Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I’m Naji your host for this podcast, joined today with Dina Sherif, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, and executive Director of the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship. Dina is also a founding partner of Cairo based, Ahead of the Curve, which is the Arab region’s leading firms on issues related to sustainable business growth and impact-driven entrepreneurship. Most recently, Dina joined Disrupt Tech, Egypt’s first FinTech focused venture capital fund as a partner, pursuing her passion and building a fund that will support technology being used as a critical tool in creating financial inclusion for a largely unbanked population, most specifically women. Formerly Dina was a senior advisor to Ashoka, helping them reimagine new ways to identify the world’s leading social innovators. She was also the founding director of the American University of Cairo Center of for Entrepreneurship. Gina has several publications, multiple recognitions and words, and is currently a member of the Special Presidential Advisory Council for Economic Development reporting to the President of Egypt, a global advisory board member, and the Eisenhower Fellowships, a member of the board of Kala, uh, holding a member of the Board of Smart Medical Services and a member of the Board of Educate. Beyond old. Dina is an incredible leader, an incredible human, and I am so honored to have her with me today.
Dina, it’s just a pleasure to see you again live from Cairo. I think today.
Dina Sherif: Yes, live from Cairo. Thank you Naji for reading out my full bio. It always makes me pause and feel very, very old. .
Naji Gehchan: No, and, and I didn’t, I didn’t treat all of it, actually.
It’s way longer, but I wanna hear all about it from you and so please, if we can have a little bit. You know, the, between the lines of your story, your personal jour, uh, journey, uh, would love to hear more about what brought you, where you are today and, um, the inspiring leader you became.
Dina Sherif: Hmm. Uh, I think what brought me to where I am today, um, is a general philosophy that I’ve had, uh, or that I applied to my life really, which is what I like to refer to as the law of two.
In other words, if I am, uh, doing work where I am adding value and extracting value, um, in a way that is feeding my soul and in a way that is really contributing to, um, the, the, the growth and development of a particular organization that I’m working with, then I keep my feet firmly there, but, I am no longer adding value in contributing to the growth and evolution of that organization.
And if I am, or if I am no longer receiving, um, value that is adding to my own personal growth and evolution, then I have a moral obligation to take my own two feet and walk elsewhere. And I think that has really served me well over the years, um, in terms of career decisions and. , uh, when I have moved from one place to the next in my professional career, um, you know, oddly enough, it’s also served me in my personal life.
I think, uh, I, I, I, I think that everything in life has an expiry date, and I think that that philosophy has really helped me, um, identify quicker when that expiry date has.
Naji Gehchan: I love this philosophy. Uh, um, it, it, you’re saying expirated, but it’s true, like knowing when you have to leave, you know, before actually you’re just. Have to leave, right? Like having this courage to go, having this also that of doing the things that you like. I, I love how you framed this philosophy. So tell, tell us more along the way and along the journey, uh, how, how did you move from, uh, I think you started studying, uh, political sciences.
You’ve done several other things and now you’re. I don’t know in how many different industries and how many different countries I’d, I’d love to learn a little bit like the common thread, uh, that took you into, um, all those different, um, yeah. All, all the different adventures and, and really focused on social entrepreneurship at the end on social impact.
Dina Sherif: Uh, yeah. I mean, I think when I, when I went to college, I went to the American University in Cairo, and I think, you know, one of the first. You know how in life you have all these defining moments, right? As you, as you go through your, the everyone goes through their individual journey. There are these moments that are just clearly defining moments that kind of dictate.
How the rest of your life will evolve. When I was studying at a U C I, I think one of those defining moments was, um, when a u C was still based smack in the center of Cairo and Tahari Square. Uh, I used to take either the metro I lived in, I lived in Hilo, so suburb in Cairo. I used to either take the metro or I would take, um, the, a public service bus because, you know, my father, even though I went to, you know, an elite private school, Believe that you have to use public transportation and find your own way around the city.
Um, uh, and so I, I, I used to, uh, interact with, with so many different kinds of people, um, as I was commuting from Hill, uh, to, to, and then one day. I don’t know what happened, but I ended up getting off a little earlier, um, on Ram in Ramsey Street, and I decided to like just walk the rest of the way to Tahari Square and I ended up in front of this church called St.
Andrews Church. And this is where I think, you know, fate tends to step in and I, I, I saw like there was a sign. Outside of the church that they were hosting refugees from different countries in Africa. And, and I walked in into the church and then I, I realized that the church was really, had really just been transformed into, um, More of a place for refugees from different countries, from all across Africa to come, uh, with their children, specifically mothers and children, um, where they could learn different, uh, skills that they needed so that when they were sent to, um, their final destination or final host country, they’d be.
Able to speak English or the children would be able to keep up with basic subjects like math and science and different things that would allow them to go to school. And it was kind of my first introduction to a politics and the reality that, you know, I think refu, all issues related to refugees are product of politics and poor policy.
Um, but also that the fate of these particular refugees, Uh, was really being determined by. Whatever anybody was willing to give to them out of the goodness of their heart, because the Egyptian government wasn’t really providing them with much. And so I walked away from that experience with a couple things.
One, um, you know, a desire to understand a lot more about Africa and why Africa is the way it is and what, what this whole economic development aid, um, industry looked like and, and why it was. There were so many refugees on the continent, how they ended up in Egypt, and why the Egyptian government was taking a particular stance and so forth and so on.
But I also walked away thinking that I as a citizen, had a moral obligation to also do something. If I could. And so I decided throughout the years of my university that I would volunteer my time there twice a week to work with the refugee children there. And I ended up over time bringing in a, a group of friends who also from from college, who also did the same.
And I think a lot of that, you know, really stemmed from the fact that, um, I always, my mom always taught me that if, if it’s in your ability to help and give back, then you have, you have to do that. But I think the entrepreneurial part of me was trying to figure out ways to, um, scale that help and mobilize other people and, and, and see how I could do that more efficiently and more effectively.
Right. . Um, so I think that was just the beginning, that that was the defining moment that led me to really, um, commit myself to, you know, what we wanna call, um, creating prosperity or sustainable development and so forth and so on. And so I graduated from college and I really, I said that’s, that’s the space I wanna work in.
And so I’d, over the course of the years, if you look at my resume, you’ll find that I have always, um, no matter. Which sector I’m in, whether it be public policy, civil society, private sector. The focus is how can I increase impact and prosperity for all. Um, I have firmly landed over the past 10 years in this 10 or over 10 years now, um, in this space of entrepreneurship and innovation because I have this deep belief that entrepreneurs have the ability to solve complex.
Challenges at scale in a way that, um, not-for-profits don’t. That’s not to say that we don’t need not-for-profits. And you, Naja and I have had this debate many times, , but I think we need not-for-profits, but I think. Innovation driven entrepreneurs, they have the ability to create business models at scale that can really, um, be financially sustainable and not dependent on, um, philanthropy and donor driven aid.
And I think also there’s something about entrepreneurship that really gives agency back to the citizen to create change and to solve their own problems. Um, and so that’s, Go ahead. Yeah. Yeah.
Naji Gehchan: And specifically this, because that, that was my my second question. And thank you for sharing, uh, this, this big, uh, experience that you had, uh, and powerful that led you to have so much impact across the world.
And, and now we work a lot with social impact and impact driven entrepreneurship. Like we, we are hearing a lot about it, but you are obviously super involved with, with those entrepreneurs. How do you define it? Like how do you define someone? Building a company that is an impact driven entrepreneurship organization.
Dina Sherif: I think, I think over the years, I’ve come to shy away now from the term social entrepreneurship or impact driven entrepreneurship. I think my position is if, uh, if somebody is coming to solve a. Complex challenge that impacts society. So whether it be education, um, transportation, healthcare, energy, you name it.
I mean, we, we don’t have a shortage of complex challenges in today’s world. You know, quite the contrary, we have a plethora. But if, if, if you have an individual and they. Coming in and they are coming up with a solution to this challenge that can be scaled and they’re, um, you creating a business model around that, that is scalable, then I think that is what impact is, right?
You’ll be solving a complex challen complex challenge at scale. You’re going to be creating jobs and generating wealth, so you’re creating multiple layers of value and I. For me when. When I talk about entrepreneurship, it’s always been important for me because of the different layers of impact that entrepreneurs have the power to create, right?
So if, if we take, you know, where we come, the Middle East, come from the Middle East, or if we take Africa larger, if we take Southeast Asia, if we take Latin America, you know, uh, Everyone talks about the need to create jobs, and we need entrepreneurship because we need to see economic growth and we need to create more jobs for the, for our local population.
For me, that’s just one aspect of it, that job creation, wealth creation piece of it. But the other part is that, you know, when you think about. Hal. For example, Mo Rahim, when he brought telecom uh, to Africa, he was the first person to start a telecom company in Sub-Saharan Africa. What he was doing is he was creating multiple new markets.
I think that is impact. that he was an impact driven entrepreneur because he knew the minute that he gave access to the, the majority of the population of Africa to a mobile phone, that this would unlock huge opportunity. Hmm. Uh, and it did. Right? Um, the same goes for example, um, you know, if you think about Uber or if you think about em, in the Middle East, and obviously these are companies that have done really, really well for themselves.
Em has done really well for themselves, but they’ve also created job opportunities for a lot of, uh, people who wouldn’t have had those job, job opportunities. But if you take that, that’s just a narrow scope of it. But if you think about the layers of value that they have created with that business model, , for example.
Um, in our, in our part of the world, you know, Uber solved a huge can. He solved a huge problem for women and mobility and getting from point A to point point B. Um, it, it, you know, it, I think, I think all of these different business models. Provided that they’re solving a real societal challenge, at the heart of it is going to be impact, and it will be.
And you will find many, many layers of impact that you can peel, peel back. I, I
Naji Gehchan: love, you know, this perspective and Yeah. Well you obviously work in this field. You’ve done research, you were part of a book, charity to social, uh, change. I’m, I’m feeling like there is a thin line right from. Being a company and saying we have a, an impact, right?
Like you gave example of great companies like Kareem Healthcare. Practically all of us in healthcare are trying to make life better for patients, right? And obviously having a social impact, but, but then you have like all. You know, other stories like, uh, shareholders value generating this. I’d love to get your views because I’m feeling like, and you can’t take rim as an example, as you said, like they made a lot of value for the, for the company and shareholders too, but yet they managed to impact socially.
So where do you, is there a line to be Joan or is it just Every company at the end of the day has a social responsibility? and they should
Dina Sherif: abide by it. No, I think it’s a really good question, and I think ultimately for me, the differentiating factor is always intentionality, right? What is the intention of the entrepreneur starting the venture?
Um, did that entrepreneur start that venture? with the sole purpose of solving a particular challenge in mind? Or was that entrepreneur starting a business because they wanna maximize profits and generate wealth? Because those are two very different things. And if we take, like, let’s take some examples.
When I think about, say for example, um, if you look at my country, Egypt, uh, healthcare is a massive problem. Access is a problem. Quality, uh, the quality of healthcare provided is a problem. You know, I would argue that healthcare overall, globally we’ve seen the, the, the. Extreme dysfunctionality of healthcare as a system.
Um, and I think the incredible misalignment of all the dis different stakeholders that exist in the health healthcare space around purpose hasn’t, has become extremely evident like during Covid and post covid. But if you say, for example, you know, in Egypt, public healthcare is. Extremely problematic. If you wanna get any, any kind of, I would say, semblance of quality healthcare, you have to go to a private healthcare provider, which is also very problematic because if you say, take one of our leading private hospitals, say Cle Cleopatra Holding, which, which is now like a group of private hospitals, well, the reality.
these hospitals are functioning to return maximum profits to their shareholders. Their purpose was never to deliver high quality healthcare to patients. If, if it was, they would be making decisions very differently. So the intention, right, was never about the patient or the end user or the quality of the healthcare provided.
And so, Decisions are made very differently. Now, if you think for example, um, about. Uh, an entrepreneur like amta who started smart medical, um, smart medical care, which is health insurance provided to at an affordable rate, to middle, middle income, to lower middle income citizens in Egypt. The intention behind starting that business was always how can we provide.
Health insurance at an affordable rate to those who don’t have access. Because if you look at small and medium enterprises in this country, it’s very hard for them to pay for, for the very acce, very expensive health insurance plans. And so this entrepreneur was trying to solve that problem and wanted to create better access and provide your average Egyptian citizen with the kind of infrastructure needed to.
And navigate the healthcare system. Now, the intentions behind that business were really to serve the end user and to make life better for the average Egyptian citizen. And so his decision making process is very different. Now, when people come and tell him, when his board comes and tells him, you know, you need to be, uh, generating more profit.
You need to be working on your exit. You need to be talking to, you know, this big health insurance company and find a way to get acquired. You know, his responses are always, um, no, no, no. Because that will take away from the overall intention of why I created this business. See what I’m saying?
Naji Gehchan: see it and I love it. And that was my second question that you partly answered. It’s because I love how you framed it into intentionality is the key, right? But then there is this piece where there’s funding and obviously you’re in impact investing too, where exactly what you said, the board at some point, or the company when the company scales, right?
Because there is the founder, but then when it scales, you know better than me. There is more than the founder, obviously, and sometimes even the founder, and ends up leaving the company at some point. So how, how do you combine this? Do you have any strong stories about The intentionality was here for the founders and it keeps on being here as, because I’m hearing like, this should be your true north.
If your true north is this, you, you should making long-term bets rather than saying, okay, I’m gonna make more profits on the immediate term. Yeah. And really stick to. .
Dina Sherif: I think this means this. This requires alignment around purpose, right? So if the entrepreneur is truly driven by particular intentions around a, a purpose or the desire to solve a very complex challenge that touches the lives of many people, that same entrepreneur has to go through the effort of aligning.
Shareholders around that purpose of aligning their board members around that purpose. Um, because if people are not constantly aligned and grounded in that purpose, then you’re going to, you’re gonna find yourself having to deal with kind of different. , I would say conflicting tensions of where our business should go.
And that’s where you start seeing people say, oh, where are the short-term gains? You know, the, the, the ability to wait to be a little bit patient for what is to come requires that all the different stakeholders involved be grounded in one purpose. You defined in one purpose when that alignment isn’t there, that’s where you start seeing.
I would say adrift. . Um, and I think truly, uh, I would say mission driven entrepreneurs or impact on driven entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs. You choose whatever term you want, but those who are really deeply, um, grounded in that purpose, they will go to great lengths to align people around that purpose and the urgency of solving the problem.
Um, and I think anything that solves a real problem will inevitably make. for shareholders. There is no, no such thing as conditionality. I think if there is conditionality and you have to sacrifice purpose for, for, uh, social benefit, then maybe the problem wasn’t as relevant as we thought. But if you’re really solving a problem that is relevant to people, they will pay for that solution and you will generate wealth and solve the problem at the same time.
And there’s no need to s. . Yeah.
Naji Gehchan: Yeah. And, and certainly aligning this purpose with the people you’re hiring with, how you’re doing your bouncing team, your management team, and for the legacy to continue. Uh, I, I will move now to a section where I’ll give you word, uh, I’d love to reaction to it. Sounds good.
All right. . The first one is leadership.
Dina Sherif: I think leadership is an activity. I do not believe in leaders. So I do not identify as a leader. I think there are times where I step up and I exercise leadership, uh, and that’s when there, there’s no real known answer or known solution and it requires that somebody step up. But I do not believe that we are.
you know, just cause I hold the title of an executive director or a partner in a fund or a c e o, that that automatically makes me a leader and makes me somebody with authority, um, who has a title. But what identifies somebody as a leader is, is that moment where they have to step up and mobilize people to move into the unknown and really evolve and charter progress.
Naji Gehchan: it’s, uh, it’s my belief Two leaders are known for their actions and not their titles. Right. Titles, uh, is, is more authority or whatever, you know, it can gives you, but definitely not being a leader. The second one is inclusive society.
Dina Sherif: Wow. Naja, you really go for the triggering words. Um, I think for me, inclusion. Inclusion is a very, uh, has been a very important word for me as a woman. Um, a woman from the Arab world who really had to kind of fight and push forward to have a space here. But I think, um, and to have a career in the Arab region, but I.
inclusion has come to mean so much more living in America as being perceived as a woman of color. Um, and I think that has brought all kinds of, um, I think has just been a, brought a lot up for me when it comes to this idea of what it means to truly be inclusive and to create spaces where, Different viewpoints, different work styles, um, different, uh, different cultures.
Um, it’s so much more than color of skin, right? Color of skin for me is a very narrow, easy way to define inclusion or along the lines of ethnic ethnicity or religion. But it’s really so much more. It’s, I think it’s the, the willingness and the ability for. Uh, different opinions and styles to be allowed to be allowed to have a space to be accepted with love and kindness and compassion.
That’s not to say that we all have to agree, and it’s not to say that, you know, um, we can’t disagree. We absolutely have to disagree, right? That’s what diversity leads to. But I think there’s something very healthy when, when there’s a space that allows for the tension that can exist within differences to evolve into something more beautiful.
This, this is
Naji Gehchan: so powerful, uh, how you, you said something, you know, diversity leads to disagreement. I, I, I agree. And this is what you look for. obviously, and creating this space where disagreement is okay for us to grow and learn and innovate is, is really crucial. The third one is social
Dina Sherif: innovators.
Yeah. So like I said, I, I, I shy away now from using the word social because. , I think it has a lot of baggage. When we say social, you know, investors immediately switch off and they say, oh, okay. If you’re a show social innovator, then you’re not going to be rigorous about having a, um, financially viable business model.
And so, you know, your, your world is only to go to the philanthropists and, uh, I think, I think it’s led to a lot of kind of misunderstandings. Um, but for me, I think the world really genuinely needs innovators who are driven by the, the desire to create a more sustainable, inclusive, um, and prosperous world.
And I. Inevitably that is social because what is social? Social is everything that impacts us as humans and business. Every business will have some impact on us as a human, and if we don’t really. Own that and embrace that and stop shying away from it as being, you know, too soft or too fluffy. But the reality is, it’s not.
We all exist in this world as humans. Uh, we are built for human connection. Everything we consume and use and products that are offered are meant, uh, designed for the human. And so that is social. Um, and we need to have more innovators who are willing to step up and own the fact that innovation should, um, and can, uh, lead society to a better place.
And that better place has to be sustainable, and it has to be inclusive, and it has to have very much embedded at the very core, um, compassion and love and kindness. Right. ,
Naji Gehchan: you said it many times and it’s also a word we shy away from. So that’s my last one. Spread love in organizations, .
Dina Sherif: Yeah, I mean, you know, this has never become more important to me.
I, I think you and I had have had conversations about this since, since I met you. Um, but it’s become even more important to me because I think. In a post covid world than in a world where all of a sudden there are all these conversations around diversity and equity and inclusion and, uh, we see world, a world where there’s a lot of polarization and a lot of ugliness and a lot of, uh, othering and.
Um, words that have a lot of hate and unkindness in them. I, I think organizations, all organizations need a lot more love. And in that love needs a lot more patience and understanding and compassion and empathy and real, true kindness, right? Uh, kindness in the sense that. Really give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best in people.
And that’s not to say that people are necessarily coming with the best of intentions, but I feel like when you create a space where, or a work culture where that assumption is there, you’re, you’re lifting up the bar and you’re asking people to show up as the best versions of themselves. Um, and I don’t think we.
Enough an organization. So I think we absolutely need to see, uh, I think now more than ever, just more love and kindness in, in how we show up for each other in a workplace. What
Naji Gehchan: an, an amazing way to sum it up. Uh, any final word of wisdom, you know, for leaders
Dina Sherif: around the. . Yeah. I don’t, I don’t know if I have words of wisdom, but I think what’s been top of my mind lately is that, um, we spent so much time, or we’ve spent so much time talking about employees and work-life balance and the wellbeing of employees throughout C O V D and the pandemic and, um, how, how can we create better workplaces for employees?
And I think. , we don’t spend enough time talking about what it’s like to be a person in a position of authority through very difficult times. And I think when times are uncertain, where times are difficult and decisions have to be made, and there’s a lot of pressure and you know, for a lot of people who have been in positions authority throughout the pandemic and now going into a global recession, life has been really hard.
And they’ve been, you know, I would say it’s been, it’s probably lonely. I don’t en envy anybody in a position of authority these days because they’re the first ones to be scapegoated. They’re the first ones to be blamed. They’re the first ones to not be at the receiving end of kindness and compassion and benefit of the doubt.
And I get that. That is the reality of what it means to be in a position of authority, but we just don’t spend enough time talking about. , the difficulties of that and the scars that people incur when they are forced to step up, forced stop forced, but when the circumstances dictate that they need to step up and lead.
And a lot of that puts, that’s a, puts you in a very vulnerable position because it really opens you up for a lot of, um, scapegoating and blame and undermining and alienation because nobody likes change. and when somebody is stepping up to create change, it’s going to be tough, and I hope that we can also talk about what it means to show up with love and kindness for people who are actually stepping up and having enough courage to lead people to a new or a different possibility.
Naji Gehchan: This is definitely another topic. I will, I will have someone, I’ll actually, because it touches so many different aspects for leaders and moments of crisis change. Uh, and, and exactly what you said, like it touches mental health for those leaders. Several times we just. Don’t even consider it. We don’t talk about it.
So I have someone where we will talk about this, who’s a specialist in mental health at some point also, and, and leadership, and we will talk about it. I, I love this opening. We can go on Dina as every single time. Uh, but again, thank you for being with me today. We probably will do another, another episode specific on leaders and, uh, and how they do, do, how much do they receive love.
Also as, as leaders, we can definitely do it. Uh, I would love that. Awesome. Thanks again for being with me, uh, today and looking forward to seeing you in person again in Cambridge.
Dina Sherif: Thank you for having me.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
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