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.
At the opposite side of her office, a blue mural covers the whole wall. Interspersed are some 30 photos like one of Abdel Meguid and her team standing on a boat in the Nile, arms raised skyward, as well as sayings lifted from her blog (“iHope…I am an optimist”/”Fueled by Appetite.”) At 41, she looks you straight in the eye through her rectangular-framed glasses, smiling often. Before college, she had “no clue” about computers, while growing up as one of four sisters. Abdel Meguid funded her first company with some 25,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,600), an amount generated from years of saving up monetary gifts from family since childhood, a habit encouraged by her father, whose investment into her initial venture came in the form of a computer. She doesn’t have a bossy exterior, but possesses measures of intellectual curiosity, strong work ethic and energy. Now mother of a son and daughter, she explores her early years, resiliency, leadership and entrepreneurship. She’s involved in programs to encourage entrepreneurship, but notes the difficulties in creating companies and says more investment in technology is needed outside of cities. Still, she forecasts those creating their own enterprises will be the ones wearing the cape, coming to the rescue.
This is the first of two parts of this interview. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How would you describe your upbringing?
Hanan Abdel Meguid: In the Middle East everybody kind of feels that the big day for any woman is the day she gets married. To my parents, the big day for me was the day I graduated and kind of the household that I grew in put a lot of emphasis on education, on reading, on this being kind of the top priority in life. Sometimes during my childhood, I found that a bit tough, that my parents are a bit tough, tougher than other parents… If I wake up and I have a cold or something, no, I have to go to school… But I appreciate this a lot now because this is kind of what I’m doing, because I wake every day, there is no easy excuse for me not to do the work, so this is something that I have learned since my childhood days.
It comes from their belief that this is the powerful thing that they can leave us, because I think in my family we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, people have money and people then they lose all their money. There was a lot of turbulence in this part and I think it is rooted in their minds and my mind that the only sure thing is the human itself and the investment that you are doing with yourself and education. This plus the personality and being self-sufficient and proud of yourself, I think these are the kind of things that were always stressed in my household.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You were very young, just out of college, when you started your first company. How did you know when you wanted to start your own venture?
Abdel Meguid: The moment, when I realized that I will do this, it was a very strange moment. I always remember it very clearly, when I was playing squash with a friend and we were in one of the trips of the universities. And we were sitting there. It was our graduation year and we were discussing the future and what does it hold. And during my academic years actually, I grew to love technology. I’m a computer science major and the fact that you can create things and make value out of no value, that’s something that’s fascinated me to a very large extent.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In that early period, what were some of the hurdles that cropped up, and how did you push past them?
Abdel Meguid: The first challenge is to get people to believe that we’re serious and we’re worthy of their trust when we started the business. You know you go to these meetings and we look extremely young.
I think the starting point was for people to take us seriously. And actually, I personally saw it working to our advantage because the minute we started to talk-we use to prepare a lot for our meetings and know a lot of how can we add value-so when we started to talk, people at the end of the meeting are kind of in awe, how can you be so young and can give us this kind of useful information. Of course, it did not work in all cases, we had to knock on a lot of doors and we graduated from the American University in Cairo, so we were kind of like-I don’t know how to say that-but we were kind of a bit spoiled in my book. And this is what I see sometimes as the barrier when you work, you have to work with everybody and you have to respect everybody.
Sometimes, and this is the mistake of a lot of youngsters, they rank people; for example, if you go to someone who works in the government and you start treating him with a bit of arrogance and talking as if you know more than he knows, while in reality he knows [more]. We approached the people with a lot of humility because it’s again, in my belief-and this is something that I live by day in and day out-that technology coupled with the human expertise can get you amazing solutions.
So technology on its own is not the solution. So sometimes, this is the problem with some technical people or some computer scientists that they feel they can solve the problems of the world without mingling or understanding the world. So I think this is something that we tried, at all times, to approach the people with respect and sometimes it works and sometimes it did not. But we were very persistent. I think the challenge is for people to take you seriously when you’re small and insignificant, let’s say. But trust me, a persistence makes things happen.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Over the years, was there ever a setback that you had to deal with while your ventures grew in scale?
Abdel Meguid: Actually my first company, it was a success and then it was a failure. Because it was success, we won a lot of local contracts and our dream was to outsource to the U.S. and we merged with another company. We merged without fixing our papers and then two of our partners ended up kind of taking the company and the big contracts. When success comes, sometimes people behave in an unexpected way. So the big disappointment is that money changes people sometimes, and you should always have your papers and every agreement, it makes for a smoother life and it preserves relationships, I think, because you learn that people always have their way of translating reality to their advantage. So it was a very big disappointment because the first company it was practically stolen from me.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: This would have been around the mid-1990s. How did you bounce back?
Abdel Meguid: What I did, I took some time off, because I think my biggest thing is not that I lost my company, it’s that the hit came from a very close partner and friend… and the shock that money can change people to that extent. I think in the six months that I took off, it helped me mature my thinking and take a lot of decisions regarding how do I approach work afterwards…
But I did not go back to the private industry, I went to work with the government, at this point in time, because before I traveled for this trip, I met a very nice guy in the government who was working part-time in the decision and support center for the prime minister’s cabinet and they were doing something that was very strange. They had access to the Internet, they were the only place in Egypt that had access to the Internet, so he was showing me things and it was my curiosity that got me back. So when I came back from my trip, I found a lot of messages from him asking me to come and work for them. I said, ‘Why not? I have nothing to do. I’ll retire in the government for awhile.’ And this was kind of the best decision that I’ve ever made, because I got the exposure to the Internet and I was lucky because this was a very kind of exclusive group working on unique projects.
Especially in our kind of business… cash is a very big problem in this region and finding investors is a very big problem in this region. And I think not having enough cash taught us how to be very creative, because it’s not about how much money you have, it’s about how much can you do with the money you have. Sometimes you find we were faced with competing companies that had a lot of money and we did even much more impact than them because this is what we had, but our dreams were much bigger that our cash.