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On this episode of WiFB, Maissa Abou Adal Ghanem, Social Entrepreneur, CSO & Board Member of the HOLDAL Group, discusses how family businesses can build and implement successful ESG agendas that speak to the immediate needs of their community.
Founded in Lebanon in 1947, the HOLDAL Group has embedded IMPACT in their everyday operations. Despite the difficult circumstances in Lebanon’s recent history, the healthcare, beauty, wellbeing, lifestyle and luxury group has managed to prosper while staying true to its core values and “raison d’être”.
Maissa’s experiences with the HOLDAL Group and beyond are proof of the transformative potential of ESG. Hers is a strong case for others who wish to add resiliency to their communities and by extension, their organisations.
- Family businesses that do not know where to begin building and implementing their ESG agendas can start by identifying the most important social, economic and environmental challenges, baselines and bottlenecks. Leaders should look for the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of accessible, high-impact solutions for the here and now. High-effort, high-impact solutions can come later as part of a complex ESG ecosystem.
- Building a dedicated ESG department can undermine organisation-wide adoption; the ESG agenda should be part of the company’s culture, DNA and mission with anyone and everyone encouraged to participate and share their passions and expertise.
- Leaders should raise awareness within their internal ecosystem first and, from there, build a change management team of people who are committed to fulfilling the family business’s ESG and sustainability promises.
- Once this is in place, consider the external ecosystem locally and globally. Collaborate with complementary organisations and individuals that will facilitate the realisation of your ESG agenda goals. Build on each other’s capabilities and enlarge the circle of change agents and solution providers.
Ramia: Welcome, Maissa, to the conversation, Women in Family Business. We’re delighted to have you on the podcast today.
Maissa: Thank you, Ramia. Thank you so much for having me.
Ramia: Maissa, I think we’re going to have a very deep conversation today. We’re going to have a conversation that is all about impact. It’s all about CSR. It’s all about ESG. It’s all about how to make the world actually a better place, I think, via leadership, via the family business. But I always feel we have to start with context because everyone requires a bit of a backstory that comes on this podcast. I think the backstory of you and your family business is very important to elucidate. As you know, one of our first questions to you goes right to the root of the … I think one of the main reasons why you see the world the way that you see it today, which is that you are of the generation in Lebanon that was actually born and raised during the civil war. It would be really interesting, I think, to start off this conversation, to give people that context to understand where you are coming from and why you are so adamant about the things that you’re adamant about. How do you think growing up under these circumstances has shaped your understanding of what encompasses your responsibility or your social responsibility?
Maissa: It’s the fundamental question to ask. Thank you, Ramia, for this question. It actually goes back to … Holdal is this year marking the 75th milestone, third generation. It goes back to where it all started. So 1947. If I go back to my grandfather who was actually the founder of Holdal, I do recall very well, he’s no longer among us but he must be looking from the sky thinking, “Oh my God. This world is going crazier.” I’m sure that basically his background, the fact that he did not have the right context … But he had a vision. He had a bold and fearless attitude and he was very intuitive. The context was very different on his, if you want at, his stage. Then moving on to my father and then us.
If I look back at my childhood and my sister and brother’s childhood, we were born and raised … We are the kids of the war. I was born in ’77 and the war started in ’75. We were actually born during the war. We know shelter. Everything we’re seeing on TV now in Ukraine, we have lived it. For the longest I have known, I’ve had parents who have given all their time to the community. My mother brought us up with all the children of Afel, which is an NGO that looks after kids who are really living in a very unprivileged ecosystem with lack of access to funds, lack of resources, drugs, alcohol, in very, very, very poor areas of Lebanon. We grew up with these kids. We grew up in the shelter. We grew up in the summer camp with these children. For the longest, I’ve known inside and outside Holdal.
During the war, my father never left Lebanon because he felt he was responsible for the 550 families back then. He never left Lebanon. For me, it really was, and for my brother and sisters, it’s part of who we are. It’s part of how we were brought up. If we look back at the past few years, it explains a lot of the choices we have made. Sometimes it means going against traffic. Sometimes it means having the courage to actually face many, many obstacles because we live in a society that is not always geared towards enabling what is right, what is fair, what is justice. But it’s been really part of us growing up and us evolving through the war until now. Even if it’s not the war, we are extremely affected by what is happening to us.
It’s really going back to the raison d’être of this family and making sure that at the end of the day it’s not about a company that is selling products or services. There is an ultimate social, economic, and environmental promise that needs to walk the talk on the strategy, on the decision making, on everything we do at Holdal. So it’s very organic for us. There are a lot of decisions that come naturally without any due diligence because we know that if we want to stay consistent and authentic with our raison d’être, we just have to go back to why we exist as a family business.
Ramia: The interesting part of this conversation around social responsibility, as you know Maissa, is that in a way it has only over the last decade or two become more prevalent in the actual business conversation. You and I have been in business for long enough to know that the conversation we’re having today would not have had as big an audience a few years ago as it does today. We’re much more talking now about ESG, about CSR, about SDG. When did you first come across the formal terms basically around these things? Was it immediately for you like a checkpoint where you were like, “Well, we’ve always actually been doing this. This is actually something that totally comes very naturally to us”? Can you tell us more about how you came across this and whether that resonated with you?
Maissa Yes, for sure. As you said, Ramia, we’ve always been doing this. You said something very important and very frustrating because we always felt that we didn’t know where … As brother and sisters, we didn’t know how much of a priority we were to our parents. We now know their unconditional love, but we always felt that we had so many adopted brothers and sisters. We knew that we were treated the same way as the larger community. I’m not just talking about the Holdal family. I’m talking about all the commitments my parents have made throughout the years and I’m talking about 50 years basically.
You have a very good point in highlighting it because back then when we were still growing up and looking for validation, et cetera, sometimes we would re-question, “Do we really need to be deeply invested in their mission, in their passion, in their inner conviction to be able to get the same love and validation as all these families that they are supporting?” Everything came naturally after because the circle of life gets enlarged and enlarged and it’s beautiful because it grows organically and authentically.
The trigger happened in 2009. I joined the family business after 10 years working for multinationals, traveling from countries to countries. I joined the family business and the first question I asked my father back then who was the CEO was, “How can I help you? How can I serve the community? How can I help you integrate all the great values that we were brought up with and all this deep sense of purpose and values and social, economic, and environmental aspiration that you have in your heart but from an institutionalization point of view? How can we put some mechanism in place? How can we link them to the culture, to the values, to all the policies, to everything that Holdal stands for?”
This was the trigger in 2009, which happened to be also the beginning of the change management journey for Holdal which took off in 2010. It started with why we exist as a company and as a family business. This is when we started putting more mechanisms in place and working, let’s say in a much more consistent, cohesive way versus our roadmap versus the pain points and the challenges we are identifying and just making sure that we’re not spreading too thin. We’re not over promising and under delivering, and we are most importantly building a huge circle of dedicated purpose values-driven entrepreneurs in and around Holdal locally, internationally. How can we pioneer this change, this call for action? It doesn’t need to come from big companies. It can come sometimes from small countries like ours, small companies like ours, and you can actually enable the change from your end, from a supply chain point of view. That was basically the beginning of the trigger and it’s been a never-ending weep journey with a lot of discipline and a lot of passion and commitment.
Ramia: I love it. You’re talking about coming into the family business and essentially going directly to the core of the thing. I remember talking basically at the outset of the transformation journey with you and we interviewed you for Tharawat Magazine. I remember thinking how much courage this must have required to go at this the way that you guys wanted to go at this because it was really … From the outside, it’s almost like there was no real reason. Why would you disturb a good thing? It was all going well, et cetera, but you came in and it’s so interesting how this has worked out in your favor so many years later. That you were actually already doing that work at such a critical juncture. You were already investing the time into purpose finding into really aligning the next generation with each other. Just in terms of how that conversation went through with the older generation, Maissa, because I think that’s what everyone is curious about because you guys did something that’s very difficult to achieve. You managed to align, not just brothers and sisters, but also you managed to align with your parents. That was tough. I know that was a really difficult thing to do. Can you tell us a little bit more about the quality of exchange that happened there between the generations and how you guys came to an alignment?
Maissa: I joined the family business in 2009 and the first thing I wanted to dwell on was the substance, the core, the flesh of it, and really go back to why we exist as a business. Really spent a lot of years from a change management point of view with family first. The family was not all working in Holdal because we always thought everybody’s free to do whatever he or she wants to do as long as they are passionate, they are really trying to give it all, and they’re living out of their passion. Never did we have any pressure on joining the business, especially since we have parents who are very tough on meritocracy. So they will never, never shortcut a family member because it’s just the easy way out. They will always, always think of meritocracy, of the values and the skillset.
Really, the first few years from a change management point of view, I would say the first two years were very much aligning and building the ecosystem from a family point of view, where you had family members working outside the country, outside the business on building, if you want, the family council. And really trying to have all these debates that are sometimes very hard but they are so fundamental, bringing it all out and listening also to the generation of my parents. So, my father who had really sacrificed most of his life for his community and for his company.
It was not easy at the beginning. I can tell you that the first two years I discovered, not only long nights that are part of our day to day now, but a lot of moments where I was feeling hopeless or I was crying and I could not understand how come we could not really connect on the ultimate raison d’être because it was just different views of generation. The generation of my father has the wisdom. We have the naive side whereby we are the engine. We’re not afraid to go against traffic. So at the beginning, it required a bit of adjustment so that we can honor the legacy, but at the same time, we can be heard and understood on the fact that there are so many important factors that have been in this company for 75 years that need to be shared, that need to be valued, that need to be reinforced, that need to be enhanced. Whereas the generation of my father was very humble, grounded. He was just driving his business and his decision with conviction, but he didn’t need to talk about them.
We found a middle ground after three or four years. Then when he started seeing the progress in the midst of the worst years ever because what happened in the region was affecting us directly [inaudible 00:18:42], he realized that basically, we had built three things that were very important. It’s the consistent behavior every single day, which actually when you have consistent behavior with your entire ecosystem, local and global, and everybody actually who you’re supposed to serve allows you to bring unity. And the unity allows you to bring this togetherness that can face any challenge, any form of obstacle can be a very important fundamental, let’s say a tool, to overcome any disruption. I think that through the years we started to really align on the fact that there is no right or wrong. At the end of the day, we are all aspiring for the same convictions, social, economic, environmental. We all aspire to the right governance that would be adopted and crafted based on our needs, not based on certain best practices around the world because every family business is unique. We all have a unique DNA. So, no matter how many consultants you bring on board, you know for yourself, if you’re humble enough and open enough and you look at this generation gap as a key enabler, as a key strength, you would know better than anybody else what is the right governance to adopt in your company, which will be obviously improved, amended on the go because we live in a very, very disruptive world.
What I mean here, Ramia, is that I think that with the time, with the behavior, with the promises and the commitments, things started to happen naturally, which built this unity and this trust and this validation with the family owners and the shareholders and the multiple generations that we had something not only very precious but also we had the duty to prepare for our children, the next generation. We had the duty to prepare for them the same, if you want, blueprint on the protocols, on these values that are non-negotiable. It’s not just having these values and behavior. It allows you to take every single decision and to take any strategy on board or not to say go or no go. This is actually fundamental because we are also foreseeing what we are leaving for the next generation, starting with our kids, and also for the youth that is surrounding us in our markets.
Ramia: I find it particularly inspiring that you haven’t given up hope in the face of this kind of hardship. But it must be difficult and it must be disheartening when you’re up against institutional failure at such a scale and when you’re up against … Basically taking responsibility for things that technically should be taken on by other institutions and that you’re having to take care of in order to operate your businesses. Tell us a little bit, maybe more about what does your family do to remain motivated in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds against you sometimes. How do you talk to each other? How do you keep each other … How do you give each other a heart to go that extra mile in spite of just normal living already being challenging for you guys sometimes?
Maissa: I would say honesty, unconditional love. I know it would seem theoretical and we’ve done a lot on the milestones, the deliverables, a lot more than most of the big companies and the regional companies. But honestly, it’s unconditional love. When you know that you have a family that is there for you in the business or outside the business, I’m also talking about the shareholders that are united. United in the core, in the essence, what is fundamental. Again, we’re facing so many obstacles, Ramia. We’re in a country where we are accused wrongly every single day of things and mistakes that others have created. I read a lot of dirty stuff every day. If I had to give up … And I’ve been giving myself to the community. Not just to Holdal, to the entire community for 10 years. Really I’m a volunteer. I’m not even incentivized to … I don’t have any incentive to work 17 hours a day seven days a week for the best interest, to defend the best interest, not just of Holdal, of the community and I’ll explain that later.
When you have unconditional love, when you know that you have a family that is grounded to the core essence in terms of health, the first thing is the health, grounded to the core essence in terms of unity, in terms of trust, I think that this is the magic that operates in our family [inaudible 00:24:27] because we’re a small family, but we’re so united that actually, I think this is the inner strength we all get. So, even if we don’t talk every day, some members of the family are in the family office. Others are in the foundations. Others are in the operating business. Some are on the board. Some are on the leadership team. But it’s a small family and as long as you know that unconditionally you have this backbone that is not going to judge you, that is going to give you all the wings, that is going to give you all the solution even if you do not have an answer to a big problem today, already it’s a very precious gift of life and I don’t see it in many companies. I think that this is something that we ought to … I need to be grateful for that. This is fundamental.
Then obviously a lot of protocols in terms of when you trust every member, you let them do their job. You don’t interfere in their day-to-day job because the last thing they want is one more noise on their daily calendar saying, “I need to justify that move or that move.” We’re very clear on our roles and responsibilities. We’ve been wearing multiple hats in the past three years because of all the disruptions and the rollercoaster we’ve been facing every day. I don’t think we came to a point where we had to justify among ourselves the why, the what, et cetera. Obviously, on the big tickets, the big decisions, we do have regular opportunities, not only to get together … This is fundamental for us. But from a meeting point of view, from a validation point of view, from a feedback point of view on strategy, on any big-ticket that requires high risk, we have this opportunity to meet together. But when it comes to the implementation and day-to-day, we roll the dice with our teams and if needed, if anything, God forbid, happens, we know we have this amazing support system that is tiny but that is quite valuable to go to.
Ramia: We started this conversation by talking about being born into a war, being born into war as a circumstance. But recently with what happened in Beirut with this enormous devastating explosion, that’s like an immediate catastrophe. That is like a heartbreaking gut-wrenching moment where everything changes.
I want to talk to you, Maissa, about how we respond to things when they are so immediate and acute and what happened in your mind strategically as well. Emotionally, I can really only imagine. But strategically, what did you do? Was there a reallocation, a refocus, an immediate … How does that work in a moment like that where everything that you planned goes down the drain in a second and you have to evaluate everything? What was that like for you?
Maissa: Ramia, it’s horrible. It’s abnormal. I look at the news every day on Ukraine and it’s exactly what we’ve been going through. The 4th of August, I think that it’s quite interesting because until now most of us still don’t understand. We’re still grieving because there is no accountability on all the losses and a lot of us have lost dear friends or children. We’re still mourning, I think. You spoke about normality, which is the very, very dangerous inner strength that Lebanese were forced to grow up with. It’s the resilience. I think resilience has two sides. One is very bad because you learn to be so tolerant and so strong facing so many abnormal situations that you start to adapt to these abnormal situations, which is very bad because it’s not normal to accept such a context and situation.
Now, the 4th of August, personally, it was the most horrible day of my life. I lost my voice. My face went right completely. I was paralyzed for 24 hours because I did not know if my sons had survived. They were next to the port. I was unable to reach them. I literally went crazy for a few hours. Then my sister who is much stronger who was working in the city that was completely collapsing, and my mom who was bleeding came to wake me up because I was not in a normal state until I realized that my boys had survived the blast. With a lot of trauma, obviously, but thank God they survived where other children did not survive. My brother was doing basic first aid in the hospitals for his friends, for our colleagues because we train all our teams and my brother is among the champions of basic first aid. So he was already in the front scene saving lives of Holdalians and for friends, et cetera.
That day was horrible and until now I think we all have a lot of trauma. So we are all trying to take care of each other because we need to get them all out. And I’m sure we’re not the same people before and after the 4th of August. The 5th of August I came back to my common sense. We were meeting in my dad’s office, I remember very well, on his balcony. We were working on the solidarity drive and the call to action and the plan to not only help all the families that had lost their houses because all the houses, everything had gone into pieces. We had to rebuild the whole city. But also, how do we engage all our partners into helping us? Because there is much more than just the Holdal families and the houses to rebuild, et cetera.
On that day we had a long meeting to draft our plan post-Beirut blast so that we can go back to our partners and see how together we can actually work on the rehabilitation on a reconstruction plan. That was the first priority. Then obviously on enabling future solutions, which are part of our day-to-day. But it was the 5th of August the next day that we were already addressing the big needs and understanding the scope of that because the scope was quite … Until now we’re still checking if some schools were rebuilt if all were rehabilitated with the current context. So imagine how long it took. But without the private sector and the NGOs, you can be sure that today the city partially is rebuilt in the midst of a crisis, the worst, the third world most difficult humanitarian crisis that ever existed. Without the NGO and the private sector and all the diaspora, nothing would have been achieved.
On the 5th, we were already on it and then it became our daily struggle. I know for a fact, my husband sometimes tells me … Thank God he doesn’t live with me all the time. He tells me, “When are you going to calm down? You’ve been on a rollercoaster for three years. You’re working for the whole community. You’re working with global organizations for the education. You’re working with regional partners.” Because I try to bring all the core capability on one table for the greater good, not just for the good of our community. He tells me, “When are you going to calm down?” I tell him, “It’s my part of healing. Let me handle this. I’m trying to heal and I’m trying also to make sense of this and as much as possible to treat myself as well by of course helping others beyond the promises, social, economic, and environmental of the family business.” I do give a lot of time outside the family business, especially for the youth for quality and inclusive education because it’s going to take a decade to rethink it.
Ramia: It’s so interesting how your family through unfortunate circumstances and out of no control of your own seems to be repeating its loop. What your parents did for the children in the war you’re now doing for the children in Lebanon after this most recent catastrophe, which as you very rightly pointed out, came on top of already economic circumstances which were not easy at all, which will not set you up for prospering.
What does success look like for you today, Maissa? For you personally and as a family business, how do you today define success for yourselves?
Maissa: I will talk about the personal and then I’ll try to summarize the family. Personally, I say honestly every night I try to go to sleep with a conscience that I can be proud of. There is no small or medium or big effort. It’s not just about maintaining and defending a legacy or rehabilitating or rebuilding. It’s also about enabling the future. I’m also projecting, what do we need to do for Gen Z and Gen Alpha, so for our children. Because I think the world is literally going mad. For me, success is really trying to make sure that at night I was able during the day to bring a difference in people’s lives wherever they are. If I’m able to bring a difference in people’s lives and give them this inner strength and the trust and the toolbox and the right environment for them to feel enabled and to feel empowered and to overcome their inner fear or any environmental obstacles they have, I’m already very happy.
It could be through somebody that I’m looking at that landed a great decent job, because this is what we do day and night. We connect all the pieces of the puzzle. We also try to accompany them. It could be via bringing global mentorship initiatives in public universities and public schools when you know they have nothing and they have an environment that lost hope. It could be via launching mental health promises in a decade. Now we’re working on it because we realized that everybody’s suffering and because we are in a country where you had to build this resilience, there is an acceptance to the lack of … How do you say it? The fact that we’re unwell mentally, we don’t know when to say we’re not okay because we are used to the big, big crisis and it’s so bad. So, how do you actually build this environment where it’s okay to not be okay? You will not be judged and your vulnerability is strength. Don’t keep it. Don’t censor yourself.
It’s mini-milestones every day. Also, most importantly, which is my battle, is how do you enlarge the circle of advocates and change agents locally, internationally who share your values? But if you look at them, each one has a certain core capability that you don’t have. So you could initiate the call to action. You could initiate a very big, exponential, sustainable solution. But how do you enlarge it and how do you build it up so that it’s no longer your solution. It becomes everybody’s solution and it’s beautiful. This is, for me, the most important element. The partnership for the goals where …
I think that we live in a world, Ramia, where we’re hybrid. We’re hybrid in the sense that we can no longer stereotype and cluster the private and the social enterprise and the NGO and the public. It goes back to, again, the transparency, the right governance and making sure that you’re sticking to your own raison d’être. Provided we share the same values, sometimes now we are being challenged by a social enterprise that I see as a big enabler for the next 5 to 10 years in a certain industry or certain environment. I don’t look at it just from our lens, our market. I think if it goes global if it has an exponential effect, look at what we can do for the entire supply chain. It’s beautiful because you know that these are the enablers or the micro-entrepreneurs that are challenging the status quo. You need to not just integrate them, but they need to be your future enablers and you’ll be standing by their side to make sure that you give them the right toolbox and the right environment.
For the family, I would say honestly I think they’re counting every day their blessing. I don’t know how. I think I have a family that is grounded, they’re not bitter, they’re not looking for power, they’re not looking for recognition. They’re trying to be very consistent with their promise in their day-to-day behavior. And the fact that everybody in the family and around us is in good health, which is not always a given, for them, this is already a success that we are all together, we still can make time to get together, and sometimes to laugh even during such difficult times. I think that’s beauty. Having the newborn in the family or having a mini-milestone in our family from a health point of view. For us, these are opportunities to celebrate. We get excited because these are, again, what is keeping us alive and passionate and filled with hope.
Ramia: Maissa, I hear you talking and it just feels like a common denominator of why you guys are able to do this is your ability to change. Sometimes in the wink of an eye. Sometimes it’s change that comes from you as a need, an anticipation of something. Sometimes the change is imposed on you like with recent events.
I know that there’s also the next succession moment for you recently, where your brother has taken over as the CEO of the family business. So, you change also voluntarily. It’s not just a change that’s imposed upon you.
With this new generation really totally taking the helm … What is the next level here that you would like to achieve in Holdal when it comes to further formalizing everything that is ESG, everything that’s social responsibility?
What are the next steps and do you and your brothers and sisters see eye to eye when it comes to this next evolution?
Maissa: Very interesting question. On the transition, it came so naturally and stuff because it takes a lot of preparation. This transition has been planned for many years. We had said years and years ago that this is what we want on that day. That specific day when the transition occurred, this is what will happen. So, emotionally and structurally, everything was getting ready for many years. To a certain extent, Ramia, it’s quite funny. It’s not funny, but it’s the style of the maison. Early this summer, I remember very well my father said, “Look at the situation.” We were getting so many fake attacks and noise and toxic comments because people are tired, so they confuse the good guys and the bad guys. He’s like, “Are you sure we stick to the same date?” We all said, “Yes. We stick to the same date.” Everything has been running smoothly. Today, he just got an award from one of our biggest multinational partners for 35 years of consistent services and dedication. It was cute because he’s the one who got the award as a chairman now and with George as CEO.
Now, going back to the ESG, it takes a lot of discipline. There is a full roadmap that we built based on the past year’s learning, based on a sustainability plan. We don’t do punctual things but most importantly based on our ultimate promise in 2030. It is a roadmap. With all the teams. We have 75 volunteers today in Holdal and 145 partners. When I say partners, it’s not just our amazing partners like the brands locally and internationally. It’s the social enterprise, the micro-entrepreneur, the NGOs. This is really year on year where we either enhance what we’ve been building for decades on the five sustainable development goals or because of the main challenge in our market in our SDG, we enable something but we never do it alone.
This is fundamental. It’s quite important because it’s a lot of partnerships for the goals. It’s a lot of collaboration but a very deep collaboration where we need to understand everything to be able to measure the impact. Some of the promises on social, economic, and environmental are not going to have a return if you want a return on impact or a return on investment in the near future. Some promises will take few years, but we’re betting on the long term.
From an alignment point of view, what we do is we need once or twice a year. We present the entire roadmap both on Holdal from a sustainability standpoint and also in parallel on the family foundation that we are institutionalizing now. It will be focusing only on education, on rethinking education in our market to start with because there is a lot of work to be done there. We align once or twice a year on the big lines. Once we align on the big lines, it’s only the operators that actually work hand in hand, and I’m very lucky because George, who is the CEO, is a colleague on SDG 12, because it’s his passion, it’s his background. So, he’s part of the task force. He is actually every single week meeting with us, sponsoring, advocating, pushing the barriers, so I’m quite lucky. The rest of the family gets once or twice a year a formal update and obviously, we keep them posted on everything going on.
We’ve never had any misalignment. I think that some family members are trying to tell me, “Do not put too much on your plate.” Because they know that sometimes … The impossible thing does not exist for us, but sometimes we tend with George to take so much because we are so altruistic. We know that the impossible does not exist, and just to provoke others who have more means, more resources, more capability. We would say, “Let’s do it.” Sometimes it’s just a lot on our plate just from a sustainability standpoint. So sometimes it’s just about myself trying not to spread too thin, make sure that whatever you’re delivering is already enormous with your task force, with all the supporters, and the enablers. But that’s the only advice I get sometimes. It’s, “Slow down or please try to do less because we are worried about your health.” They always worry about our health but never had any misalignment on any strategic direction, on any partnership, never, because the protocols are clear from day one. They are set in stone and they are organically in our DNA, so we’ve never had any, let’s say clashes, on decisions, on partners et cetera. Never. It’s just about priority and sometimes we say, “Do you want to have …” For instance, this month I have 27 social, economic, and environmental promises in 30 days. So, I know they must be thinking, “The woman is crazy.” But they know that we will deliver. This would be the only concern I think, from just a health and body point of view just to make sure that …
Ramia: Not to burn out with SDG goals. You just mentioned something very interesting which I think needs to be addressed, which is the fact that of course frustratingly, very often there are others that have more means that are not doing as much and that could more easily mobilize resources than even your family business which I know is already quite substantial in its influence. The fact that others aren’t doing that I think very often also has to do with the fact that they don’t know where to start or how to do it effectively or what the first steps are towards creating that kind of change.
I choose to believe, Maissa, that it’s not always out of malicious indifference or something like that. I really think that there’s a lot of inefficiency at the core of this. For other family businesses out there that desire, the desire is there but the execution is foggy for them, what are your tips, what are the first few steps they can take in order to start having the same impact Holdal has on its community?
Maissa: I think that the most important thing … We don’t have the luxury that big companies have. We have very limited resources. The resources we have are all invested in protecting and safeguarding our responsibility and duty. It’s quite interesting. Sometimes I tell my family, “We’re a social enterprise. We’re not a for-profit business.” I’m totally proud to say that, but we’re still here debating because honestly I’m impressed by some of the social enterprises around us. I do deeply believe that it’s been decades that we’ve been a social enterprise, but it’s fine because sometimes we are also perceived as a big company. Some people think that we have very big means, et cetera, because they hear about us, not on social media. We’re not very loud on social media. They hear about us because at the end of the day, Ramia, the change agents, whoever they are, and let’s not stereotype here because you do have silent game-changers that are making fundamental change. They just need the space and the voice. They just need the environment and the toolbox. It’s interesting how Holdal is perceived because I think we can be in multiple facets.
Now, my recommendation to the company is let’s not be … I’m taking the mechanism, the best practices worldwide with big institutions. We have access to the libraries. We have so much progress to be made on measuring the impact on the KPIs, et cetera and I’m very, very open about it with the companies, with the institutions, et cetera. But I’m trying not to be affected by the noise out there, but by everything we’re getting, everything they bring in terms of best practices. And I’m trying really to go back to internally, why do we exist? Once you go back to why do you exist on your sustainable development goals or as a raison d’être for your business, you have a raison d’être, you have a certain legacy, you have a DNA. Then once you identify the most important baseline and the most important bottlenecks, you start with very, very small things that are low effort, high impact. You don’t start with the high-effort, high-impact thing that will require a very complex ecosystem.
The most important thing is do not build a department of one or two people and name yourself head of SDG or head of CSR, which you will see in a lot of companies. I’ve never had it and I will never have it. It’s not because we are small. It’s because I am deeply convinced that this is part of your culture, this is part of your ecosystem and every purpose and values-driven entrepreneur, any entrepreneur and partner are welcome on the table to bring his or her passion and expertise. This is the only way to drive change.
Once you have identified if you want your low-hanging fruits, then you start actually raising awareness with your internal ecosystem, whatever that is. It’s a team of 30 or 20 or 500, whatever. Then once you start raising awareness, you actually build your change agent teams, so your change management team. In your change management team, I have leads, I have champions, I have volunteers, and every year I allow more and more people to be part of it. They give 10%, 20%, 30%, 40% of their time voluntarily on top of their day-to-day job to roll the dice on our promises.
Then you start looking at your external ecosystem because you don’t need to be perfect in everything. You don’t need to own a solution. If you have a certain promise, for instance, on the environment today, we want to reduce all the supply chain of fabrics and textiles. We’re not experts but we’ve been partnering since day one with one of the best social enterprises called FabricAID. FabricAID today in three years has built a model that will get the scalability, the exposure, et cetera. We have a duty to open the doors not just to the local partners, but to the global partners that are conscious that today we need to find a solution on textile and fabrics economically and on the environment. We work hand in hand, not only to re-purpose and to reduce the waste on fabrics, but to re-fashion the fabrics, to allow anyone who does not have the means, not just who is environmentally friendly, to actually get dressed like all of us but more responsibly. It’s the same way on and on.
Then once you have a very internal powerhouse and support system of game-changers, enablers, leads, and change agents, you then actually look externally around you, locally and globally, who has a certain co-capability that will reinforce your solution on any of the promise you have whether it’s social or economic or environmental. This is how we do it. With the right governance and the right mechanism, you are able actually to work on the ownership and accountability point of view, not just individually, collectively. What do you stand for? What is your ultimate collective promise? Because you have a collective responsibility. For me really, I try not to shy away with the big words and there are so many technical words that are so impressive and you read about them and you want to run away. I try not to run away and I try to simplify everything, and most importantly, make everything meaningful to our size, our industries, our culture, and that’s it.
We need to shape … There is no company that looks like the other. It’s very important to go back to the DNA of the company and to adopt whatever best practice is good for you so that actually it becomes much more organic and much more sustainable in the long run. Then you enhance and you enhance and you enlarge the circle. The more you can have solution providers who share your values, the more it becomes interesting and exciting because then you are tapping into not just local and regional calls for action. Then you have the world that is wiring on one big initiative, let’s say on education, and everybody is going to actually join forces to actually deliver on the promise that could have an impact on many countries. I think that this is the simple advice I would give to anyone who wants to start without being intimidated by the noise and the technicalities and the big things that are very annoying sometimes.
Ramia: Thank you so much for sharing this piece of invaluable advice. I don’t see how anyone could now say that they don’t know where to start anymore, Maissa. I hope that many people take this to heart. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast, Women in Family Business. We have enjoyed this immensely and thank you so much for sharing your story.
Maissa: Thank you, Ramia.