Aug 8, 2023

Michelle Mouracade: Shaping the Future for Tangible Change in the Arab World

Empowering entrepreneurs and instigating social transformation for a better world - your pick-me-up of the week!

Michelle Mouracade: Shaping the Future for Tangible Change in the Arab World

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In the heart of Lebanon, a nation that has witnessed the crucible of war and the triumph of resilience, there emerges a story that transcends borders and captures the essence of a true global citizen. Meet Michelle Mouracade, whose life's narrative reads like an epic adventure—a compelling tale of courage, exploration, and unwavering dedication to making a difference.

Born and raised in the midst of conflict, she embarked on an extraordinary odyssey that took her across four continents, spanning 12 vibrant cities, and immersing herself in the soul of 74 diverse countries. Her journey, marked by change and reinvention, eventually led her back to her homeland, guided by a profound purpose: to uplift and support the change-makers of today—the social entrepreneurs who strive to build a better world for all.

In 2016, Michelle joined Alfanar to lead and accelerate its impact in Lebanon. Alfanar is a pioneering venture philanthropy organization, with a mission to catalyze lasting social change in the Arab world. Alfanar's unwavering focus on supporting growth stage social enterprises that educate, employ and economically empower marginalized communities resonated deeply with Michelle's own values. Armed with two decades of invaluable experience from the private sector, she saw an opportunity to harness her skills for the greater good.

Alfanar's unique approach involves providing critical resources—up to $500,000 in grant zero-interest loan funding, management support, mentorship, customized training, and access to networks—to early and growth stage social enterprises over a span of 3-5 years. By bolstering these changemakers through their difficult growth journeys, Alfanar unleashes a ripple effect of transformation that reaches far beyond financial sustainability—and creates a multiplier impact effect that improves lives long into the future, even beyond Alfanar’s engagement.

As the sun sets on the horizon of 2023, with unwavering leadership, Michelle is working to grow support for and launch a groundbreaking initiative—a regional impact investment fund dedicated to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The fund's primary focus will be to extend the financing life cycle of promising social enterprises and impact-driven businesses. The fund aims to direct 80% of its investment capital towards Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and her beloved Lebanon—countries facing significant development challenges, but which are originating innovative, scalable responses to these challenges and which today warrant impact investment to grow further.

Michelle's journey has not been one of uniformity, nor can it be confined within the boundaries of a singular careerpath. Her remarkable resilience and adaptability are evident in her diverse professional trajectory, ranging from financial services to program management, strategy consulting, and website development. Her impressive track record of successful transformations in the financial sector speaks volumes about her determination to make a lasting impact.

In the changing landscape of global challenges, Michelle's journey inspires us to embrace the spirit of exploration, the courage to return to our roots, and the audacity to wield our skills for the betterment of humanity.

As she continues to touch lives and spark change, Michelle's story invites us all to join in her quest—a quest to transform lives, one venture at a time. This week, in conversation with Machinelab

Can you tell us about your journey from the private sector to the social investment sector? What motivated you to make this transition?

For 20 years, I had an extremely gratifying and motivating career in the private sector. However, I felt that everything I did was geared towards helping shareholders become richer, with very little regard for employees’ well-being, the communities they serve and the environments they operate in. Halfway through these 20 years, I got certified as an executive coach to try to modestly contribute to employee well-being but barely got enough clients to feel that I was making a difference. So when I turned 40, I decided to take a long sabbatical during which I spent 2 months working for a social enterprise in the Galapagos. And although I was meant to teach English to children, all I could think about was giving advice to the management of the social enterprise on how they could optimize their operations. This was an eureka moment as I really felt that I could make a difference in the social enterprise sector. So when I went back to Lebanon, I told a friend who worked in the sector that I would love to support multiple social enterprises as a freelance consultant and this is when she told me that Alfanar was recruiting a Country Director. Reading the job description was one of the most serendipitous moments of my life…

What pulled you towards Alfanar and its mission?

The fact that Alfanar is focused on supporting social enterprises that have both a measurable and scalable social impact as well as a revenue-generating business model means that their impact is multiplied over the years. And the fact that Alfanar supports social entrepreneurs over the long-term, with significant grant funding along with management support and training that is customized to their needs means that we are filling an important gap in the market since nearly no other ecosystem player supports entrepreneurs in such an engaged and long-term fashion. For someone who wants to make a real difference on the ground, the sustainability of impact, the strong relationships we build with social entrepreneurs and the fact that we are truly filling a gap in the social entrepreneurship support ecosystem was more than I could dream of.

How do you believe Alfanar is making a difference in the Arab world?

Alfanar’s focus on the financial sustainability of the social enterprises we support and the way in which we support them both make a big difference, and, as mentioned, fills a real gap in the support ecosystem of the Arab world. And we are providing this support to social enterprises that are either providing sustainable and decent income opportunities to the most vulnerable communities (especially women, youth, refugees and differently-abled individuals) or supporting vulnerable communities in accessing affordable quality education, products or services. We believe that our venture philanthropy approach and that supporting social enterprises is very much needed considering that the MENA region is one of the only regions in the world where poverty rates have been increasing consistently since 2014, despite the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid flowing into the region. During the past 19 years, Alfanar has provided long-term funding and support to 48 social enterprises that have improved the lives of over 273,500 children, youth and women. We have trained a further 65 social enterprises across Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine to strengthen their impact, operations and sales,  And since 2015, 52% of our portfolio has either reached break-even, improving 52% more lives and growing their self-generated revenue through sale of goods and services by 63%.

As the country director for Lebanon, what are some of the specific challenges and opportunities you face in empowering social enterprises in the region?

I was Alfanar’s Country Director for Lebanon for 6 years but since May 2022, I have focused my efforts exclusively on supporting Alfanar to help launch a regional impact investment fund. During my 6 years as Country Director, the two biggest challenges that we faced were:

· Access to multi-year funding to allow Alfanar to support social enterprises over multiple years and with enough funding to help them grow sustainably was challenging and remains a challenge compared to the potential for the sector to make lasting change.

· Sufficient awareness among individual and institutional donors that the social entrepreneurship sector is one of the most efficient ways to break the cycle of poverty in a measurable, lasting manner.  Unlike funding traditional NGOs that deliver short-term, often donor-driven development projects, backing social enterprises requires a holistic perspective, leadership-building and a focus on systems-building and sustainability alongside impact. They require more long-term funding and technical support as opposed to only funding program activities or direct beneficiaries. It is a new approach to funding, which enables long-term change. Although things are evolving in the right direction, the majority of donors still need many meetings to be convinced, especially embassies and the CSR departments of corporates.

In terms of opportunities, Alfanar has been very lucky over the years to have the recurrent support of extremely dedicated board members, individual donors, corporate and foundation partners without whom none of our work would be possible. We are also very lucky to have a network of what we call 'impact connectors' who are keen to dedicate their time, expertise and networks to help connect our social entrepreneurs with their own networks. These connections enable them to find business opportunities. People from the region are very generous with their financial and intellectual capital as well as their time and networks, allowing us to empower social enterprises to make meaningful improvements in education, employment and the environment.

Could you share a specific example of a social enterprise that Alfanar has supported and the impact it has achieved in its community?

I would like to mention B.O.T which is a woman-led social enterprise with operations in Lebanon and Jordan. B.O.T provides high quality data management solutions executed by a managed workforce of upskilled youth and women from low income communities across the Arab region. To date, B.O.T has served over 60 clients globally providing 200+ successful projects in Data Collection, Data Cleaning, Data Entry, Data Categorization, and other data related services. In 2022, B.O.T launched HAIVO - a service dedicated to servicing the AI community by providing Humans-in-the-loop services in Data Annotation, Labeling, Dataset Development and Data Validation for pre-labeled sets. To date, they have delivered 40+ projects with HAIVO to clients in the US, KSA, and across the world.

Alfanar began supporting B.O.T in 2019 when it only had 15 youth freelancers on its platform.  Our continued funding and technical assistance has enabled this ambitious social enterprise to create steady income-generating opportunities for the youth. B.O.T’s impact on their freelancers is transformative as they enable the youth to not only gain access to a steady, remote income-generation, but they also propel them into high-demand careers. Given that B.O.T’s work can be executed remotely, 53% of their workforce is women, including many mothers who are working from home. Over the course of Alfanar’s investment, B.O.T has generated +£1 Million through the sale of its services and is recovering 54% of its costs today. In terms of a social enterprise model, it doesn’t get more impactful and sustainable than this.

In your opinion, what are the key qualities or characteristics that make a social enterprise successful and sustainable in the long-term?

I believe that the number one characteristic that is required is grit and the determination to keep going despite the multiple challenges that they face as social entrepreneurs - the most important of which is the lack of access to funding. However, I have found that the social entrepreneurs whose mission is to solve an important problem usually display a lot of grit because they are driven and motivated by the impact that they see on the ground and their desire to keep doing more and more. So I would add that the ability to network, to open doors and to innovate in terms of collaboration possibilities are also key characteristics to be successful.

As Alfanar supports the launch of a regional impact fund, how do you plan to identify and select social enterprises for investment? What criteria will you use to evaluate their potential for impact and financial sustainability?

Alfanar is supporting the launch of a $50M regional impact investment fund that aims to maximise positive and measurable social and environmental impact, with a focus on gender-lens investing, while seeking attractive positive returns on investor capital. The fund's mission is to address a critical funding gap by investing in growth-stage businesses with a measurable and scalable impact as well as a scalable and competitive business model, on track for strong profitability with solid and proven unit economics. The fund will also assess the strength of the management team. With boots on the ground for the past 19 years and a very wide network of community partners, this greatly facilitates our deal sourcing and allows us to engage with a very large number of entrepreneurs.

Michelle, what role do you see the regional impact fund playing in the economic development and social change in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon?

According to the GIIN, less than 1% of the $1.164 trillion dollars of AUM in the global impact investment sector is invested in the MENA region. By helping launch the first regional impact investment fund, we hope to demonstrate the sector’s potential to generate returns while growing employment and income-generating opportunities for vulnerable communities. We hope that by encouraging the emergence of an impact investment fund in the MENA region, it will encourage other impact investors to serve the MENA region.

With your international experience across various countries, how do you think the challenges and opportunities for social enterprises in the MENA region compare to other regions you have worked in?

With two-thirds of MENA’s population under the age of 35, we witness high levels of innovation and creativity in addressing numerous social and environmental issues. However, political unrest and economic volatility across multiple countries in the MENA make it very challenging for social enterprises to grow. Navigating bureaucratic processes and regulations is also more cumbersome for social enterprises in the region than others. Furthermore, social enterprises often face gaps in funding given the reticence among traditional donors to support them as well as the size of support grants often being subscale to their impact growth needs. On the upside, interest in social entrepreneurship in MENA has noticeably grown over the years, leading to the emergence of various support networks, incubators, and accelerators focused on social enterprises. As the ecosystem grows, support actors are finding more ways to collaborate and support one another in our collective effort to grow the sector.

What advice would you give to individuals or organizations looking to get involved in social entrepreneurship or the social investment sector in the Arab world?

Most people we speak to believe that the only way to support a social enterprise is through funding. And although it is true that there is a significant funding gap and that having the right capital to grow is important, those who wish to support the sector should not underestimate the impact that they can have through three actions that we always recommend:

· Social procurement (i.e. including social enterprises in your supply chain) or buying goods and services from social enterprises and businesses with impact.

· Mentorship and advisory support as the social entrepreneurs need this as much as they need funding.

· Access to networks, because at the end of the day business development can be greatly accelerated through introductions.

What is your one guiding principle, your North Star, in both life and work?

My most important guiding principle in life is to always follow my instincts, to read the signs that destiny puts on my path, and to never ever give up on reaching my dreams. However, if I try really hard and things don’t go as I hoped for, I always trust that there is a good reason for it and that there is always a bigger plan. This has helped me realise many of my dreams over the years.


Photo courtesy of: Pierre Aboujaoude

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