Local Heroes: The Entrepreneur Osama Natto

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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.

My first test drive – getting to grips with the family-oriented Chevrolet Traverse

As a new daddy, I’ve had to change my way of thinking. Now that I am responsible for a little one, I’ve been asked to rethink my ride. My workhorse car, a British-brand SUV, has served me well for over seven years. While it has traveled almost 280,000 kilometers (don’t ask) and has been dealer-serviced, my wife’s concern when it comes to my car (which I’ve worked hard over all of these years), boils down to the ‘what ifs’: what if the car breaks down with the little one in the back seat? What if the air conditioning stops working? What if a tire blows out?

With these things in mind, I started looking at cars in the market to get a better idea of what I should be buying. I wanted a car that would be safe for my daughter but still have lots of gadgets for me to play with. A good friend pointed me in the direction of General Motors and their Chevrolet brand. He also urged me to check out the Traverse and take it for a test drive. So I did just that.

No, this isn't me parking in Jebel Ali. But the Traverse handled itself well when I had to go off the tarmac

No, this isn’t me parking in Jebel Ali. But the Traverse handled itself well when I had to go off the tarmac

Right, let’s start with first impressions. I have a small yet sturdy SUV, but the Traverse’s roomy, spacious interior immediately blew me away. We had no issues fitting in the pram along with what felt like an endless array of grocery bags. In addition, we still had space left over for even more shopping bags, which is no mean feat if you know my wife. The space in the back was comfortable for both my daughter and wife, and because of all of the extra legroom they had –compared to my current car – I didn’t need to push my chair forward. When you’re six feet tall and you drive quite often, it’s good to not have to be cramped.

The Traverse has oodles of room in the back. The pram fitted in easily alongside all of the weekly shopping

The Traverse has oodles of room in the back. The pram fitted in easily alongside all of the weekly shopping

There were also many options at the back for anyone who sat there to play with, including rear seat entertainment systems, USB ports to charge smartphones, AUV jacks, and air conditioning controls (the air conditioning circulated well throughout the car, including at the back). My current car is so old that many of these functions are only available to me, so it’s nice to not be asked to change the A/C settings every couple of minutes. Instead, I could actually focus on the road (sorry darling). Our ISOfix car seat was also super easy to fit into the backseat, and the hooks for the ISOfix were simple to locate underneath the seat covers.

Now, let’s talk about daddy’s personal experience. As a ride, the Traverse was easy to handle; the car didn’t feel heavy or weighed down, especially when going into corners. I’d have liked a bit more oomph from the engine, but as a new daddy, I have to accept the fact that driving fast is no longer for me. There were also many additional features designed to offer driving support, some of which I loved. The alerts, including side blind zone and forward collision alerts were very helpful when trying to avoid unnecessary bumps while out and about (and parking, I will admit). What I loved even more was the lane departure warning system. I live in Abu Dhabi and I work in Dubai, so I have two long drives every day. That lane departure warning system helped me focus whilst on the road, making me a safer driver both for myself as well as others around me.

The Traverse's panel display was crisp and easy to use. The GPS handled Dubai's road network with ease.

The Traverse’s panel display was crisp and easy to use. The GPS handled Dubai’s road network with ease

And now for the gadgets! There’s so much to talk about here, including the obvious USB docking stations for my smartphone (the car is also Bluetooth-enabled) as well as a fully equipped central panel which included everything from a comprehensive GPS navigation system map – to help me get from point A to point B using the shortest and quietest route – to a host of radio and video options for both me and the passengers in the back.

Another great feature was the central panel, which is built into the wheel itself. I could control pretty much all of the tech stuff from the steering wheel, including the usual suspects such as the radio and audio functions as well as my actual phone (using voice commands, which I found to be very handy). This is a system called Chevrolet MyLink and is basically a touch-screen display that gives you easy access to all sorts of things (navigation, entertainment, phone apps, and even your contact list). I had everything at my fingertips, literally.

I enjoyed all of the tech in the Traverse and how its layout was convenient for me as a driver

I enjoyed all of the tech in the Traverse and how its layout was convenient for me as a driver

When I was driving to work by myself, I got to listen to some music via the Bose surround sound system. Let me tell you, the sound was crisp, loud, and very clear. This also made phone calls a joy (hands-free of course).

To round it off, I’ll admit that, prior to this experience, I had never thought of the Chevrolet Traverse as a viable option. Having stepped into the car and sat behind the wheel on my own as well as with the family, I have to say, I’m impressed. The car comes with a host of options to keep everyone in the family happy all the while offering a safe and smooth ride (thanks to side airbags and the industry’s first front center side air bag). And that to me is the most important factor to consider when choosing my next car.

As for the price? The car I was driving, a Traverse LT AWD, starts from 125,764 AED. Needless to say, it’s well worth your while.

A tale of two CRMs – Emirates and Bahrain Air

A couple of days ago was a very special day. Many years back something of immense importance occurred and I popped out into this world. I’m so proud of this day that I tell each and every company that I come into contact with online through their forms pages. My favourite firms out there are the airlines, who want me to repeat my birth date each and every time I think of flying with them.

Well, that special day which only comes once a year neared and I was pleasantly surprised to receive a host of name customized emails from businesses I have dealt with reminding me it was my birthday. I’d used Bahrain Air a couple of times, most recently at the end of May in 2012. I was impressed that they’d set up the feature (it isn’t too hard to automate the process if you have a good database and e-marketing tool) and that they’d not only sent it to my own email but also my wife’s email which I’d booked for the same trip.

Thank you Bahrain Air for the kind thought!

Thank you Bahrain Air for the kind thought!

And then there was another airline, the airline which we were traveling on that very day. I first traveled on Emirates in 2003 and love the airline. However, did the good people remember this ground-breaking day? Unfortunately they didn’t, despite me reminding them every two weeks when I travel between Dubai and Bahrain. No card, no happy birthday. There was a boarding reminder however (does that count?).

Technology is a wonderful business leveler. I was impressed by an airline that is low-cost and that has a fleet of four planes. In contrast Emirates has at least 190 planes and spends ridiculous sums on marketing every year, which Bahrain Air certainly does not. That Bahrain Air was able to make an impression at such a low cost says wonders for their marketing team, unlike the good people at Emirates. Now if only they were able to offer an added incentive to travel with them, a call to action such as a small discount, I’d probably have gone and booked immediately.

As for Emirates that day, even the world-class persuasive powers of my wife weren’t enough to get us an upgrade (it’s his birthday she said with a stern voice). And to top it off, the in-flight entertainment system wasn’t working. Oh well, at least we were spared from the 15 minutes of advertising that the airline is now showing in-flight.

At least I didn’t see this on my in-flight with Emirates… (Photo credit: Themetapicture.com)

Going above and beyond: How IBM is supporting Sharjah through training and education (and all for free)

Corporations often about about giving back. The phrase corporate social responsibility is often uttered by executives. But how many companies really get their hands stuck in when it comes to providing knowledge, skills, and experience to local communities.

IBM’s remit has included encouraging ICT adoption among Sharjah’s youth

One company that I admire and respect for how it does things differently is IBM. IBM, or Big Blue as the company is also known, is a vendor to the Government of Sharjah for its e-government project. IBM did what few other vendors do, and sent a team of volunteers over to Sharjah to help develop a communications strategy that would promote Sharjah’s e-government services to the Emirate’s citizens and residents. Here’s a couple of bite-size quotes from IBM’s press memo.

An international team of 14 IBM employees chosen for the company’s Corporate Services Corps program has arrived in the United Arab Emirates to volunteer their expertise in support of e-literacy and social development in the Emirate of Sharjah. As part of the project, the team will work alongside the Sharjah e-Government Directorate, Sharjah University and the Supreme Council for Family Affairs Centers.

The team of 14 IBM experts from the United States, India, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Australia will be on the ground in Sharjah for a month. At the Sharjah e-Government Directorate, a team will help refine a national strategy for promoting e-services of the Sharjah government to residents.

At the Supreme Council of Family Affairs, an IBM team will help the council and its organizations realize an e-literacy program and move closer towards realizing its goals of helping Sharjah women and youth improve their IT skills.

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps are teams of subject matter experts who give their time free of charge for a month to help local economies, improve skills, and provide a foundation for success in a variety of disciplines to small businesses, educational institutions and non-profit organisations.

As a person who is passionate about communications, I find it interesting that IBM focused on working with Sharjah on how to promote e-services. In a sense it acknowledges the truth that having a good technical setup and list of services just isn’t enough. If you don’t know about the services and/or your habits are ingrained then you won’t use a new services. It’ll be interesting to see how IBM and the Sharjah Government will look to tackle the issue of change, to promote services that contrast with how government affairs have been traditionally run in the Gulf (think lots of office trips and paperwork).

In addition, how will the initiative have tackled internal change, to convince government employees who would have never thought about either using e-services or promoting electronic government.

I’d love to know if IBM considered the prospect of using traditional communication methods such as a majlis (usually a night-time gathering of several dozen men, or women, in one room discuss everything from personal issues to business) to talk about and listen to ideas on how to publicize e-services as well as demonstrate the ease with which one could complete a government transaction or service without having to talk to someone face to face or leave one’s house or office.

How will IBM and the Sharjah Government promote e-services to a society that is both traditional and conservative?

In a conservative society with many different cultures, nationalities and languages what tactics can be used to convey a message successfully? The thought of using centuries-old concepts and practices to make a success out of a cutting edge technology project to change how government services are requested and delivered is fascinating. Again, I wonder what IBM came up with on this project.

All in all, this is what CSR should be about. Supporting a government e-services project through communications? Providing advice and training for getting more women and youth into technology? And for free? I hope others follow in IBM’s footsteps. We all could do with more corporate love through such projects.

PS for more news on IBM’s Corporate Service Corps initiative have a look at the website http://www.ibm.com/ibm/responsibility/corporateservicecorps/ or follow the hashtag #ibmcsc!

Don’t be evil – Google, freedom of speech, corporate responsibility and that video

I’m a huge fan of Google. The company has defined the internet era. Google is the world’s most popular search engine. Youtube is more popular than television in many parts of the world. Google Maps has redefined how we get from A to B. I could go on and on, but you get the point. Google has even entered the common language as the term people use when they refer to searching on the internet: “Go Google it…”

Google has done all of this and more while living by its ‘don’t be evil’ corporate motto. While Google has been criticized before for bending and breaking this mantra (most notably with its operations in China), the last couple of weeks have been remarkable. There’s probably few of you out there who have not heard about the film, named ‘the Innocence of Muslims’. The film, which has caused a global uproar, was uploaded to Youtube at the start of July.

Since then, there have been riots and demonstrations worldwide. Dozens have been killed and injured. And yet, Google has refused to pull it off Youtube. According to an AP story from two weeks back:

“Google is refusing a White House request to take down an anti-Muslim clip on YouTube, but is restricting access to it in certain countries.

The White House said Friday that it had asked YouTube to review whether the video violated its terms of use. Google owns YouTube, the online video sharing site.

YouTube said in a statement Friday that the video is widely available on the Web and is “clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.” (the full piece can be viewed here)

Google argues that only materials which are in clear violation of laws or that promote hate speech will be removed from Youtube.
Google says The Innocence of Muslims does not however breach YouTube guidelines. However, Google has blocked users from seeing the video in India, Indonesia, Libya and Egypt due to local laws and “the sensitive situation”. Youtube’s full statement from Friday 14 September is below.

“We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we’ve restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as India and Indonesia as well as in Libya and Egypt, given the very sensitive situations in these two countries. This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007.”

For me, the video is the clearest indication yet that Google has given up on its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra. Google had to pull down a video from Brazil after its resident of its Brazilian operations was arrested for breaking local laws.

Google constantly argues that Youtube is a channel and that it has no say in what should be on that platform for the sake of free speech. However, how many newspapers would accept advertising from Neo-Nazi groups? How many television channels would run an advert for euthanasia? Just like these media channels, Google has a responsibility to its audience. This cannot simply be about pure profit and driving up viewer numbers. Google sells products globally, it has to be responsible globally as well.

The fact that these videos are still on Youtube shames Google. I for one hope that the company I have admired for so long finally wakes up and does the right thing on this issue and others in the future by better defining and vetting what should go up on platforms such as Youtube and reacting to communities sooner rather than not at all.

Please Google, don’t be evil…

Google, please don’t be evil. Come back from the dark side.