SINGAPORE - In 1997, the company that Fadi Ghandour founded was listed on the United States Nasdaq stock exchange. Despite having built up Aramex into a global logistics and transportation business, the Lebanon-born entrepreneur still couldn't believe that his company was trading alongside iconic stocks such as Microsoft.
"I was looking at the first trade after announcing the IPO, and saw our stock jumping about 30 per cent and kept asking myself if this was real," recalls Mr Ghandour, 53, who is the keynote speaker at this year's World Entrepreneurship Forum.
He founded Aramex as an express delivery operator in Amman, Jordan.
"It took a long time for it to sink in and for us to process the meaningfulness and impact of making history by being the first company from our region to be listed on Nasdaq," he says.
His company's Nasdaq listing was just one of many high points that have dotted the career of one of the Middle East's pioneering entrepreneurs. (Aramex delisted in 2002 after Mr Ghandour acquired it in a management buyout and later listed on the Dubai Financial Market).
Indeed, Aramex was cited by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman in his book The World Is Flat as an example of a company that has thrived in a world where the economic playing field is levelling out. Established in 1982, the company now employs over 12,000 people across 60 countries. Last year it reported improved net profit of 244.1 million dirhams (S$82.3 million) on 3.1 billion dirhams in revenues.
In building an international player, Mr Ghandour has run the entrepreneurial gauntlet; from managing a struggling start-up coping with tight cash flows to leading a fast-expanding enterprise with global ambitions.
"The journey is a continuous adventure. Most of it was very difficult and filled with anxiety, especially at the beginning. On the other hand, you have the satisfaction of actually knowing that you most probably made it, yet always questioning if you really have," he says.
Mr Ghandour is now using his considerable business experience and innate entrepreneurial talent to help start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa region (Mena).
Among other roles, he is co-founder and director of Mena Venture Investments, a seed capital investment company investing in early stage tech companies, and the chairman of WAMDA.com, an entrepreneurship support platform for the Mena region.
His position allows him a bird's eye view of a start-up scene that, while buzzing with ideas and activity, still faces many challenges.
"Many initiatives, accelerators and incubators are playing an active role in supporting entrepreneurs across the region. Yet there are still many challenges such as education, finding and hiring talent, accessing finance or stifling legislation," he points out.
In particular, Mr Ghandour believes that education systems need to be fixed to rectify a skills mismatch between what the region's schools and universities produce and what employers need.
Access to funding is another big issue, with the average share of SME (small and medium enterprises) lending in Mena only 8 per cent of total loans, he reveals.
To address this issue, he feels that the private sector needs to mobilise private wealth, build angel investment networks, and invest in venture capital funds.
Private-public partnerships to craft SME-friendly debt services and policies are also critical, he adds.
In Lebanon for instance, an innovative financing scheme known as Kafalat provides SMEs with loan guarantees, thus enabling them to access bank financing. Today, the programme has over 9,000 projects guaranteed and a total of around US$1.2 billion in loans.
Encouragingly, more organisations are emerging across the region that are helping to address the problems faced by entrepreneurs, says Mr Ghandour.
He cites the example of Injaz AlArab, a non-profit outfit that collaborates with corporate volunteers and education ministries across 12 countries in the Arab world to provide training to students in financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Injaz has so far trained more than 214,000 students across the region and has 1,912 private sector volunteers.
Mr Ghandour is also a big believer in the entrepreneur's ability to help improve the broader community. He recently launched Corporate Entrepreneurship Responsibility (CER), a collaborative movement that aims to mobilise the private sector to play an active role in "promoting the well-being of our societies through entrepreneurship-focused corporate activism and private-public partnerships".
CER focuses on areas such as education, access to capital and access to markets that the private sector can take the lead in improving.
"At a time when unemployment has become one of the biggest global challenges we're facing in the 21st century, it is crucial that we start with acknowledging the crucial role the private sector needs to play in addressing the challenges," he says. "Entrepreneurship has a ripple effect and the potential impact is limitless."
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