Raghda El Ebrashi is creating employment for marginalized youth through a market-based sustainable model catering to business sector needs and market needs, thus, bridging the gap between the social sector and the business sector and professionalizing the citizen sector. Raghda’s model has as its workforce volunteer university students from the student clubs affiliated with her citizen organization (CO), Alashanek Ya Balady (AYB—For My Country).
The New Idea
Raghda’s organization began as a student club involving youth in development activities and is now a CO with affiliated student clubs in leading universities in Cairo based on a franchise system. The franchise system allows for swift replication of the model and spread of the impact. While each franchise is responsible for following the founding principles and operating procedures as AYB, the student leadership of each franchise has control over which social challenges to address according to its constituency. AYB, as Raghda imagined, is now a change engine for people on both sides of the equation, the volunteers and the people who find jobs.
Acting as an employment office, AYB offers a service to the corporate sector by selecting, training, and mentoring employees from marginalized communities who would otherwise not have access to the labor market. AYB also creates income-generation opportunities in the informal sector by offering youth training and microcredit to start their own projects.
In Egypt, 16 to 25-year-olds, as a sector in society, are today the largest, most dynamic group with the potential to change the direction of the nation and elevate its development to a new level. However, studies that specifically monitor youth unemployment—in a nation where the median age is 20—estimate that 25 percent of men and 59 percent of women are without work. To put it another way, young people represent nearly half of the unemployed workers in Arab countries. Unemployment among youth can be superficially attributed to apathy, but it finds its true roots in a basic lack of the appropriate soft and technical skills, including English proficiency, and IT skills. When youth are excluded from the labor force, a country’s society and economy stagnates. Arab states cannot hope to ever build stable, educated middle classes with approximately a quarter of their young people out of work. Another reason for the employment problem is that there is a lack of consistency between the outcomes of the educational system and the needs and requirements of the labor market in terms of various specializations and skills. Youth generally have a very poor understanding of which skills they will need to master to improve their chances of finding employment. In addition, youth, and in particular marginalized youth, have an “unemployable” stigma, because employers’ experience in hiring them has been negative in terms of caliber, commitment, and discipline. There exists a virtual absence of effective systems of public and private employment agencies and a lack of programs aimed specifically at the employment of youth. The imbalances between a shrinking demand and growing supply of labor expose the realities of the labor markets with the outcome of escalating rates of unemployment and underemployment. New entrants to the labor force, particularly the youth that do not find appropriate jobs, are more of a social threat than the long-term unemployed that would have joined the informal sector and adjusted their lifestyles accordingly. Some serious consequences of youth unemployment and insecurity are linked to the exclusion of young people from a productive role in the adult world of work that could demoralize them, undermine social cohesion, and lead to social problems such as crime, drug abuse, vandalism, religious fanaticism, and general alienation in the vicious circle of poverty. Such patterns will persist in the future if no holistic approach is initiated to alter the employment situation. Education and training is a major instrument, if not the instrument for enhancing the employability, productivity, and income-earning capacity of youth. Young people need broad, general, employable skills combined with training in specific skills and exposure to the world of work that will ease transition from school to work. Women also need education and training to give them access to more and better jobs in the labor markets and to overcome the syndrome of poverty and social exclusion. Skills possessed by young people are a significant factor in determining employment of youth. Studies show that employment outcomes are increasingly determined by the level and quality of education and training relevance to labor markets’ needs and opportunities. The mechanisms deployed to facilitate young peoples’ transition from school to work, such as apprenticeships and alternate training, also play a vital role in their future employability. COs and government initiatives in Egypt and the Arab World generally provide training for youth without consulting future employers, thus leaving youth even more frustrated with their inability to find jobs as a result of their raised expectations after the training they received. On the other hand, employment offices only cater to privileged youth, matching them with existing jobs and not exerting any efforts to correct market imbalances.
Raghda started AYB in 2002 at the American University in Cairo (AUC), by inviting her fellow students to join her in creating real, long-lasting, and sustainable development in their country. Instead of giving charity to the poor, they would dedicate their time to becoming change agents for entire communities. Despite initial skepticism from the student population, AYB quickly grew in numbers, attracting those students who also yearned for meaningful life education, outside of the classroom. The success of AYB led Raghda to register it as a CO in 2005, following her graduation, and in franchising the student club to other universities around Egypt. AYB is now operating in eight governorates in addition to Cairo, namely Dakahlya, Munofia, Sharkya, Gharbia, Fayum, Qena, Beny Suif, and El Menya. The model started as a volunteer development activity to improve the skills of marginalized youth so they could find jobs. Though a number of youth found jobs, Raghda soon realized that she needed to develop a more proactive strategy: “I wanted to create economic opportunities, not leave youth’s employment to chance.” She knew that companies would not hire youth out of goodwill, nor would they devote significant resources to training them, even if they had multiple vacancies in entry-level positions. There was also no possible way the two parties would naturally interact, particularly as youth from marginalized communities remained stigmatized as incompetent and dishonest. Raghda decided that AYB would fill the missing link, so she began identifying companies’ needs and proceeded to tailor training for marginalized youth to enable them to fit the job requirements. In 2008, AYB signed its first contract to select, train, and mentor youth for sales and customer service positions at a company. AYB now offers a quality service to the corporate sector in exchange for a fee, providing the training and job placement for free to marginalized youth. After this, AYB continues to provide occupational stability to both sides, coaching the new hires on the job, and monitoring their progress for the first three months. AYB also ensures that the graduates of its program always receive a fair income. Frequently, graduates are so satisfied with their experience at AYB that they return as trainers later on. Since the development of this service, 2,000 people have been trained in Old Cairo and several companies have used AYB as an employment office, including Aramex and Vodafone. Vodafone paid AYB 2M EGP (US$335,460k) to provide employment candidates in eight governorates. Aramex signed a one-year contract for 60,000 LE and hired 40 employees.
AYB charges for its employment service respective of the client organization’s ability to pay. Raghda designed a three-tier fee system, where formal sector companies pay full price, followed in amount by informal businesses, then COs, while factories do not yet have to pay, because training is basic and she is still introducing the concept to the industry. For those unable to find employment in the formal sector due to health problems, family obligations, or social norms, AYB creates income-generation opportunities in the informal sector, training youth on producing handicrafts, so they could work with small workshops or start their own projects. For those who do decide to start their own projects, AYB offers microcredit and marketing training; to date, 500 people have received microloans to start or expand their small businesses. Also, AYB is selling products to generate more income, Zaytoona (Arabic for olive) is the brand name given to the products of the community’s vocational center in Old Cairo. The vocational center was established in Old Cairo in 2006 and turned into a social venture in 2007. It produces high-quality, handmade products targeting upper- and upper-middle-class women and girls in Egypt and the Middle East. Zaytoona is paired with the Vocational Training program, which trains poor communities in Egypt on sewing skills, leather making, and handicraft production. The best trainees from the vocational center are hired by Zaytoona to produce the branded products. These products are sold in various locations in Cairo, including fancy shopping malls. Zaytoona not only provides employment for the poor, but is transforming widely held stereotypes that the poor cannot produce high-quality products, and that COs are not able to sell their products at competitive market rates.
AYB’s volunteers provide the human resources needed to make both programs work, starting from identifying companies’ needs, scanning the marginalized community to find those who have the potential to fill these needs, and training promising youth to be hired by the company. Also, it is AYB volunteers who train youth and women on handicrafts, follow up on disbursed loans, and help market the products. For this reason—free labor—Raghda is able to charge businesses a lower fee for AYB’s employment service than the market rate, ensuring AYB’s competitive edge. Raghda developed and expanded AYB according to the franchise system. The franchise system in business is a method a company uses to distribute its products or services through retail outlets owned by independent, third-party operators. The independent operator (the franchisee) does business using the marketing methods, trademarked goods and services, and the “goodwill” and name recognition developed by the company (franchisor). In exchange, the independent operator (franchisee) pays an initial fee and royalties to the owner of the franchise. AYB is the first CO to apply the franchise system to social development. The franchise system of AYB operates as the franchise system in business; however, instead of the franchisee (student groups) paying a royalty fee to AYB (the franchisor), the franchisee contributes to the overall goals of AYB by creating organization growth in terms of volunteers and general resources. So far, from its founding location at American University of Cairo, AYB has franchised to Ain Shams University, Cairo University, the German University of Cairo, and Université Française d’Egypte. Raghda plans to expand throughout Egypt. To cover the costs of her formal and informal sector employment program, Raghda uses the income from her social ventures, Revive and Tafanin. Social ventures are among of AYB’s most innovative strategies and are new to the Arab World. Revive offers specialized and soft skills trainings for youth in universities, institutional development courses for COs, capacity-building for students in schools, and professional courses for multinationals and SMEs. This social venture is paired with the Training and Career Guidance Program (TCGP). All curricula produced by Revive are translated into Arabic so as to be used for training low-income youth and women to find employment opportunities. In addition, Revive training consultants use the curricula to train community members on a volunteer basis. Tafanin, (Arabic for creative art), promotes social responsibility through art and culture. Tafanin produces corporate social responsibility campaigns that solve community problems, while creating marketing opportunities for companies. In addition, Tafanin innovates social businesses that create social impact among low-income populations. Today, AYB for sustainable development is one of the most successful and innovative youth COs in Egypt. It has the potential to generate 15,000+ jobs in the next five years. AYB, as Raghda first imagined it, is a change engine for people on both ends of the social spectrum.
As a naïve 12-year-old from a privileged family, Raghda’s first school trip outside Cairo was to Bel-bayes, Sharkeya, to visit a home for the elderly. There she found Om Fathy, an old and seemingly very poor woman, the home’s cleaning lady. Raghda, caught up in her comfortable, even luxurious life in Cairo, had never before seen the face of true poverty. She remembers standing very still and watching Om Fathy, her young mind unable to fully understand this frail woman, clothed in worn-out clothes. Om Fathy approached her with a warm smile and gentle words, saying that she—Raghda—was the same age as her own children. Om Fathy invited Raghda to her home to meet her children.
Taken in by the kind invitation and curious to know more about this woman, Raghda went along with Om Fathy, only to be dazzled by the reality of a destitute life whose existence she had never even imagined. She frequently returned to visit Om Fathy and her children, who welcomed her as one of them. Raghda visited her the day before she died. Her only dying wish was that Raghda would continue to work with the people of her community.
Om Fathy taught Raghda that there is nothing called charity, it’s always a mutual exchange, and that what matters is being with people not just giving charity and leaving. It is on this foundation that Raghda built AYB, to be the first developmental student club at a time when everyone else focused on charity.
Throughout her high school years, Raghda volunteered with many COs, three with Ashoka Fellows Hisham El Rouby, Ehaab Abdou and Maher Bushra. Inspired by them, Raghda entered university with high expectations of finding enthusiastic students like her. Unfortunately, her hopes soon vanished as she discovered how most students considered and treated people of lower-income levels with disdain. Even those who had tried reaching out to people in need did so only in the traditional forms of charity.
After much reflection, Raghda developed a strategy to link educated students to Egypt’s less privileged. Her belief was, and still is, if every able citizen believed in his/her ability to help and started helping those in need, then there would be no poverty in this country. She knew she had to begin by educating her peers in the concepts of civic engagement and social development, to turn them away from seasonal, pity-driven charity and toward a sustainable effort to improve the lives of the disadvantaged in the long-term.
After graduation, Raghda realized the business sector was not for her. She pursued studies and work in the social sector. Now, in addition to her work with AYB Raghda is teaching strategic management at the German University in Cairo and is finishing her Ph.D. thesis on social entrepreneurship. She aims to introduce social entrepreneurship as a major course of study at the German University in Cairo. With Raghda’s scholarship, she is developing a social entrepreneurship curriculum for several universities in Egypt.
Over the years, Raghda and AYB have received many awards and media recognition, including the AUC Award for Community Service. She is a Synergos Social Entrepreneur, a recipient of the King Abdullah II Award for Youth Innovation and Achievement, a recipient of the 35 Under 35 Award, given by World Business Magazine and the Shell Corporation for the top female social entrepreneurs in the world, and was recognized by the United Nations Development Program as one of the 100 leading social entrepreneurs under 30. Raghda has not let the recognition go to her head and is constantly working to improve her model and her own capabilities.