Last year, I got contacted by Elaine Pelletier who was writing a paper on entrepreneurship in Morocco for her MBA program at the University of Nebraska, USA. I thought I’d share with you her paper and our conversation on the current entrepreneurial environment in the country. Enjoy!
Change Agent in Morocco: Safaa Nhairy
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, MBA Program
Morocco is a natural point of confluence because of its geographic location in the northwest corner of Africa, adjacent to the Strait of Gibraltar, which is the major gateway for commerce and movement in the Mediterranean. Morocco is rich with influence from the European, African and Arabic regions, making it a microcosm of globalism since the earliest times. The Moroccan ability to blend very different – and often very contrary – cultures has made for an unexpectedly progressive business environment as compared to other African nations. In recent years, the entrepreneurial spirit has developed at a rapid pace, especially among the young generation as they respond to global opportunities for education and engage in both the consumption and production of internationally relevant products and services. The young also bring an ability to leverage technology – in the form of ecommerce and web-based business tools – to build Moroccan-based businesses that serve a world-wide market.
Safaa Nhairy is a well-known Moroccan entrepreneur and is the subject of this paper. Ms. Nhairy is of particular interest for several reasons. First, she herself is a confluence of many relevant themes. She was raised in Morocco but has an international educational background (having attended college in Washington, D.C. and London, and teaching as a professor in Morocco); she is trilingual, and her various professional endeavors are simultaneously highly localized and expansively international. Next, she is a native change agent for entrepreneurs. Her work includes articles, blogs and videos to teach and encourage business-builders and risk-takers. As a young, ambitious, highly articulate woman she serves as a vital role model for her nation’s emerging economy and youthful business leaders, while remaining respectful of traditional values. Finally, her philosophy reflects many leadership ideals that are relevant to every successful business regardless of size or location.
This paper fulfills the assignment to investigate change agents in the emerging Morocco market in two ways. Safaa founded and grew several businesses that mix traditional services (like media consulting) with contemporary technology (web-based commerce and communication) to serve targeted Moroccan consumers and businesses. Her business journey is pioneering as she is a young, female, entrepreneur succeeding in a traditional, male- and elder- dominated, relationship-intensive business climate. Marketing is the primary business function where she demonstrated innovation, including:
– How to market successfully as a business serving Morocco. Her company is iMediaRt, a communications agency based in Casablanca, Morocco. She helps clients develop their communication and marketing strategies, establish their market position and enhance their external reputation and image.
– How to create differentiation in an established market segment. iMediaRt was a natural extension of Safaa’s education and experience in communications and marketing. However, such agencies were a well-established segment in Morocco so it was vital for her to create a unique value proposition to succeed. She determined that on time, quality service would distinguish her offerings from her competition and built her organization, strategy and execution around this theme.
Of greater interest is how Safaa has personally and professionally driven change in the Moroccan business community by enabling entrepreneurial endeavors. Safaa is a living example of appreciative inquiry: she actively invests in inspiring and educating others on how to be a successful entrepreneur, but also to aspire towards their greatest potential in all life endeavors.
Part 1: Research Narrative
The majority of content about Ms. Nhairy is derived from her blog, videos, interviews and the articles she has composed for various publications. This narrative presents her viewpoint on the assigned topics based on these sources, which offered ample insight into her entrepreneurial and change-embracing philosophy. Ms. Nhairy also generously responded to a request for an email interview. Where appropriate, her responses from this interview are directly quoted.
Morocco’s Economic & Political Environment
Ranked as the fourth most competitive country in Africa by the World Economic Forum’s 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Report, Morocco’s economy is undergoing an exciting transition. The dominance of the traditional agricultural sector has declined, manufacturing is stagnant and the services sector has increased in recent years. These shifts reflect modernization and positive global influences but have not been enough to support full employment, especially for young citizens. As a result, entrepreneurial activity has gained momentum, breaking through many cultural and governmental barriers.
“The global economy pushed Moroccans to reconsider their lifestyle and life goals, and find new ways of taking control of their lives, especially in that the bureaucratic mindset of most Moroccan companies is off-putting,’ says Kenza Bennis, a 30-year-old entrepreneur (Changing Face, 2016.)
The exhaustive Global Competitiveness Report (Global Competitiveness, 2015) describes 12 Pillars of competitiveness for 144 countries. Morocco lands at the mid-point ‘Efficiency Driven’ stage of development. The most problematic factors for doing business in Morocco are identified as: access to financing, inefficient government bureaucracy, inadequately educated workforce and inadequate supply of infrastructure, corruption and tax rates. These all put strong pressure against the emerging entrepreneurial sector.
While the government is highly bureaucratic and resistant to change, it has recognized the start-up mentality as an important driver for new jobs. As a result, recent changes have been initiated for easier and faster business procedures for hiring, taxes, and administrative filings that are aimed to help young entrepreneurs.
The business and community culture in Morocco tends to be resistant to this emerging business philosophy. The parental population presses hard on the traditional path of higher education followed by a corporate job, even as their young adult children face a very limited job market. The long-ingrained Arabic business culture operates with deep networks and very formal business interactions which are not consistent with the youthful entrepreneurial spirit. Gaining funding is very difficult as it is illegal (per Arabic law) to charge interest, making loans and access to capital a demanding and complicated process. Increasingly, investment capital is sourced from foreign investors. Access to training and mentoring present further hurdles to aspiring businesses because risk-taking and innovation are not part of Morocco’s heritage. As Ms. Nhairy states:
“In Morocco, the cultural environment doesn’t encourage people to fail. People see mistakes or failure as a death sentence, and this needs to be changed.” (Changing Face, 2016)
Fadi Haddadin, an economist and policy analyst, writes about the same topic in an article in the e-magazine, Entrepreneur Middle East:
“Arab culture (and the existing regulatory regimes) shows a unique attitude to failure: it’s one that prevents “failed entrepreneurs” from coming back into the marketplace and to constructively use their experience to try again, leaving them permanently stigmatized and marginalized.” (Haddadin, 2016)
In spite of these head winds, programs and resources have emerged to fuel entrepreneurial growth. These include a program to fosters the entrepreneurial ecosystem call called Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) (the largest global producer of phosphate rock and controlled by the Moroccan state); and organizations like INJAZ Al Maghreb, ENACTUS, Start Up Your Life and MCISE that offer guidance to new business owners. Research into these organizations yielded excellent information about many Moroccan entrepreneurs and their journey to overcome obstacles and build successful businesses.
Factors contributing to the business and entrepreneurial influences
The founding of her media company, iMediaRt, followed naturally from Safaa’s formal education and her professional experience in media and communications. Her general business and functional experience was also a key factor in the decision to start a communications company. Because she engaged in professional media work at age 13 and had published a magazine at age 17, she had significant business depth in spite of her youth. I believe that her exposure to foreign countries and diverse business climates during her educational years contributed to her highly evolved global perspective. This allowed her to think beyond the limits of Moroccan business culture to creatively establish a profitable company in a highly competitive segment.
Safaa presents herself and is recognized for her independence of action and thought. This description in an interview conducted by Wafin (a portal dedicated to Moroccan American business and cultural interests) accurately captures this trait when describing her:
“Her readership admires her for her “audacity;” she tackles topics that most people prefer to ignore. Her last column on her website was about the importance of one to think for him/herself, and not let any outside power influence one’s thinking. She believes in what she calls a “personal reasoning” (Moroccan of the Month, 2004.)
A unique facet of her independence is her willingness to not only admit failure or difficulty, but to embrace the learning aspect and improve herself and her goals. In her blog she speaks of a time in 2015 when her business was under duress, requiring her to make very difficult decisions. In spite of disagreement from friends and colleagues, she chose her path based on her own counsel and remained true her decision in spite of criticism. This complete accountability to oneself is mandatory for any entrepreneur when facing countless challenges and opinions in the midst of a breakthrough change.
Risk taking is not a behavior typically associated with Morocco in any environment and in fact, is shunned as undesirable in social and business interactions. It was not an easy or obvious decision to establish a media company in Casablanca when Ms. Nhairy founded iMediaRt. She carefully qualified the benefits of leveraging her passion and skills against the risk of being a bold new player with something unique to sell. She made her bet, and won in the face of difficult odds.
A last facet of her character that has had a strong influence on her journey is her commitment to giving back to her community. As she explains it: “I learned being an entrepreneur in Morocco in the hard way. I used to teach at university …. and missed it a lot, so I decided to post on YouTube to share my experience, give tips and advice to aspiring entrepreneurs … my purpose is to share my learnings and benefit as many people as possible.” This drive to openly engage infuses her creative and leadership style and ultimately, is a dominant aspect in her ability to influence change.
Safaa’s ambition manifested itself at a very early age. She hosted a television show at age 13 and achieved her personal goal to publish a magazine at age 17. She sharpened her sense of Moroccan heritage and her global perspective during her collegiate studies in the United States and England. She went on to found several companies, overcoming the inherent risk-averse, change-resistant business culture of her home country.
Her writings span her educational, professional and personal journeys and reveal an ongoing personal challenge: how to bring her energy, experience and mentoring skills together for the benefit of aspiring business people. What is unique in her story is not the problems or conflicts in building her business (which were many,) but rather her impressive determination to take risks and inspire those around her. These are the defining characteristics of an entrepreneurial change agent. Ms. Nhairy’s motto, as posted on her blog (Nhairy Blog, n.d.) captures the challenge she lives by and promotes to those who follow her: “whatever you do, do it passionately.”
At a Tedx Talk event in November, 2016 sponsored by Mines Rabat (the National School of Mineral Industry, based in Rabat, Morocco), Safaa presented a life-changing chapter in her story. The summary of this talk was: “Your brain will always be against you, so accept your fears and embrace your struggles then take action because it speaks louder than words (TedX Challenge, 2016.)
Her presentation opens with a description of herself as a lonely and exhausted student in the United States. She is overwhelmed, in part, by a constant demand to defend her culture and religion in a foreign country. In spite of her many accomplishments, intelligence and drive, she is questioning her destiny. In describing this personal milestone, Safaa demonstrates a core conviction that is at the essence of her entrepreneurial spirit: your destiny is within your control.
The Tedx Talk unfolds to describe her determination to “do something’ by facing the fear and the pain in her brain.” Her message is to accept that pain is part of life because it is not productive to concede to it, nor to yield control of your destiny because the journey is hard or painful. A person’s ability to embrace and overcome pain is vital in every step of their business and life journey in her belief. She directly challenges her Tedx Talk audience with: “if you are seeking comfort, you will never experience magic.”
Pain in Safaa’s definition has much to do with a compulsion to act and bring value in life. It was this sensation that ultimately drives her to found her original business called iMediaRt. As she describes it, upon her return from school, she worked at several institutions in Morocco only to discover that the work climate was not a fit for her goals and business philosophy. She founded iMediaRt to ensure that her vision for customers and employees would thrive in spite of being contrary to the business norms. In driving iMediaRt to success, she decided to translate her experience as an entrepreneur (combined with her teaching skills) to become a mentor and spokesperson for emerging Moroccan entrepreneurs. The following is an accurate description of growing Ms. Nhairy’s influence around the globe: “Fresh, young and novel, Safaa Nhairy represents the new generation of Moroccans seeking positive change and intellectual development” (Moroccan of the Month, 2004.)
“When I set up [iMediaRt] I realized that there were so many media agencies in Morocco …. that I had to work really hard to find a niche and make a name” (Nhairy, 2017.) Building a company based upon her passion for communications, Safaa talks about several pressure points, her creative solutions and reactions from the business community.
Her first priority was to build something that was a true money-making business. This economic goal sounds obvious, but as a young woman in the Moroccan environment, her professional mind-set and approach was unusual. In the media communications segment, there were many operators who lacked true credentials and skills but who were able to leverage their established networks to win customers. Lacking easy access to customers via an extensive network, Safaa identified her second challenge: what new, different capability could she provide to capture the attention of the market?
“The quality of work was only a detail in running their business,” says Safaa when describing the typical attitude of her competition. This lack of consideration for quality and timeliness gave rise to the iMediaRt identity: Safaa created unique relationships with both her clients and her employees where respect was foundational and commitments were honored. It was particularly challenging, in Safaa’s words, “to make a name in an environment that doesn’t believe much in hard work and integrity. Business making in Morocco tends to rhyme with bribery, gifts and other monetary advantages in exchange for [winning] a project or PO” (Nhairy, 2017.)
Her strategy was two-fold. First, she decided to be very selective with her customers. She only worked with firms who embraced the same values and who could be counted on to make payments. By emphasizing shared values, she could win projects over her competition because her target customers cared about quality service delivered on time, as promised. Even so, she describes the effort required to achieve economic success: “You have to sweat day in and out, make daily phone calls, and send regular reminders to get your payment” (Nhairy, 2017.) This investment in hard work and diligence is typical of any early stage company. When the entrepreneurial founder makes this investment in ‘sweat equity’, it conveys to customers and employees – through action, not words – exactly what is important to the firm.
The second part of her strategy was a unique approach to employee engagement and expectations. Team work and accountability are not native to the business culture in Morocco. Also, the communication style does not promote open engagement. People do not ask for help, nor do they actively problem-solve with peers. Her comment: “when you distribute a task and think that it’s a work in progress when in fact it’s not, can be really tough and frustrating to deal with” (Nhairy, 2017.) She learned to be very active in her firm’s delivery process to reinforce objectives and timelines with her team, and to support delivering on time and as promised to customers. Further, she was very progressive with the concept of empowerment. In Morocco, the culture tends to be very directive: elder or senior roles provide specific direction to employees. Workers are educated that they will be ‘told’ what to do and it is not expected (or even tolerated) that they would contribute ideas or input into a process. Of course, this type of thinking leads to the absence of accountability and integrity. Safaa took the unusual approach of actively pushing for “employees to take a leadership role no matter what their job position was” (Nhairy, 2017.) It took constant attention to overcome the tendency to ignore delays or problems and build an open work culture. Again, her words reflect her natural leadership instincts: ‘I learned to keep checking back throughout the process. It’s certainly time-consuming and annoying but in this situation, my comfort is not the priority!” (Nhairy, 2017.)
The impact of her leadership in executing her business strategy (one that is quite radical by Moroccan standards) is summarized in this observation: “Our goals were to offer outstanding service…. Our clients used to thank us several times because they couldn’t believe that we delivered on the date we committed to” (Nhairy, 2017.)
Ms. Nhairy has gone beyond iMediaRt to found several other companies based upon her innate ability to see opportunity, design creative solutions and launch new projects.
A turning point and resolution
Safaa is living example of transformative energy. In her professional journey she has been guided by clear values and an unusually high sense of community obligation. This combination enables her to tackle problems, garner support and drive success in a way that truly transforms the people and processes around her.
She describes her values as being universal in spite of the many diverse influences in her life. Her Islamic background “lays the foundation for my acts and behaviors.” Yet she brings a distinctly western approach to her businesses, leveraging ideas of accountability and open communication. She firmly believes that there should not be a choice between following good values and doing business, but admits that it is hard to live up to this standard. She says “it requires more work, strength and patience” to act upon her values and this is evident in her many blog postings where she is very candid in discussing challenges and failures.
Her insight into failure is an important learning. Entrepreneurial endeavors fail far more often than they succeed. This is a commonly quoted statistic but failing still comes as a shock and disappointment to most business people. What is fascinating about Safaa’s story is not that she embraces failure as a true learning opportunity, but that she will take the risk in the first place. The national culture in Morocco is decidedly risk averse. Failing comes with losing face, confidence and social or ethical position. In contrast to Western cultures, it is common to ‘agree’ to a false deadline and repeatedly delay rather than admit that there was a failure to meet a commitment. Taking the risk to create a business is demanding enough, but Safaa chose the far riskier path of committing to accountability in an environment that is contra-accountable in most cases. Transformation of culture and behavior require conviction and tireless energy, both of which are natural to Safaa.
Finally, her sense of community drives her to engage, share and inspire those would also contribute to transformations. It is not enough to want success for yourself, but also to engage others and even more importantly: to demonstrate the possibility of change. By showing clients that timely, quality results can be achieved, her clients shifted their expectations of other suppliers to do the same as iMediaRt. This is exactly the incremental shift that can influence change at scale in a highly dynamic economy and culture like Morocco. Safaa sums it up best “Change starts with and within ourselves first and to influence a country, many people should share the same vision and have a set of common values.”
Moroccan of the Month: Safaa Nhairy, Wafin: Moroccan Connections in America, 2004, Retrieved June 3, 2017, http://wafin.com/dev/featured_item/safaa-nhairy/
Personal Communication, Safaa Nhairy, June 11, 2017
We Need A Change In Arab Attitudes Toward Entrepreneurs That Fail, Fadi Haddadin, January 31, 2016, Retrieved June 2017, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/270122