It’s not Casual Dating, It’s a Marriage: Building Human-Centric Businesses for the Future

Nureen Khadr

Content & Strategy Development Intern

For relationships to be sustainable and on a continuous growth path, it is important for both partners in the relationship to feel that for as much as they are investing, they are benefiting. It is no different for companies.

As a business, the talent you hire are your partners of choice; you need to give them a reason to stay and to care about where this relationship (or company) is going. To establish this kind of secure relationship, we look to human-centric business models that have proven that the only way a business can thrive is by making it about its building blocks, or employees.

Source: Kreatives Leipzig

Source: Kreatives Leipzig

To better understand the strengths of a human-centric approach to business, we picked the brain of Fadi Ghandour, founder and former CEO of Aramex, a man who implemented its philosophy and practices long before the model had a name. When asked about the importance of focusing on your employees, he said:

“In today’s world, business is all about the development of the human beings inside the organization. It is all about their growth and their ability to understand the intricate connection between their future and the future of the company that they work with.”

Fadi Ghandour, Founder and former CEO of Aramex / Photo: WikiCommons

Fadi Ghandour, Founder and Vice Chairman of Aramex; Chairman and Managing Partner of Wamda / Photo: WikiCommons

Ghandour attributes the success of his first business, Aramex, to the cultivation of a unique community from the get-go. Ahead of the Curve (ATC), having worked with Aramex, can attest to the loyalty that employees have towards the company. ATC CEO, Dina Sherif, has often heard employees at Aramex refer to the company as their family.

While we live and operate in a region with a large amount of human capital with huge potential, corporate culture and values are still not well-articulated to to those who work at those companies. Companies are yet to fully realize their role in society, and the human side of business: mentorship, teamwork, all-around respect, and more. The talent pool in MENA is murky and lacks an adequate incentive to stay in a region that does not value investment in employees and corporate culture.

Ghandour’s road to actualizing Aramex’s international success began with a basic question: “Can you imagine something like this ever working in the Middle East?” Now we beg to ask the question, can the human-centric approach implemented within Aramex, from the very beginning, succeed on a larger scale across the MENA region, thus serving to keep our top talent here in the region? The answer is: 100 percent.

But where does an already established business start? It is all about motivating leadership on all levels to redefine the corporation’s work culture. If the company’s leadership does not live and breathe the philosophy, then it does not foster the environment of accountability, communication, and development that they seek. Ghandour’s suggestion is that companies should begin “…by bringing everyone who is of leadership and influence inside the organization into a room to spend hours, if not days, together to articulate and decide what it is that they want the organization to look like, what their values are, how they are like today, how they will change in the future.”

Once the company’s outlook is settled, not only must there be a process of implementing the new corporate culture to employees and including them in the discussion, but also a bottom-up response where employees embrace it and drive it.

It is not an easy process. Yet once corporate leaders decide that that this is important to them, crucial to the company’s success, and necessary for the nurturing of their employees, then the rest is simply living the mantra.

Mohed Altrad, Founder of Altrad Scaffolding / Source: WikiCommons

Mohed Altrad, Founder of Altrad Scaffolding / Source: WikiCommons

Fadi Ghandour may have been a pioneer of this practice, but entrepreneurs like Mohed Altrad have also sought to build human-centric ventures. Mohed Altrad established a scaffolding company in France named after himself. This move to create his own enterprise was driven by his desire to dictate his own destiny and make his employees happy. In his eyes, as long as those working for Altrad are satisfied, they perform better, are more efficient, and are genuinely living content lives. According to Altrad, employee satisfaction is what companies should strive for and it is clearly what enables corporate growth to move at a much faster pace.

Then there is Ricardo Semler, CEO of the Brazilian company, Semco Partners, who treats hiring like marriage, and applying candidates as potential spouses. Through an unconventional interview process, Semco not only look to check the qualification boxes, but to also make sure that future employees would be happy to work with their supervisors, that they would mesh with their colleagues, and that intuition would tell them if this was someone that aligned with the values of the company. To Semler, recruitment is all about compatibility, because from the start, Semco has been a company that threw all tradition and rules out the window.

Sadly, these large companies are the exception. According to an Endeavor Insight report on “How to Capitalize on Human Capital in MENA” published in 2013: “Companies [that] do not have a strong and clear culture and vision, [find difficulty] in generating loyalty among employees”; companies in MENA fail to consider the perks of building a strong team dynamic through transparency, empowerment, and strong management. But for start-ups in MENA, our data has shown that a focus on culture and employees has always been a priority, despite the limited resources they have when building a business from the ground up.

Start-ups are quite “in tune” with the strategy of attracting and retaining talent by providing a growing, learning experience. They understand that their employees are not simply there to do their bidding and feed into the machine. Therein lies their competitive edge over already existing, more traditional companies: empowerment and egalitarian management.

In an ideal world where all businesses operate on human-centric models, the private sector would not only be driven by profit, but also by competitively solving humankind’s most pressing issues. The World Bank projects that by 2050, the labor force in MENA will include an additional 44 million people. Imagine a region where such an exponential talent number is working in companies that value their employees by creating vibrant work environments and incentivizing reward systems. It is a fascinating snowball effect when caring about your employees and their success inspires them to care about the company’s success through its development, societal contributions, and impact.

Because in the end, why are businesses established? To provide solutions and alternatives to outdated processes, institutions, and ways of life. For that, we need businesses that are obsessed with building flourishing and creative teams with a sense of ownership.

Listen to your employees. Prioritize their well-being. They are your partners; they are vital to the your growth and success.

Make sure you let them know you recognize their work.

Win their hearts and minds. Without securing the two, multiple divorces are bound to be filed with their two weeks notice and your company will cease to exist.

Nureen Khadr

Nureen Khadr is currently ATC’s Content and Strategy Development Intern for the summer of 2015. She is pursuing a B.A. in International Studies (Peace & Conflict Studies) and a double minor in Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco (USF) and expects to graduate in 2016. She is also the Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Foghorn, USF’s only student newspaper. Nureen is a proud, intersectional feminist and is extremely passionate about transparency, inclusive economies, and cultural and civic dialogue. 

Drilling Entrepreneurs in Dubai

Nureen Khadr

Social entrepreneurs are not only their idea, but their network. A network is not only the people you know, but the people you build relationships with. Nurture those relationships and you end up with a support system as you navigate the ups and downs of executing that idea into a sustainable business.

We began THE IMPACT, our 5-day Social Entrepreneurship boot camp, with this support system in mind. And if we may say so ourselves, our Dubai boot camp was a huge success. Over the course of the week, we had the likes of Carla Hassan, PepsiCo’s CMO, to Caroline Faraj, VP Arabic Services at CNN and Mazen Hayek, Official Spokesman & Group Director of PR at MBC, speaking to our eighteen participants. The diversity of the group, coming from all walks of life and 8 different countries, only added value to the purpose of the week.

Below is a wonderful video put together by Jineesh Illath, Senior Designer, Silatech. Join us in celebrating the bright minds that came together in these five days!

After an unforgettable week, we asked some of our participants and facilitators about what they thought of the workshops and here is what they said:

Mohamed Farid, The Youth Company in Qatar: “ATC was a life changing experience, and the training was a really enriching experience… We were one family that came together. We were a group of entrepreneurs and now we are one family. This is what social entrepreneurship is all about: the social element.”

Salma El Hady, Nawaya: “I’m very happy to see people that actually care about social impact, because I’ve been with many incubators that only say cliches…and are risk-averse people. Thank you for doing this [bootcamp].”

Adam Molyneux-Barry, icecairo: “This is honestly one of the best workshops that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of. The level of comfort and safety of the participants really allowed them to explore the uncomfortable parts of entrepreneurship… This was a massive learning experience, which is not something I say often. I myself will revisit aspects of my own business…”

dubai group photo

Dubai bootcamp participants ahead of “the curve”.

Thank you to all who participated in the boot camp and pitch night and made it what it was: memorable! Hopefully we will see some of our readers at the future boot camps we are planning in Lebanon, Jordan, and KSA.

Nureen Khadr

Nureen Khadr is currently ATC’s Content and Strategy Development Intern for the summer of 2015. She is pursuing a B.A. in International Studies (Peace & Conflict Studies) and a double minor in Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco (USF) and expects to graduate in 2016. She is also the Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Foghorn, USF’s only student newspaper. Nureen is a proud, intersectional feminist and is extremely passionate about transparency, inclusive economies, and cultural and civic dialogue. 

Shake the Net: Mixing Sports with Development

Ovais Naqvi and Farouk Shafie

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

Nelson Mandela


One of the great strengths of sport is its inclusiveness, the way it creates a sense of belonging. No sport embodies that globally in a more consistent way than football. The most popular sport in the world by a margin, it’s simplicity and low “cost of entry” allows it to be played with exactly the same rules, whether it’s in a park, on the street, in a local football field, or in a Champion’s League game watched by millions. Due to its global appeal, football is also one of the most powerful communication platforms in the world, transcending national boundaries and languages with its ability to connect, empower and uplift its followers.

There have been several incidents throughout the years that display the power football has in bringing people together. One such example occurred in 1969, when during a bloody civil war in Nigeria that diplomats had failed to end for two years, global superstar Pelé visited the country, and with his arrival came a three-day ceasefire. Warring factions actually stopped fighting so they can watch local teams play against the legendary Brazilian star’s team, Santos!

It begs the question that if football and sports in general have such potential to be a positive force towards community development, why is it seldom harnessed powerfully enough? Despite the fact that most governments play an active role in supporting football and national sports, this is mostly done at the professional level.

We believe in the power of football as a tool in local development is largely neglected. This is despite sport being a low-cost, high-impact way of supporting and advancing development objectives.

Football can be integrated with other on-going development initiatives so that both can reinforce and support each other in a more holistic approach, rather than operating in silos.


Ahead of the Curve experienced at first-hand the influence that sport can have when integrated in a framework of development objectives, as we implemented The Abraaj Group’s youth football program “Shake the Net.” This program integrates football training with educational classes and art classes, making positive impacts in several areas of the children’s lives.

Shake the Net started with 40 male participants, and expanded to include 40 female participants in the 4 months after implementation began. The promise of professional and organized sports training attracted children to other aspects such as attending two educational classes and one theater class every week.

Watching the program unfold has been an eye-opening experience. One could have assumed that it would be hard to attract children from a neglected area like Istabl Antar to a systematic program. This is definitely not the case; young people from marginalized communities are simply not given the opportunities to express their commitment and ambitions.

From the first weeks of classes, we could see how committed, enthusiastic and happy the children were to learn in a caring environment. The children are sensitive and when they sense that people are actually concerned about them, and are serious in their desire to teach and train them, they give back. It’s been most heartening to watch the children develop. You quickly start to notice sparks of talent, whether with a kid in training whose skills are impressive, or whether it’s a participant who went from being completely illiterate to being able to read and write simple words and phrases within a few weeks.

The impact of the program also goes beyond developing individual children; there is a sense that a community is being shaped, as the NGO created close ties with the parents of the program’s participants, frequently consulting with them to discuss their concerns and the impact of the program.

By creating ties with the community, it became possible for a variety of interventions to be made, such as organizing medical check-ups for the children, and creating awareness around the principles of hygiene.


Ovais Naqvi

Ovais works in the Abraaj Performance Acceleration Group, where he is responsible for enhancing the sales, marketing and pricing optimization capabilities of partner companies. Additionally, he leads the “Arena” program to identify synergies and network potentials across the Group’s investee platform. He serves on the Board of Wamda, The Abraaj Group’s content, collaboration and funding platform for early stage businesses.


Farouk Shafie

Farouk is passionate about community-based education. He joined ATC since its establishment, where he worked with Tawasol and The Abraaj Group on establishing Shake the Net. Prior to joining Ahead of the Curve, he worked with the Center for the Child Worker and His Local Community on a Freire inspired community education program. Farouk is currently an English Instructor in Thailand.

Use Your User: A Stakeholder-Driven Approach to Sustainable Product Development

Hisham Besheer


photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

User experience (UX). User-centered design (UCD). Experience design. You may have heard these labels or other variations of them, but what do they mean?

What exactly is UX?

And why should it be implemented?

These phrases are not buzzwords. Collectively, and often interchangeably, they refer to the design and development philosophy that puts the user at the core of the development process. Focusing not on building a product, but on creating a complete and immersive end-to-end experience. For some modern organisations, this practice is in their DNA. For others, it represents a fundamental shift in corporate culture and strategy that could be challenging to achieve. For any business aiming to maintain sustainability, the end-user is the key stakeholder who must remain central to the development process.

There are several factors, mostly cost-related, that lead some organizations to initially meet UX with resistance:

1. Leaders often lack the vision to see the long term advantages of a user-centered design approach and are distracted by short term expenses.

2. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit into the traditional Project Management Triangle model that emphasizes quality, cost, and schedule as opposing production constraints. Even if you can convince decision-makers that designing for the user results in a higher quality product, anyone who has worked in product development knows that, unfortunately, cost and schedule regularly trump quality.

3. It is difficult to demonstrate UX return on investment since there are no known methods to specifically quantify “experience”. Products are often praised for being simple, delightful, and easy-to-use. But how does one directly attribute a portion of these products’ sales volumes and revenues to their UCD characteristics? Forward-thinking leaders understand the value of UCD and can see the correlation between a well-designed product and the sustainability of the business. Others struggle to make that connection.

At the intersection of usefulness, ease-of-use, and affect (emotion) are delightful user experiences. These are the three essential components of disruptive products; ones that generate excitement and brand loyalty. Love it or hate it, this narrow slice is where the iPhone lives. It is a product that has demonstrated not only tremendous sustainability, but also the ability to spawn many new markets in its wake (iPad, iPad Mini, iTunes, accessories, home ecosystems, and more). It has produced a new generation of loyal customers (they even have a name; “Apple fanboys”). Introduced in 2007, it has created thousands of jobs worldwide and continues to dominate major sections of the smartphone market.


While simple in theory, user-centered design is a highly innovative approach to product development. It is based on acquiring direct feedback from users or prospects during the different phases of development, allowing you to make iterative design updates.

If you are an entrepreneur, this could be as basic as asking your friends or family what they think about your new idea.

If you’re a large corporation, it could mean investing in an in-house UX team or spending significant budget on outsourcing large research projects.

There are many proven methods with which to obtain empirical data and user feedback; surveys, one-on-one interviews, focus group sessions, and contextual field research- to name a few. What differentiates organizations that effectively apply UCD practices from those that do not isn’t just asking the questions … that’s the easy part. Where many fail is listening to the feedback, and implementing design changes accordingly. This is the design-test-iterate cycle that any product development group should aspire to follow.

UX practitioners come from a variety of different educational and professional backgrounds. Human factors, ergonomics, computer science, psychology, design, and arts are all common areas from which UX designers, engineers, and researchers develop. There are many specialized disciplines in UX; researcher, industrial designer, visual designer, interaction designer, prototyper, front-end developer, and many more. What they all have in common is the shared belief that the only way to create the best user experiences is by building the development process around the user.


In this user interface (UI), what the user sees on the screen and interacts with is created by UX designers and researchers. The actual data behind it are part of the back end. These are typically coded by two separate development teams in parallel and ‘the plumbing is connected’ at the end.

Conducting user research and establishing a direct and ongoing stream of communication with the user is the crux of UCD. However, there are also other components that are critical to the success of the process. If you are developing software user interfaces (UIs), there are tools to help you maintain consistent behaviours, look and feel across your UIs. Depending on your resources and scope, you might use a combination of pattern libraries, icon libraries, style guides, reusable front-end component libraries, or a dedicated front-end development team (critical for large-scale operations). If you build hardware, you can utilize cosmetic specification documents, behavioral specification documents, and design and engineering style guides, all of which should be backed by a thorough understanding of the user and comprehensive user research. Many specialty firms around the world offer services in the different UX areas such as Userade, which focuses primarily on research in the Middle East, Africa, and North America.

While UCD is not a magic formula for delivering disruptive products, it is a main ingredient. Exceptional user experiences are rarely designed and developed in a vacuum. And when they are, it is usually by chance. As thought leaders and business owners concerned with the sustainability of your organizations, this is a risk not worth taking. And ultimately, completing the circle, the main beneficiary of UCD is the user.


Dr. Hisham Besheer, Ph.D. 

Hisham has been in the user experience and hardware and software product development fields over eight years. He is an American University in Cairo alum and has a master’s and Ph.D. in industrial engineering from Texas Tech University. He recently founded Userade, a user experience, product development, and market research firm based in Austin, Texas, supporting the Middle East, Africa, and North America.

Ahead of the Curve and Userade have developed a strategic partnership to help enhance the user experience in the Middle East. 

For more on the subject get in touch with

Ahead of the Curve: The Need for Foresight in an Ever Changing World

Dina Sherif Co- Founder, Ahead of the Curve

There aren’t many constants in this world, but the one constant I have learned over the years is that nothing stays the same.


Photo Credits: Ozan Hatipoglu (Creative Commons)


We are in a constant state of evolution, with wealth, technology and innovation often at the heart of that change. When I started college In 1995 email had barely been introduced, use of the Internet and Google was far from our known reality when writing a paper for a class. We used landlines because there were no cell phones. To reserve a plane ticket we had to physically go to a travel agent or an airline office.

Today, I can write this blog using my Ipad where I can conduct the research I need for this blog, while also using my email, booking my plane ticket using an Expedia app, and having a conversation with a consultant in the US using Viber. All of that and I didn’t have to go to a library, a computer lab, an Internet café, a travel agent, or use a landline. The world has changed and will keep doing so because wealth, innovation, technology and an entrepreneurial mindset can take our lives to places we never imagined; both good and bad.

Now I know that many will blame a lot of society’s modern day ills on the very companies who have created the immense wealth being used today. Many will say that capitalism is the source of some of our most daunting social problems like pollution, climate change, never ending consumerism, abuse of cheap labor, uneven distribution of wealth, etc. Businesses are often perceived as the very entities that make profit by creating more social problems. I get that. There is validity to that line of thought, but what I am here to tell you is that line of thought is reaching the end of its time.

In the long term, businesses do not profit from social problems.

In fact, ignoring these problems for the sake of short-term gain will lead to their eventual demise. The simple truth is that reducing environmental impact saves money in the long term. Treating workers well and following appropriate health and safety measures saves money and creates more productivity in the long term. Mind you, I am not here to tell you that capitalism is dead. It is still alive and kicking and we have yet to see a better way to create prosperity. What I am here to say is that capitalism is at the cusp of a revolution where business as usual with a focus on short-term bottom line returns just won’t cut it in today’s world; without an ability to be creating multi-dimensional layers of value, your business won’t be sustainable.

The trick in all of this is to move to a mindset of foresight. One of the founding team members at Ahead of the Curve always teases me about my obsession with the term foresight. Think about it though, without foresight, we would not have Google or smart phones or cutting edge technology to make use of something as natural as solar energy. Unfortunately, one can’t help but wonder how all of our technological advances and wealth creation, with companies like Walmart making over 450 billion USD in revenue in one year, (over 3 times the GDP of a country like Egypt) and Exxonmobil not too far behind, continues to be juxtaposed by extreme poverty and lack of access to basic goods and services.

The reality is we still live in a world where 2.6 billion people lack access to a basic latrine (WHO), where nearly 1 out of 8 people still suffer from chronic malnutrition, where something as fundamental as affordable housing is still a problem, where a decent education is often still a luxury and where access to basic health care is but a dream. While I can be as pessimistic as the next person about the state of the world and the interface between business and societal problems, in this case, I choose to take the side of my dear friend Christopher Schroeder by saying that we are living in some of the most remarkable days of our world’s history.

Because yet again, things are changing.

Today, we are witnessing an intersection between:

  1. sustainability
  2. innovation
  3. societal problems
  4. and business

This is evolving into a new way of doing business and a new way of tackling social challenges that is unprecedented and that may finally give us a chance at cracking that social justice and social equity nut. Unfortunately, we simply do not have the resources required to deal with the problems we have at scale, either within the world of non-profits or in the world of the public sector. We need a new way of doing things and of progressing that takes that intersection.

Business serving the betterment of society needs to become mainstream and we are getting closer and closer to that point.

A year ago, Google launched the Google Loon Project. Which at the time seemed rather unimaginable, but Google is using its wealth, technology, innovation and foresight to make that project a reality. Taking Internet to un-served off the grid areas could allow for millions of children to be better educated. Now imagine the potential impact that could be derived from that.


Photo Credits: Mario Sixtus (Creative Commons)

The United States doesn’t have a shortage of parking lots, but it does have a shortage of affordable urban housing options. The School of Building Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) pooled all of its resources together to come up with a way to use underutilized parking lots to build top of the line sustainable affordable housing options. Now imagine how making use of underutilized spaces could help solve the affordable housing problem across the world.


Photo Credits: Foxmental

A little over 3 years ago two bright and successful corporate executives in Egypt walked out on their jobs at a multinational to start their own small business called KarmSolar. The whole objective of which is to provide solar energy solutions to off grid communities. Now imagine how off grid communities could develop with access to energy.


Photo Credit: icecairo via photopin cc

There are numerous examples like the ones sited above and more and more of our youth, specifically in the Middle East, that are starting businesses that merge wealth creation with social innovation. This metamorphosis that is taking place in the corporate sector, is a new dimension for capitalism that can truly transform lives and solve social problems at scale.

We need to find solutions to today’s problems now. To do that we need to be “ahead of the curve”, not just in how we think, but also in how we function and in how we choose to build our businesses. We are living in some of the world’s most remarkable days with incredible technology at our fingertips, but we are living in some of the world’s worst days with pressing problems that need to be solved at scale. Divorcing business from society is no longer a possibility and business has a lot to offer in reversing some of the very problems that they have often created.

So I leave you with one final question: Is it not time to start investing in the foresight required to fix pressing problems while simultaneously generating the wealth required to continue to sustain our livelihoods?

Like it or not, the world is changing in that direction anyway, so hop onto our bus – join us in building more sustainable societies.

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Dina Sherif Co-Founder, Ahead of the Curve

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