Spreading the word

Social entrepreneurship could be a fix for the Arab world’s vast youth unemployment problem, says Emirati businesswoman Muna Al Gurg

As a child, Muna Al Gurg would listen eagerly to her father discussing his philanthropic projects and ideas with his peers. She would hear him brainstorming about digging wells in villages where people suffered water shortages, with photos of drought-hit areas strewn across the table in front of him, or conferring over which scholarships to invest in to gain the most impact. These childhood experiences shaped her adult perceptions of the importance of giving and of developing a solutions-led mindset.

“My father was always the driving force behind these projects, many of which started happening many decades ago,” says Al Gurg. “It was a natural progression for me to also be passionate about philanthropy.”

While her full-time job is running the retail unit of her family’s conglomerate, Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, philanthropy has always been part of her wider family’s philosophy, she says. It enabled the 40-year-old Emirati to get involved early on in the family’s namesake foundation’s projects, from providing scholarships to building clinics and schools around the world. Al Gurg says she derives immense satisfaction from seeing students graduate, as a result of a scholarship she funded. She recently began working with the American University of Beirut on a programme to sponsor gifted young refugees from the Syrian camps.

“These are people whose fathers are construction workers perhaps, and who are one of six to seven kids. When I see that someone is on that scholarship and it’s going to make a huge difference in impacting the family when these people graduate, it’s really something that I enjoy doing,” she says.

One project close to her heart began four years ago, when the Al Gurg Foundation built a school in the village of Bwejuu in Zanzibar, Tanzania. She proposed the project to the foundation, of which she is a board member, and supervised it from start to finish.

“This particular village didn’t have a school that took kids beyond grade four.Kids would reach grade four and go back to grade three because they didn’t have schooling to go beyond that,” she says. “Now, there are over 300 kids from the village getting a very good education from the Tanzanian curriculum.”

The foundation went a step further, facilitating teacher training and looking at sustainable ways of keeping the project going and creating more jobs for teachers at the school. The new school teaches children until grade seven, or age 14, and has a large library space, a computer lab and students quarters – a stark contrast to the previous shabby structure where children didn’t have tables or chairs and sat on the floor during class.

“The mindset of going beyond charity is something that is regionally nascent”

While Al Gurg continues to work with her family’s foundation, which focuses on education and healthcare, her activities over the years have come to focus on helping the region’s social entrepreneurs. Her introduction to the sector came when she read a book authored by The Acumen Fund founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz, which describes her struggles and triumphs living in Africa. “I was blown away and inspired by what she does. To me, Jacqueline Novogratz is the pioneer of social entrepreneurship and pioneer in her field,” she says.

The book prompted her to look at philanthropy in a different light. “I really wanted to contribute to the social entrepreneurial scene because for me it was the idea of not just giving out handouts, but creating jobs and long-term sustainable projects that really appealed,” she explains. “The mindset of going beyond charity is something that is regionally nascent.”

Al Gurg subsequently met Novogratz and became an investor and partner in the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit social venture capital firm that uses entrepreneurship to tackle challenges arising from poverty in developing countries. Through Acumen, Al Gurg helped support projects and job creation in a number of communities. The fund, which claims to have impacted 100 million lives, collects donations and makes small equity and credit investments in entrepreneurial projects and businesses that help poor communities. One example is the Duterimbere bakery that Novogratz helped build in Rwanda, after finding a group of influential women to support it and teaching a group of single mothers the core business skills to run it. The project changed the women’s lives by offering them financial security and improving their confidence.

“I think every individual has a responsibility towards the community, country and the greater world they live in, and I believe when people have reached a certain stage in their career, their life, it’s really important to think about contributing back and creating an impact in the world,” Al Gurg says.

“Charity is important here, but there’s charity 2.0, which is taking it to the next level and thinking about sustainable projects”

Acumen’s approach appeals to Al Gurg, who advocates for a new form of charity that is not passive and empowers the receiver. “A mind shift needs to happen, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region. Charity is important here, but there’s charity 2.0, which is taking it to the next level and thinking about sustainable projects,” she says. “The region needs more social entrepreneurship and we need to concentrate on it because of our high levels of unemployment. This could be one of the biggest solutions.”

As a board member of Emirates Foundation, a philanthropic organisation set up by the government of Abu Dhabi, Al Gurg is an integral part of a team that works to foster social entrepreneurship initiatives across the Arab world. In November, the foundation presented the Emirates Award for the Arabian Gulf Youth to three winners from the GCC, with each receiving incubation grants to help them get their projects off the ground. The award was launched in July last year, with the aim of encouraging youth in the GCC to compete to find scalable solutions to social challenges.

The award stemmed from a rise in requests from youth with social enterprise businesses or ideas, which lacked funding. Al Gurg was part of the judging panel, shortlisting the ideas and picking the winners. “We had an influx of hundreds of people from all over the Gulf coming in with their ideas and each had a social aspect to it,” she says. “It was really interesting to see how young people are thinking along those lines. A lot of the ideas were super interesting – some tackled issues related to obesity and [protecting] the environment.”

The winners, who received a grant of AED100,000 ($27,224), were the UAE’s Mashaal Al-Marzooqi and Saeed Al Nazari. Their project, Factory of Dreams, is a crowdfunding website dedicated to helping young entrepreneurs from low-income backgrounds.

Al Gurg’s responsibilities do not end here. As the chairwoman of Young Arab Leaders UAE, she provides guidance and mentoring to young entrepreneurs in the region. While doing so, she stresses to them the importance of social impact and believes local startup incubators ought to do the same.

One of her favourite local projects is Maska, a gift-wrapping store in Dubai that uses fabric rather than paper. Launched by Emirati Fatma Al Khoori, Maska gave rise to The Sewing Machine Initiative, which helps women from poorer families earn an income for their children’s education by sizing and hemming the fabric Maska uses from home.

“The mindset is changing. Young people are thinking more along the lines of social enterprise,” Al Gurg says.

However, youth also need support in the form of legislation that allows them to set up social ventures, she adds. What’s more, the education system can “facilitate and educate young people on community and giving back”, she says. While this is a topic Emirates Foundation is addressing, through various initiatives targeting the education system, more needs to be done.

“More schools need to adopt that way of thinking. Like any other normal business, social entrepreneurs need role models. We need to keep communicating about these new ideas and why they are important, so people understand the results of social enterprise,” she explains.

When it comes to role models within her family, Al Gurg’s eldest sister Raja has been a great inspiration to her. Raja Al Gurg is the managing director of the family business, a philanthropist, and someone “who has managed to do a lot and keep the balance between being a good leader, a good mother and grandmother,” she says.

Al Gurg wants to continue inspiring and helping Gulf youth. Her message to them is direct: “Stay focused on your end goal. Creating a business is important, but creating a business that also impacts society is even more important,” she says. “Keep that in mind when working on an idea because that will impact your entire community and the people living in it.”