Climbing for a cause
At 32, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Thani has found his calling. He combines his passion for mountain climbing with a zeal for philanthropy – and now he is encouraging other Gulf nationals to follow suit.
The Qatari youth, who lives in the UAE, believes giving should start at a young age with children being taught the value of volunteering. “It has been a big part of my life since I was in school. It’s a part of the way I live. You have to give back with whatever you do,” he says.
Al Thani’s most recent expedition was in October last year, when he led 12 Qataris to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The group, comprised of six men and six women, raised QR2.2m (about $604,180) in donations to improve and rebuild schools in Gaza.
Al Thani describes himself as an entrepreneur, mountaineer, philanthropist, photographer and sportsman. He is also the co-founder of UAE-based travel portal Musafir.com, named for the Arabic word for traveller. His goal is to climb the seven highest summits on the world’s seven continents, and to campaign for projects in deprived and war-struck countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen and Syria.
The funds he raises are funneled to Reach Out To Asia (ROTA), a Qatar-based non-profit organisation, of which he is brand ambassador. ROTA works globally to raise awareness that education is a right for all. The organisation has been operating in Palestine since 2007 and plans to help build and restore 22 schools in the besieged Gaza Strip.
“When you are climbing for a cause, you are climbing for something greater than yourself,” says Al Thani. “When you are tired, when you are slow, when you think of giving up, you’re not thinking about yourself, but about those who depend on your climb or those who support you to climb. It gives me that drive and extra push to keep going.”
The first Qatari to reach the top of the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, in 2013, Al Thani hopes a growing number of Gulf Arab youth will join his adventures or take up volunteering of their own. It all boils down to education, he says.
“[Schools] should have students volunteer at a young age,” he says. “Learning to give at a younger age is much easier than learning to give when you’re older.”
Clothing with conscience
Shahd AlShehail, 29, strives to bring ethics into fashion by helping brands and consumers to better understand how and where clothing is made. Using her online platform, Just, she tells the stories behind each garment – where the material came from, the worker that made it – allowing designers and buyers to trace the history of their clothing through the supply chain, and make more conscientious choices.
Dubai-based AlShehail grew up in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region of Al Hasa, a town she describes as “full of culture, natural resources and most importantly an interconnected community”. From a young age, she recognised the power of business as a source for good. After a short stint in the corporate world in the US, she returned to Saudi seeking to become a social entrepreneur.
“I felt if I truly believed in the power of business to alleviate poverty, bring dignity and create social good I needed to be on the ground doing the work and seeing what value I could add,” says AlShehail.
She began working with cooperatives to create a sustainable market for their products, before returning to the US to undertake an MBA in entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins University. As part of the programme, she worked in Rwanda, Turkey and Armenia.
While in Rwanda, AlShehail saw firsthand the bureaucracy and dependency aid could create. One night, sitting in her hotel room in Kigali, she began re-reading The Blue Sweater, a book by Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz. The story inspired her to seek out new ways to tackle poverty and social issues, and to join Acumen, a global non-profit organisation that raises funds to invest in ideas, companies and people who seek to end poverty.
AlShehail became the first Arab female to join the Acumen fellowship, going on to spend a year in India helping to scale one of the nonprofit’s investee companies. She then teamed up with Acumen fellow, Natalie Grillon, to develop Just.
“In the complexity of fashion supply chains, it’s easy to hide human rights abuses and destructive environmental practices. Supply chains hide good and bad actors in obscurity as seen in everyday abuses,” she says. Examples of such abuses include the exploitation of 168 million child labourers globally, resource overuse and unsafe operations, leading to incidents such as the explosion at the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than 1,200 workers.
Through Just, AlShehail hopes to bring transparency to the industry by using realtime stories, photos and data from suppliers to reconnect consumers with the products they buy. “With transparency comes accountability. Accountability of the supplier, of the brand and of the consumer,” she says.
AlShehail’s goal is to improve millions of lives touched by the industry. This year, Just aims to work with 50 suppliers, impacting 4,000 lives through increased access to global markets, improvements in wages and the freedom to speak up.
“In an interconnected universe, one’s action in one place can directly impact another’s in a different place,” she says.
Do good, do well
Sharifa Al Barami cites an upbringing that involved living in numerous countries as a key influence in her decision to pursue social enterprise. The 37-year-old Omani was born to a diplomat father, and lived in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, the UK and Oman, where she is now based.
“I am what we call the third-culture kid, from all over. I think this really helped with social entrepreneurship because you develop this resilience and understanding of global issues rather than just a local or regional perspective,” Al Barami says.
After graduating in medical sciences from Portsmouth University, she returned to Oman to work in the public sector for seven years. To her parents’ alarm, she then quit her job to start Al Jazeera Training, a coaching and consultancy firm for aspiring entrepreneurs. Eight years later, Al Barami is a driving force in the sultanate’s budding start-up scene.
“It’s about the lessons learnt and trying to make it easier for others to start up. In the first five years of launching a company, I learned as much as I did in 20 years going through the education system,” she says.
Al Barami realised early on that hydrocarbon-based economies such as Oman needed a sustainable ecosystem to help entrepreneurs and the wider economy thrive, eventually turning to corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds in the sultanate to help support her consultancy’s activities. When she convinced fertilizer company OMIFCO to allocate the biggest chunk of its CSR funds to creating a locally-tailored start-up accelerator, Cell was born. The country’s first such initiative, Cell offers support, mentorship and funding of up to $20,000 to local startups.
Taking it a step further, Al Barami converted part of her office space in 2013 to create BizHub to serve entrepreneurs who needed working space but couldn’t afford fully-fledged offices. Entrepreneurs could rent spaces, use office facilities and equipment for as little as OR50 ($130) per month. It was a “win-win situation”, she says, as she could also hire their services and many of them provided a cheaper and better alternative to larger firms.
Such activities help Al Barami assist those wanting to become producers in their community, not just consumers.
“Oil is a blessing but also a curse in disguise, if we don’t invest it in the correct way,” says Al Barami. “I cannot comprehend the notion of unemployment. You have no excuse nowadays not to work on something.”
Al Barami spends a lot of her time providing pro bono mentoring, assisting startups, but also learning from their struggles in the marketplace. Through education and upbringing, future generations can be taught to “fend for themselves” and help create a sustainable community, she says.
“You either choose to wait for handouts or create and then give some,” she explains. “The more you create, the more you want to give away. That makes the difference because you don’t care how much money you have in the bank but how many people you can help.”
An army for good
Fresh out of university, bursting with energy and eager to serve their community, Khalifa Bin Hendi and Ayesha Saeed Harib founded a volunteering initiative to encourage young Emiratis to give back to society and use their energy for the greater good. It marked the beginning of 1971team.
One of the group’s first social initiatives originated from a spontaneous tweet, following the UAE’s 40th National Day celebrations in 2011, recalls Bin Hendi. The streets were littered with remnants of celebratory activities and in dire need of cleaning. One of Bin Hendi’s colleagues took to Twitter one evening to complain, suggesting, “Shall we clean up the roads tomorrow?”
The clean-up attracted people from all walks of life – Emiratis, expatriates, tourists, young and old. The morning started with a group of 15 people and reached some 250 as the day ended, gaining support through Twitter, word of mouth and instant messaging.
“It was huge. This had never happened in Dubai before, getting youth together overnight to do something social and help the workers,” says Bin Hendi.
To Bin Hendi’s surprise and excitement, Dubai’s ruler and prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, lent his support to the initiative with a tweet, thanking the youth who took part in the clean-up.
“A move by us, a couple of young social workers, was noticed and supported by the leadership,” Bin Hendi says. “We saw we were entering a new era where we could be influential.”
It was a trigger for the founders to formalise 1971team’s activities, creating an organisational structure with teams and departments, and setting up an office. The group has since worked with the elderly, labour workers and cancer patients across the UAE.
In London, Bin Hendi’s studies and Harib’s internship at Google helped them gain a better understanding of social enterprise and realise such initiatives were lacking at home. The pair sought to register 1971team at the Dubai Department of Economic Development, a process that proved challenging.
“We were informed there was no such thing as social enterprise as a category to register. We waited and kept at it until they created it,” he says. Often, people still confuse their work for charity, a perception Bin Hendi is trying to change. “This isn’t charity. This is social work; awareness, community service.”
At 23, Bin Hendi, who comes from a family with interests in retail, runs his own travel agency and a retail franchise in the UAE. He is a strong proponent of business and social entrepreneurship, saying firms ought to invest a percentage of their profits for social impact. His current projects seek to do just that. These include creating a space for social entrepreneurs, designers and creatives to come together and pitch ideas, serving as an incubator. Also in the works is a café named after 1971team, with any profit to be funneled back into the enterprise to fund social projects in the UAE.
Another undertaking is The Book Joint, an electronic moving library for patients across hospitals in the UAE, inspired by the team’s work with patients. The initiative, which is sponsored by Dubai Culture and Dubai Health Authority, will feature a unit with e-books for adults and children, as well as two screens for documentaries and gaming. It will start with Latifa Hospital in Dubai in April.
Bin Hendi hopes to create more awareness of community work among the youth. “We need their support. We want them to be serious about this and give their time to these things,” he says.