Jordan faces an increasing divide between its capital, Amman, and its outlying cities, and, within Amman, fragmentation between its crowded eastern inner city and wealthy western enclaves. One social venture, Hamzet Wasel, with a name meaning “link” in Arabic, is working to change that, by tackling social challenges and promoting diversity in the desert kingdom.
With a focus on inclusion, the organization’s approach is forward-thinking and hands-on, in a multitude of capacities. Hamzet Wasel works to unite communities with events such as their “urban discovery challenges,” which introduce both adults and children to the cultural heritage of Jordanian neighborhoods and make urban realities more transparent.
It also works to preserve communities, documenting the stories of Jordanian communities through writing, photography, filmmaking, blogs and social media. Finally, Hamzet Wasel cultivates future changemakers by advising and investing in other social ventures.
As a for-profit business working both as a community organizer and an investment and advisory vehicle, Hamzet Wasel has shown that a social venture can adopt a holistic approach to social change. Despite its current success, however, creating a business model for a social venture was not always easy for founder Raghda Butros.
We asked Raghda about her experience building Hamzet Wasel from the ground up.
1) How did you decide to create Hamzet Wasel?
After working in development for 14 years, I decided to experiment with new funding models for social development in the region. The decision to create a for-profit social venture, rather than establish a non-profit, came as a result of several factors. Having worked with both donor funding and private sector funding, I concluded that generating my own funding - with no strings attached – would be the most effective way to work.
My decision was also influenced by my concerns about Jordan's non-profit association law, which now hinders the independence of non-profits. I thought incorporating as a business would be more effective.
2) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global?
Our customer base is all of the above; Jordanians as well as regional and international visitors participate in our activities. This trend is set to grow over the next year, as we launch events in Dubai and Beirut. Our main strength, however, is our local focus and deep connection with the communities where we work.
3) What are your ambitions? How do you plan to grow?
We plan to grow by expanding our outreach in and beyond Jordan. At each stage, we expand by focusing on our prior achievements and conducting pilot projects to determine the best model for our next phase. This way we stay focused while growing one step at a time.
For example, the advisory services currently provided to two emerging business companies allow Hamzet Wasel to experience the merits and challenges of owning portfolio companies - as a fund - and the social and economic value provided by advising, mentoring and supporting small organizations that aim to achieve higher social impact.
Aside from being an organization, we are also a movement, a community of diverse people that grows with every activity we organize. The members of this community form lasting bonds with each other and form authentic relationships, which allow them to contribute to the development of their communities.
4) What were the most important decisions that you made at Hamzet Wasel, or what was a key turning point in your approach?
Hamzet Wasel's growth has been, and continues to be, very organic, with the scope and function of the company developing iteratively over the past two years. This approach has allowed us to be responsive to opportunities that we identify to contribute to social change and to the growth of the company.
Also, my decision to register as a business rather than a non-profit organization was one of the best decisions I made. I believe that optimal social change will be created by social ventures that find innovative ways to create wealth and invest it back into communities, rather than investing the wealth of others.
The Ashoka Fellowship that I received in 2009 also allowed me the financial freedom to experiment with innovative solutions and perfect them before taking them to market.
5) What is the biggest problem that you faced (or are facing), or what were the biggest mistakes you made as an entrepreneur?
The biggest mistake I make is underestimating the business potential of certain ideas. Fortunately I rely on a couple of key mentors for strategic advice on adjusting from the non-profit to the for-profit world.
The biggest challenge I face, a challenge that I chose, is building the company without seeking investment, apart from seed funding that was put in initially by a generous friend.
The most pressing issue, however, is managing growth. It’s tough to transition from doing everything yourself to being part of a team, but to make it easier, I try to work with peers who share my passion and vision.
6) What is your role in your company? If you have partners, how do you manage your partnership?
I manage the company, but I am not a big believer in corporate hierarchy. I believe in a process of consensus-building and joint decision-making where possible. I try to work with people who are capable leaders in their own right.
Hamzet Wasel is a company that believes very much in a partnership model and we believe that we form part of an ecosystem that serves our needs and our partners, in addition to the needs of other socially conscious start-ups that we support.
7) How long did it take you to get funding if you received funding? Has owning a company made you financially more secure, or not?
I received initial funding from a friend who believed in the project from day one, and I also invested my own funds. Owning a business has made me less financially secure in the short-term, but I am confident that it will create enhanced financial security in the longer term. I am a huge believer that if you pursue your passion, the money will follow.
8) How does technology enable your business? What is a technical tool that you cannot live without?
When you're building a community, quick and effective communication is the backbone of your success, and I have found social media, in its various forms, to be indispensable in this regard. Twitter has been useful for networking and idea-sharing, while Facebook has allowed us to reach a large, diverse audience. I have also met many of the partners I currently work with through social media.
9) What does your family and/or spouse think of your company? Would you advise other people and/or your kids to become entrepreneurs?
My husband has joined me in managing the business after working for almost two decades in the public sector. This has been an enriching experience for us as a couple and for the business. We complement each other well. He is managing the operational, strategic and financial planning for the company, which has taken us to a whole new level of effectiveness.
I would advise anyone with a passion and drive for innovation and change to start a business. I'm happy to see that this generation is more willing to take risks rather than follow traditional paths of employment. People’s desire to express their individuality and creativity is growing, which is an excellent thing.
10) Have the recent revolutions in the region influenced your approach?
I have always been a great believer in our ability as as individuals and as a collective to effect change. The revolutions have only reinforced this belief and has made Hamzet Wasel’s model more relevant. If the change taking place in our region demonstrates anything, it is that human-centric development efforts lead by the people for the people are the only way forward for our region. I believe that the era of underestimating the Arab citizen is over.