December 5, 2011
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Anne Habibi presenting panel on Entrepreneurship and Visibility
Second Global Entrepreneur Summit
‘Cash flow is more important than your mother.’ quote by Professor Kenneth Morse
What makes a tired, jaded and somewhat disheartened Arab woman entrepreneur sit up, take notice and regain her enthusiasm? It could be the fact that the sessions today, at the Second Global Entrepreneur Summit and AllWord Network, were extremely interesting and enlightening. Could be the enthusiasm of other business men and women, could be that we are being actively feted by government ministers, Harvard professors and Venture Capitalists. Could be the story of the Saudi woman who won the AllWorld Network number one start up and got up to accept her prize in front of 500 Saudi men who gave her a standing ovation. Could be all of these things.
But while listening to Professor Kenneth Morse, ex MIT, ex Harvard, expound on the fire in the gut of entrepreneurs and their inexhaustible drive to achieve their dream, even when every one around them is telling them to give it up. I remembered.
I remembered those gut aching, joyous days when Najat and I shared a small desk, one computer, a telephone, in a two by four room convinced that we were the Arab world’s answer to David Attenborough. We were going to make documentaries that were going to blow Arab broadcaster’s socks off. We had a company, we had a vision but we didn’t have a business plan, or a strategy, we had no capital, hell we had no money. VC’s were not beating a path to our door. In fact I can safely say I had no idea what venture capital was and wouldn’t have believed we could be eligible for it. Finance, though needed to survive, was not something we actively pursued. In hindsight it seems crazy.
So how did we make it with no money to speak of, other than that earned on projects in an ad hoc way? We had an idea. One based on my love of history and Najat’s knowledge of the region. Something no one had done before. A series of documentary programmes on the religions of the Arab world. Through Najat’s contacts at the time we met the head of Al Jazeera television. He loved the idea for the new documentary channel Al Jazeera was launching and asked us to develop the series. Of course, like most Arab broadcasters, development fees were and are unheard of and of course were not forthcoming.
We spent a year developing the project, researching, writing treatments, working on budgets, living on peanuts. You could have sent a rocket to Mars and brought it back on the energy we had. Finally the series was ready to unveil to the powers that be at Al Jazeera. Off we went, borrowing money to travel to Doha. They loved it. Wanted it. Started the contractual process. We went back to Beirut to wait. And wait. And then war broke out.
The Second Gulf war started and a few months in, the Americans were very unhappy with the way Al Jazeera was portraying the events in Baghdad. Putting pressure on the Qatari government, the American administration had the head of Al Jazeera removed from his post. Had they but known what this would mean to two woman sitting in a tiny office in Jounieh in Lebanon, I am sure President Bush would have had second thoughts about the whole matter.
Oh. My. God. Please replace the man in Munch’s Scream with me and Najat and you’ll get some idea of our initial reaction.
Once we recovered from the melt down you would have thought that that was that. But hell no! We could see the potential, the business, the success, the money and we had the bit between our teeth. We were entrepreneurs and did not know it.
For six months Al Jazeera put us off telling us that the contract was being written, it was in the legal department, in finance, in HR, they lost it, they found it, they moved premises and lost it again. One bright morning, we decided as a last ditch effort to borrow more money and go to Doha and search the Al Jazeera offices ourselves, if necessary, for the contract.
Arriving in Doha, we make our way to the Al Jazeera Documentary offices for a meeting with the new head of channel. The previous day we had arranged with his assistant, who knew and liked Najat and I to look for the contract. She did. And God bless that woman she found it and had it ready for her boss’s signature.
Now the contract was for a 15 part documentary series of the religions (and sects) of the Arab world and we had budgeted for that. The budget took into consideration among other things, five crew (director, producer, camera man, sound engineer and assistant producer) travelling to 15 countries and staying approximately three weeks in each country for the filming. That description alone should give you a clue about the size of budget I am talking about – large and for broadcasters outsourcing factual entertainment (a rarity in those days) – very large. The head of the channel solemnly read the contract which I believe he had not actually seen before the day we arrived in Qatar. He very slowly took out a pen, while Najat and I sat like statues too afraid to move lest he change his mind. Whereupon he said ‘I would like to make one change.’ We looked nervously at each other and at him but said nothing. He said ‘I wish to remove a word and then I will sign the budget.’ We were numb. He scratched the word out. As the contract was in Arabic and upside down I was unsure which word was struck-through. Najat clutched my hand. He said I think for this budget we can take out the word Arab. Hmmm….My brain scrambled to re-arrange the title of the series. The Religions Of The World… Not …Arab World. The budget was made for the Arab world not the world. What? How? Is he kidding I thought? One look at Najat told me, no, he was not kidding. If we wanted this contract then we had to accept this condition though no way in hell was that budget going to cover the world! The world required a much, much larger budget!
To cut a long story short. We accepted the contract. We accepted to give the broadcaster a letter of credit and a guarantee for 25% of the money. How we got the bank to accept this is another story. We accepted things we had no idea of. No one had done this before. We are still accepting things that should not be. There are no adequate safeguards in place for companies like ours in the Arab world and maybe there never will be. But having said all that – wow – what a time it was for us and is for us now in this region. That series, did not make us rich but it did put us on the map. Work followed and apart from a few glitches, such as invasions and skirmishes, we have grown into the company we are today.
I believe over the last decade I have matured into an entrepreneur even if I was not born one and today I am no longer tired even though the battles facing pan-Arab entrepreneurship seem only to get tougher. I am no longer tired as I recognise and feel again the gut aching enthusiasm for what I do.