Ms Al Olaimy is Co-founder of one of Bahrain’s first social enterprises, and has been responsible for bringing both social entrepreneurship and sustainable development issues to the forefront of corporate and government agendas. She is an lvy League Fulbright scholar and an alumna of the THNK School for Creative Leadership in Amsterdam. She started her career as a communications consultant for a leading global PR firm developing strategies for blue chip companies and Fortune 500s.
Having worked previously for the Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs; at tech startups; and volunteering at the World Health Organization Iraq and in Peace Village Vietnam, this is where she developed her passion towards social enterprising. Her current venture 3BL (Triple Bottom Line) Associates addresses a multitude of interconnected sustainable development issues spanning climate change, health, social inclusion, education and peace; recognizing that in a world of complexity cross-cutting issues cannot be solved in silo.
LEADERS Middle East takes a closer look to 3BL Associates, and chats with Ms. Al Olaimy.
Ms. Al Olaimy, tell us about 3BL Associates. What do you do?
3BL Associates is a people + planet strategy consultancy. We use sustainable development challenges—ranging from climate change, unemployment, health, and education—as opportunities to create economic, social and environmental wealth for countries, companies, communities and the Earth.
For companies we typically work on developing sustainability strategies that will positively impact the bottom line as well as have social and/or environmental impact. In other words: a triple bottom line, which is also known as ‘3BL’ or ‘people, planet, profit’.
With government consultancy, we work a lot on eco-system building around issues like entrepreneurship, as well as how to effectively address root causes of socio-economic challenges.
We work with startups as well—typically in a workshop capacity—on how to develop a triple bottom line business model.
We also work with international organizations like the UN on private sector engagement around the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and education for sustainable development.
Our consultancy work funds 3BL’s think-do-tank, through which we publish research like How Would Nature Reimagine Co-operatives? And also incubate our own social innovation ventures. For example ‘Diabetes.bh’, which is an offline and online network and portal for education on the prevention and management of diabetes and its related issues.
What are your views on youth leadership especially the youth in the MENA region?
Today’s youth today will be confronting the most pressing challenges ever facing a human generation. Many are ambitious and innovative with a sense of purpose, and a desire to make meaningful contributions to their countries and communities. But I don’t think their potential is well utilized.
On the one-hand, many countries in the region have launched numerous youth leadership programs, yet few are empowering youth to actually take ownership of the future they will be inheriting. You cannot learn leadership in a workshop. You can learn about it, but ultimately you must have the opportunity to put it into practice. This does not necessarily mean being in a position of authority, and one could argue that anyone can exercise leadership in any position and in any situation. But I think there is a missing link between leadership knowledge and practice.
In Bahrain, although there are a significant amount of supporters for CSR, it is evident that not many put it into practice. Why do you think this happens and what should be done to change it?
When we published the first Bahrain Responsible Business Report with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton in 2012, we wanted to advance the understanding of CSR as something that is strategic and can have significant business value—rather than something that is cosmetic, and marketing-donations-sponsorship oriented.
Many companies still don’t understand that strategic CSR (I prefer the term ‘sustainability’) is the only way a business will be successful and sustainable in the long-term. When it is viewed as a non-value adding activity—aside from some publicity—it will naturally be a low priority for companies still trying to navigate a challenging economy.
Also, domestically there is hardly any regulatory or consumer pressure similar to what Western markets witnessed in the 1990’s with sweatshop boycotts etc.
Ultimately, local and regional companies need to understand the link between their potential to flourish and that of the communities and planet on which they operate in.
3BL Associates is a hybrid social enterprise that was established to re-imagine a more sustainable & regenerative Middle East. Who are your target clients?
Our primary client is humanity and this Earth.
Our work has ranged from multinationals looking to embed sustainability into their core business in a way that creates both financial and social impact; international organizations working towards the SDGs and looking to effectively engage multi-stakeholder groups; and governments working on creating more social, natural and financial capital.
We have a unique palette of expertise—including social innovation, bio mimicry (nature-inspired innovation), Shared Value (Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School and Mark Kramer framework), and peace building—so we are often engaged in customized curriculum design for in-house corporate trainings, and entrepreneurship and innovation programs.
Ultimately, our target clients are progressive organizations that want to serve society in a way that is bold, innovative, sustainable and collaborative.
How does 3BL help businesses in Bahrain have a more social impact?
In a nutshell, we help businesses identify the social issues that are most strategically aligned with their business. This means finding the overlap between a company’s core capabilities, the challenges or business drivers for sustainability, and the pressing social issues in the regions in which they operate.
For example a food production company that has a high cost of food imports would benefit financially from sourcing more local produce that is fresher and also produces less carbon emissions.
If the company works with local female farmers to develop their capacity, access to technology and other resources, they will serve the company’s supply chain through increasing the farmers’ crop yield and quality, and also income. Add to this context a country that suffers from food insecurity, poverty, and marginalisation of women, and the company has cast a wide social impact net that has also improved business performance.
Ms. Al Olaimy, you are currently developing a program called ‘How to Reimagine the Middle East’. Tell us a little more about this program and what are the goals and changes you wish to see through this?
‘How to Reimagine the Middle East’ is a multi-lingual toolkit we developed though our think-do-tank to engage Arab youth in non-violent resilience rather than non-violent resistance. The curriculum development was supported by a UNESCO grant, and is delivered as a workshop facilitated by Arab youth whom we select and train as fellows.
It teaches youth how to identify their purpose, societal problems, and how to link social issues to market opportunities. This way they can build sustainable social business models. The curriculum is very values-focused so it cultivates empathy and emotional intelligence, and encourages working collaboratively rather than combatively.
We ran a pilot in Bahrain this summer as well as another one with refugee communities in Morocco. Once the curriculum is refined it will be freely available and open source on our website.
However, there is also a larger ‘Reimagine MENA Labs’ think-do-tank initiative, which we are piloting in Cairo in January 2016. The objective of Reimagine MENA Labs is to connect like-minded and like-hearted multi-disciplinary stakeholders to collectively accelerate progress on pressing social issues in the Arab world through:
1) An annual PlatForum, which serves as a ‘kick-off’, and;
2) Community Hubs that drive momentum throughout the year.
Essentially 3BL will curate, convene and connect complementary partners to accelerate exponential social impact. Sort of like impact-matchmaking for a community of thinkers and doers working to fulfill the Arab world’s potential.
I believe that we have enough collective wealth, technology, expertise and resources to actualize human potential—in the Arab world, and globally. If only we were more collaborative we would create a wave, not a ripple.
Are there any particular challenges you face as a women leader in Bahrain? What is your personal approach to leadership?
There are certainly challenges I face as a social entrepreneur but I haven’t faced any significant gender-specific challenges. Women in Bahrain are relatively empowered in business, politics and civil society.
I think too many people confuse leadership with authority. A true leader is humble, compassionate, mindful, and is motivated by the service of others rather than by ego. There are several quotes that resonate with me like “A leader is always working their way out of a job”; the principle that you are there to empower and lead people to fulfill their potential—even if that means they surpass or no longer need you. In fact, that’s the aspiration. I also like the quote about leaders making you feel important rather than making you feel that they are important.
You co-founded 3BL Associates with your brother, Tariq Al Olaimy back in 2010. Where do you see the future of the company 10 years from now?
In 10 years we hope to be billionaires, with the definition of ‘billionaire’ being an organization that has impacted and enriched the lives of a billion people.