LIFE THROUGH A LOOP

LIFE THROUGH A LOOP

LIFE THROUGH A LOOP

MOUNA MOUNAYER I WRITER I DIRECTOR I PRODUCER I WIFE and not necessarily in that order…

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ODE TO PARTNERSHIP

8 Dec 2011

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Mouna Mounayer & Najat Rizk Partners and Friends @ Firehorse

“Our success has really been based on partnerships from the very beginning.” Bill Gates

As I walked up onto the stage of the large auditorium at the Congre Istanbul Merkezi (Istanbul Congress Center), with my partner of twelve years, Najat Rizk, to collect our AllWorld Network Arabia 500 medals, I was reminded of Bill Gates’ quote about partnerships and success. In our case a truer word could not have been spoken. In no way is the next thought logical or business like but our partnership has an ingredient which to me is akin to magic. Laugh it up if you must but I tell you there is a secret ingredient which made itself known from the first instance. Anne Habibi, one of the co-founders of the AllWorld network, referred to us as the ‘Dynamic Duo’ of the Arab production world. Thanks Anne, you know we are going to be arguing for the rest of the week as to who is Batman and who is Robin? Almost from that first instance there was a synergy between us but it was not necessarily a given. Two women, two film-makers, two ambitions but we shared the same vision, wanted to climb the same mountain, are almost exactly the same age and interestingly, I had named the company for my horoscope and it turned out it was one she shared – so we are both Firehorses. And if you know anything about Firehorses then you know that after the blinkers are off the relationship should go downhill fast. But not for us. I have had other partners, good ones, successful ones but no one like Najat and for her no one like me. Coincidence? Serendipity? Who knows but I do know that though we could have had success solo, together, the lows have not been lonely and getting to the highs has been an adventure worthy of a television documentary. Who would have thought, two women living in a predominantly patriarchal society, would face it head on while making films on Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Israel’s relationship with Hezbollah, among others and come through it with their reputations made as serious film-makers, setting the stage for Firehorse to become one of the premier production companies in the Arab world for Factual Entertainment. What makes our double act so special? Is it that Najat is a doer and I am a writer? Could it be that her knowledge and love of regional politics and my love of history and of story structure make for one strong film? Is she Robert De Nero to my Martin Scorsese? Too American. Am I David Lean to her Alec Guinness? Too British. Is she Johnny Depp to my Tim Burton? Too weird. We come from different backgrounds, different countries and types of upbringing. She is a child of war torn Beirut, growing up dodging rockets while going to school and inhaling the politics of the middle east with her packed lunch. I grew up in London in the 1980’s. New Wave music, big shoulder pads and whether Boy George was gay or asexual were the landmarks of my childhood. I remember staying home from school when the IRA put a bomb in letterbox. I remember walking past the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 and wondering what the police were doing surrounding the building and closing all the roads (ok – give me a break I was…young) but that is the extent of violent politics affecting my childhood. My biggest angst was surviving the Opus Dei elements at my school instead of surviving to see another day. So not the same childhood. Not the same early adulthood either but interestingly she did geography and geo-politics at university and I did archaeology and history. Then she became a producer and I became a writer-director and that is where we came together. We have never competed for each other’s positions either while making a film or within our company. In the end I guess I am Mouna to her Najat and that has worked for us over, above and through all the times and different moods that colour our relationship. Looking back at the last twelve years and what made our partnership so special (aside from the magical ingredient) was trust. Trust encompasses so many elements; love, respect, friendship to name a few and whether we are talking films, formats, strategy or having a screaming match, we never lost site of our baby. Firehorse. We created it as film-makers. We are evolving it as creative entrepreneurs. I think I have just coined a new term? Do I get another entrepreneurship medal for that? Pretty please. Finally, as we receive our AllWorld Network medals for being part of the Arabia 500, I would like to thank Anne Habibi and Deidre Coyle the co-founders of AllWorld for a wonderful three days in Istanbul for networking, for learning, for sharing and for a little reflection on the meaning of entrepreneurship, business partnership and extending your hand in friendship and business to people and countries never before on our radar. Namely Pakistan here we come. Hope you are ready for us Firehorses. PS: I am definitely Batman to Najat’s Robin. I am taller. You cannot have a short Batman to a tall Robin – it aesthetically wrong. Ok I am also older…by a few minutes… so that makes me Batman. And finally Batman does not have a Frenchy accent! Yes, I am Batman to her Robin. Too right.

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Najat Rizk and Mouna Mounayer conquering the world?

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Cash-flow is more important than your mother…

5 Dec 2011 1 Comment

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Anne Habibi presenting panel on Entrepreneurship and Visibility

Second Global Entrepreneur Summit
Day Two

‘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.

Inflection Point

3 Dec 2011 8 Comments

The second Global Entrepreneur Summit, Istanbul and AllWorld Arabia 500 + Turkey
Day One

All’s changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.

William Butler Yeats quoted by US Vice President Joe Biden at the second Global Entrepreneurship summit in Istanbul today Saturday 3 December 2011.

Woke up this morning feeling cranky. Gluttony is so very unattractive in people never mind a woman who should know better. Gluttony plus middle age and you have a recipe for a sleepless night even when you are sleeping on the signature bed in one of Istanbul’s leading funky hotels – the W. Stumbling out of bed as I did not want to miss Vice President Biden’s speech at the opening of the second Global Entrepreneurship summit I look around my ‘Wonderful’ room and find a big puddle of Water on the floor. Room not so Wonderful then, well at least not in the way it is advertised on the W Istanbul website. Last time I was in Istanbul it was storming and it rained inside my room in my 5 star hotel on the Bosphorus. So maybe the room is Wonderful and I am carrying my very own rain cloud every time I step into the amazing capital of the Sublime Port. Unfortunately I don’t have time to ponder the mystery – Joe Biden awaits.

My business partner Najat and I are in Istanbul at the invitation of the ALLWORLD NETWORK for the Second Global Entrepreneur Summit under the aegis of Prime Minister Erdogan with Vice President Joe Biden opening the conference. When we get to the Congress Conference Hall we find hundreds of people lining up to register. It is now 10.25 am and Joe Biden is about to start. We are told by conference staff to quickly move into the conference hall and register later. So much for security. We were told we could not enter the conference without A) registering and B) our photo IDs hanging around our necks. Ah well Turkish and American secret service must trust entrepreneur’s then…yes that must be it – we entrepreneur’s are a trust worthy lot. Especially us fast growth entrepreneurs. It must be the fast return on your investment that makes us so special.

The conference is opened in Turkish by a lovely young woman swiftly followed by a corporate film in Turkish but really it is classically made so it is not hard for two veteran film-makers to understand. Lots of speeded up images showing work, people and clouds going into the future. Half way through I lose the thread when the same images are shown a second time with images of poverty segueing into split screens of beautiful people, poetic sunsets and multiracial kids playing with corn. But I guess those kids are the fast growth entrepreneur’s of the future and the corn is the high yield or return on your investment. Yes that must be it.

We soon realise that we will need the simultaneous translators as most of the speeches are in Turkish. So I go to find them. Sorry, madam, the girl tells me – without registration you cannot get a translator! Ok, too bad Erdogan’s speech will be a mystery.

After a few speeches His Excellency Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansouri, the Minister for Economy for the United Arab Emirates is introduced. Gist of speech – UAE is using it’s oil money to create a knowledge based economy and next year the third global summit for Entrepreneurs will be in the UAE – of course. He then laments the fact that the Arabs and Muslims did not come up with it themselves but it is yet another American initiative extended towards Muslim and Arab countries even after the 9/11 tragedy.

More Turkish MPs and Ministers came to the podium but no Erdogan. Ok so he will be the last or just before Biden. American politicians are either born knowing how to give speeches or they’re born actors or well hell, they can’t half deliver a line. Even when you’ve heard it all before it sounds fresh and yes – dare I say it – inspirational. Maybe it was just that I listened to 40 minutes of unrelenting Turkish. Gist of speech: wishes Erdogan, on behalf of Obama and his administration, a speedy recovery (explains his absence – most disappointed). Trade between Turkey and the US has grown 45% in the last year. He would love to be at next year’s conference in the UAE – if he’s re-elected – otherwise whoever. US wants deeper ties between American Entrepreneurs and significant Muslim nations. Democratic revolutions (the Arab Spring) are ‘literally imbued with entrepreneurial spirit – risk, initiative, steadfast determination and a unifying ideal. The next Steve Jobs could be a Turk or possibly come from the UAE…the man behind me very solemnly told his friend that Steve was Syrian – as if that explained his genius or perhaps his rebellious spirit oh I see it must be his entrepreneurship – yes that’s it.

In fact Mr Biden brought up Mr Jobs no less than four times in the speech – almost as many as the word entrepreneur. Poor Steve – no rest for genius entrepreneurs – even in death! Going back to Biden’s speech he mentions women and excitedly tells the audience that if they didn’t know it already women are just as clever as men. The audience applauded this incredible insight, whereupon he continued that countries who did not encourage women in business were going to be left behind. Aspiring entrepreneurs must do what comes naturally to them – dream – and in the words of Mr Steve Jobs – Think Different. Think Different for we are at an ‘inflection point in history’. And entrepreneurs have a chance like never before to steer the world onto a path – a successful path from this inflection point. I was amazed by Mr Biden’s hindsight or is that future hindsight..hmmm…it’s a conundrum. Just how could he tell we are on an inflection point in history – could be foresight. And entrepreneurs are going to save the world or at least steer it in the right direction…

Lots of applause. More speeches in Turkish. Lunch. Interviewed by the Arabic Turkish channel but I speak in English so may get left on cutting room floor – or in the Avid. Najat is flawless.

The panel after lunch had some very interesting people including the Turkish Minister of Finance and the CEO of ABRAJ CAPITAL, the largest private equity firm in the emerging markets.

At 6pm the AllWorld Network held a drinks party to welcome the ARABIA 500 + Turkey (including Pakistan). Najat and I discovered that we are ranked third in the AllWorld country rankings for Lebanon. We are proud. The Pakistan delegation invite the AllWord delegates to Reina’s – a cool Istanbuli club. We are so on.

10pm – cranky again. Back hurts. Yesterdays gluttony rears its ugly head. Ahh yes my room is Wonderful.

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