For Rama Chakaki, Nurturing Entrepreneurs Is a Heartfelt Mission

Rama Chakaki had just begun her career when she found herself questioning life, spurred by a terrifying discovery: still in her mid-20s, she was diagnosed with sarciodosis, an autoimmune disease that builds scar tissue around vital organs. In her case, it was the heart.

Chakaki was in and out of hospitals and treatment centers, needing a defibrillator, pacemakers and myriad medications. "When something like that happens in your life, it gives you a chance to reflect, then think about what you want out of your life," she says. "And so I had to think in short spurts, that, ‘OK, if I had this much time, what will I be doing?’ And so that immediately eliminated all of the time wastage out of my life."

Nearly two decades later, that sense of urgency and a strong belief in pursuing work that one loves has led her to a leadership role in the Arab world’s entrepreneurial landscape, as she aims to nurture innovative social enterprises through her firm, Baraka Ventures. For her, it’s a departure from the traditional models of charity and non-governmental organization work. In place of gloomy posters with a "really sad child," she says there’s an opportunity to shift the approach in the region into something more positive and uplifting with greater social impact.

From her high-rise apartment, the illuminated Dubai skyline becomes a web of low-lying constellations at night. Chakaki brews chamomile tea, fresh from her parents’ native Syria. The 43-year-old displays a photo of a glider plane and its pilot — her grandmother, whom she called Annaa. Once, she says, her Annaa survived a crash in Syria and still returned to flying just to prove that she could do it. Knowing and drawing strength from one’s roots, as she herself does, is something Chakaki stresses when she speaks with young women. Not only might they discover role models, but she says they can also build on their traditions with new knowledge that they gain.

"You don’t want to learn something and then be uneducated about your past and your culture. You want to fuse the two together. And there are solutions within our culture, religion, heritage, to all of the issues that we that face today," says Chakaki, who speaks in a laid-back yet assured tone. "We just have to be mindful and open to thinking about them."

Strength From Fighting

Chakaki has skipped back and forth between countries and continents. Her parents moved from Syria to Saudi Arabia, where opportunities abounded for the likes of her engineer father in the 1970s. From kindergarten through the 12th grade, she attended a private girls’ school in the eastern province, founded by the daughters of the late King Faisal and some of their cousins. Outside her school circle, she was surrounded by her mother’s friends, some of whom were among the first women to set up and manage retail outlets there. At home, her encouraging father treated his daughter and younger sons equally. Her mother upheld a can-do attitude across the board, imploring her children: "You can’t tell me how you can’t do it."

At beach clubs, Chakaki would play tennis and participate in tae kwon do. "Back then, the community was small. We were very close," she says. "Saudis and non-Saudi mixed, so most of my friends were Saudis. I really felt like… that was home."

Only on a few occasions did she sense some difference between boys and girls. She was hospitalized during her senior year of high school, and the ministry of education forbade girls to take exams out of school, though young men (even those in jail) were permitted to do so. "You kind of sensed growing up that the young men were given a lot more opportunities; which is amazing since the outcome has been that a lot of Saudi women are much stronger, [as] they’ve had to really fight to maintain that."

Despite the Chakakis’ strong sense of belonging in Saudi Arabia, they would remain expatriates, as citizenship is granted only to native Saudis. Keen on living in a place where they could possess privileges as nationals, her father moved the family to the United States.

Uprooted and disappointed, Chakaki landed at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She went from an all-Arabic school with English comprising a single subject, to a fully English-based curriculum. She dropped her plans to pursue medicine because she found the language transition difficult, and switched to engineering.

After earning her degree, Chakaki worked in the software development and telecommunications industries. She rose up the ranks at MCI (which became Cable & Wireless after acquisition), went on to Global TeleSystems Inc., and later a senior colleague recruited her as a partner to establish Key Bridge Corporation, a firm that built data centers. Her classroom and work environments were always predominantly male, but Chakaki says she never considered being a woman as a barrier.

Well into her career and now a mother of two, Chakaki sensed a change in Washington following 9/11. The pull of the past and heritage beckoned. "I felt like I wanted the kids to really understand their Arabic roots and feel connected as Arabs, rather than feel embarrassed by the fact that they were Arabs." Again, her family moved. This time, at her will, to the United Arab Emirates.

Struck By Needs

When she moved to Dubai in 2003, Chakaki joined Eastnets, a group that delivered software for the financial sector, as a chief operating officer. She learned firsthand how the financial community operated at a time when Dubai was still building itself as an international and financial center. Her interest in setting up and helping companies expand blossomed. Meanwhile, she began pushing her company to support social causes — the concept of corporate social responsibility, she notes, was not exactly on everyone’s agenda. As she worked on projects with charities and NGOs in Dubai and Syria, the depth of local needs struck her. Despite popular perceptions of wealthy Gulf nations, she says money alone was not solving societal problems.

Chakaki didn’t know how to translate her drive to work on community projects into a business, but echoing her mother’s can-do maxim, "I figured there would be a way." She left Eastnets and applied her corporate experience to support entrepreneurs who had a social element to their business. Along the way, she met Mahmoud Abu-Wardeh, who shared a similar vision, and together they founded Baraka Ventures. Their work includes aiding social entrepreneurs to grow their business; collaborating with governments interested in new ways of investing in communities; and providing technological support to companies, nonprofits and others.

In their work, Chakaki says they discovered many entrepreneurs lacked expertise in communications, even when it came to using easily accessible tools like the Internet and social media. They created zeedna, a web-based social publishing platform that helps users hone their online strategies and allows them to build their sites in Arabic and English. Another online Baraka portal, Bidayat, serves as a hub for social ventures in the Middle East where social entrepreneurs and others can track programs being launched and connect with like-minded folks and resources to make their initiatives a reality.

In the public sector, the Qatar government tapped Chakaki’s firm to help with its bid book for the FIFA World Cup. Baraka researched and authored two chapters on how the games could contribute to sustainable social and human development over the next dozen years. Other Baraka projects and collaborations range from conducting training sessions and a weekly radio program in Dubai to leading environmental education programs and organizing activities for children with special needs.

Chakaki says sustainability is always on their minds and they consider their ventures as an investment in the long term. They look to zeedna as the profit-making wing, but still offer charities and nonprofits discounted rates for the services.

With their sleek presentation and unabashed positivity, the work of Chakaki’s company reflects what she views as a shift in the past half-decade or so in the region, away from conventional forms of charity work. "Charity used to be a very kind of informal affair. In Islam, we say your right hand shouldn’t know what your left hand is giving. And so most people did it kind of very low-key and that worked very well for the longest time," she says.

But after 9/11, governments became strict about granting charity licenses and scrutinized from where groups received donations, because of money laundering and other concerns. That made it cumbersome to operate charities here, Chakaki says, but also opened the door to a new kind of thinking. In place of merely contributing funds, she notes, people could volunteer their time and organizations could refine their structures and strategies and become more communications-savvy while mobilizing the community to get involved.

Small Is Better

She envisions Baraka becoming a center for exchange where, in a sense, they barter services and information, learning from their entrepreneurs, who in turn, reap knowledge from them. "I believe in many smalls," she says. "Many small organizations working together are much better than these mammoth organizations, so we have to collaborate with others."

Similarly, she is interested in women across the region linking beyond their borders to fix some of the problems their generation faced. They have the acumen, talent, drive and education to do so, she says. Together, they could become a force to reckon with. "We’re just finding each other and I think personally, I’m pushing to make sure that women of my generation are starting to invest financially, but also invest socially and be able to kind of profile themselves and the people in their communities, so that everybody else is aware what they’re doing," she says.

Areas that she believes women could work on include education reform; redefining the workplace to make it more female friendly; creating social enterprises to care for the vulnerable; and finding ways to promote a more value-driven lifestyle in line with their heritage and culture. To achieve that, Chakaki is speaking to a number of organizations and individuals in several countries about setting up an angel-funding network to support social enterprises that are led by women or that benefit women. She also envisions multimedia and online platforms where women can network and share their stories and experiences. With women coming from various socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, Chakaki says building partnerships will call for identifying what one appreciates about others and finding common ground.

It’s all about making connections for Chakaki. In a long dress and cardigan, her brown hair tumbling to her shoulders, she presses her elbow into the sofa. Her MacBook lid is littered with stickers of slogans and organizations. Being sure that one’s self is aligned with one’s work is among the ingredients that has fueled this avid cook and scuba diver. "I’ve always believed — whether it’s for men or women — you have to really be yourself and you have to bring in your values and principles to work."

If people do what they enjoy, they will excel, she says. In her case, the enthusiasm she possesses for her work is palpable when she speaks about cutting-edge approaches to solving social issues. "There were times where I remember doing jobs and saying, ‘No. Oh my God, I can’t believe this is something I have to do.’ But I would very quickly find a way out of doing that or doing that in the job," she says. It is acknowledging one’s roots, and knowing what anchors oneself, in the most fundamental sense.

Even with her optimism, Chakaki does not brush away challenges. In this region, she says many students graduate with engineering, medical and business degrees, but they lack soft skills, which is why self-esteem, self-confidence, presentation and public speaking are areas that need improvement. Moreover, she acknowledges that starting a business and dealing with bureaucracies is not straightforward. But then again, she says, changing minds is no easy task. "When you’re a social entrepreneur, that’s what you’re doing or trying, to change mindsets and habits and get people to see and think different," she says. "That’s something that takes time."

Confronting the hurdles ahead is an ongoing reality for Chakaki. Her illness, sarciodosis, can go into remission but then reemerge, even stronger. It has resulted in her having 12 surgeries and heart complications. Still, she can’t be stopped. Chakaki trained for and completed the Dubai Marathon’s 10k stretch this past January, raising money for causes in the process.

"You can always find excuses for why you can’t move ahead," she says. "I feel like there’s always a way to break through and do things the right way. It’s all about the attitude, really."

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