Rawiah Abdullah leaves the corporate world to take media production start-up Qabila to a new level of entrepreneurship success
By Eman Omar
The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.” If true, then Rawiah Abdullah, CEO of Qabila TV and consultant for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program at the American University in Cairo (AUC), is one lucky young woman.
Preparation first: Abdullah double majored in business administration and mass communication at AUC. Her time in college, already busy with a double major, was also filled with extracurricular and community service work. She was faced with a little dilemma before her graduation in 2005: deciding on a career. “I love writing and I love media work in general,” she says, “but working in media in Egypt was a bit of a challenge at the time.”
So she chose what she saw as the closest field to media: PR and marketing. Her job with Raya Holding exposed her more to the business side of the company, and after a while she found herself leaning towards business functions more than marketing ones.
Abdullah next joined Logic Management Consulting where she worked for a year as a business consultant. Then the first opportunity presented itself to her. While at Logic, she attended an information session of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) at AUC but never applied there, so in 2007, she was surprised to receive a call from them for an interview.
Although she was happy at her job and didn’t want to move, she admits that “one doesn’t just turn down a call from BCG.” She went to the interview without really expecting much. When she got called back for a second interview, she went for it still thinking her chances of getting hired at were “very slim.” Abdullah was literally shocked to tears when BCG, one of the largest firms in the field worldwide, offered her a job in their Abu Dhabi office.
While she recalls this time with excitement in her voice, Abdullah, now 29, admits that it was all so overwhelming, having to decide whether to leave a job she loved and move to another country. “My parents were very supportive, which made everything much easier,” she remembers. “They told me to go and live the experience, and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
For two and half years, Abdullah worked as a BCG associate, but one year in, she started doubting that this was her life’s mission. She loved her job, she was learning and growing, but that wasn’t “it” for her. “Consulting doesn’t give you the feeling of owning your work, and I wanted to feel that, so I decided I want to do something entrepreneurial.”
Towards the end of her time in BCG, she applied to several business schools for her Master’s degree. She was accepted at several universities, but going to Harvard Business School was always a dream of Abdullah’s. So when Harvard’s letter of acceptance arrived, the decision was made in a heartbeat.
Harvard was a life-changing experience for Abdullah. She was surrounded by hundreds of students from all over the world, who were not only top students academically, but also quite unique themselves. “I tend to internalize everything that happens to me,” she says.“When I met so many people who have done different things in life, I thought a lot about which of those stories I most relate to.”
In 2011, Abdullah went to New York for a summer internship at Endeavor, a non-profit organization that helps support and fund start-ups and SMEs in developing markets. She was part of a team researching “what makes entrepreneurs successful,” and her job was to interview entrepreneurs in different countries. As she talked to those entrepreneurs, Abdullah found herself relating to them more and more. She wanted to live their stories, to walk in their shoes and experience the risks they took and the excitement they felt working on their own projects. “I want to be you,” she remembers saying in her mind while talking to them.
That same summer, Abdullah ran across a series of educational videos on Youtube teaching the basics of politics to Egyptian audiences. The series was produced by Qabila, a newly launched media production company dedicated to producing positive messages. Also airing on Egyptian satellite TV, the series was gaining massive viewership. Abdullah thought that they were everything that people needed at the time: informative, simple and actually nice.
She happened to know most of Qabila’s founders and fate had it that one of them, Ahmed Fath El-Bab, was in the US on a visit. “We met over frozen yoghurt”, she recalls with a laugh, “and discussed Qabila. I told Ahmed that for this project to reach its goal and spread its message, it had to generate money and sustain itself.”
Qabila launched in April 2011, and later that year, the founders registered it as a company with 15 shareholders. When Abdullah returned to Egypt in 2012 after completing her MBA, she gladly accepted their invitation to join as a board member. At the same time, she started exploring the world of start-ups and worked with a couple on a managerial level and on a project basis.
Meanwhile, Qabila’s star was rising in the market, making educational and public awareness videos, some under their own name and others for clients, mostly NGOs. By 2013, the company had expanded with a bigger team and a full-time CEO who was leaving to do her Master’s in the US. It was by mere luck that at the same time, Abdullah had just left the start-up she was working with and was finishing off a project with another one. When the CEO job offer came, she didn’t hesitate, and in August, Abdullah and Qabila finally tied the knot.
“This is as good as it gets for me,” Abdullah says with a smile. “Being a CEO, unlike a board member, gives you a more hands-on reality; you’re involved in the daily operations, the execution and delivering the numbers, and you’re part of making — not seeing — it all happen. But I feel like I finally found what I want: I get to understand the industry more, which is relevant to my background of Media studies, it’s entrepreneurial, and it’s doing something social, which speaks to my development side that wants to change things.”
Most importantly, Qabila is a start-up that Abdullah herself is helping build. She is living the dream of those entrepreneurs she had interviewed two years ago. “When working in a start-up, people deal with a lot of uncertainties and pressure, they take many risks and leaps of faith, all within a shaky structure or even none at all. But when you do that with something you really believe in, it makes a huge difference.”
Abdullah says that despite the challenging political and economic situation, Qabila has been steadily growing the past year. They have expanded their client production, with more and more NGOs, UN organizations and governmental institutes in Egypt and abroad seeking their services.
Qabila as a company wants to help spread any positive message that will affect people and make a change for the better. When it comes to their own videos, they focus on Egyptian values and behavior, and tackle issues concerning them. One of the challenges the company faces is to maintain the balance between clients’ work and their own videos. This year, Abdullah says, they have set a target for their own production.
“People who work in start-ups need to be entrepreneurs themselves, willing to take risks, take responsibility and help build the system. They are goal driven, and they would do all it takes to reach the goals they have set,” Abdullah says of the Qabila crew. “But what is more important in choosing a team is that people are in line with what you believe in. Qabila values impact, agility and exploration. Those values are not only reflected in their production, but in the way they do their work. And for someone to be part of the team, they have to value those things too,” she says. “A start-up is as good as the people working in it.”
Abdullah’s vision for Qabila is to diversify its production in the near future; to make documentaries, short films and more. The company is already working with clients in the Middle East, and she wants to build on that and spread their footprint in other regions, including Africa. Qabila’s big dream is to be the spark that turns the media production industry into something of impact, value and pleasant entertainment.
Making that happen is a big job, but Abdullah isn’t letting it consume her life. Abdullah says that she sleeps five hours a day, exercises in the morning and the rest is basically a matter of good time management. She says that traveling is a great passion for her; she’s visited more than 35 countries and feels like part of her belongs in each one. She loves hiking, photography and poetry, and after wanting to play the oud for a long time, she finally started taking lessons. As she points out, “You will always have time for something you are passionate about.” et