Boxes, borders, demarcations—these don’t sit well with Raghda El Ebrashi.

“I hate lines that separate people, and I hate boundaries,” the 28-year-old says. “I hate the word different.”

At 18, she founded Alashanek Ya Balady, or the Association for Sustainable Development (AYB), which works on unemployment in underprivileged communities and transforming private-sector misperceptions of the poor in Egypt.

El Ebrashi operates on two planes, in that unique combination of the applied and the abstract, attempting to ascertain causes of socioeconomic disparities and searching for new methods to intervene in what she calls the circle of poverty. This comes through in her ground-level work, which keeps her viscerally aware of the immense need for job opportunities and helps formulate her strategy to attack the issue on multiple fronts. She has also managed to take a step back to delve deep into the perplexities she encounters. This includes penning her doctoral thesis on social entrepreneurship and, now, as a management professor, teaching her students how to link business practices with creating solutions to societal predicaments.

Dissolving Lines

For El Ebrashi, lines create problematic divisions. For instance, the so-called poverty line sets a standard income at which someone is considered poor or not. “The line is really subjective,” El-Ebrashi says. “If we delete this line, I think more and more people will be counted into the poverty statistics.”

In measuring poverty, she says it’s not just a line, but rather a circle. There are many root variables that together could cause poverty, whether it’s education, corruption, violence, child labor, autocracy, or the economy. El Ebrashi accepts that there’s more than one way to chip away at poverty, but in her work, she has focused on employment to uplift the poor from that circle.

AYB’s programs at the community level include vocational and specialized training, with an emphasis on meeting market demand. El Ebrashi says a lot of money is poured into English and computer training, for example, but as one marketing manager told her there’s no point of investing so much in expertise that are not needed in all sectors. Instead, she tailors her trainings to the market demand and then connects trainees with jobs. Other programs include offering loans to small-scale entrepreneurs looking to start an enterprise within their communities.

A hallmark of El Ebrashi’s model is directly engaging the private sector. She says there are structural problems that prevent the poor from accessing employment opportunities. It’s a result partly because of lines that breed “classism” in Egypt, segregating society into boxes that carry preconceived notions of each class.

“There are many job opportunities for those people, but the private sector do not accept them because of stereotypes,” she says. “In the selection, when they look at the social background, this is against all human rights.”

Just as one’s religion or marital status should be irrelevant in hiring, she also pushes companies not to require applicants’ addresses, which would hint to their economic background. El Ebrashi has heard it all, from companies asserting those from lower economic strata “smell bad” to such folks not fitting into their corporate culture. There are also an array of slurs and demeaning references used against the poor and occupations that they might pursue. For El Ebrashi, shifting a job title can elevate others’ views toward the job. In that vein, the humiliating post of “servant” becomes “housekeeper” for her partners.

The work doesn’t end once someone is hired. El Ebrashi’s group also advocates fair wages. A person’s economic standing can determine their pay, which often translates as lower wages. There’s a notion that they should feel lucky that the company even went out of its way to give them a job. But El Ebrashi says no matter their background, they deserve equal pay and treatment as any other employee.

In an AYB pilot program, companies pay a handful of employees the salary they deem suitable, and then for another crop of workers, AYB supplements that amount to meet minimum wage. Then companies can see the difference in the performance, she says. “It is a question of return on investment,” she says. “We want something to stay forever in the culture of these organizations.” In essence, she says it’s about revamping the human resources systems of the Egyptian and multinational companies that she works with.

The long-term marginalization that poorer individuals have faced means that they too have perceptions against society that must be ameliorated. “It’s perception both ways,” she says, “perception of this person towards himself and towards the community; and perception of the market towards this person.”

El Ebrashi says AYB’s coaching and life skills training, performed both prior to and after someone secures a job, help alleviate some of the trauma that individuals may have experienced due to their lower-income background. Maybe they were harassed in a previous workplace, or have been unemployed for many years. “He has been hearing all of this stuff like, he’s not a respected person, he is poor, he is a savage,” she says. “So they developed very deep psychological problems.” So, with AYB’s training, such people learn to transition into the workforce and the workplace.

In running her organization, El Ebrashi says she intentionally integrates every business concept possible into her work plan and strategy. She says there are stereotypes that NGOs are not sustainable, nor market-based, must rely on donations, lack professionalism and give their staff paltry salaries. She has turned this on its head. To build sustainability, AYB receives fees from the private sector for the training and employment services they provide and they treat grants or donations as investments that are used to finance the organization’s capital.

“We have to be sustainable on the operation level and investments are used to expand rather than to finance the operations. This is purely a business concept,” she says. There’s also an internal HR policy and her group attends job fairs, just as for-profit companies would, to recruit the best talent.

In truth, El Ebrashi doesn’t really like referring to those she works for as “poor.” “I hate this label,” she says. But for the sake of discussion, she resorts to it. The lines that she so abhors can make even the thought of working within these communities unimaginable for outsiders. In some cases, her volunteers stop showing up. “We find their families are preventing them from going to poor areas because they are stereotyped as dangerous,” she says.

“The poor whom we are serving never ever do anything or harm us by any means.” At this fundamental level, she is left with yet another viewpoint to overturn, one that must be shed in the first place to engage those most in need. It all stems from her ultimate aim: “We want every Egyptian to be treated fairly and respectfully by everyone,” she says.

A Step Back: Social Entrepreneurship

El-Ebrashi flutters about her office at the German University in Cairo campus in New Cairo, when a student drops in to get some paperwork signed. In a long denim skirt, her brown boots accent her floral-print brown scarf. Moon-faced, she hardly looks his senior. This is her day job, per se. She garners no income in her chairperson post at AYB. Here, her practitioner’s persona makes way for the cerebral scholar, who lectures in strategic management. She might loathe lines when it comes to sequestering people into categories, but she is comfortable with packaging theories and setting definitions.

Having one foot in both the academic and real worlds, she rests on a privileged perch from which to read the development of social entrepreneurship. When people usually speak about social entrepreneurship, she says they refer to the traits of the social entrepreneur, namely that they’re selfless, kind heroes. But El-Ebrashi says it’s not about the traits. She says differentiating a business versus a social enterprise can be seen in how one measures the success of the venture. “It’s the impact. It’s not the outputs and it’s not even outcomes on the individual level,” she says. “It’s the impact on a society level and you tend to measure the success of the organization on the impact level, on the society’s level.”

For instance, organizations typically measure their success based on business indicators such as the bottom line, number of customers, market share and customer loyalty. But a social entrepreneurial enterprise would measure impact, say, whether stereotypes have shifted in the community, have social tensions decreased. El Ebrashi points to microfinance giant Grameen Bank, saying its success is not measured merely through profits, but mainly by how many customers have successfully graduated from the circle of poverty. She says social enterprises can be in the form of an NGO, cooperative or private business. El Ebrashi stresses that for her, social entrepreneurship also entails injecting something fresh, a new solution into the market. “Not every kiosk owner is an entrepreneur as well as not every NGO leader is a social entrepreneur,” she says. “You have to have an innovation in what you are introducing to the market.”

In the classroom, she tries to familiarize her business students with the notion. When they do institutional analyses, she teaches them to analyze not only companies, but NGOs and social enterprises, too. And within the broader unit on entrepreneurship, she teaches them about social entrepreneurship and provides them exposure in the field. “It is new and it will remain new till we educate people on not only the concept, but also the practice,” she says. Ideally, she says planting the seed would come earlier, at the primary or high school levels, with the subject being part of the curriculum and students engaging in so-called charity work. That could also help decrease classism and stereotyping.

In Egypt, there are some hurdles to social entrepreneurship. El Ebrashi says there are legal strictures that make it difficult for social enterprises to operate as for-profit entities. And traditionally, she says NGOs here become inseparable from their leader’s identity. There’s the idea that if the leader dies so too does the organization. She stresses that social enterprises or NGOs are not about who’s in control. “We have this stereotype that the leader is more important than the organization,” she says. “It’s not about the leader of the NGO… It’s about all the people inside this organization that make up all the strategies of this organization, make up all the success of the organization.” Thanks to the revolution, Egyptians have become well-acquainted with activism, but as the country looks forward, El Ebrashi sees a place for her work and that of social entrepreneurs who will act to rebuild.

“We have activists… who die every day because of our beloved country and we have to die in another way to serve the poor — even if we don’t have money, if we don’t have energy, even if some of our friends who died in Tahrir [Square] for the cause — we have to continue because we are defending the rights of Egyptians in another way,” she says. “If activists will change the system, there has to be someone who is working on implementation of the system or to make the system carry on. So, you want to change the system for people to work and we take the implementation part.”

Successive uncertainties after the revolution have sometimes worried El Ebrashi. With the faltering economy, she wonders if private companies will stay open, and the poor are only getting poorer. But then she needed only to recall her past experiences. Seven years ago, when the government refused to approve some of her funding sources, 50 of her staffers went without a salary for six months. There were moments when she became very weak, when she was pushed to the breaking point, such as when, on top of all the troubles, one of her best friends died. She credits supportive family, friends, and colleagues—as well as the communities who are the constant reminder of her work’s purpose—with helping her navigate through such times. “Whenever I feel weak or pessimistic, I just go to those people I have always loved to work with, see their smiles, give me something to laugh, give me some prayers, and this is the best thing I can do,” she says.

El Ebrashi ticks off her ambitions: academic (publish more papers on social entrepreneurship in Egypt), personal (have children with her husband); musical (keep up her oud playing), and professional (maybe one day become a social affairs minister). And in no small order, for society: “I want to reach the eighty million people in Egypt. I don’t want to see anyone who’s needy or poor in Egypt,” she says. “I need to see everyone having dignity. This is something I really want to see through my model or without my model.”