Abdellah Aboulharjan is developing the skills of young people in segregated French suburbs to overcome the isolation and poverty of their neighborhoods and become successful entrepreneurs. By mentoring young people to develop their self-esteem and competence, he is creating new role models who are motivated to help rebuild their communities.
The New Idea
Abdellah introduces training in entrepreneurship into suburban settings characterized by high levels of unemployment and often, immigrant youth whose poverty is exacerbated by low educational achievement and discrimination against applicants in their communities. His strategies coincide with national initiatives to build capacity in the same demographic groups, but he is building what he believes is necessary and lacking—hands-on mentorship sustained over time, by leaders his clients can identify with and trust. He and his staff guide members from the initial entrepreneurial idea to the creation and development of a company. Local entrepreneurs, raised in the same housing projects and cultural environment, are recruited as role models and mentors to demonstrate that success is attainable and with will power and stamina, dreams can become reality.
Abdellah’s organization, Young Entrepreneurs of France (JEF), was founded in Mantes-la-Jolie. It provides formal coaching and training, and encourages informal exchange and networking. Over time, he believes this process will drive communities away from isolation and despair and on the road to a measure of shared prosperity. He has witnessed the “viral” effect of entrepreneurship: a successful entrepreneur’s impact extends well beyond the individual—to benefit families, friends, and communities in a variety of ways. Entrepreneurs provide access to needed goods and services and contribute to solving unemployment and social integration. Through JEF, Abdellah gives youth across France the opportunity to become entrepreneurs, enhancing and enriching their communities. Even in the toughest of suburbs, there is talent and hope.
To launch new subsidiaries of JEF, Abdellah is tapping into business and immigrant networks, both of whom want his program to grow and succeed. One virtuous aspect of his “viral” spread strategy is that he now can count on the support of entrepreneurs he has helped to give back in the form of mentoring and training other youth participants. The next two of the four subsidiaries to be opened by the end of 2006 in Beauvais and Trappes will be driven by young men living formerly in Mantes- la-Jolie and working with JEF.
France’s suburbs are suffering from economic stagnation, poor housing, unemployment and exclusion. Since the beginning of the 1960s, a succession of failed integration policies has led to segregated immigrant communities which are remote and isolated. A deficient educational system has created a generation of poorly educated youth—compared with 15 percent nationally, 25 percent fall below a high school education. However, education alone is not sufficient to lower the unemployment rate. Recent studies have shown that in our competitive job market, family name and address are factors for employment discrimination, regardless of education. It’s not surprising that many young adults from impoverished suburban areas imagine attaining success through professional sports or the music and entertainment business.
The Mantois, the area surrounding the city of Mantes-La-Jolie, is a case in point. Fifty kilometres west of Paris, the area grew with the rapid expansion of industry after World War II. The Val Fourré, one of the low cost housing neighbourhoods with more than 25,000 inhabitants, was built during the late 1950s and 1960s in conjunction with the rise of the local automobile industry. Unfortunately most of the industrial base was restructured in the 1980s, leading to significant job loss in the community. One early study of the Val Fourré showed that 56 percent of the population was living on minimum welfare payments. The Mantois region is emblematic of community systems that combine a large underclass of immigrant and unemployed populations, a sluggish economic environment (with few local jobs, distant job markets, poor public transportation and a generally low level of job qualification), and a feeble local tax base which hinders the region’s ability to actively address its problems.
Two national level programs, “Management Boutiques” and “Incubators” exist specifically to educate and support future entrepreneurs. However, these programs have not been used in the suburbs. Designed as consulting firms, they are not an adequate response to the needs of the communities. Lacking diversity among their staff, they have difficulty gaining credibility and trust in France’s suburbs. Finally, these programs only guide entrepreneurs for 2 years, which is often the point at which they need the most help to begin scaling from a pilot to a successful enterprise. The French government has recently launched a prize called Talents des Cites to reward entrepreneurship in lower income neighborhoods, but unfortunately, it is perceived to be more of a communication and marketing tool than a viable economic development program.
Abdellah co-founded JEF in 2003 to create a successful alternative to the existing initiatives that excluded and were unsuited for the local socio-cultural environment. Instead of the popular consulting model, he designed a three-part integrated approach. It uncovers and fosters new talent, coaches and mentors future entrepreneurs, and accompanies their long-term development.
Abdellah encourages and uncovers new talent in middle schools and high schools. He visits classes in the company of other local entrepreneurs who were raised in the same housing projects and cultural environment and recruited as role models and mentors to teach what it takes to be successful. They explain what it means to be an entrepreneur, describe their daily activities and talk about the joys and pains of building something from the ground up. Most important, they seek to inspire young people to pursue their dreams, be creative and ambitious in everything they do. Abdellah has begun making similar presentations in prisons, trying to sketch opportunities with a better future for inmates and has become a frequent guest on suburban radio shows.
The second part of his strategy is to educate future entrepreneurs about how to define a successful project, to study the market, to develop and draft a business plan and begin managing a company. Permanent teams supported by experts in different fields such as law, finance and marketing helps prospective entrepreneurs clarify their ideas and determine the appropriate steps for a successful start-up. JEF’s tailored approach distinguishes it from other organizations by not limiting individual sessions and by using seasoned entrepreneurs who are credible and trusted role models.
The third part of Abdellah’s strategy is to oversee the implementation of projects and build a support network of entrepreneurs. Abdellah knows that a lack of feedback on an ongoing project may be an obstacle in the path of successful ventures. So he encourages entrepreneurs to meet and share best practices as well as confront problems encountered along the way. Besides renewing the projects’ momentum, these brainstorming sessions and networking reunions serve to stimulate new business. “After all,” says Abdellah, “these young entrepreneurs have a new identity now: they are businessmen.”
Currently, Abdellah and his staff have supported more than 100 projects in Mantes-la-Jolie. Of these, 20 percent were up and running after only 9 months of coaching by JEF. Three years later, 75 percent are still going—a success ratio 1.5 times better than the national average. JEF is now entering into its own development phase, replicating its model in other communities across France.
Abdellah has identified the areas where he would like to form new operations. He is developing strategic partnerships with local entities such as management boutiques and business incubators who will be able to assist. He will first target the most disadvantaged areas, such as the 75 “Zones Franches Urbaines”—a government classification for economically devastated areas—to take advantage of the legal and tax frameworks that facilitate quick business creation. Abdellah will them move to the other 700 “Zones Urbaines Sensibles” which are less destitute but face tremendous unemployment.
To assist local branches in operating independently, while staying connected to the overall JEF framework, an operations guideline is at the center of his development strategy. The guideline requires the participation of local entrepreneurs, institutionalizes the integrated approach, and describes how to build and organize an indispensable local network on which projects depend. It also outlines a financing strategy which is a combination of public and private funds. Abdellah will open 10 more branches of JEF in 2007.
Born in Morocco, Abdellah Aboulharjan arrived in the impoverished Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie at the age of 9. He learned French and grew up in the Val-Fourré (the poor and immigrant neighborhood of Mantes-la-Jolie). It was not until he left the neighborhood to study in another town at the age of 18 that he realized the depth of disparity between his suburb and the rest of the country. In 1997, with the help of his brothers he opened one of France’s first private phone stores to take advantage of the deregulation of the communications market. He is close to his family and brothers—also entrepreneurs—and together they share in each other’s successes and failures.
An avid fan of the Internet, Abdellah has tried to use its capabilities to combat exclusion; first as a student militant with SOS Racisme and later when he founded the Association for Neighborhood Internet Development. While finishing a Master in e-business, he was selected as one of the first recipients of the Talents des Cites prize for the creation of Medinashop.com, a web site selling Moroccan arts and crafts.
Abdellah founded JEM with a friend realizing the impact of his success on the youth of the neighborhood who saw him as a role model. He will use his enthusiasm, perseverance and skills to spread JEF throughout France. Desperate to help the inhabitants of the poorest suburbs, he is motivated by bringing to life the incredible energy, capability, and creativity around him that would otherwise go untapped.