It was the last day of one of the most impactful courses I was enrolled in at Stanford Graduate School of Business and it’s the day I had been dreading, yet very much looking forward to. Each student had to tell their story in life and why they were leaders and agents of change within their own little world, within the society and within the entire world. What each and every one went through in their own personal lives to be able to study at Stanford and stand before a Stanford class on that day to tell the story was simply beyond belief.
All of the classes leading up to this last class prepared us for that moment via high impact guest speakers and inspiring stories from other students; so inspiring to the extent that their strength and depth were celebrated in tears and rounds of applause. It was now my turn to go in front of the whole class and tell my own story. The story of someone who was expelled from 3 schools, decided to go study in Canada while taking breaks to pay for his own tuition, and eventually found his way into social entrepreneurship after he lived through major events like September 11th while in Canada…and that is just the short version of the story.
As I stood there at the podium, I could remember each and every story that was told by people who stood in that same spot throughout the semester. The struggles faced by each, the depth of the characters and the fortitude demonstrated by each and every one of them from people who watched their parent take their own life to people who slept on the streets to be able to make it in life. As my mind started digesting all of the stories, I was overwhelmed trying to remember how come these stories seemed all so familiar. I could swear I heard them before somewhere…I had seen that strength and I had felt these emotions of awe before, and then it all came together; I had lived very similar stories with kids in the slum area of Manshiet Nasser in Egypt! The stories at Stanford and in Manshiet Nasser had the same rawness, the same passion for learning, the same love for life, and most importantly, the same unmatchable desire to start something new to change the world and have an unprecedented impact.
Manshiet Nasser is where the social enterprise I founded, The Nebny Foundation for Development, carries out its projects. Nebny was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, for why I got accepted into Master’s programs at both Harvard and Stanford. One of the foundation’s main projects is primary education. According to the most recent 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report, Egypt ranks 139th out of 140 with regards to the quality of its primary education and unfortunately it’s no surprise.
Third, fourth and fifth graders who cannot even read let alone write their own names are promoted to higher academic levels and quite often most end up graduating from high school without the ability to form a comprehensible sentence. This is why Nebny had taken on the responsibility of taking these youngsters in for 3 hours after the regular school day to teach them basic reading and writing in addition to ethics and sports during the intermissions. Although it only costs $30 to educate a child, many children get left behind.
Despite being uneducated, these children and many of their older siblings have surprised me with their passion for learning, change and their desire to create something with an impact. They have a constant desire to create, curate, explore, and learn through trial and error.
The children at Nebny started learning Robotics and won the “Best Teamwork” award in the First Lego League Robotics Competition. Through a cooperation with TeenPreneurs , they started taking entrepreneurship classes and getting hands on experience in the business world and discussing their work’s worth in terms of equity, assets, investments, proposals, and everything else they can offer the business world, instead of only focusing on what the business world can offer them.
The roads between Manshiet Nasser and elite schools seemed to have become even much shorter and much more possible than before, after my two trips to Egypt with two of my Harvard professors from whom I’ve learnt a lot, Kenneth Marc Strzepek and Lant Pritchett. Children and youngsters who were once unaware of the presence of a world outside their 5.54 square kilometers neighborhood, with some effort, could now learn directly from world renowned professors online and could travel to different countries and learn about different topics without even leaving the premises through partnerships with entities like Saffarni, Heya Masr Foundation and Girl Power. These youngsters were gradually realizing that impossible is nothing and that even the sky was not strong enough or far enough to be their limit; they are unstoppable intellectually and they had the intention to bring about change to themselves and to others.
These kids are what is known today as “invisible entrepreneurs”. This term was coined to refer to those in developing countries who have started projects that are entrepreneurial in nature – according to today’s Western standards – to save themselves from poverty but whose efforts continue to be unrecognized and it’s not because they don’t possess the necessary ideas or talents. They are rarely known and they do not have the typical profile of those who appear at the Skoll Forum for instance. Typically, the social entrepreneurship arena with its forums and publications usually gives due recognition and appreciation to the A-class MBA holders or those who are “elite” enough to make it into the exclusive club of entrepreneurship.
On the contrary, those who are underserved and do not possess the monetary means to go big are those who go through hell and high water to stay alive because their survival depends on innovativeness and ability to come up with creative, high-impact solutions for existing problems. In other words, the age old saying of “Necessity is the mother of invention” rings true in this particular case because the poor can never settle for being consumers and waiting for solutions offered by outsiders. They have come to realize that if they do not save themselves, nobody else will. Based on my own experience in slum areas in Egypt, I have come to realize from my observations that the poor have developed a need to become more proactive and to actively participate in improving their own lives.
Throughout years of work in Manshiet Nasser, it has become clearer and clearer that these “invisible entrepreneurs” only seek survival and this is probably the strongest motive for any social enterprise to take shape. They don’t necessarily study social enterprise; they might have even never heard of the term before. Nonetheless, they have an innate motive to be self-starters. They can’t be found in forums or seminars or congresses because they’re usually out there on the ground fighting to survive. This is why quite often more than never those fighters enjoy zero visibility in the entrepreneurship arena because their ultimate objective is neither PR nor fame and they usually do not fit the typical entrepreneurial profile that has been drawn by society. Their initiatives may not be featured in TechCrunch or Forbes, nonetheless, they manage to contribute in immense ways to the development of their surrounding environments and societies.
Realistically speaking, this group of “invisible entrepreneurs” is the only one that can successfully tackle issues of poverty owing to their hands-on experience in that field. We are talking about people who have been through it all, have seen it all and have had to make it through it all. They have a lot of knowledge with regards to what needs to be done and how it can be done and hence are the most qualified and most passionate to take the lead in the implementation of projects within their societies. For instance, children and youngsters in Manshiet Nasser have so much passion for learning and bringing about change that on multiple occasions we have found them sleeping at the NGO’s doorstep as early as 6 AM for a class or session that starts at 8 AM. These youngsters are in the best of times with regards to how much potential they have but are in the worst of times with regards to the amount of attention granted to them; the equation is not equal by any means.
By looking back through history, it can easily be noticed that similar to our children in Manshiet Nasser, those who made the biggest difference were those who had the “blessing of suffering” as Middle Eastern entrepreneur Dr. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh puts it. The list of such people includes Othman Ahmed Othman, owner of the leading construction company in Egypt (The Arab Contractors), who had his university tuition fees waived owing to his extreme poverty at one point, Karrus Hayes who is a Liberian refugee and the founder of “Vision Awake” Africa For Development, and Dr. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh who was a penniless Palestinian refugee and eventually founded Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org) just to name a few.
Although the aforementioned entrepreneurs were faced with highly challenging circumstances, they still had their most important resource; the drive to succeed. They didn’t wait for the chance to be rescued, instead, they took the lead to save themselves and others by utilizing their desires, resources and abilities thus forcing those around them to look past their conditions and to take very good notice of their abilities.
In a recent research conducted in the MENA region on the main obstacles for social entrepreneurship, 70% percent said inability to obtain finance was number one followed by 45% mentioning inability to self-finance as number 2 and 24% stating that fear of failure was the 3rd leading reason. This is why efforts by local and international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the Grassroots Business Fund, the Acumen Fund, Village Capital, Grey Ghost Ventures, and Root Capital and Willow Impact Investors should be utilized and those with the desire and drive to change should be encouraged to further engage such large institutions in their endeavors.
Similarly and in conclusion, the inclusion of such “invisible entrepreneurs” in entrepreneurship conferences should be focused on the return of investment in these people who regard their ability to advance in life by solving problems as a privilege is much bigger than that of investing in others who regard their ability to advance in life as an entitlement.