A small caricature painted on glass hanging in Hanan Abdel Meguid’s office features her garbed as a superhero, riding a surfboard above a big wave, her voluminous locks blowing out. Over two decades, Abdel Meguid, has lived out this spunky spirit as a tech entrepreneur in Egypt. She founded several high-performing firms and currently serves as CEO of the Cairo-based OTVentures, where she oversees 700 employees working in online and mobile technologies. A subsidiary of Orascom Telecom, the company has exclusive partnerships with MSN, Facebook and more than 90 content providers, as well as offices around the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and North America. She previously was chief solution officer at LINKdotNET, one of the largest Internet service providers in the region, and CEO of its spinoff software development outfit, LINK Development.
This is the second of two parts of this interview. The first part can be read here.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us an example of how having less cash pushed you to be innovative in running the companies?
Hanan Abdel Meguid: Actually, it applies to everything including creating the right culture to attract talented people, because we had the problem of not having enough money to kind of attract the right talent and you had the competition from a lot of big companies that used to pay more. And our way to fight back was creating the right culture. Khaled Bichara, our CEO, used to start the meeting with the statement, ‘Every day feel that we’re going to do something different and be different.’ And we used to have events where we eat together, have some time out together. Again, we did not have a lot of cash to spend, be it to give out great salaries or amazing benefits, but we arranged a lot of these events that built us the right culture and attracted a lot of talent.
Because cash was not available, we grew our business in an incremental way. For example, we had an Egyptian operation and we were dreaming of going to the Gulf. ‘OK, for us to go, we have to get a big contract, but we are a small Egyptian player, how can we get this big contract?’ We kept on trying — actually, the contract that got us go to regional was a Microsoft support contract — and while pitching for it, it was kind of a crazy dream, because we were up against very big companies and we did not even exist over there.
Based on this contract, we went to the Gulf and then got other businesses and it was very incremental. We did not have a problem stretching or not having luxury — we persevered and reached our goal. We were very keen on our cash. We did not want to use it except to deliver value to the business and growth, so if we get enough, we don’t go and spend it on something. We spend it on machines. This meant a lot of sacrifice, while other people working for the IBMs or for the big companies were living a totally different and easy life.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you cultivate a work culture that’s cohesive and people feel like they want to be here? How do you lead others?
Abdel Meguid: I believe that engagement is the most powerful tool in leadership. Engagement starts with having open communication around everything. For example, in my company currently, I meet every week for three hours with all the senior members, where we share the overall numbers across the big projects that we’re working on. What is being cooked, the failures, the successes. So you engage into the problems that you have and actually, one of the great things that when you share sometimes problems with people that are not related to these problems, sometimes they get so creative. (For instance) if we have in this area, restricted cash and in this area and this is creating a very big problem for us, you’d find a person (and say): ‘OK, why don’t we do this service in this part of the world’…you get all kinds of creativity and innovations. So the engagement is starting off by sharing openly all the facts and the strategy and the issues and the areas of improvements that we need to have, so that when you come to a meeting on one-on-one and we start discussing why are we doing this, you kind of have all the background information needed for you to have the mindset to think. So, engagement is extremely big. It’s not command and control by any means.
I think this has always been my kind of leadership style… I don’t give the aggressive front. Sometimes when I take the very tough decisions, people are very greatly surprised. When I reach the right decision, I don’t have at all a problem implementing even if it’s very tough and this is sometime surprising for a lot of people, because I give a very softer interface.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you tell up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
Abdel Meguid: Focus on what you really need to build. This is the essence. Actually, sometimes you face people: ‘I want to be on to entrepreneur.’ ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘I want to do something big.’ ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘I want to-‘ ‘Fine.’ The target is the passion for the idea or the thing that you want to implement. The target is not to be there or to take the funding, it’s for you, you see a gap and there is a passion that you want to do or you see a gap and the society that you need to bridge with your technology and you leverage this kind of funding and this kind of support for you to make it happen.
Focus on your product, focus on your passion, focus on the idea that you want to develop and everything else will come, honestly, everything else will come. I am a big believer that it will be tough, it needs a lot of perseverance. There is a big advantage also that I have to mention that we are much open, we did not back then have the Internet. Actually, I go to [university] graduation projects presentations and I found the guys, not only that they finish the project, and there are people in the States and Europe using it and they have all kinds of feedback on it, so you start with an accelerator because the world is much, much more… People were talking about globalization, it is happening. You have a company in Alexandria doing an app that made tons of success across the world, so the mobile revolution and all the marketplace is open and you don’t need people in the middle. All you need is the really good idea and good execution and the world is yours.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve witnessed the development of the IT industry in Egypt over the past 20 years. How do you see technology and digital business shaping the future Egyptian market?
Abdel Meguid: I think it will play an instrumental role in our in economy. Maybe, it will take us a few years, but the market is for the first time and I actually not only in Egypt, in the Middle East, when we used to work in online advertising and in software online services, online commerce, it used to be very small kind of business and even to our holding company now, when you see the numbers, you say, ‘Fine, these are good numbers, good growth,’ but it is not the big business. Nowadays, the market has grown so much. The usage of the technology and the Internet and the level of engagement and also the Arab Spring and everything it validated for a lot of businesses and old school kind of thinking that people are there and it’s a serious market. So the numbers and it is becoming sizable. The opportunities again, to innovate and to deliver bigger value during the coming five years, it’s going to be tremendous, in my opinion.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are those areas that you see as having potential in Egypt or the region? How can that innovation be facilitated?
Abdel Meguid: I am hoping that we take this to the areas of health, education. Technology can present a big vehicle for quality of life improvement. I participated in the e-government project in Egypt. And for me, it was kind of a dream to see this come true and I still believe that this is our vehicle for improving the quality of life and for delivering, because again, as a country, we don’t have a lot of cash, we don’t have a lot of resources, so we need a lot of creativity, so that whatever resources we have, if we have good teachers, we want to make their efforts go to as much as needed across the country. If we have health resources and investments, we need to make sure that it spreads, so if we have some information and a bit of projects, we need to make sure that it goes to the best people out there in the universities. I believe that technology is not for us, kind of another fluff or luxury, it’s an essential creative tool, so that we use the scarcity of our resources to maximize our potential. And I am sure that this will happen because I see the youth in the country are just amazing.
I think we lack the funding and this is something that is, again, like I say, it’s going to improve with the presence of a big market and with the stability that we will witness, hopefully. The expertise, nowadays we find a lot of people who I call them the ‘human bridges’ with the West, because it is more than money. You find a lot of Egyptians, a lot of Arabs that are working abroad and with the opportunity that exists currently in the Middle East, you find them a come exchange and invest and work with youngsters. And this is a very big opportunity because if you have these human bridges, by default enjoy a lot of access to expertise. The Internet made it much much easier to access the knowledge and the access the know-how and again, like I said, we need a lot of maturity in the ecosystem for us to learn. But that’s happening and I’m optimistic that it is going to happen.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did the revolution impact OTVentures?
Abdel Meguid: Definitely in Egypt, it’s affected, but the thing about OTVentures is that because we are regional and we are spread across different types of businesses, and that’s it grew up to be by design because we’re hedging to our bets in this volatile region, so we survived much better than anyone else. So what we did is we rotated a lot of our resources and a lot of our attention to other countries and new domains to manage the effect. But definitely, the effect in Egypt, as far as the online advertising, as far as the software development division that we had and a lot of mobile services, of course, we’ve had periods where life totally stopped, and so it definitely affected our numbers but I believe that the effect will be an acceleration in the coming years, because it validated the use of technology and the importance of technology in our society. It kind of did the awareness that we needed in all cases. You find a lot of people, maybe if they don’t kind of take their money out of their pocket now, but you’d find the interest is amazing to have discussions on what can be done and how can we do that and what are the different things. So, once the situation is restored, I’m sure that we will accelerate, not [just] move forward.
As far as the online advertising, actually, I have to tell you that although, for example, there were periods of time where the industry was frozen and nobody was spending money until the situation cleared out, and when they woke up, the offline and the traditional marketing budgets were cut, but online marketing had increased and even persisted, from the businesses that we deal with.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In this evolving climate, where do you see OTVentures headed? Where do you want to take your business?
Abdel Meguid: We intend to leverage the regional reach that we have and to leverage the online and mobile reach that we have within our countries, to act as kind of the launching pad of the local innovation that we have across not only Egypt, across the Arab countries that we operate in, and also, we like to position ourselves as the gateway for international companies that want to operate across the Middle East region because our region is a very interesting region, but it’s fragmented. To have any decent operation here, you have to operate in several countries and with different conditions.
What made me start my company is I’m always infatuated with the concept that you have all these big international companies that stood the test of time for years and you don’t have a lot of local companies. That’s why I’m a very proud member of an Egyptian company with Egyptian people, and Egyptian money. I always tell people, ‘OK, we are a showcase, and it’s a very clear example that it can be done, so, I’m sure that you’ll do even a greater job than us, and that’s for sure.’
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You said entrepreneurs will serve as ‘saviors’ — what do you mean by that and how is that going to help?
Abdel Meguid: Let’s face it, we have the bureaucracy of the government that will never change. I have to tell you, and I know that people will not like this, but I cannot say in some of the ministries, especially in the IT and the MCIT [ministry of communications and information technology] we had a lot of great revolutions happening, but now, with the bureaucracy and fear and a lot of uncertainty, I can safely say that you cannot count on the government to move you forward, you have to count on entrepreneurship and the ecosystem that will exist to move you forward if you want to do anything. I know that even in the big companies, of course, they need to operate a good business in Egypt, so I’m sure that a lot of them have lost a lot of money and a lot of momentum. So entrepreneurship is going to push a lot of people as a way to create your own future. I see this happening to a lot of the newly graduated people, because out of need, because there are not a lot of available jobs, they just go out and they have a lot of energy and passion and they’re channeling it into these new ventures, so I think something great will come out of this.
When the door is closed, you know that you have to get out and do something, so I think this will play to the advantage of the entrepreneurship.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think about gender dynamics in the tech world and women joining the sector?
Abdel Meguid: Actually, one of the interesting things is when I started talking [at events and programs], you know because I’m a woman and in technology, I always tell them I don’t like to be different, and there’s a statement that I love which is, ‘I’m unique like everybody else.’
I think I’m different and I have a lot of confidence in myself but I’m not a special case as a woman. I hate someone to treat me like a special case, and I hate woman who like to be treated as a special case. And maybe this is something that a lot of women will not like, but I think positioning yourself as a special case is not always appreciated from my side, so I get invited to a lot of conferences where they talk about women and they keep on asking me about women stuff.
So recently, I felt that being there and just giving out these features. It’s just that sometimes they just want to see that this can happen, you know, and this can happen and you’re normal. It’s very strange that there is a picture of a woman, a successful woman in everybody’s mind that either she’s not, she doesn’t have a married life, she will never have kids, or she will always be a kind of a stereotype of very rough, especially if you work in technology or this domain, you’re not working in as an artist or something, you’re going to look ugly. So it hit me that just being there and discussing, just telling them, ‘Guess what? I’m normal, I’m not a special case. I’m there, I did it. So probably, you can do much more.’
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve had this long, flourishing, demanding career alongside caring for your family. How do you maintain or balance the various facets of your life?
Abdel Meguid: You have two kinds of people. One, who is always trying to strike a balance. I say there is no balance; there is a choice, that is my way of approaching it. The second types of women I have seen are the kinds that live in denial. ‘I don’t have dual responsibility. No, he has to help me. We both have a job,’ etcetera.
Both types, I think, end up very destructive because in my book, we as humans need to have balance and appreciation both at home and at work, and for that you need to live a good life. You don’t need the feeling that your work is cannibalizing your personal life and then because your personal life, you are unable to pursue a career. They need to coexist in love, the work and the personal aspect. For you to do that, you have to recognize and acknowledge your dual responsibilities.
In our part of the world, maybe it’s different somewhere else, but you have to make sure that the house is clean. You have to make sure that there is food. You have make sure that your kids are learning, and their details are settled. He will help, but it is your core kind of thing.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Well, how is that different than striking a balance?
Abdel Meguid: Because striking a balance, in my book, means that you want to be able to do everything. The reality is you will not be able to do everything. Striking a balance means, ‘I want to be very social. And I want to see my friends and I want to see my families. And I want to do that.’ So for me, this is the kind of balance that a lot of people are seeking, while it’s never going to happen. It’s a choice and you set your priority. I set my priority on my husband, my kids, my immediate family, mother, father and sisters. And I know and I don’t torment myself on my ability to be really social in any different way. So I am very strict in the kind of social gathering that I attend, and I tell everybody, I love people and this is sometimes difficult, but I know that I have to make choices.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How does your husband deal with you being very successful in your career?
Abdel Meguid: When I knew him in the university, he used to say, ‘I’ll never marry a woman who works.’ I always tell him, ‘God punished you.’
How did he deal with it? I think, because he loves me. He loves the things that I love, and I love the things that he loves. He works in a totally different field. And he talks about his passion and I talk about my passion. I think one of the great things that we have is that before we find love we found friendship, we were friends and — I don’t know, it went incrementally, it was not planned, but he was always of a great support and it was not easy on him.
I have to admit; I’m not a feminist. I don’t believe that men and women are exactly the same. I believe they are equal in rights and equal in potential, but they are not exactly the same. I have to make sure –this is one of the tricks you learn, and it matters for him that I am fresh — that I take care of myself. Otherwise, if you don’t, he starts having this discussion: "Hanan, I think your work is affecting our life." And I make sure that we have our very special kind of trips and moments, so we kind of take an overdose and then go live a normal life.