of its business by measuring social return on investment (SROI) on levels of job creation, impact on direct family, impact on direct community and contribution to GDP.

However, it is these first-hand observations of the transformative power of her endeavours in many wounded communities that have made Ghanimeh eager to do more and do it faster.

She says: “Now we are in a pretty stable place, we don’t really have challenges anymore except the actual business development.

“Now, it’s a bit slow for my pace. For this thing to pick up, we need patience, we need people to change their behaviour.

“I need to see the tangible results quicker.”

Until that moment, Ghanimeh is investing her energy in, not surprisingly, helping others.

She is a regular guest speaker on entrepreneurship and CSR topics worldwide, from London Business School and Hult International Business School, to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

She also writes a blog, mentors up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and much more.

In May 2014 she initiated The Innovation Series - CEO Talks, taking place at Dubai’s popular start-up hubs on a monthly basis, to allow budding entrepreneurs firsthand insight into the style of leadership, business flair and even personal traits of many business leaders.

After hosting the likes of Osman Sultan, CEO of du, and Badr Jafar, CEO of Crescent Enterprises, she says: “Today, there’s no manual for leadership. There’s something unique about every person. There are no styles anymore. And you have to find this uniqueness. That’s leadership.

“I want to present the person. I want them to reveal themselves even when they don’t know that.

“And, to my surprise, they shock me how comfortable they are in revealing themselves. And that’s leadership.

“It’s about knowing yourself so much that there’s nothing to hide. And even if there is a barrier between personal and work, it’s not visible anymore.”

When asked whether today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is supportive of the attendees of her events, she says: “It’s more of a bubble of an ecosystem than a true ecosystem. A lot of media hype about it, but there’s no substance really.

“Egypt and Lebanon are doing much better work than Dubai. They think there’s big money in Dubai for start-ups. There’s none. That’s the first misconception.

“The people of the ecosystem regionally live here, so you have an illusion of the ecosystem without the real ecosystem.

“I think Dubai is not a start-up city because it is very expensive. Everybody knows that. This is a growth city.”

Obviously, Dubai is the right place for Ghanimeh to be in since they are preparing to speed up Pi Slice’s growth and expansion phase.

The initial capital roadblocks faced by many social enterprises were avoided due to her personal reputation and business results garnering the long list of high-profile endorsements for Pi Slice.

Logically, we can assume that the future also looks promising.

Its recently launched site in Arabic, which will allow a wider reach and appeal in the Arab world, is a sign of that.

Instead of going into more details about that, she concludes by telling me that the daughter of her trek guide is in high school now. They talk at least twice a year. That is what social entrepreneurship is all about.

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