Business Innovation in the Middle East

Few challenges are more pressing in the Arab World today than finding ways to absorb the 80 million job seekers who will come out of the pipeline over the next 12 years. The significant increases made in educational attainment have made little impact on worker productivity, and employment prospects remain low for Arab graduates. Such poor returns suggest low quality in education and the failure of schools to address the needs of the labor market and teach the skills in high demand.

Arab decision-makers don’t have to look far for an effective model to help remedy the situation. One such tool is already in use in our own backyard. In 1999, Save the Children launched Junior Achievement (JA) in Amman, Jordan. Since then, JA has expanded its presence to 11 Arab countries, in cities from Casablanca to Rammalah to Jeddah. Each year 100,000 students participate in JA’s distinctive experience: learning from professionals in their own communities about how to start up enterprises and create their own jobs.

Each semester, business leaders send staff into local high schools, colleges, and universities. For an hour each week, these corporate volunteers share their professional experience, know-how, and success stories with the students to give them practical training in private sector success.

From one semester to the next, the students progress from learning how to manage their own budget to following the stock market in the media. They learn about competition, marketing, and how banks support businesses and industries. While setting up community projects, they develop skills in leadership, planning, and teamwork. They gain other success skills in giving presentations, CV writing, and job hunting.

In this region, education is predominantly through “rote-based learning.” Classrooms are stiflingly overcrowded and little mention is made of computers or the world of business and finance. Here, the JA focus on creativity and the individual has proved revolutionary.

In the final semester, each class sets up a business venture in JA’s popular Company Program. Within 15 weeks, they must come up with an idea, study its feasibility, sell stocks, divide into management teams, make a business plan, produce and sell a product or service, and liquidate the company, often with dividends. Students graduate with confidence in their abilities, a vision of their career, and skills to succeed in the private sector.


Jack Fairweather/Solutions

Equally important, they have a small network of corporate mentors from different sectors they can call on for help. At the same time, those who have succeeded in the private sector have the chance to give a helping hand to the next generation. This experience allows them to inspire, lead, and become a role model for less-fortunate youth in their own community.

Selling the need for JA in local communities, to teachers, and the ministries of education – renowned for their lack of innovation – wasn’t easy. Early on in my tenure I went to inspect a JA program in the Ma’an, a tribal region in the south of Jordan. I was shocked to find the local leaders accusing us of coming to influence the minds of their youth, their most valued asset. The imam in the mosque was preaching against us. The head of the school district wouldn’t come near us and sent orders to all schools, at his own expense, not to cooperate with us. We were shut out. “Who is the strongest female in the community?” I asked, searching for a voice of reason. And we landed in the hands of Salfa, the granddaughter of Audeh Abu Tayeh, the tribal leader who fought the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia, played by Anthony Quinn.

The principal of a girls’ school, she was revered as “a brother to any man,” and rightly so. Convinced of our program’s merit and ready to challenge the community, she welcomed JA in her school. With only one Ma’an school to work in, we sent the staff to surrounding towns to start up more programs.

A year later, we held the graduation of 1,000 students in the main hall of Ma’an and invited the same dignitaries. This time, JA students and volunteers led the event, not us. After the principal closed the meeting by thanking the head of the school district for his support (thinking he had indeed supported us), all the other principals ran to sign up. Having seen the impact of the program on the students, an official from the Ministry of Education wanted his own children to participate and became our strongest advocate. He called all the other schools for a meeting to organize our official presence.

That experience gave us courage. Even in the most difficult situations, there was a way to mobilize a community. We just had to find a champion and let him or her lead as the agent of change. We let the leadership emerge in the community; then our role was to support them. When our first champion in Saudi Arabia, the CEO of Saudi National Commercial Bank, came to Jordan recently, it was the experience in the Ma’an governorate that interested him most. He was all-ears when the owner of the first company in the governorate to send volunteers into the classrooms recounted how he had calmed the fears of his community: “I told them I am a son of this community. This is my chance to help our youth. We are the volunteers.”

Thanks to the three champions—the principal, the school district head, and the owner of the only factory near Ma’an, INJAZ is in every school in the governorate today, and our operations have expanded beyond Jordan, to Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Morocco. They will be joined next by Algeria and Tunisia, followed by Syria, Libya, and Yemen. We can’t solve the whole problem of youth unemployment, but we can appeal to the Middle East’s fathers and mothers, teachers, and community leaders who recognize that developing opportunities for our youth is in everyone’s interest. We can create a critical mass of young entrepreneurial leaders who can begin a deeper revolution.