Tell us about your entrepreneurial product or service.
I have had a very non-linear career path, characterized by personal disruption. Everything I have done has been very entrepreneurial in a broad sense. Sometimes that has manifested itself in the establishment of a new business (four times, to be exact), but sometimes not. But I prefer to see entrepreneurship as a continuum, not a black-or-white. Truth be told, I prefer to work within business structures. But I am an entrepreneur, even when I haven't started up my own company. I have always been drawn to startup organizations; I have never been in a position that someone has held before me. What I am really good at, is working with visionaries to give “legs” to their ideas. I am a great “yang” to their “yin.” Organizations naturally need to fluctuate between a production (strive for perfection / consistency / reliability) and an innovation (dream, try, fail, repeat) paradigm. Startups need to develop solid processes, and sometimes established organizations need to infuse their operations with fresh, startup-like thinking and ideas. I am good at challenging the status quo and operationalizing change, in either case.
By “startups” I am not just talking about new business ventures. I currently work for a startup university in Saudi Arabia. It was launched in 2009 and I joined the Economic Development department in 2010, working in technology transfer. Technology transfer means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In the context of a university it means facilitating the practical application of the results of scientific research, so, for example, discovery of a new substance in the lab can eventually become a life-saving drug. Beyond the general public benefit mandate, my University is driven by a bold economic development mission. What that means for me, is that our partners are predominantly Saudi companies.
Many people ask me “why Saudi Arabia?” Despite the stereotype, it isn't about money. We aren't compensated over-generously. When I was in college I ended up finishing a Russian Soviet Studies major and working in the field for two decades. What attracted me to that region, was that it was the “big” problem of the day. Back then, the world was bipolar: the communist bloc and the capitalist “West.” I worked in “Cooperative Threat Reduction” space, much of the time based in Moscow. I was involved in a part of that multilateral effort aimed at avoiding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction expertise, through engagement and redirection of researchers' skills and talents. I worked with a lot of great high-tech entrepreneurs during that time.
Also during that time, I earned my Masters of Science Degree in Technology Commercialization. I had come to see science and technology to be both the lingua franca for fostering international cooperation, as well as harboring the opportunity for solving the world's biggest problems like food and water, energy and the environment. Post-9/11 extremism emanating from the Arab world was perceived as the “big” issue. That brought me to Saudi Arabia to a brand new university that seeks to be a beacon of progress and catalyst of change in the region. I am drawn to being a little piece of the solution to big problems.
What inspired you to launch your business idea?
I am not quite sure exactly what my “business idea” is yet, except that it involves girl's education and women's empowerment. Science and technological progress isn't a panacea. Shortly after I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I happened to read Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. That coincided with my starting-up the local Girl Scout council at the university, and internalizing what I had previously only known in my head about gender issues in the country. Here's the quote from Three Cups of Tea:
CAI [Central Asia Institute] schools should… focus on the enrollment of girls. ‘Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities…. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned.’ If you really want to change a culture, to empower women… the answer is to educate girls.
I am not a teacher, and other than raising my own teenage daughters, I thought about what else I could do that would truly make a difference.
What problem does your business or organization solve?
So, I set out to do something about empowering women. Here's what I have been doing so far, while I figure out the direction of my next ‘disruption.'
First, I have been mentoring Saudi women on my staff. I am sure I am learning more from them than they are from me. It has been a very enriching experience, and I have seen them develop professionally. While I have always invested in developing my team professionally, I made this a really concerted effort.
I have been a volunteer Girl Scout leader for quite a while, and I already talked about starting up the Girl Scout Council at the university.
In the past, providing entrepreneurial support has been part of my job description. I realized that I missed it, and started volunteering with several organizations mentoring start-up companies aimed at women's empowerment. Through the LES Foundation Business Plan Competition I am mentoring a social enterprise that empowers women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh to deliver arsenic-free, clean drinking water to their communities by deploying a cutting-edge ion-exchange technology, out of an American university through a micro-franchise business model. I work as a business consultant with GrowMovement, which serves as a platform to work directly with entrepreneurs in Uganda, Malawi and Rwanda.
What has been your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur and how are you working to overcome it?
It is difficult to find time for “downtime.” So the downtime I have needs to be really restorative. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, to relax I have to be busy with something different than what I do day-to-day. Lying on the couch and watching re-runs doesn't do it for me. Things like weeding the garden and sewing are very restorative, because they engage my whole mind in “something else.”
Give us one word that people might use to describe you.
How has Project Eve helped you and/or your business?
I am inspired by all of the stories of women on Project Eve taking control of their destinies, and finding the courage to do what it is that they want to do. I decided to contribute in the off-chance something I wrote were deemed interesting enough to publish and then resonated with someone.
Give us an insider tip that relates to your industry or startup story.
Listen. That may not be industry-specific, but learning to really listening to others and engage is truly empowering and enriching.
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