Local Heroes: The Entrepreneur Osama Natto

osamanatto

I wanted to change the conversation on this blog, with the launch of a series of Q&As with people I know who are in the region and who are from the region and who are pushing for positive change. First up is Osama Natto, a Saudi gentleman who has worked in a range of roles. Today Osama’s focus is very much on encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the Kingdom. He’s touched thousands with his can-do attitude, his belief in local talent, and his love of technology.

I hope Osama will inspire you as much as he does me. If there’s someone you know who deserves a blog post, then please do drop me a note. In the meantime, enjoy the read.

Osama, tell us about your career and the choices that impacted your career?

I started working at a very young age in my father’s hardware shop in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. I used to clean the shelves and place price tags on products. I started with 10 Saudi Riyals a day, which around two and a half dollars. Working at the shop instilled in me workmanship, discipline, and how to be practical. It also built in me the sense of financial independency. I opened my first bank account as soon as I was legally old enough, and I started my first investment. When I joined the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals I continued to work part time in odd jobs such as lab attendant, teacher assistant, and applications programmer at a shipping company. I also worked freelance as a tutor and research assistant to students. When I was a freshman I noticed a recruiting brochure at the dorm room of one of the senior students. The brochure was for Procter & Gamble. On that day I said to myself, “I will work for one company, I will work for five years only and that company will be Procter & Gamble.” And I did stick to my promise.

So, what made you become an entrepreneur?

My decision to become an entrepreneur was made when I was in my early teens. I was fascinated by success stories of Saudi businessmen such as Alwaleed Bin Talal and Abdulrahman Alzamil. I had my own ventures that made money when I was still in school including selling fireworks during celebration seasons, video production for family and school events, and selling custom made jewelry.

What made me become an entrepreneur is freedom. There is no price on personal freedom. Freedom in decisions, freedom in time, freedom in lifestyle, and financial freedom. This does not necessary mean being wealthy, but instead not being dependent on someone or an organization to make a living.

What entrepreneurial lessons would you share with others?

Dream big, look at what is holding you back. Most of what is holding us back are internal factors that can and will be overcome once we understand them. Focus on products that have an impact on people regardless of their age, geographic location or ethnic background. Stay away from service-based businesses as they tend to consume you.

How do you foster innovation, and why does it matter in this region?

Fostering innovation in the region is a bit challenging for many reasons. Understating of innovation, the innovation process, the availability of facilities and resources to foster innovation. Our region needs innovation the most due to the dependence on natural resources and the growing number of population compared to the availability of jobs. Only through innovation can we create new products, new markets and hence new jobs. There is an entrepreneurship movement in the region; what I would like to see is an innovation movement. My current venture is more about innovation and less about entrepreneurship. I want to build the innovative products that the world needs. I want to bring the Arabs back to innovation. Our Arab ancestors innovated many concepts and products which still serve as the basis of many innovations today.

What inspires you?

Nature and beauty inspire me.

How is technology changing how we work in the region?

Technology helped to a big extent to get rid of the borders. Anyone in the region with a computing device and a connection to the internet can create something and sell it to the world. Technology not just gave us access to the consumers around the world, it provided us with research and data available at our figure tips. With technology, you have access to unlimited talent and resources at affordable prices.

On my previous venture, I had millions of dollars and a team over 60 people working with me. In my current venture, I wanted to try something new so I started with $400, built a product by using resources from around the world and sold it to people from around the world by using my laptop and any internet connection that is now widely available and, in some cases, free.

Lessons on media relations and transparency from the World Government Summit

Dubai's World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

Dubai’s World Government Summit has become a global event for government employees and is closely followed by the media (image source: Trade Arabia)

This month was host to another mega event in Dubai, the World Government Summit. The conference, which even hosted an address by President Obama, aims to become the leading platform for governments, the private sector and the public to learn about and collaborate together for innovation in government.

Two areas caught my eye. The first was that of media relations. There’s been a good deal of talk about how the communications industry is changing and media relations will become less important. That isn’t the case, at least for the vast majority of us who spend most of our day pitching, preparing for media interviews, and following up.

There was a sizable media presence at the event, which is testament to the World Government Summit’s global reach. However, while there were dozens of international journalists – whose flights and accommodation were paid for – the story for the local journalists I knew was different. Few Dubai-based media were reached out to except by email, with no phone calls. And some didn’t receive an email to arrange for registration. One journalist I talked to spoke about his frustration on having to chase the agency to get his registration sorted out. He was particularly peeved by a lack of support or empathy from the agency about the issue, and not only him but his whole team being missed out. As he told me, ‘a sorry would have gone a long way when it comes to good will.’

While I understand the urge to engage globally – after all, the event is now the World Government Summit – not involving local media is a idea that will only sour the agency’s relationship with the local journalists in the short to medium term; and trust me, you don’t want to deal with an aggrieved journalist, let alone put them in front of a client. Plus, in today’s digital age, I don’t buy this concept of local and global media. Everything is online, and much of it is curated by services such as Google News. It’s now a case of getting that content seen by the relevant stakeholder, which can be done through increasing paid reach or seeding the content on other sites.

Transparency and its impact on credibility

The second insight is around the inaugural “World’s Best Minister” Award. According to the summit’s website, the “World’s Best Minister” Award was “thoroughly and independently managed by Thomson Reuters where the search for the nominees is conducted according to the established criteria”.

To quote from the Summit’s website, details on the criteria and judging panel are below:

The criteria of the Award were set by the organizer of the World Government Summit. The criteria for selecting the candidates WAs based on various financial and non-financial metrics, and their improvement over time. These are based on data disclosed by the World Bank, United Nations, Legatum institution and various other well known resources that provide data and statistics on economic information, social metrics and government services.

The primary focus for 2016 has been on initiatives in the healthcare, education, social and environmental services.

The judging panel consists of six judges from various backgrounds, who provide different perspectives on the candidates based on their experience, expertise and insights. They include senior executives from the World Bank, OECD, Ernst & Young, Strategy & Co and the Abraaj Group on their personal capacity.

From an initial selection of 100 ministers, the winner turned out to be Greg Hunt, Australia’s environment minister. This choice has proved to be highly controversial, particularly in Australia where the Australian government has been criticized for its approach to green issues.

My focus however is the response from Thomson Reuters who, I feel, have sought to distance themselves from the choice of the winner. To quote from the Guardian.

But Thomson Reuters said it was “not correct” to say that the company initiated the award or were responsible for designing the selection process.

“Thomson Reuters was solely responsible for assisting in the administration of the award, to a set of criteria approved by the World Government Summit organisers,” said Tarek Fleihan, head of corporate communications for the financial information company in the Middle East, Africa and Russia.

Transparency is key to credibility. And whilst I do love the idea of awarding government officials who innovate on behalf of their citizens, the controversial choice and the ensuing contradictions surrounding the process hasn’t helped to make the award as credible as it should be.

What are your thoughts? Were you at the event? I’d love to hear your views on these two points.

Innovation, Data and Control – Squaring the Circle in Dubai

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Can governments in the Middle East find a way to balance control with innovation and access to data?

Someone re-found their mojo this month. The English-language newspaper The National published a number of eye-opening pieces on two issues that are often discussed, but little understood.

The first was an investigative piece (yes, I know!) on the challenges that Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) has faced with the disruption caused by app-based taxi providers such as Uber and its local rival Careem. To put the story into context, the RTA does not only regulate taxis in the Emirate of Dubai, but it also manages its own fleet of taxis.

The piece, which is a fascinating insight into how the Emirate is not only run but also how it is looking to balance control with innovation, poses the question of how a government which controls much of the business in the country promotes innovation whilst protecting its revenues. For me, the key paragraphs in the article, written by the newspaper’s business editor Mustafa Alrawi, are below.

In Dubai, The National understands, Uber and Careem have narrowly escaped a clampdown by the regulator that would have significantly curtailed their abilities to operate. The biggest issue has been the alleged failure to maintain prices above taxi fares. On its website Uber states that “ … in Dubai, regulations require our fares be 30 per cent higher than taxi fares”.

It is understood, however, that the regulator had been planning a far stronger response to the practices of private hire companies booked by smartphone app, ahead of new regulations to address the emergence of technology-led companies in the transport sector. These regulations are expected next year, according to previously reported comments from the RTA.

It is understood that the Dubai government stepped in before the row escalated to ensure that innovative companies such as Uber and Careem would not be hamstrung by any action by the RTA. The circular is understood to represent a kind of temporary truce between the regulator and the technology firms maintaining the status quo for now.

A second article the following day in The National touched on another important issue for the country – that of statistics and control over information. Here’s the introduction:

A new law that demands companies seek government approval before carrying out surveys in Dubai could damage the property sector and discourage research in the emirate, experts have warned.

The Dubai government announced a law late last month intended to help enable the Dubai Statistics Center “to establish an advanced statistics system”, according to a statement. But experts zoomed in on a provision in the new law that forbids private companies from “conducting any survey[s] without obtaining authorisation from the Dubai Statistics Center”.

As pointed out by one of those interviewed, there’s no such thing as a data vacuum. The lack of any official data will be filled by rumours, which can prove to be much more damaging.

Professor Joseph Kadane, chair of the American Statistical Association’s committee on scientific freedom, which produces reports for the United Nations on best practice in government statistics, warned that the new law would likely lead to the spread of “uninformed rumours and uncertainty about the extent of the downturn” in Dubai’s property market.

“This will do far more harm to Dubai’s economy than allowing private surveys to be conducted and published,” Mr Kadane said. “International investors, in particular, are sensitive to the quality of the information available to them in deciding where to invest.”

Both articles touch on fundamental issues relating to innovation and data. The underlying theme is control. Governments in the Middle East have long controlled everything around them, including their economies. In today’s digital world, where innovation can come out of nowhere and where data can be created and spread in an instant, governments need to understand that the control of yesterday is no longer possible and instead look to collaborate.

And, on a final note it’s great to see good local reporting. I hope The National keeps it up.

Innovation and the need to think simply

Innovation starts with the ability to ask a question

Innovation starts with the ability to ask a question

This week is a special one in the UAE – it’s officially Innovation Week and the country is full of activities extolling the virtues of innovation and all that this word entails (I admit, I’ve come to dislike this word, not because of what it stands for but rather its constant misuse).

As I’m a media junkie, two news pieces stuck out. The first was an effort by the Dubai Media Office to promote innovation through its Media Innovation Lab, a quarterly event that aims to promote a culture of innovation and creativity in media. To quote from Emirates 24/7, “the initiative seeks to share knowledge on media-related innovation among corporate communication and media professionals and media students. It is also in line with the UAE leadership’s directives to promote innovation in all sectors.”

The second is even more ambitious, and, quite literally, out of this world. I’ll let The National’s copy explain this innovation for you:

High school and university students from across the UAE have the chance to directly shape the future of space exploration.

Two competitions giving them the opportunity to watch their experiments blast off on a rocket to the International Space Station were announced on Tuesday at the launch of The National Space Programme in Abu Dhabi.

In the initial stages of the programme, The National, Abu Dhabi Media’s English-language newspaper, has linked up during Innovation Week with the UAE Space Agency, Boeing and other public and private organisations.

The National Space Programme contests are Genes in Space, challenging high school pupils to create a DNA analysis experiment, and the Satellite Launch project, in which a university team will build a satellite.

There’s a third strand I’d like to bring in here. I had the pleasure of talking to a university professor who teaches media here in the UAE. He was recalling the story of an occasion when the power failed at his academic institution. One of his students, a local, asked if she should cover the happening for the university student publication. He said yes and encouraged her to go and follow up with the operations department who look after issues relating to maintenance.

This student did just that and headed down to the operations department to understand more about the power cut. When she did meet someone, she asked what happened and explained why she was asking a question. And the response? “Why are you asking such questions? Who is your professor?”

While I love the ambitions of blasting into space or talking about creativity in the media, I’d love to see us put our feet on the ground and push for a climate where a question is welcomed, both from each of us as individuals as well as the media. As for the curious student, the brave lady did publish her story. She’s my innovator this week.

Meet Fraz Chishti, (possibly) the region’s first Chief Innovation Officer

How important is innovation to you and your business? (image source nbry.files.wordpress.com)

What is innovation? It’s an idea that is also bandied about today. Launch a phone in a different colour? Let’s call it innovation. How about a longer chip? Yup, that’s innovation. Well, it probably isn’t. To me, innovation should be a treasured word. To me, it implies the introduction of a new product or service that results in a transformation, upheaval even, in how we think or act. A simple example could be the car, the internet, or the mobile phone. The point is that innovation keeps us improving and moving forward.

I had the pleasure of meeting a person who does innovation for his day job. Fraz Chishti, who works for Noor Investment Group, is the first Chief Innovation Officer I’ve ever come across in this region. While his CV is impressive – he has a Phd in chemical engineering and has worked in communications, marketing, information technology and project management – what’s different about Fraz is his willingness to question and probe and not accept the status quo.

His opinions, especially for someone working in the financial sector, are different from what you’d expect. For example, Fraz worked with his CTO, the technology department and internal stakeholders to implement an open source application for the bank’s Human Resources department. Open source is a taboo in the banking sector, due to the risks associated with security and the lack of supplier accountability. However, Fraz and his team innovated and worked to develop a solution that met the requirements of a number of parties. Instead of going with an established provider, Fraz stepped out of the box and delivered a tool which, as he puts it, “gets the job done.”

In markets and industries which are becoming increasingly crowded and competitive, companies need to find better ways to distinguish themselves. They can either do that through marketing (which most do), or through a product and service focus. Add to that the disruptive nature of our digital age and consider how rapidly our world is changing.

Just talking to Fraz is an experience in realizing opportunities and unlocking potential. He’s disarmingly honest – Fraz worked with Noor Islamic Bank to understand the potency of social media rather than just jumping in blindly – with a touch of common sense (just ask him about e-commerce).

What’s clear is that Noor Investment Group has a person on the top table who isn’t afraid of floating ideas, concepts and thoughts which he will then take and mold into a functional model. He is the rare individual here who understands different functions of a business, who knows how to get ideas accepted by different stakeholders, and then collaborate to transform those ideas into processes, products or services that will add to a company’s bottom line as well as improve a customer’s perception of his organization.

In the US, the innovation officer has become an accepted position among blue-chip firms. But we’re still lagging behind in this region. If we’re looking to create rather than copy, innovate rather than import we’re going to need many more Fraz Chishtis. I for one wish Fraz and his future innovation colleagues the best of luck.

* This piece was first published on the Kipp Report news portal.

PR Buzzwords that we (often) could do without – Innovation and Social Responsibility

The concept of communicating through the written word is a remarkable thing – we have the ability to educate, engage and persuade through a well-written, thoroughly thought-out piece of work. And then, there’s the other end of the spectrum, when buzzwords and phrases are used without reason and with little understanding of their meaning in the context in which they’re used.

I came across one such example this week. A press release was sent out for a shopping promotion in Dubai. I’m going to post a screenshot below but you can also see the original article here.

How do the concepts of innovation and social responsibility work for a cash-based shopping promotion?

How do the concepts of innovation and social responsibility work for a cash-based shopping promotion?

I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions but let’s call a spade a spade and realize the power of words when properly used, in a setting that underlines their real meaning. Innovation is such a powerful term, as is social responsibility. But where’s the connection with this activity?

Anyone who works in public relations and communications will have been guilty of throwing in the odd ‘leading’, ‘global’ or award-winning every now and then. I’ve done it. However, is this habit becoming more commonplace within the Middle East’s communications sector.? When I have time, I’m going to do a keyword search to identify the worst offenders, the most overused phrases and buzzwords in regional press releases.

For the meantime, I’d like to ask you this. Which words are most overused and which turn your toes and make you cringe when you read them?

Is too much government intervention good or bad for innovation in the Gulf?

Is the Gulf’s innovation being hindered by too much government intervention? (credit: techpionions.com)

There’s been a couple of news stories recently that caught my eye. One was an interview on Kipp Report with the managing director of an online website called Tejuri.com. The article, which you can reach here, focuses on how Tejuri.com positions itself as the official online distribution channel for retailers registered with the Emirate’s Department of Economic Development.

Aside from the wisdom of launching an online distribution channel that is government-supported in the year 2013, the piece got me thinking about other areas. One example is non-governmental work, which (surprise, surprise) is often not only regulated but led by government-related bodies. And then you’ve got the ultimate example of government intervention, which is the ownership of the upstream and downstream oil and petrochemical sectors, numerous financial institutions and other businesses. And then there’s the sovereign wealth funds.

My question to these and other government interventions is how much do these activities stunt growth and disrupt innovation? Here I’m going to refer to United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization and Insead that ranks the top ten most innovative countries. The original piece from Bloomberg is here.

Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore are the most innovative countries in the world, according to a study by the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization and Insead that found a wide gap between rich and poor nations.

Innovation is an important engine of growth and new jobs, the Global Innovation Index 2012, which ranked 141 economies, showed. The index considered institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure and market and business sophistication as well as as the results of innovation such as patents and software in determining how countries fared.

Finland ranked fourth, followed by the U.K., the Netherlands, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland and the U.S.

Numerous surveys such as the above and this research one by the United Nations University show that governments help foster innovation most through investing in social capital (read education) and through financial funding – the irony in some parts of the Gulf is that education is in the hands of the private sector rather than the government. Governments then have to step back and then let individuals and businesses get on with it. The same can be said of the non-governmental sector, which, pretty obviously, works best without governmental support s groups and communities work to best pinpoint social issues and tackle them.

The argument often goes that entrepreneurs drive innovation and that governments need to reduce their interventions, reduce bureaucracy and increase financial support for small to medium sized firms to drive growth. However, is that what we are seeing in the Gulf? Or are we still not fulfilling our potential due to too much, rather than too little, government intervention?