Champions of Change: Jordan’s Social Entrepreneurs

A growing number of passionate and resourceful Jordanians are setting up social enterprises in a bid to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing their society.

By Dina al-Wakeel

Maher Kaddoura-Social Entrepreneur and philanthropist

Maher Kaddoura, A Veteran Angel Investor and Philanthropist

As CSR programs become more popular worldwide with more and more companies choosing to have a bigger impact on the societies they operate in, some entrepreneurs have chosen to completely dedicate their work to help incite change in their communities.

According to Maher Kaddoura, the veteran angel investor and philanthropist, a business entrepreneur comes up with ideas to meet market demands solely to make profit, while a social entrepreneur is someone who undertakes a venture primarily to solve a social challenge.

Much of its importance also lies in the fact that instead of waiting for governments to fix social problems some social entrepreneurs prefer to take things into their own hands thus putting forth initiatives for the good of the public, said Kaddoura.

Some Jordanians are increasingly aware of their society’s ills and have set about finding their own solutions.

Rabee Zureikat is one such example. After witnessing the harsh living conditions in the poverty-stricken Ghor al Mazra’a area in the Karak governorate, Zureikat founded Zikra, Arabic for memory, which creates programs that bridge the urban communities with the local marginalized communities to exchange resources and skills. The experience is then turned into a positive memory.

Rabee Zureikat founder of Zikra

Rabee Zureikat, Founder of Zikra

Zureikat describes Zikra as a modern day treasure hunt to find communities’ hidden gems that may be exchanged to trigger organic sustainable development. “Subscribed to the idea of capitalizing on people’s strengths, skills, and heritage to create an equal and fair relationship for social development to occur, the Zikra Initiative was brought to life,” Said Zureikat.

So instead of operating along the lines of just another development-orientated charity, Zikra encourages residents of relatively wealthy urban areas to give something and receive something in return. For a fee, anyone can take part in a trip to learn new skills from the traditions and lifestyle of the Ghor al Mazra’a community, like picking tomatoes. In return, the local residents receive an income and can even apply for university scholarships provided by Zikra through its Minhati initiative.

For Zureikat, the advantage of this model is obvious. “The ‘exchange’ experience eliminates the giver-receiver dynamic and replaces it with an ‘equal’ and fair relationship in which both the giver and the receiver gain new skills and resources,” he said. “These programs, based on trust, accountability, creativity, and participation, empower both the local and visiting community members in taking part to ‘exchange to change.”

The Hybrid Model

Social enterprises can also involve a profit component, like Lina Khalifeh’s She Fighter venture, which aims to empower women mentally and physically through self-defense training. Khalifeh said she felt compelled to set up She Fighter after a female friend was assaulted by a member of her family, and felt powerless to do anything about it.

Lina Khalifeh, Founder of She Fighter

Lina Khalifeh, Founder of She Fighter

Khalifeh, who had practiced Taekwondo since the age of five, began holding basic self dense classes for women in the basement of her house. Two years later, she decided to establish a small women-only self-defense center, and later she fine-tuned her business model and moved to an even larger venue.

Khalifeh estimates she has trained 10,000 women from teenagers to women in their 70s, both in her center and through workshops she holds in schools and universities across the Kingdom in cooperation with non-profit organizations. She has also cooperated with NGOs to provide self defense training to migrant workers from countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh working in Irbid’s free zones, who might be subject to sexual harassment. She is also a staunch supporter of women’s rights on topics like marital rape, which is punishable by law in countries like the United States, while the term is not recognized in Arab countries.

The number of women registering at the center increases by 30 to 40 percent each month, Khalifeh said, with most of the demand coming from university students.

For all the work she’s done, Khalifeh received an acknowledgement from US President Barack Obama during a speech at the Emerging Global Entrepreneurship gathering in the White House in May.

What differentiates her work from that of Zureikat is that Khalifeh has managed to combine being a social entrepreneur that incites change in her society and running a for-profit training center. “Through my work I have managed to combine both a business and a not-for-profit which has resulted in a stronger and more profound work called a hybrid business,” she told Venture.

Although she is particularly wary of allowing other investors into her business at the time being, she is still planning to take her business to the next step by expanding out of Jordan, into Europe or even the United States.

With its importance ever-growing, several prominent business schools have created programs to tackle social entrepreneurship, including Oxford’s Said Business School and Harvard Business School.

But Kaddoura, who has invested in an incubator that helps social entrepreneurs, still believes we have a long way to go before social entrepreneurship becomes an important engine of job creation. “We don’t have enough serious social entrepreneurs, but we are not short of posers,” he said. “It’s easy to say I’m one, but do you have the will to sacrifice to be a social entrepreneur? Do you care enough? It needs to be a way of life.”

But how do you measure success when you are a social entrepreneur? Kaddoura named Zureikat as a serious social entrepreneur whose impact on the people of the area he’s working in cannot be denied. “In Zureikat’s case, there are real people who are benefiting and real people who are going to Ghor al Mazra’a. Some say he could have scaled it, but he is content to focus on one area.”

Kaddoura also hailed Zureikat as a person who managed to affect the lives of not only those who live in the area, but those who visit and could now be interested in doing more social good elsewhere.

“The positive thing is that we are learning. We are in the adolescence stage. So we need to experience it and make mistakes. It will take 15 to 20 years for us to have enough role models and document our stories,” said Kaddoura.

Although Khalifeh has faced some challenges that could’ve deterred her from continuing with her journey, like receiving threats from the families of some of the girls that have registered in her center, she still thinks that its worthwhile and encourages others to follow suit in coming up with more ideas to change some aspects of society.

“Social entrepreneurship is still a novel concept in our country, and there is a shortage of ideas that help change certain concepts in society,” said Khalifeh. “The best entrepreneurs are those who see a need in the society and try to [solve] it, not complain about it. It is important to change to develop the society.”