By Tamara Pupic
The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs photo exhibition, developed by the Hong Kong-based think tank The Global Institute for Tomorrow, drew more entrepreneurs to the DIFC-based East Wing Photo Gallery during October than ever before.
If you were a CEO who managed to turn a small, Hong Kong-based start-up into a multinational of 500 employees with 20 offices in 12 countries, chances are you’d stick around to develop, grow, and enjoy the success of your business. Right?
Not so Chandran Nair.
Having grown up struggling to make ends meet in Malaysia, the Indian businessman went on to lead Environmental Resources Management (ERM), one of Asia’s biggest environmental consultancies, for more than a decade.
But the glitz and glamour of a corporate career didn’t quite do it for Nair, who instead craved intellectual integrity and an outlet for his free-thinking.
And so, despite ERM’s upwards trajectory, Nair resigned from his high profile position to launch his own company: The Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT).
Entrepreneurship, it seems, was the outlet he was looking for.
The GIFT is an independent pan-Asian think tank tasked with pursuing intellectual integrity and providing a different view on Asia and the developing world, especially when it comes to, as he is reported as saying, Asia’s subservient position to the West.
As an independent think tank, the GIFT accepts no outside funding and its executive education programmes are not based on ‘pleasing participants or seeking elite rankings,’ according to its website.
Similarly, their The Other Hundred initiative aims to provide a counterpoint to the mainstream media consensus about some of today’s most important issues.
The inaugural edition of The Other Hundred, a not-for-profit photo-book of 100 stories selected from 1,000 images shot in 158 countries, challenges countless rich-lists and related media attention.
Unveiled in Hong Kong in October 2013, the book’s 100 photos tell stories of culturally marginalised people. Those who are not rich, but deserve to be celebrated.
This year’s The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs photo-book, presented to the public in Hong Kong in March this year, is composed of 100 images of people who have never written a formal business plan or planned an exit strategy. A direct inversion of mainstream media’s propensity to publicise business school graduate entrepreneurs from tech hubs such as Silicon Valley.
With a marketing slogan saying that it ‘celebrates the contribution of the everyday entrepreneur,’ the book features 91 different businesses people are engaged in around the world.
To present both editions of The Other Hundred to the audience in Dubai, The GIFT has collaborated with the East Wing Photo Gallery in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).
For the second edition, the gallery brought Tharawat magazine, a Dubai-based quarterly publication on family business and entrepreneurship, on board as a content partner.
To deepen the debate on entrepreneurship, the partners organised a two-event series entitled ‘A Conversation on Entrepreneurship’. Running over the course of a month, the event was also supported by Aramex, Womena, Elivision, Ikonhouse, Envestors, Right Bite and Dubai Audio.
“If you have entrepreneurial thinking, that actually does mean freedom because it means that you will never be caged, you will never be restricted by convention, by what’s visibly possible,” says Ramia Marielle El Agamy Khan, the editor in chief of Tharawat magazine, during a meeting with StartUp between two panels on entrepreneurship.
“You will always be able to think of what else you could achieve, what else could be thought of. You will never be happy with the status quo. This is sort of the trademark of entrepreneurs, someone who always seeks betterment of whatever is there at any given moment in time.”
With 80 percent of the MENA region’s businesses being family-owned or family-run, Tharawat Family Business Forum, founded in 2006 by Dr. Hischam El Agamy, El Agamy Khan’s father, and managed by her sister, Farida El Agamy, serves as an independent, non-profit network for Arabian family businesses leaders to network and exchange knowledge.
Since 2008, El Agamy Khan has been in charge of Tharawat magazine, the only family business magazine in the Middle East and one out of three worldwide to focus on this niche.
The importance and complexities of family business-related topics, she says, have urged them to globalise the content and distribution reach of the magazine over the course of its 27 issues to date.
In addition to telling stories of family businesses, being part of one has given El Agamy Khan an insight into the topic. “Generally what needs to be understood is that you can’t separate entrepreneurship from family business,” she explains.
“The initial stages of a family business are defined by one or multiple entrepreneurs who set the foundation of what then ends up being a long-lasting legacy across generations.
“But not to forget, this entrepreneurial effort doesn’t just happen at the beginning. It is actually the driving force behind the business being able to survive multiple generations.”
She adds that ‘starting something for their children’ is a unique feature of regional businesses.
“Nowadays, we talk about entrepreneurship as if everyone has a tech company, as if we’re all going to go for million dollar buy-outs,” she says.
“Here we all usually grow up with the sense of responsibility towards our family members and going into business together is also a natural way of making sure interests are tied together.
“That motivation, of course, you might see more in a more collective society that we live in here where the family unit is still maybe more closely knit than in maybe more individualistic societies that we have in Western countries.”
The realities and illusions of this type of entrepreneurship, and others, was the subject of first panel of the event series. It was moderated by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati writer, commentator, and entrepreneur, and the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation.
A week later, an array of entrepreneurs, investors, tech gurus and innovation experts gathered to take part in the second panel discussion on the topic The Future of Entrepreneurship.
Speaking to StartUp after the event, one of the panelists, Wissam Otaky, CFO of Singapore-based venture builder platform Hatcher, and a co-founder of The Impact Hub Dubai, said that a personality type determines whether entrepreneurship will be perceived as freedom.
“Some people view it as too daunting and too stressful that they would rather not have the weight on their shoulders,” he says.
“There are times when you have one hundred people depending on you for their salaries, and you don’t feel too free.
“For other people, if that fits their personality, it is it [freedom] absolutely. I love being my own boss.”
Explaining that the region’s nascent venture capital industry has become more accepting of start-ups in recent years, Otaky prefers not to use the standardiased industry vocabulary, and says: “The lines between angels and venture capitalists are blurred by the type of investors across regions, across geographies. A Series A here could be an angel or seed round in the US.”
A full lifecycle investor with Hatcher, Otaky has been investing in successful fin-tech and info-tech entrepreneurs. When asked who the ‘other entrepreneurs’ of the exhibition were, he said: “Those who build businesses out of necessity and are happy keeping them small and often just being able to survive.
“The vast majority of economies in the Middle East are built on SMEs anyway. The Other Hundred is everybody, a lot of people is out there battling to keep their businesses alive.”
Among the photos around us is that of Kamila Sidiqi, an 18-year-old who helped her family survive during Taliban rule in Afghanistan by selling the clothing she and her sisters designed, sewed, and embroidered. She now has more than 100 staff who have carried out 43 projects in all provinces of the country.
Also, Shehada Shalalda, a violin maker from Ramallah, a town in Palestine’s West Bank area, who works full-time making violins for students at the city’s Al Kamandjâti music school.
“This is what the real world is mostly about,” says Noah Raford, an innovation expert and another panelist, while pointing to the exhibited photos.
“And then there’s a very small percentage of the world’s economy, which is a Western European market type model, and then on top of that we have this start-up world. And I think that the future is going to be all about actually leapfrogging that middle market.
“So most of the interesting stuff is going to be using 21st world technologies in the 10th century environment.”
Raford has been engaged on The Museum of the Future project, a Dhs500 million initative of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced in August 2015, aimed at creating innovation labs to focus on health, education, smart cities, energy and transport.
The other project he works on, the Drones for Good competition, which was launched by Sheikh Mohammed in 2014 to find practical uses for drones in everyday life, received more than 800 different submissions from around 57 countries in 2014, while this year’s competition has drawn even more interest.
“This is the UAE’s competitive advantage to provide a home for the world’s best and the brightest and to integrate the differences between cultures and business models and economies,” he says.
“I think it’s extremely important for the UAE to continue to do that.”
El Agamy Khan agrees that entrepreneurial nature of the people in the region has been a fertile ground for diversity to flourish. “The general thing that I can observe about entrepreneurship in the region is that you cannot stop it,” she says.
“Let’s put aside all the problems that we are facing at the moment, since there’s one thing this region has in abundance and it is ideas and creative people and people willing to work and make it work.
“People travel from all over the world to come here, to the Middle East, to set up their businesses and why do you think they do that? It’s because we’ve finally managed to create a place that projects the right attitude that shows that they are welcome.”
Miikka Makio, co-founder and CEO of Foodiac, an online marketplace to connect private chefs with good food lovers set up in Finland in late 2014, obviously felt welcome.
With Turn8, Dubai’s first start-up accelerator, joining Finish angels and venture capitalists to close their seed round, Dubai has become a home for the start-up’s six co-founders.
To support The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs exhibition, they held their launch event at the East Wing Gallery in mid-October. Makio says that the support of Turn8 has been crucial in getting local knowledge and understanding the dynamics of the Middle Eastern market.
“You can plan and prepare sure in advance, but the true market understanding is gained by setting your foot in the new market,” he adds.
“We have multiple best practices in marketing and target segments that have been working in Finland, but not all of those will work here. The market has many nationalities and customer segments to target and test, and that’s what we are working on now.
“But no matter where you are, busy founders and CEOs of other, even well-known, start-ups will always have time to have a chat with you, and you should leverage this no matter where you go.”
A recent HSBC’s research shows that expat entrepreneurs are being drawn to the world’s financial hubs, with a vast majority saying that Singapore (87 percent), Dubai (86 percent), Hong Kong and London (both 85 percent) are good places to start a business, far outpacing the global average of 56 percent.
Continuing on the region’s ability to attract entrepreneurs able to bring forth innovative solutions, El Agamy Khan adds that the start-up community needs to ensure that “we all can thrive because it’s an ecosystem.”
She says: “Just as also we have to learn a lot about how to be accepting of competition, how to be accepting of fast growth and slow growth, and how to be accepting of, in one word, diversity because we can learn from each other.
“And, I always say, there’s enough space for everyone. What have monopolies ever brought us? Nothing.”
Looking toward the future for all of them, El Agamy Khan mentions Joana Bacallo, the founder of Agua Pura Natural, a social enterprise to provide clean, affordable water in her native Philippines.
During the first panel on the realities and illusions of entrepreneurship, Bacallo urged entrepreneurs ‘to become extremely uncomfortable’ about problems preventing people around the world from enjoying a life of health and equal opportunity.
“I think this is something we might want all to think about a little bit more when we look for new business ideas and models,” El Agamy Khan says.
“Not to forget that there are large amounts of people in this world who still don’t have basic necessities, and there’s a way for you to provide solutions and build your business around those solutions at the same time, not to shy away from these ideas thinking that everyone has to create Facebook or Apple.
“Don’t get me wrong, these are fantastic companies but unicorn happens once in a while. A unicorn cannot happen in every generation. And mostly the ones [companies] that don’t have a registered license are doing essential services to their communities.
“That needs to get acknowledged and that eventually will need to get more support, and that counts for across the globe, not at all just for the region.”
It is those people that the UAE has already pledged ‘not to leave behind’ in a speech of Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE Minister of Development and International Cooperation, delivered at the Sustainable Development Goals 2015 Summit in New York in late September.
Coinciding with the photo exhibition, the Mohammad Bin Rashid Global Initiatives Foundation was launched in mid-October, aiming to reach 130 million people over the next 10 years with an annual budget of Dhs1 billion.
Targeting 116 countries, the foundation will focus on four key areas – spreading knowledge, combating poverty, empowering communities, and innovation for the future.
“What I see in the region is that there is a very strong return to values,” says El Agamy Khan. “And a very strong urge to preserve history, handcraft, and protecting what binds us to our culture. I see this emerging very fast.
“And it’s going to be very interesting to see how they combine this urge to preserve our tradition with the high tech aspects, and how this combination will hopefully bring out the best in both.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong in bringing in the values of tradition into the way we see technology. It can help preserve each other and help each other grow in the right direction.
“We will see, I think, that our region becomes a model of how tradition and progress go hand in hand.”