Hala Hanna is one of the actual inspiring top leading women from the Levant who made it big on the International scene. A leader by nature and an Economist, Consultant and Entrepreneur by choice; Hala’s commitment to making a change in the world started with the values she learnt at home:
« to help our fellow men and women is our social responsibility, not a burden ».
Before embarking on her Entrepreneurial journey, Hala worked with prestigious international organizations and institutions such as the World Bank in Washington DC, the World Economic Forum in Geneva, and the United Nations.
Today, Hala is the dynamic co-founder of Huloul and its first project BayanatBox, an Online Platform making discussions on the Arab world’s economic and social challenges accessible to the Youth . Active on many fronts, Hala is also Senior Advisor for Women in Parliaments Global Forum.
Kamsyn met with Hala during her stay in Beirut for an inspiring talk about her successful Journey and current projects.
“Like most of us, I grew up in Lebanon during the reconstruction years. That sparked my interest in the concept of growth at a national scale. Working with local NGOs made me even more curious: how does a nation develop and what are the mechanics for improving the lives of its citizens? That’s why I studied Development Economics and International Development in Washington D.C. From there, I joined the World Bank” said Hala.
While she was working at the World Bank, it became clear to Hala that advocating adequate policies had little use when it fell short of convincing local politicians to implement the change. This triggered her interest in the decision-making process of Governments and encouraged her to pursue a PhD. Yet, the world was also taking an interesting turn:
“While I was studying at Harvard University, the Jasmine Revolution started. I was watching from afar and felt that our world was finally changing. The Arab Spring ignited this very novel interaction between the people and their rulers. New actors were stepping forward and, through election or force, imposing their power. It was fascinating to observe it all unfold in real time on our screens and timelines. I didn’t want to stand on the sideline. So I joined the World Economic Forum as Program Lead for the Middle East and North Africa. We worked on convening those various actors and decision makers at Davos and elsewhere. It was vital to keep the dialogue going as tensions kept mounting, and to help introduce the newly elected leaders on the international scene.”
Hala saw at that time an opportunity within those changing societies. As the clamp down on media was getting looser and freedom of the press increasing, a paradox started to emerge. First, the press itself did not always have the knowledge and tools to push the conversation beyond political banalities. Second, the readers, who now had an opportunity to reclaim their influence on power, seldom knew which information mattered and where to get it. The debate on crucial economic and social issues was not happening, and it certainly wasn’t inclusive of the youth. This is where Hala decided to fill the gap.
“This is how the idea of BayanatBox – which I co-founded with Dalia Alkadi, Alya Alaali and Sahar Hussein – came about. We wanted to create a platform where young people like us could find Economic and Social updates on the Arab world that are reliable, easy to understand and home-grown. Today, on one extreme, you have a shallow treatment of news in the form of political gossip, and on the other extreme, 200 page reports by international organizations that very few people read or understand. The middle ground is very sparsely populated. In our world dominated by Snapchat, 140 twitter characters and mobile phones, we need a fresh, visual and fact-based platform that speaks to our short attention span. I was still at the World Economic Forum back then, and I wanted to make sure this idea comes to life. This is why I chose to leave Geneva and come to Lebanon.”
It’s only been a couple of months for BayanatBox and they already have a strong following on Social Media where they curate daily Economic & Social updates and analysis. As any new social enterprise breaking through unchartered territories, the endeavour is not without challenges:
“We are now testing what forms of visual content actually resonate with our audience. It takes a lot of work to simplify complex information without dumbing the issues down. The other test is: how do you build the credibility and the following to become the go-to source for development issues in the region? It’s not easy, but there’s growing demand and a great need for this type of information – in both Arabic and English. What’s exciting is how dynamic this sector is, globally. We are all grappling with how to stay informed in a world saturated with noise, and how to continue to seek the truth in a world that makes it easy to confine ourselves to like-minded echo chambers.
Becoming an entrepreneur after working with large institutions is a serious leap of faith:
“I was used to working in environments heavy on structures and processes. There, it’s like a river going downstream on which you row. Some of the work is done for you. As a first time entrepreneur, you discover quickly that you need to build the boat and paddle and stay afloat all at once. It is super fun but also exhausting. If I were to summarize the 3 main things you need to get sorted out as an Entrepreneur it would be this:
1- Team: every team member has a huge impact on how well things go. The team only performs as well as its weakest link.
2- Execution: Ideas are crucial, but their importance pales in comparison with execution. It’s about the work you put it, day/night in, day/night out.
3- Hustle: you just have to be willing to go after people & create opportunities when there aren’t any yet, and just keep trying.
Every day I am still learning.”
Even with all the efforts injected in her startup, Hala still finds the time to work on a cause she holds close to her heart, which is increasing the number and the influence of women in political leadership:
« I strongly believe that the world would be a better place if we have more women involved in high-level decision making. Not only because women usually get involved to fix something – an issue, or a policy. But also because decisions at that level that exclude the experiences and views of 50% of our population, are simply not good enough. Diversity and representation at the top – research shows over and over – leads to better results, in business and in government. Female political participation in Lebanon is at 3%, so far below the (low) global average of 22%, and even below the Arab countries’ average of 19%. And look, we’ve tried the male-dominated thing, how well has it worked? The brand of leadership that I admire – and that our part of the world sorely needs, is a leadership that commands respect rather than imposes obedience, one that mends rifts rather than incites divisions, one with a vision made of dreams followers didn’t even know they had ».
With all the dynamism & passion that Hala radiates, would she herself actually consider running for Parliament ?
“Serving my country would be the biggest honor. For the moment I focus on pushing for change in different ways. I’m the Senior Advisor on Policy and Strategy to Women in Parliaments Global Forum (WIP), which is the network of women political leaders across the world (around 9000 parliamentarians, ministers, heads of state and government). Creating a platform for powerful women to convene, support and network with each other is vital. So is lobbying to change cultures and attitudes. I also train women running for elections in political communication and campaigning – something I was very fortunate to learn at Harvard and wanted to pass on. I frequently lecture on the topic as well, particularly to graduate students.
Come 2017, I will definitely be encouraging a lot of Lebanese women to run for the legislatives. I know so many women who continuously, brilliantly and selflessly help society and their communities. In them I see strong future national leaders.”
Just last month, Hala chaired an event that took place in the Lebanese Parliament and that was organized by WIP. The event included leading female parliamentarians from Lebanon and the MENA region, which she hopes would inspire Lebanese women to run for the elections scheduled for 2017.
As for BayanatBox it is soon launching a campaign addressing youth employment challenges in the region.
Sally Mansour for Kamsyn