Muna AbuSulayman: an educated mind

Deep pockets are only part of what makes a good philanthropist, says Saudi humanitarian Muna AbuSulayman; giving well is a learning curve in itself

In Jeddah’s largest mall, an eclectic cluster of start-ups are clamouring for attention and sales. Kiosks pitched in prime retail space tout everything from handmade clothing to catering services, hoping to snare the attention of some of the mall’s thousands of daily customers. These ventures are the work of Saudi entrepreneurs, each eager to catapult their ideas from small-time concerns into fully-fledged businesses, capable of turning a profit. They have six weeks to prove that they can.

All are part of the Dollani to the Souq, or ‘show me the market’ scheme, the brainchild of Saudi philanthropist and media personality Muna AbuSulayman. Would-be entrepreneurs are whisked through a crash course in running a business, before netting a six-week spot in one of the kingdom’s largest malls at a fraction of the usual cost. By the end of this stint on the front line of retail, each can expect to know whether their enterprise will sink or swim.

“About 40 per cent will drop out within three weeks,” says AbuSulayman. “Not everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur. But this is a low-risk way for Saudis to trial their business model, understand their price point, and see how they need to refine their idea.”

The scheme, a partnership with Saudi Arabia’s largest mall operator, Arabian Centres, already has more than 500 graduates under its belt. In the next 10 years, AbuSulayman hopes to see it cultivating start-ups across the entire Middle East, helping to make a dent in a youth unemployment rate that hovers at 25 per cent.

“I think there’s a gap in the market,” she says. “There are lots of training courses but very few low-risk practical schemes. I’m seeing really bright, young Saudis trying to make this work, and that could be replicated across the Arab world.”

AbuSulayman knows her market. Propelled to fame on the all-female talk show Kalam Nawaem, her eight-year spell as a co-host turned her into a household name and a poster girl for modern Saudi women. She remains a high-profile figure and one of the region’s biggest hitters on Twitter – but it would be a mistake to see AbuSulayman as simply a media darling. For more than a decade she’s beaten the drum for strategic philanthropy, first through the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation and later with her own consultancy, Directions.

Her CV is substantial. In 2007, AbuSulayman was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF), ranked alongside such trailblazers as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and the co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel. In the same year, she became Saudi Arabia’s first female goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Development Programme. Today, she lends her clout to a clutch of agencies, ranging from the Qatar-based social initiative Silatech, to the Muslim Women’s Fund, taking aim at some of the most intractable problems facing the Arab world today.

“I’ve had to educate myself,” she says. “I’m constantly asking what could be done differently or more effectively to maximise impact. Innovative philanthropy is a work in progress, and it’s not just about spending money. It’s about leveraging influence and encouraging change.”

AbuSulayman caught the wave of impact-led giving early. She cut her teeth as founding secretary-general of the Alwaleed Foundation, learning swiftly to parlay its annual SR100m ($16.1m) budget and political muscle into effective philanthropy. A former academic – AbuSulayman began her career as a university lecturer – she applied the same rigour here, seeking to secure the biggest bang for the Saudi-based foundation’s bucks.

“It was a shift towards thinking of philanthropy like a business, with a specific end goal. It was a process of trial and error,” she recalls. “It’s not about frittering away large sums of money. That’s the easy part. You could give away $100m a day to good causes. But you have to think about how the world is changing and the question to ask is: ‘Will my giving still matter in five or 10 years?’”

The organisation honed in on three strands: Islam and the West, female empowerment and community development, with additional funds set aside for aid for natural disasters; a shift from the scattergun approach to giving often associated with local foundations. Under her steer, it also broke with the regional trend of doling out chunks of money to charitable causes, instead favouring the use of strategic endowments to drive progress in its areas of interest. Among the projects the foundation backed are centres for Islamic studies in world-class universities, including Cambridge and Harvard, formed to foster dialogue and cultural bonds between East and West.

“These are endowments that will create the next generation of enlightened leaders, maybe not now, but in 20 years time,” says AbuSulayman. “The idea was to use funding to create a legacy, one that will continue to impact lives over the long-term. I think that’s a strong basis for effective giving.”

Her own approach to philanthropy was shaped significantly by her ties to the WEF, where she brushed shoulders with some of the leading thinkers of the day. An early meeting with Esther Duflo, co-founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, whose radical thinking on global poverty has caught the attention of politicians and philanthropists, prompted one of the foundation’s first grants, a $300,000 pledge to the Deworm the World Initiative.

“She was very clear on how deworming programmes were among the most effective and cheapest ways to ensure children in Africa attended school. So we supported that,” says AbuSulayman. “Davos in many ways was a masterclass. I was able to hear from the best of the best, people on the cutting-edge of research, and that helped me enormously in understanding the worlds of philanthropy and NGOs. Not enough philanthropists make giving decisions based on data.”

“Whether it’s youth unemployment or eradicating malaria, we need people to step up and say: this problem is my responsibility” Today, the mother-of-two has come full circle by leveraging these lessons in her own business. Directions Consulting both launches and advises others on philanthropic and CSR ventures, capitalising on AbuSulayman’s expertise and widespread industry contacts. What it is not, she says firmly, is a platform for vanity projects, designed to generate column inches rather than concrete results.

“I don’t do PR-led CSR,” she says. “We live with that kind of work all the time, where it is about buzz for a specific company or individual. If you want to get things done, you have to leave your ego out of it. I prefer to get things done.”

“The more focused your goal, the easier it is to give efficiently and well, and to track the results” AbuSulayman is critical of parts of the region’s charitable infrastructure, which she says play to self-interest rather than impact. She has clear advice for would-be philanthropists: educate yourself, identify a clear goal, and tailor your giving accordingly. “The key is to understand what you want to accomplish,” she says. “The more focused your goal, the easier it is to give efficiently and well, and to track the results. Everyone wants to do good – the question is what kind of good, and why? That moment of evaluation is vital.”

This sort of analysis doesn’t come easy, and perhaps explains why innovative giving has yet to truly find its feet in the Arab world. Hampered by a tradition of discrete charity, the region also lacks a ‘Bill Gates’ figure, able to spotlight the sometimes show-stopping results of catalytic philanthropy, as opposed to hit-and-miss cash handouts. For AbuSulayman, much will depend on the next generation’s ability to roll up their sleeves and take charge of critical social issues.

“As of now, I don’t think philanthropists see themselves as solvers of major issues, but as participants in the solution. We haven’t reached the point yet where they are taking personal responsibility. Whether it’s youth unemployment or eradicating malaria, we need people to step up and say: ‘This problem is my responsibility.’”

The region in many ways remains in flux in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, which brought its civil and economic woes into sharp focus. The timing may be right for the emergence of a fresh take on philanthropy, one geared towards driving social change on a broad scale.

“We will get there,” insists AbuSulayman. “I think the next generation of philanthropists, those who think globally and are better exposed, will be the ones to step up to the plate. I’d like to see a multitude of people look strategically at impact, focus their efforts and see what they can achieve in one specific area. If we can get that right, I believe it will lead to real change.”