Abeer Abu Ghaith
Founder & CEO of MENA Alliances Group
Abeer Abu Ghaith – founder of MENA alliances – creates jobs beyond borders. Abeer’s career path is breathtaking. Not only did she create a life for herself in very difficult circumstances but at the same time she generates job opportunities for other young people who have trouble finding work due to restrictive political systems or as a cause of exploitation in their immanent environment. She is an ambitious entrepreneur from the Middle East who attained her degree in computer system engineering and her master’s degree in business innovation and entrepreneurship. Regardless of her living circumstances in Palestine and what the conservative societal system expected from her – she never quit believing in herself and her skills. Having experienced unemployment herself as a highly qualified women she decided to tackle that issue and give back to the community she comes from. Needless to say, that we are thrilled to be talking to her and having her share insights into her entrepreneurial experience and life!
Q: Hi Abeer, you are amongst the 100 most powerful Arabs under 40. How did you get there?
A: Good question. How did I get there? Hard work. Hard, hard work and passion! I founded MENA alliances, it is a for-profit company which underlies a powerful social mission, namely, to empower young people to find job opportunities. At the same time MENA alliances helps companies to become more innovative in the technology sector. The company offers remote system solutions e.g. for companies in the US and Europe and employs people from Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine.
Q: Considering your whole career path, what would you consider your biggest challenge?
A: Actually, the biggest challenge throughout my whole life are the political challenges around me. I’ve been living in very tough places. Living in Palestine means checkpoints and occupation, permanent restriction on movement. This has effects on me as a woman as well as on me as a young person looking for job opportunities. The political situation and the region affect the market. It makes the market very limited and unemployment rates are extremely high. Other challenges for me are cultural and social challenges: the way people look at women in my society. When I was young I heard people many times questioning why I was studying since they expected my future in my husband’s kitchen. They also supposed it was useless to study hard because in the end I would never work. My family belongs to a very conservative culture. They don’t expect anything from a woman except raising the children. In their eyes that’s the ultimate purpose of being alive but to me it was not like that. When I was young I believed that I am a woman, I have a life, I have a message and that I should deliver this message to make the world better; I have never accepted their presupposition.
Q: What made you go in this direction?
A: It’s about faith. It’s something regarding faith, something regarding my religion. As a human being we should always work to make the world better. These words stayed with me my whole life. When I was very young, we had a teacher in the morning and the teacher told us that regardless of being a boy or a girl we have a message to tell. She had a big impact on us. We shouldn’t listen to anyone who told us otherwise. I internalized these words. I knew I had a message and I should find this message. I am so happy that now, I know exactly what my message is and what my goal is in life.
Regardless of being a boy or a girl we have a message to tell.
Q: Now that you have built your own company – what do you like most about your current job and role within your company?
A: Actually, what I love about my company and what I had to fight hard for to make it successful is the impact on people’s lives, especially on women’s. When I see how my work generates this impact, it gives me the courage to compete even if my way is really hard.
Q: You already hinted at motivation – what else motivates you?
A: I experienced unemployment for two years after my graduation. It was two years of just staying at home despite that I got my degree. No one wanted to give me an opportunity and no one believed in me. That created fire inside of me. I felt that it was not fair. It was a very tough experience: for me as a person who wants to contribute to the world and doesn’t get any opportunity to do so – and for me as a woman because I see that there is a lot of discrimination against us. I think that no one should have to go through this kind of experience because work is one of the main parts of people’s lives. If you don’t feel that you are productive, you will not feel valued. If you don’t feel valued you will have this negative energy inside of you. Thus, I think that everyone deserves these kinds of opportunities. Especially the people who have passion, who have talent and who want to work. Unleashing the potential of young people and women is really important. It means that we can make our community better. This motivates me all the time that I can provide this opportunity. Whenever somebody tells me that they can’t find work and feel depressed about it, I fully understand them.
Unleashing the potential of young people and women is really important. It means that we can make our community better.
Q: You were unemployed for two years. When was the first time you thought about starting your own company?
A: Actually, after two years of unemployment I did get job opportunities and then it was not hard for me anymore to show people how qualified I am in my work. I was very fast in developing my career. In just three years I became the program manager of the program for enhancing women leadership in the Middle East and North Africa. I worked with international organizations and I traveled a lot. I saw a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of women and I found that there was a recurring, similar challenge. Namely, how to engage more women in the labor market. The percentage of women participation in the labor market is very low, despite having a high percentage of educated women. There was this challenge and I thought about in which ways I could use technology to solve this challenge. I thought about my values and what I imagined my future to be like. I thought about what I would lose if I failed in that project and I found that I would not lose anything. I would just have to search for a job again but at that time I had already gathered experience so I knew I could find one. I decided that I would give myself one year to try the model and I took the decision to resign from my job and to start my own business.
Q: The inspiration to found your own business roots in the high unemployment rate?
A: Yes, in the region and community I live in; and seeing a lot of talented people suffering from not working. Their hopes and dreams are killed.
Q: You described how you made your decision to found your own company, it seems very clear-structured – but what was the reaction of your environment like?
A: Let me just clarify something. What I told you about the process – that’s between me and myself. If I am not clear in that, the reaction of discouraging people around me will just make me doubt myself. Everyone in my surroundings thought I was crazy. They thought it was irrational to quit my job and come back home. My salary at that time was high and even some organizations who supported entrepreneurship told me that most of the startups don’t succeed. But because I had thought it through with myself, it was not difficult for me to remain firm. This is life, if I don’t try it now when will I try it?
Q: So basically, all the reactions were negative?
A: All of them were very negative but inside of me I always believed that there is potential. I realized that there are a lot of projects that are trying to solve that issue but they can’t because they don’t focus on the roots of the problem. That’s why I decided to take a try and see. I believed that I could do it. I’m a risk-taker and I like to work on something that I believe in. I think the main challenge is to believe in whether you make a difference or not. If you believe in it you can do it then no one can make you hesitate from your decision. If you don’t truly believe discouraging people will get a hold of you.
Q: Did I get that right that you moved back to your family when you started your business?
A: Yes I did. I want to prove for all women that it is not about where you are and that it is not about how much you have. Even if the society restricts you in a specific location, you can change the world from your position. With the internet and technology, everything is possible. You can sell any products, basically make it in your home and sell it around the world.
It is not about where you are and that it is not about how much you have. Even if the society restricts you in a specific location, you can change the world from your position.
Q: Abeer, is there something you would do if you weren’t afraid?
A: Let’s put it in a different way. I believe that even the bad times gave me lessons for life. I remember that in the first year after I established my company I had problems with my partner. I didn’t select the perfect partner for my business but after all, it was a really great experience for me because I learned how to select my partners in the future. I learned from it. Whatever you do in your life, whether it leads you to success or failure, it will help you.
Q: How would you select your business partner now?
A: I would select them based on their passion for the idea and based on what I don’t have. You should pick after what contributes to your business. Who is willing to resign from his/her job to join you? You need someone on your side who stays with you and fights with you.
Q: What does it mean to be a founder?
A: First of all, you need to have the intrinsic passion. You need to be a risk-taker. You need to work hard and spend many nights just working. You also need to realize that it’s not easy. It means hard work. Further, you should also be a good networker and have the consistency. If it were easy, all people would be founders.
Q: Do you have any advice on networking?
A: I didn’t get any fund or investment from anyone. My company depends on the revenue we generate and to get revenues I depend mainly on networking. It’s really crucial in any business. Using social media was the main part in the beginning; attending conferences and networking with people there. I also attended workshops. You should be open-minded, speak with others and hear their feedback on your business. I used to take it personally when someone gave me feedback, but now I appreciate any one who is being honest with me. I embrace constructive feedback because it will make me better the next day. If you are not confident about your idea how do you expect others to trust you, your products or your company?Whenever someone thought my business model would not work I asked them why they thought so and kept working on it. Just take the constructive feedback and let the others behind.
I embrace constructive feedback because it will make me better the next day. If you are not confident about your idea how do you expect others to trust you, your products or your company?
Q: Do you think people can learn the skills you mentioned: confidence, risk taking, open-mindedness….?
A: Of course, they can learn these skills. I didn’t have the skills when I was young. It is something you can train yourself in. Public speaking for instance, I was rehearsing and practicing in front of the mirror and it helped. I am still doing that to see how I can use my hands and my expressions effectively. Also, negotiations are very important for a founder because you need to sit with a lot of clients; you will learn that it’s even the small things that are important, such as taking in space when you sit. You need to teach yourself these skills.
Q: Is passion something you can learn?
A: Passion is not a skill, it is something from inside of you and you believe in it.
Q: Do you think you would be in a different position if you were a man?
A: Yes, I would be in a totally different position. Even if women are qualified we still face discrimination. Often it is hidden, it is what is called the glass ceiling effect. There are people who invite you but if you want to join their team they will not accept you. Some men feel that women, or ambitious women, are a threat to them. They don’t want them on their teams because they know that they might reach for a higher position as well and are skilled. I think the phenomenon of the glass ceiling exists globally, not just in my region, it is a challenge women face worldwide.
Q: How do you deal with this challenge?
A: Usually, I try to be confident about my capabilities, I don’t give them the opportunity to make me feel low. I prove myself through the work and that is what I do all the time. I show results, and bring proof.
Q: What skill helped you to succeed in boy’s club?
A: Negotiation and networking. A lot of networking happens after the work. Networking is crucial and women must work on that to develop their businesses and to develop their careers. Developing themselves all the time is important, e.g. in the technology sector you need to be up to date with the skills that the market needs. It is a life-learning process. Plus, the knowledge has effects on our confidence and confidence is crucial in a sector like the tech industry which is very men-dominated. So, negotiation, networking and knowledge.
Knowledge has effects on our confidence
Q: Why do you think there is so few women entrepreneurs in the tech field?
A: Right now more and more women are entering the sector but it might be because women have the perception that the tech field is difficult and witness the stereotyping of people working in tech. Another thing is that the sector is working very fast so there is a need to work on yourself all the time. The sector is men-dominated so women are afraid to enter the market because they fear they won’t get the support that they want. And there is the fear of the glass ceiling in big companies.
Q: What needs to be changed in this sector to make it more attractive for women?
A: I think we need to have more role models in this field and to publish more awareness about what it means to be in the IT sector; what it means to be a woman working in an IT sector. We have to show more what the future is working within this kind of sector. We need to make awareness workshops about opportunities that exist in the IT sector.
Q: Do you have advice for women who want to enter the field?
A: They should keep developing their skills and be up to date – that will give them confidence. The other thing is they should find a mentor or role model in the sector so they can follow, learn and exchange thoughts. I think this role model is important for any woman who wants to reach a decision-making position. Mentor-wise it doesn’t matter whether it’s a woman or a man. I feel so blessed for my mentors. Talking about advice, once again, networking is very important because that is how men usually get to decision making positions. They promote others from their networks and that gives them confidence. At MENA alliances we have amazing women working in tech and programming. Usually I interview our talents and when I ask them how they evaluate their experience in this field they downgrade themselves. If I ask a guy, he assures me that he’s the best. When we let them take a test, women take higher scores than men but evaluate themselves lower. I don’t know why this happens but it does. I take this as a learning.
Q: If you had to describe the tech industry in three words, which ones would you choose?
A: Innovative. Aggressive. Ambitious.
Q: Last but not least: when you were 20 years old, did you imagine yourself in a similar position in which you are today?
A: Honestly, what I have achieved up until now is totally far from what I had expected when I was young. I was actually interested in politics. I didn’t have any kind of desire to study anything in the IT sector. I didn’t expect to have created a company. I didn’t expect myself in this position. It is more than what I dreamed of.
Q: And where do you see yourself next year?
A: I see myself having opened more channels in Europe and serving companies to become more innovative in the technology sector. At the same time, I will continue to offer job opportunities for more women and young people. Further, reaching out to more countries in which people have difficulties in finding job opportunities, e.g. Yemen, Syria and other countries living hard times.
Q: All the best in your endeavors. Thank you so much Abeer!