A Different Kind of Arab Spring
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This guy believes that fostering startups will go a long way toward settling a difficult region.
By Laura Secorun Palet
“Oh, you are meeting Fadi? Wow. He’s the man,” a source tells me before I head to see Fadi Ghandour. The 55-year-old Jordanian businessman needs little or no introduction in the Middle East, as the owner of one of the world’s most successful global logistics and transportation companies, Aramex, a $4.6 billion empire he built from scratch. Yet the man that comes to greet me in the Aramex office doesn’t seem particularly sharklike. Sporting jeans, a blue shirt, elegant salt-and-pepper hair and an affable smile, he looks more like a film actor than a tycoon.
Then he starts to talk. One can tell he’s used to being the boss as he blurts out a string of questions about how long I’d been in the country, what I’d seen and who I’d spoken to. “Oops! Feels like I’m the one interviewing you!” he remarks jokingly.
In the world of entrepreneurship, there are endless tales from every corner of the planet of men and women who managed to establish industry empires against all odds and in tantalizing and colorful ways. And then there’s Ghandour, whose story has shifted from a legendary rise from car rental agent to Middle East logistics mogul to now going back to square one and launching his own venture capital firm. Two years ago, this guy was CEO of Aramex, with some 14,000 employees. Now, after keeping only a vice president’s job there and board seat, he’s running a grand total of six people.
His new dream is focused on the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA as it is called, a nook tied together by political turmoil and commerce. With a grandiose passion that only somebody with his power bio can really have, Ghandour says he believes entrepreneurship may provide the solution to many problems in the region. He sees himself as part of “a hidden revolution in the region’s startup scene,” which is taking place in what he calls the “virtuous axis of innovation” between Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Dubai. He believes turning job seekers into job creators and promoting a flexible, solution-based mentality among the youth could even help fight the Islamic State. ”The antithesis of destruction is construction,” he says. “Instead of dropping bombs, we need to create economic opportunities.”
At 25, he was already convincing FedEx to use his new company to deliver its parcels throughout this large, conflict-ridden region.
It’s a compelling idea — one that many other regions have invested in. But could he have picked a tougher place for a widespread startup spring? Violence has made a home in Syria and is slowly gaining a foothold in Iraq and Libya. Despite the so-called “victories” of the Arab spring, the region remains largely ruled by authoritarian regimes and is burdened by slow, monolithic bureaucracies. Add to that the prevalence of nepotism and monopoly in certain sectors of the economy and limited political transparency, and the picture isn’t exactly inspiring.
Yet Ghandour is all in, having co-founded MENA Venture Investments, one the of the most active seed capital investments in the region. He was also a founding partner of Maktoob.com, the world’s largest Arab Internet portal, which was bought by Yahoo in 2010 for $165 million. Today, Ghandour’s small but aggressive fund has 75 companies in its portfolio, from Jamalon — an early stage, Arab Amazon — to Qordoba — a crowdsourcing translation platform. Among his favorites is Instabeat, an award-winning heart rate monitoring system for swimming goggles, because Ghandour is an avid swimmer.
His aggressiveness draws skeptics. “There’s a lot of talent, but I question whether there are enough quality startups to match the money coming in,” says Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of ArabNet, a media platform and event organizer for digital startups in the Arab world. But Ghandour says he believes that this injection of money will motivate entrepreneurs to come out of the woodwork. According to a Middle East Private Equity Association report, VC investment in the region is on the rise, with 139 VC deals completed the past two years compared with 77 from 2008 to 2010.
Ghandour calls himself an “accidental entrepreneur” and says, “It’s one of the most difficult careers one can choose.”
Meeting Ghandour — in our case at Aramex’s rather bland headquarters in a boring-looking building in Amman — is quite an experience. Though gentle in manner, he refuses to relinquish any control over the interview, going as far as to suggests which questions I should be asking him. His past is even more intriguing: The son of a Lebanese entrepreneur, he and his family moved to Jordan when he was a baby. He studied politics at George Washington University, and by 25, he was already convincing the world’s largest courier companies at the time — from FedEx to Airborne Express — to use his new company to deliver their parcels throughout this vast, conflict-ridden region.
Quite a journey for a man who calls himself an “accidental entrepreneur,” who worked at a car rental in Amman before a friend in the courier business suggested they try to take advantage of a gap in delivery in the Middle East. But as we part, he leaves with one of the greater ironies that is Ghandour, telling me he actually doesn’t enjoy being an entrepreneur. It isn’t fun to raise money he says, and the work isn’t glamorous either. “It’s only newspapers and magazines that say that,” he says. “It’s one of the most difficult careers one can choose.”
Especially in the place he’s picked.