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Curating family businesses in Middle-East: Farida F. El Agamy
September 19, 2015, 5:06 pm

Farida F. El Agamy has been running the Tharawat Family Business Forum (TFBF), a non-profit, private sector knowledge resource and networking hub for family-owned companies in the Middle-East and North Africa, since 2008. A social entrepreneur by conviction and a lawyer by profession, she joined her father, the founder of the organization, in the entrepreneurial journey of setting up Tharawat as an independent association to serve the family business community in the Arab world.

In an interview with The Times Kuwait, Farida shares her insights on the dynamics of family businesses, especially in Middle-East, the role of women in family businesses, and she shares with us nuggets about herself; from receiving the worst business advice ever, to being a lawyer at the United Nations.

While you read law in Switzerland and the UK and qualified as a barrister, did you keep your doors open to other career options?

I have always seen my law studies as more than an opportunity to become a lawyer. Reading law helps you understand the fundamentals of human society and allows you to navigate through various systems. Very early on I knew that there could be many different ways to put that knowledge and understanding to use.

From being a lawyer to being a social entrepreneur fostering family businesses, what defines you and your interests?

I have always had a strong interest in community building and in being an advocate for diversity. In all my activities, it has been my goal to find innovative solutions and uncover common ground between seemingly distant parties. I strongly believe that destroying structures and systems is easy – building or re-building them is the hard work. And yet, it is only in communities that we grow and that we can create opportunities for individuals to best use their skills and talents and to find tolerance for a pluralism of thought.

You speak six languages; have Dutch and Egyptian family backgrounds and an international upbringing. How do these factorize into your better understanding of regions and people?

My cultural background – a rich cultural legacy both from my mother and father, as well as from the people I have had the opportunity to know throughout my life, of course, shapes the way I see the world. Growing up with such diversity taught my sisters and me that respect, kindness, tolerance, and hard work allows us to live together without anyone having to give up their individual identities. These principles guide how I approach my career.

What made you turn towards TFBF?

Together with several families from the Arab region, my father founded the association in 2006 after he was nominated as the custodian of TFBF. He was looking for support, so I was naturally drawn to what I considered a unique opportunity to set up a non-profit private sector initiative to support the growth and sustainability of family enterprises in our region and to foster innovation and creativity within those companies.

What are the dynamics and structures of family businesses, especially in the Middle-East, and what does family business mean to Arabs?

In the Arab world, we can find family businesses of all sizes, in all industries. From the bakery shop around the corner to the multi-national, multi-industry conglomerate – they all share the advantages and challenges of being family-owned or family-run.

Family dynamics are always a key issue. The biggest challenge for family businesses is also its core advantage: the unique connection between the family unit and the operating business. When a family, which is an emotional unit, is involved in leading business decisions, this can, on the one hand, lead to conflict, misalignment, and political decision making. On the other, family involvement is also the key success factor as it leads to the company being very strong, long-term oriented, deeply rooted in its environment, a preferred business partner, and often a dedicated employer.

The older a family business is, the more complex the structures can become. While the first (founder generation) has all the power of decision and the second (sibling) generation can draw from its shared upbringing, the third generation (cousins) often faces more difficulties in collaboration.

Each Arab country has unique family dynamics and, therefore, unique family business characteristics. However, the commonality is that ‘family’ and ‘business’ are very naturally linked. In our region we observe that there is a very instinctive draw to joining the family business, to help strengthen the family's position and grow its wealth.

What are some of the advantages and problems in family business, unique only to Middle-East?

As mentioned the advantage of the family business is that it outperforms other ownership models in the long run. Mostly due to the dedication of the owners, family businesses provide for their future generations and manage to sustain through times of crisis. Another key advantage is its ability to transform and adapt rather quickly. Their quick decision-making can be a great advantage against competitors and the trust amongst family members creates an atmosphere open to innovation and growth opportunities.

However, there are also challenges, including inter-generational communication,  a sense of entitlement among subsequent generations and challenges to family values in corporate decision making structures. Also, many traditional decision-making systems have difficulty coping with today’s fast-paced technology-driven world.

How differently do you think the world sees and understands Middle-Eastern women and their intellectual and entrepreneurial capabilities?

I feel that due to the Middle East’s complexity and diversity, the world often struggles to grasp fully some of the key developments in the region – the force and impact of female entrepreneurs is one of those areas. I believe the world is waking up to the realization that Middle-Eastern women are not just a struggling demographic; they are a force to be reckoned with and are highly skilled business people working under, often, extremely difficult circumstances and with great passion and innovation.

Comment on the publicly recognized and visible roles, as well as other roles that are more quietly performed by women in family business.

The role of women in relation to the family business is complex – she could be part of running the day-to-day operations in a management or owner role, but she could also be the person that takes care of family harmony and communication. It is important to recognize those more quietly performed roles, since they have as much impact on the success of the business as the corporate decisions.

Tell us more about Women in Family Business (WIFB), the countries involved in it and how the initiative works.

The WIFB network was founded in 2014 and primarily set out to connect women who are part of family-owned companies, highlight the various roles they play and to share their experiences. WIFB was co-founded by Tharawat and co-founders from Colombia and Switzerland. Thanks to a multi-national committee, it has now quickly evolved to becoming a global initiative. Through the WIFB Matrix the network focuses on four segments: Women who are executives in their family business; women who have important role behind the scenes in family or corporate governance; women who primarily carry out social networking and philanthropy on behalf of their family enterprise, and finally, women who concentrate on educating the next generation and passing on family culture and values.

WIFB has created a knowledge hub to exchange thoughts about the role of women in family enterprises and is now creating a digital peer to peer network for its members.

What is the worst business advice you have ever received?

Someone once told me that working in the family business is easy if you separate 'family' from 'business'. Having worked with my family for several years now, I think that is not only a bad advice but that it is an illusion too. I believe that the first thing you need to do is to accept the fact that you will never be able to separate the two, and then to build systems and structures that help you address critical situations and avoid too many emotions to take the necessary decisions.

Three pieces of advice you would offer family businesses starting out today?

Starting up a business in itself is already a challenge. Starting up a business with your family normally takes even more effort – but it also means that you have the people on board that you trust the most and will (most likely) have your back whatever happens.

I would suggest to be aware of the following:

-       You will have to re-discover your family members as professionals, not just as your family members. Be open to getting to know a new side of them.

-       Be aware that not everyone will be good at everything and try to help create a working dynamic where each family member can use their unique skill set and talents.

-       Try to find time and space for non-business discussions and activities. People who establish a business with their family members often find that their 'family' disappears and gives way to a 'collective of business partners'. Trying to avoid this is important and to make the effort to spend quality time together can be a great step in the right direction.

By Ghazal Kotwani
Staff Writer

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