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How Usama Fayyad and Oasis 500 are helping create a startup eco-system

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Fresh Start

Oasis 500 is the first investment fund in the Middle East to specifically target start-ups. But taking such a pioneering role seems to come naturally to its chairman, Usama Fayyad.

Usama Fayyad has emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the new entrepreneurial revolution in Jordan and the wider Middle East.
As executive chairman of Oasis 500, an investment fund that was launched in June 2010 to provide vital early-stage capital to start-up ventures in the field of IT and mobile media, he is helping to energise both a sector and a mentality that can generate opportunities for a new generation of young business people. On a wider scale, sparking a transition to a start-up, innovation-driven economy can ensure countries can look beyond foreign aid or energy resources as their financial lifeblood.

Just as important as the capital injections, though, Oasis 500 offers an entrepreneurship development scheme. This is designed to transfer knowledge and insight, as well as dramatically improve the chances of each venture’s success – an essential component of a programme that invests an initial $15,000 in a company in return for a stake of between 7 and 10 per cent, with more funds available as certain targets are met. There is also the chance of six-month incubation at the new, tax-exempt King Hussein Business Park in Amman.

“There is essentially no start-up capital fund in the MENA region,” says Usama. So, with around $4.5 million currently under management, and with a goal of 500 companies to support in the next five years, Oasis 500 is generating much-needed momentum at a critical time for the region.

In your career, which example of leadership that you have witnessed first hand has made the most impression on you? Why?

UF: There have been many and I do not feel it is really possible to select a “best”, but great leadership is, in my mind, primarily practiced by setting examples. Some of the really powerful examples I have been honoured to witness include the founders of great companies who continue to be actively engaged and completely immersed in the business even after it has become a huge success. I was certainly inspired by Bill Gates’ engagement and immersion in some of the projects I worked on at Microsoft, where he provided leadership through challenging the team and by delving deep into the core details of certain technologies or strategies. I have also been inspired by the passion that Jerry Yang of Yahoo! displayed in the pursuit of new opportunities. He would often take extra bets on “side projects” that he felt needed to be pursued, even though they did not survive budget allocations. He helped me launch great capabilities by taking these “bets” outside the normal process.

How do you think leadership has evolved in the time you have been working? How has technology or a more transient workforce affected leadership?

UF: Core leadership has not changed much on a pers onal basis; that is setting great examples, making courageous but calculated risks, standing up for the right moral choice, and showing commitment to the passion through actions. These have always been there and will always continue to be some of the core ingredients in great leadership. However, technology has changed some things dramatically: the ability to measure and get the facts straight has created a new filter for leaders who are driven by data as opposed to guesswork or gut feel – two aspects that often are in conflict.

UF: Core leadership has not changed much on a pers onal basis; that is setting great examples, making courageous but calculated risks, standing up for the right moral choice, and showing commitment to the passion through actions. These have always been there and will always continue to be some of the core ingredients in great leadership. However, technology has changed some things dramatically: the ability to measure and get the facts straight has created a new filter for leaders who are driven by data as opposed to guesswork or gut feel – two aspects that often are in conflict.

Also, communication technology allows one to lead effectively across the globe, across time zones and with great frequency. I utilise dashboard reporting and automated KPI scores, and rely heavily on instant messaging and video calls/remote meetings. I cannot imagine how we used to do it without these technologies! Keeping in touch and having the hand on the pulse of the business has now reached unprecedented heights for leaders who embrace what these technologies have to offer.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a leader going into the next five years? What steps have to already taken to already address it?

UF: Technology is a double-edged sword: the connectivity and communication creates so much “noise” and data that one starts operating at a pace that is perhaps unhealthy – especially in that you lose the quality “thinking time”. I fix it by a combination of forcing time away for thinking and strategy and also by leveraging travel time for quietly considering matters. Being “off line” on long flights is the best way to shut out email, IM, SMS, etc… I turn that “downtime” into very productive “think time”.

What are the particular characteristics of the Middle East or MENA region that an effective leader has to take into account?

UF: One of the unfortunate curses of our wonderful culture – which I enjoy, love and admire – is that the work ethic has not found a core role. Unfortunately. Priorities are given to other areas too often. To me, that has created a bias to work with younger teams who have not had the opportunity to be indoctrinated by some of the negative aspects of the current work culture. Once these teams understand the value of work, prioritisation and focus, they pick up great work habits for life. It is much easier to build a new culture than to change an existing one. Fortunately, the MENA region is filled with young fresh talent that is looking for opportunities. So my strategy seems to work for now.

Do you worry that the next generation of leaders in the region is lacking role models? Where are the best leaders to be found in this region?

UF: Our region does not train leaders. I resort to working with fresh talent and young folks who can be trained properly. It is a much better investment.

One of the huge weaknesses in our region is that good talent for middle management and senior leadership is extremely rare. A middle manager in the MENA region is really defined incorrectly and there is no proper training, mentorship or example- setting to help fix this problem. I end up “importing” middle and top management often – or growing it from junior levels early on.

What are the three most important traits of a 21st century leader?

UF: Naturally leverages technology and loves it; Passionate about what they do. Open to accepting that facts and metrics should rule the day.

 
  Copyright 2011, Aramex International