Dr. HANAN AL-MUTAWA
Executive Committee Member, Supreme Education Council
Founder & Chair
Co-Founder & CEO
Dr. Hanan Al-Mutawa
Through her ardent, tireless philanthropic interests and transformative participation in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) politics and economics, as well as her many executive board memberships over the past twenty-four years, Dr. Hanan is considered to be a preeminent authority in her core field of education.
Dr. Hanan has particular interests in inclusion and educational diversity and equality; sustainable transformational educational leadership and management policies; and the establishment of innovative curriculum and pedagogical imperatives in Kuwait and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market. She presently serves on the boards of various education-related government committees and speaks widely on strategy, management systems, competitiveness, and health-care delivery, and to business, government, nonprofit, and humanitarian leaders.
Deeply passionate, dedicated, and highly sought after, Dr. Hanan also gives much of her time to numerous charitable endeavors supporting the local community and international organizations. She has been an active member of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society since 1993. Dr. Hanan has been formally recognized for her work by way of awards and honors from numerous embassies and governments, most recently by the newly formed nonprofit Education Consortium for Outstanding Educational Service (UK, 2014) and for Outstanding Personal Achievement in the Education and Childcare Sector (UK, 2014). She has also won the award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Europe, the Middle East & Africa (NYC, 2014) and the Women’s Comprehensive Development Excellence Award for the Arab World for Cultural Development (UAE, 2015).In addition, she was the International Business Excellence Award’s Finalist for Inspirational Female Leader (UAE, 2015).
Dr. Hanan’s philosophy and raison d’être is simple: she wishes to “embolden, engage, empower, and serve the community at large.”
Russell G. Byrne
With over twenty-four years of pragmatic experience in the education, retail, and financial services sectors, Russell is often engaged as a trusted C-level executive, management consultant, educator and, on certain noteworthy occasions, a “change agent.”Russell delivers specialized operational and financial advice; structured change management implementation strategies; risk and regulatory issues management; timely and innovative sales and marketing approaches; and strategic business planning for public and private clients.
An astute business developer and a specialist in start-up and “greenfield” environments, Russell has also successfully founded and managed many businesses, with the recently formed Education Consortium being the latest recipient of the Global Business Excellence Award for Outstanding Educational Service (UK, 2014).
Recognized as a fellow with leading professional management bodies, he is passionate about working with and helping individuals and organizations achieve their goals. Russell is also on an empirical journey of scholarly and professional discovery focused on entrepreneurial leadership and management, and innovation and creativity through his doctoral studies at the Manchester Business School (MBS) while continuing to grow his businesses in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Providing a foundation for tomorrow’s leaders
I want to start by talking about Kuwait and how recently the economy has been a bit stagnant. There have been talks about what can be done to diversify the economy and how long the oil is going to last. With that being said, what do you think that Kuwait can do to diversify its economy and maybe look away from oil?
We’ve got two interesting perspectives. I, first and foremost, am an expat, whereas Hanan is a Kuwaiti born and bread. So from my perspective as an expat, I think that in order to boost the Kuwaiti economy, number one you have to be able to empower the youth, which make up about 71 percent of Kuwait, to stand on their own two feet and to embrace the private market. The other thing is to open up this market in a way that enables it to develop a modest tourism industry. Right now it’s not on anyone’s radar. You think of Kuwait, you don’t think about holidaying here. It’s basically a stopover if you know someone here or if you have some business here. It needs to be a little bit more than that. There is more to Kuwait than meets the eye, quite often. It is probably one of the friendliest countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In terms of boosting the economy, opening up the market to more tourism and to investment from outsiders would be phenomenal. Right now the government starting with expats who can own 100 percent of companies. That is a first in Kuwait. This is the norm around the world, and quite often, even if you want to go in as a sole trader you can. This is unique in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has just opened up its stock market. I believe that the stock market should also be opened up in Kuwait and allow for outside investment to come in and advise on different areas, such as equity investment or investing in infrastructure. There is no train here or tram system; there is very little as far as public transport is concerned. Taxis and buses are quite basic here so there are a lot of things that can be expanded to encourage people like me or entrepreneurs and businesspeople to get a firm hold of this economy and say, “This is attractive. I can come here, I can do this, and I can do that.” Right now as an expat, you’re very limited; your hands are almost tied. What takes me a week in the normal world takes me about three months here.
Do you have anything to add Ms. Al Mutawa?
Yes. With the opportunities in Kuwait, looking at the oil what they’ve done is explore products. Everybody seems to always go back and say, “what other product, what new product can we bring into Kuwait?” So you always get people coming into Kuwait looking for new opportunities. But it all boils down to the product that you’re bringing in. They love the Diors, the Vuittons, and all of that but they haven’t actually really invested in the people. The opportunity now with government is giving people the opportunity to fund small and medium businesses. There are all these new start-ups, which is great. But how the government goes about it is to just push money at entrepreneurs to get them going. They actually haven’t trained them in procedures, implementation, and actually completing projects. That comes back to education and training and that’s an area that we feel we should work closer with government to channel the money in a better way. So you’re not actually focusing on the product, but instead on the customer. And you look and ask, “What does the customer really need? What are we out there for?” If we’re looking at education, we’ve got broad bands of education from subcontinent to curriculum to curriculum coming from the West: IGCSE [International General Certificate of Secondary Education]; IP; American, French, and British standards; and the International Baccalaureate. But again, it’s all a customized version of those products put into Kuwait and the education gets diluted. Then it looks like, “how much revenue can we get from them?” What they haven’t done is expand the opportunity with what they’ve been given and get the students to adopt new ways of learning and achieving their goals. Those great students who go away and study at the top universities come back and take those adopted new programs and creatively implement them into Kuwait with better habits having their ethics not challenged in one sense. What tends to happen is we’re not educating; we just bring a product off the shelf, push it out into the school, bring the teachers who are just that and push more of it, giving them money, their share of a small/medium business, to set up a little bakery, cupcake shop, and that’s it. What is the learning curve of developing your business plan and then doing all of that? That entire “how-to” in economics and money management doesn’t happen in schools; it happens afterward. When entrepreneurs have gotten the money, they end up going bankrupt because they don’t found their businesses properly. They’ve wasted government money or daddy’s money or whatever. They need to learn how to actually carry the project through to the next generation. Why all these new entrepreneurs haven’t learned how to manage a business—if you want to get to the heart of the issue—is because this new generation of money that’s coming in, it’s not actually bourgeoisie money that’s new money; no, it’s actually old money: daddy’s money, grandpa’s money that they are managing now. They’ve now inherited at a young age and are setting up businesses. I’d like to see whether fifteen years from now, they are as successful as granddad or have actually dissolved that legacy because of discontinuity. The new generation is hedonistic, egotistical, and not interested in reading, even though we’re teaching them at school to read, pumping all that information between their ears. They’re not actually being taught how to take what they’ve learned and use their hands to create and see their business evolve in front of them, measure it, and then take it out to market.
You brought up some good points that I want to talk about. The first one is the government. I’ve heard that there is a lot of bureaucracy and there have been some shifts in positions and all of that. Sometimes that can slow the processes. What do you think the government can do to promote these measures we’re talking about?
Like I said, she [Hanan] will speak from the Kuwaiti perspective because she’s in there right now. From my perspective, it is outrageous. My core business is education. I came out here as an academic and we’re building a business that is very educationally attuned. We wish to embolden, engage, and empower our community: that’s our mission statement. In order for us to satisfy our vision, we need leaders in situ that are going to allow us to grow. They’re going to support our vision; they’re going to be there for the long term and able to make concise decisions on things. I say that quite clearly because what happens here is if somebody makes a decision, quite often they don’t want to be accountable or responsible for that decision, just in case it goes wrong. There are a lot of people pleasers here. They want to make sure everyone is happy with their decisions. Anyone in business will know that you can’t make 100 percent of people happy—that’s not the way to go. You’re in for a lifetime of hurt. So this is one issue. When they do challenge the status quo, what happens is these people are removed fairly quickly. An example, and I’d like Hanan to talk about that, is within the Ministry of Education: the actual minister of education has been removed four or five times in about five years. So we’ve got the latest iteration and he’s an interesting character, but what has he done to date? He’s not really been allowed to be in situ for long enough to effect any change, nor has he completely agreed with what his predecessor has done to take that forward. So as an example, Hanan and I have had initiatives that we have brought forward because we consult to the Ministry of Education. So we’ve spent six months writing this particular initiative, working with the Ministry of Education and all the key stakeholders and all the key decision-makers and whatnot, only to have a new minister come in and say, “You know what? Let’s shelve that for a while and let’s start again with a new initiative.” So all of a sudden all that work that you’ve done and that you’ve benchmarked and that you’ve really put a lot of resources and energy into has all of the sudden just hit a wall and stopped. It doesn’t just stop there because it’s not just initiative there. It’s impacting these small businesses, but it impacts all of the students within Kuwait and all of the schools and all of the policies and procedures and strategies going forward to allow this country to be great. In my humble opinion as an expat, this country’s education system is probably about fifteen years behind the UAE insofar as transparency and the quality of education are concerned. It could be so much better, it really could, but no one seems to agree and that’s always the issue. Responsibility, transparency, and accountability.
To address your point about the minister—yes we have had change. If we’re looking at five years, we’ve had eight ministers and a number of MPs [members of parliament]. We’ve had three changes of government and about two or three changes of parliament? That’s a lot of change. So you think to yourself in the first world, how can that affect policy? It shouldn’t. If we’re sitting in offices at a paid job and our undersecretaries are all there doing the job that is expected of them, carrying out the plan, agreeing to it, signing it, with or without that minister—he was in situ at the time—another one comes in and gets briefed, we continue with the plan as you have with the States. Obama, he sits with his team. He comes in with his style, his knowledge, his expertise, but there is already a ground plan: “this is what we’re moving forward for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years.” Where you want to adjust the timeline or how you want to sort of execute it, but this is our agenda. The agenda may change because you have a new generation or a nuclear war or whatever, but the vision doesn’t. Here every minister brings not only his labor and his expertise; he completely changes the game plan. From 2012 to date we’ve had four ministers. That’s a lot of turnover, and the plan and the people have changed as well. The minister came in one time and fired two key people. The one after him fired three key people. You don’t fire Kuwaiti citizens from their roles, but he did. He took the initiative, and for that I tip my hat to him, but what happened? It completely destroyed the plan because what they decided was not fully documented and approved. The accountabilities were not put into place. Therefore companies who spent lots of money setting up in Kuwait believed in the vision that you guys are going forward, you’re making change, because you’re talking to the highest-level people here who made those decisions. Phenomenal, honestly. You take those notes, you implement; we will be somewhere else in the next ten years and people will be like, “what did we do going back to month one? Where are those documents?” It breaks your heart because so much time, money, effort is gone. So what tends to happen, will people be part of this game plan? Not again. You get fed up. So the Kuwaitis think, “let me just change departments.” They go somewhere else; they’re in the public service. Then they go to another ministry that might believe in it. Then they go to the private sector; they’re being bought out now. They’re buying out peoples’ expertise to go and retire to bring in the new. No process of passing down knowledge, that tacit knowledge. That is a big problem.
How important is the private sector in this whole dynamic? The government lays a foundation, but what can the private sector do and how important is its role?
Only now are they beginning to respect the role of the private sector, that they really see there is a need to have this partnership. If I’m going to focus and narrow down the conversation to education, only now do they realize that we are worth that link. We’re alleviating the pressure. There’s no way the government Ministry of Education can accommodate 40 percent of the market that we are solely financing; we don’t get subsidized. Yet the arrogance is they won’t give us land. In the UAE and other countries in the GCC, they offer pieces of land: “this is it, go work with it at a minimal cost.” Here they call it BOT: build, operate, and transfer. They’re now going to consider expanding it from a twenty-five-year lease to a fifty-year lease. In the UAE it’s fifty years to ninety-nine. Your opportunities are right there in the open, so you can bring in good quality investments. You know in the education service it’s not like you’re buying a deal or something off the ground, getting cash money. It could take you ten years because you’re evolving, you’re building—you’re building trust, you’re building a name, and you’re building community.
And a culture…
Yes. I can bring in GCC British quality education, but for people like the inspectors from the UK to come in and see how well you’re doing, it’s not about your shiny classroom and brand new chairs, it’s really what’s in here and evaluating the teacher and the confidence the parents have in you. Then the other teachers, you need to recruit quality teachers. If you’re new in the market then, you might think, “eh, I don’t know, it’s better for me to go to a school that’s been out there ten years.” That belief in you doesn’t just happen here. Here anybody who tries to succeed, the competition and put-downs put you out of business also.
The private sector is brand new, and to be honest, oil has dominated 90 percent of this economy. The public sector comprises 90 percent of workers. So what is the incentive for a local Kuwaiti to go into the private sector? They get heavily subsidized in their own jobs. Going into the public service essentially provides them with a job for life. This is unheard of in the Western world. But a job for life means it’s very difficult to get fired even if you don’t turn up. You get your income plus you get another income from the Kuwaiti government just for being Kuwaiti. Plus you get subsidized housing, land, family allowances, etc. The list goes on. Everybody wants to be Kuwaiti after they hear this. To break this cycle, you need to follow suit with what Bahrain has done with their 2020 visions, what the UAE is currently doing, and what Saudi Arabia is planning to do and has started to document as well. They’re starting to do it here. They’re starting to pull away from, “hang on a sec, we’re tapping into our natural resources and we’re using our own cash reserves to fund these guys to do very little.” What’s the unemployment rate here?
Around 3 percent?
No one knows. Because even a homemaker can be unemployed yet employed. Now unemployment here hovers around 40 percent. No one knows what the true unemployment is. No one actually knows the real stats that are here of true unemployment, but the youth unemployment is exceptionally high. Yet no one really talks about it because they do get these subsidies, which back where I come from are called the dole. It’s called social security but over here what’s it called? If they’re getting a subsidy or a payout, that is the same as minimum wage in the private sector. So what is their motivation to go into the private sector where they actually have to work and clock in and be away from their friends and family? This is an incredibly social atmosphere. On the other side, Kuwaitis are incredibly well traveled, probably the most cultured and most cosmopolitan of the entire bunch. You can put them pretty much anywhere and they’ll fit in. They love a good laugh, they tell some crazy jokes, they’re fairly athletic, they like to travel, and they love meeting new people. This is the beauty of Kuwait. Taking all that and marrying it together, there’s no true incentive. Then this economy is such that Kuwait attracts the biggest brands on the planet. So it’s very simple to go to a mall and see things like Dior and Omega and whatever the big brands are. It’s all there and everything you want you can get in Kuwait tax-free. What that means from a youth’s perspective is everything is done, so what original idea can I come up with that would make a difference? Even if I did come up with an original idea, it’s a lot of work. Why don’t I just copy that one? Isn’t that sharing is caring? So that also happens here, a lot of shortcuts happen. It’s a loaded question, that one.
Definitely, and it’s good to get these insights. When we talk about diversifying the economy and looking away from the 90 percent of oil related and trying to engage that, I think foreign partnerships are ideal as a beginning. There was a new law that passed in 2012, the Commercial Companies Law. It has made it easier for companies to come into Kuwait but it’s still not there, because as you said, the hands are still tied and you really need someone in Kuwait to help you push these things through. How important do you think foreign investment will be in the next five to ten years? What type of investment should the country attract?
We’re looking at bringing in new laws, and I think this new young government is doing it the right way. Put in the policies, procedures, and everything. Westerners who come in and want to invest, they need structure. Foreign investors—I don’t want to say Westerners because you get a lot coming in from the East as well—they need that structure, which is something Kuwait didn’t have. So enacting policies and procedures is great. Kuwait putting in policies and procedures and penalties and restrictions and “if you don’t do this, then it’s this,” all you read is, “you can’t do this and if you do this, this will happen to you.” It’s actually coming back to their own background and their prescriptive endings of their own religion and all of that: “this is what will happen to you,” rather than this true free-trade market: “these are the boundaries, within these policies and guidelines.” Make it more open to invite people in. Once you’re in Kuwait, the opportunity, as you mentioned, is amazing. Russell tapped into one of the areas, transport. Be it from the transport tram system to taxis with meters to other than Kuwaiti Airways. Everything is about restrictions here. The new law is actually opened up, you’re absolutely right. It’s going to control, but again, it’s not going to happen any time soon. It needs people to come in and continue to work properly and change their bad habits and start following good processes. What they used to call “get away with” in the Wasta system to bypass bad habits like, “why have an AGM [annual general meeting]? My money, I’m the boss; I’m the matriarch of this family. Yes we’ve set up a company, but I’m the father and these are my sons, and I say, you do, you jump and that’s it.” “But Dad, we’re in the company with you, we need to have an AGM. If I’m a 1 percent holder I should have the 1 percent at the end of the year for me.” “I give you money, you’ve got a car, that’s it, shut your mouth.” That doesn’t work nowadays. If you’re going to set up companies, there are proper ways of going about it. It’s all because of association; the constitution is molded into it.
Exactly. This is also a huge issue all the way through this region. Family businesses. They all started as family businesses. There is a gentleman named Jassam Kharafi who recently passed away. Incredible guy. His grandfather started a trading company that has now evolved into this behemoth that is the Kharafi Holdings. It’s an incredible success story and the eulogies go all the way today telling all these wonderful stories. People need to know this. There is this buzz about “all that has been achieved.” But this younger generation, they still, from an outsider’s perspective, need to embrace outside investment. Technically what happens here—and I’m speaking as an expat—is that when we bring in this knowledge, I’m hired as an expat. I come in, I’m being paid a certain amount, and I come in and they say, “Ok, you need to have this level of KPIs [key performance indicators], this output, etcetera.” Happy. You do that; your knowledge is then taken and used. Do you get credit for it?
Most likely not. It’s the accountability that we talked about.
It’s accountability. Plus, I’m currently studying for my doctorate. Now when I write, I’m obviously going to put my name on it, I’m going to grab an ISBN and publish it. It’s my work. It’s the only thing I have, my intellectual property. The laws have just recently come into effect where intellectual property, trademarking, and cyber laws are respected but they’re not enforced, not just yet. The country is still very young with respect to these legal developments. So people like me now are feeling much more comfortable saying, “great. I can do this and I have a law protecting me and my rights in this country.” Because most expats didn’t have this before.
On the services front, we talked about trade and transport, but in health services, the last hospital was built fifty-six years ago or something like that I heard. That’s a major issue that they have to start looking at. They just paste and plaster the extensions on current hospitals rather than going out to construct a new one. Education buildings at the moment are also old and falling apart. The current minister of education took a stand to say, “leave those old buildings, reuse buildings that can be used in the meantime,” and now has established partnerships with the private sector to come in and build schools to spec. That’s a big move. So the education sector is a big area. I have to mention the investment people. We are a country that is following the diction of the GCC, which is Kuwaitization or Omanization or Saudization, all of that, nationalist but not top-down as unintelligible as they call it. No, work your way through the system. So the entity of banks are up to 20 percent, 50 percent, and now 70–80 percent Kuwaitization, which is brilliant. Honestly, when you go into the banks you think, “wow ok, that’s pretty good.” What packages are they on? If they were regular Joe Blows applying for that job would they be on the same package? Is there a package for Kuwaitis and a package for Kuwaitis for the same JV [joint venture]? That’s the thing. Why do they stay and work those hours? When we had more expats working in the banks, the banks used to work from 8:00 in the morning until 1:00 and then from 4:00–8:00. Now the banks work from 9:00–3:00 and nothing in the evening. So you have to go to various outlets of branches that have agreed to staff people because they have said that every manager has to be a Kuwaiti manager or something like that. So the services have…you know.
It doesn’t correspond with the market. You have one million Kuwaitis here roughly, but then the total population here is about four million. That’s a ridiculous correlation. A lot of those expats, about two million of them probably work a second shift in the evening, which means the only time they possibly have to go to a bank before or after work doesn’t allow for that. There are a lot of things that don’t allow for certain things and everything requires a physical presence, even paying staff wages. You actually have to go to the bank to process an HR requirement to pay wages, you can’t do it online. It’s crazy. So there is a lot of growth that needs to happen here.
When we talk about investment in people and the education concerns, empowering people with the tools and awareness to not strive for that Dior bag right away, but to have something that’s going to pay off maybe in ten years, is a great benefit, economically speaking. In regards to that, and providing the educational fundamentals for the future development of Kuwaitis, what philosophy do you undertake and what strategy do you consider when considering growth? I know you have obstacles like acquiring land and such, but what is your philosophical and strategy?
We’ve coined it in just three words: embolden, engage, empower. The three words are very simple to say, but when you actually break it down—we’ve actually mapped it on one of our posters—it’s really about bringing all of these three things together, the three different stages. When you come to the final stage, you should be able to impart knowledge. So everyone knows the other two stages and they’re very good at that here: “little bit of education, off you go,” bang and you hit that glass ceiling. They don’t even know it’s there. What happens at the end point is what we’re really interested in. We’re interested in taking it to the point where you’re at the glass ceiling, and now what? Let’s hold your hand; let’s empower you to move ahead. Let’s incubate you; let’s go towards those deeper more critical-thinking skills that allow you to take a business or an idea or even a life skill to the next level. That true empowerment is very important. So our philosophy is very simple, it’s just cradle to grave.
How do you work on doing that?
With this, we’re opening up schools, kindergartens, and we’re also now dabbling in higher education. We plan to do a lot more with this, it’s just market conditions and of course the opportunities available to us with land, with different licenses and whatnot. One of the initiatives we have is working with Peter Jones and with the Duke of York, Prince Andrew. We are the exclusive license holders and the only ones outside the UK to deliver enterprise skills to Kuwaitis and other Middle Eastern countries and to take them past that glass ceiling, something that is accredited and certified that works. The Peter Jones Enterprise Academy is licensed through over thirty-five different colleges and universities across the UK. They train thousands of students there, it’s a successful model, it works very well and it’s accredited through Pearson, which is in education. So through this we’re able to deliver so much more and teach these enterprise skills that are accredited and take students to the next level working with key partners and hopefully working with key funds to help bolster the economy and businesses that need to happen over here and take them transnationally; it doesn’t have to be just in Kuwait.
What plans are being developed for other countries in the GCC or internationally?
Currently we embrace a very solid non-profit philosophy. What does that mean? At the end of the day, what a true non-profit means is that you do make some serious money but you reinvest that money sustainably with the future in mind: community and people. This is really important. You look at people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and all these key people. Number one, they’ve made billions and squillions, what are they going to do when they die? They’re going to give away their wealth. They can’t take it with them, so we’re talking a few hundred billion dollars that are going to go to the right places. This is an informal pact that they’ve made. We aren’t talking that kind of money, but what we have is some incredible tacit knowledge that we can share. As an example, we’ve developed an app and through this app we’re able to offer free education out to other countries. We’re not ready to launch it just yet, but once we’re ready to launch we’re going to require some funding and hopefully we attract the right people, big players in this Middle Eastern market, so we can get it out to people in need. For instance, displaced refugees from Syria that have gone to Lebanon or Turkey where their kids just sit around in these camps awaiting resources such as food, water, and education. If they can do this on a phone or a handheld computer that we can then give to them…The app has all the coursework, which is fully accredited and fitted for them, adhering to a particular standard right across the world allowing them to go to any school, college, or university that will give them credits. We’ve done the entire mapping for that. From an academic perspective, this is our strength. What we want to do is deliver that, but in order to deliver that, we need to actually have some commercial reality here. We’ve got paying students or students who can afford it and then take this education and that bolsters our aspiration to give away free education. We can implement this model in Africa, in India. We’ve been approached on multiple occasions; the problem here is that there are a lot of copycats and a lot of thieves as well. So we are incredibly cautious because we’ve already been stolen from over the last year so many times.
How many students do you currently cater to? Is it a tangible figure or are there many services?
We’re a start-up. We’ve been going since January 2014 and we’re growing. This particular kindergarten that we’re launching in September will house around 360. We’re starting out with about 115.
How do you find them? Do they apply?
They apply and of course it’s show and tell. I’ve got a couple of drawings here. The whole place is incredible; it’s done on another level. Everything here is very didactic, very industrial age, very nineteenth-century thinking: “thou must sit behind each other and thou must do that.” Rubbish. It’s all about the learning journey. Parents want this; parents know what the kids want. We flipped the model; we allow the learning to come from the children facilitated by our teachers. They’re there on their journey. They’re not there to prescribe to that kid what they think that child should know. We already have a curriculum for that, thank you very much. What we need is that child to grow to become what they can become, endless possibilities, and untapped potential, that sort of stuff. So that’s the philosophy on the kindergarten, and we’ve also got a school that will be launching in 2016 and that’s also coming together as well. We have also held multiple short courses all over the place. So currently probably around five hundred, but we’re just a start-up.
The Education Consortium is the start-up but we actually come from a background composed of shareholders and another companies that have had thirty-seven years of experience. From that we’ve extended from the regular K-12 schools and moved that into a whole business entity outside of those hours, giving the opportunity for teachers—because the law again in Kuwait does not allow you to hold down a contract with one company and then go and fish for other jobs and part-time teaching at extra homework classes and clubs. So for us to give the opportunity for the children and teachers to spread them is beneficial because, as Russell said at the very beginning, it’s not exactly a tourist-enterprise location. They come here to make money, to make ends meet. So they’re great at something, great at painting, great at boxing, great at whatever. Take that outside of the classroom and turn that into a little business profit-sharing opportunity for those teachers. We embrace talented entrepreneurs; competition is glorious.
What are the biggest challenges that you face and, on a positive note, what are your best or proudest achievements?
This place here, all the businesses are exceptionally mature and the playground that we play in is a very mature area. So the biggest challenge here for us is to be just taken seriously in what we do. Our CVs and experiences speak for themselves but at the end of the day you still have to build a business here that has to be respected, which means you need time in the market. It’s only through time that they will respect you here. We’re a start-up, so we don’t have that time. We have to develop a presence very quickly and very respectfully to get the market to believe in us. So that’s been an incredible challenge but one that we’ve sorted perhaps through all these awards that you see on the back wall there. We’ve got six awards that we won over the last year. Why? Because we’re good at what we do. I say that with all humility. We’ve proven it.
The awards haven’t just been in Kuwait; they’ve been across the region, correct?
Across the region and the UK and U.S. Hanan won Female Entrepreneur of the Year for MENA [the Middle East and North Africa], which is an incredible achievement. That is based on a meritocratic approach because we still have to present and compete for those particular awards against some very strong contenders.
I wanted to know where you see the Education Consortium in the next five to ten years?
Time flies like minutes here. Weeks fly by like minutes. If our first year is any indication of what we can achieve over the five years, we’re up for a hell of a ride. It’s going to be something special, incredible. What we’ve achieved in the past year is just foundationally setting ourselves up for the greater good. We definitely see the brand being incredibly strong. We see people believing in the brand because we are enormously passionate about what we do. So we could use more sleep and a few other things, but at the end of the day we believe that what we’re doing will create greater good. That is something we want to pay forward, we want to do a bunch of things with.
It’s a little bit out of the box so it takes people time to adopt this new concept. It’s not only about product or the younger client or the student; we’re actually reversing the model. We’re actually working with the teachers and working with the community. So the community is the adults that brought these kids to us. It’s a full 360 approach.
Like one of the teachers we recruited the other day, I took time with her and she spoke the majority of the time in French. My principal turned around and said, “I don’t know how that’s going to work for us.” She appeared to require special accommodation and I thought, “all the better, she’ll relate better with the children.” Why not do the cooking class in French? Of course she says, “but I don’t speak English and I’m going to be a teaching assistant.” I said, “I don’t want you speaking English unless you really have to. Speak in French, the kids will pick up another language and properly and they’ll cook and use the language in French.” That lesson will be taught in French.
“Don’t work with the product, and work with the people.” We believe in our people and people include the students as well. Work to their strengths. That’s a very difficult model.
Because everything is benchmarked to somebody else’s standard.
And we’re treating everyone as an individual. Now from a business perspective, that doesn’t work. You want one model that fits all. So I’ve created the iPhone app and everyone loves the iPhone, beautiful design, ten apps, one hundred apps, one thousand apps, whatever, you can individualize the phone but the content, the body and all that are one size fits all. So this is where we’re coming in. It’s a very bespoke, individualized design that will benefit everyone but take into account everyone individually as well.
And the app itself too, that’s a great idea. I hope that works.
Technically we’re actually doing everything in-house. Like I said, this is all we’ve got. So even with the websites, we’re creating the app, we’re doing it all in-house. Hopefully once we start to make a bit more money we can be smarter.
What’s nice about this model is it’s independent. It’s not dependent on inherited money, on money that you carry forward from other places and investors, it’s just purely yours and your own. It comes back down to documenting it, another area that we mentioned earlier, that’s not done in Kuwait. Every achievement is not really documented. Money is thrown at it but actually, where do I go back and use that as a reference point?
How would you summarize the vision that Kuwait can be? What do you think Kuwait will be like in the next ten years if all these things go well? What would you like the international community to know when we talk about Kuwait? This is interesting because we have an expat and a Kuwaiti.
From an expat perspective, having lived here and done business here for six years, Kuwait has the ability to be like the Caymans. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t want to look at the tax free side of it, what I’m trying to say is that it can be that international hub like Bahrain is where a lot of people set up their head offices and then run their businesses regionally from here. If you were to live in Kuwait, for example, and just think about it as an expat doing business here, what countries can you tap into from Kuwait? How easy is it? It’s kind of like Dubai, right? But over here you’re closer to a lot of different things.
The way of thinking here is different from the UAE. I would challenge you to go to the UAE and befriend an Emirati. It might take you quite some time. You might struggle; you might not even get anywhere. You come to Kuwait and want to befriend a Kuwaiti; you’ll do it like that. They’re so friendly, they’re so giving of their time, and they’re so wonderfully open to new ideas. This is not a cultural thing here that is unique to Kuwait that people have not capitalized on, nor do they know about it because Kuwait is not open from a touristic perspective to the world. So people have not come here and seen that part of it. If they see that part of it, they would come more frequently, and see that there is a huge market here for a lot of different things like consumables and high-end goods and services and whatnot. There is a huge demand here for it and Kuwaitis are hungry forever and a day for anything new and fresh and innovative and they will embrace it for whatever lifespan that particular product has.
With the vision of Kuwait I think we have to go back to the Emir’s vision. If you read into the vision properly and you adopt it, I can see a lot of areas are working. One area was to involve the youth and they’ve actually practiced that by having a youth parliament like a shadow parliament. Setting up the Ministry of Youth was something positive too. Eliminating the difficulties to do business in Kuwait so the new law, 5-0 2012 has adressed them. To have Kuwait be a collaborative investor with government, the private sector and government sector, they need to give us more tenders.
We already have the best tool that keeps us on the straight and narrow and that’s our holy book. So if we were to marry that good-quality learning environment and the opportunities together with the book and the guidelines, because they’re so good at following guidelines really, we would be in a finer place then where we are today. You can’t take it away, by the way. This entire region is run through the book, which is imbued in parliament and business.
Thank you for your time.