Spotlight: MWB Advisor Triin Visnapuu, Pioneering Social Enterprise in Morocco

Triin Visnapuu, an MBA graduate of HEC Paris, has served as an MBAs Without Borders Advisor in Marrakech, Morocco, for the past 18 months. We recently sat down with Triin to get her perspective on the MWB experience. Here, she shares her insights into Morocco, social enterprise, and being an MBA Without Borders!

What inspired you to become an MBAs Without Borders (MWB) Advisor?

Immediately after graduating from my MBA program at HEC Paris, I returned to banking but soon realized that something was still missing for me in that career. I felt fortunate for everything I had experienced in life and I felt it was time to give something back. I wanted to embark on a volunteering project that would allow me to use my expertise in business and management to support greater social good. MBAs Without Borders provided an ideal opportunity and given that the project in Morocco was a perfect fit for what I was looking for, I became even more convinced that it was the right time to embark on this new journey.

Can you tell us about the Karl Kahane Foundation’s work in Marrakech?

The Karl Kahane Foundation president, Patricia Kahane, founded Association Al Kawtar in Marrakech, Morocco, in 2006. The association was designed to provide handicapped women in the community an opportunity to learn embroidery and earn a living. These operations supported the Foundation’s ultimate goal of helping these women gain autonomy and independence in their lives. Since 2006, the Foundation has been supporting the association financially while its president has personally engaged in product design and the development of sales channels. In following the recommendations of local advisors, the Karl Kahane Foundation supported the establishment of Cooperative Al Kawtar with the goal of attaining social security coverage for the members. Due to a number of complicating factors and irreconcilable differences with the top management of the cooperative, the cooperation between the Karl Kahane Foundation and Al Kawtar came to an end in the beginning of 2013. Instead, Patricia decided to independently launch a social enterprise called Al Nour to ensure that the ladies who wanted to continue their handcraft work could do so, and finally provide them with access to the state social security system in a way that had not been possible as a cooperative.

What are the main differences between the former cooperative and the new social enterprise, Al Nour?

Before discussing the differences, I feel it is important to stress that the main goals of both the social enterprise Al Nour and the cooperative Al Kawtar are the same—to provide handicapped women a chance at a more autonomous and dignified life. The social enterprise is essentially a not-for-profit initiative. As such, any future profits will be reinvested into the company for the social benefit of its members.

The greatest difference is, of course, the legal structure of the organization. All members of Al Kawtar were essentially self-employed whereas the women working at Al Nour are employees. One of the primary benefits of being an employee versus self-employed in Morocco—enrollment in state social security—was mentioned earlier. This coverage is particularly valuable for the women of Al Nour who often have health issues due to their disabilities. The coverage also ensures the women will receive a pension after their retirement.

Al Nour’s style is a bit more modern and youthful than Al Kawtar, but we still maintain our focus on creating high-quality products and employing traditional embroidery techniques.

What are the biggest challenges the new social enterprise will face going forward?

The concept of a social enterprise does not exist in Morocco yet. In legal terms, Al Nour faces the same treatment as any other enterprise. Outside the legal and tax worlds, we need to work with our partners to explain the concept of social enterprise. We might even call Al Nour a pioneer of social entrepreneurship in Morocco.

The greatest challenge remains the preparation of members to take over the enterprise. The women’s embroidery work is amazing and the quality of the products is stunning. Because the customers are Western, the product design and presentation has to appeal to a Western market. Developing a feel for these subtleties has proven quite difficult among the ladies, as most of them are accustomed to developing product that appeals to a Moroccan consumer shopping in a bazaar, but a few women are making a great effort at understanding and are showing progress.Another challenge is establishing a system for succession planning and managerial training. While a few women may pick up the skills necessary to run the enterprise, there will likely come a time when they will have to hand off their responsibilities and someone should be ready to step into their role. Given that these transitional moments would probably occur after the loss of external funding and professional support, it is hard to ensure the staff is appropriately prepared.

Finally, in any project, interpersonal dynamics can always present a challenge. The past has taught us that it can be very difficult for someone in a position of responsibility to accept help and guidance from an outsider, for fear of admitting their imperfection. Also Morocco has a strong cultural tendency towards authoritarian management. These and others present significant challenges to our effectors to achieve the long-term goals discussed above. But, we continue to provide different leadership role models to the women in hopes of preparing them for a more democratic and open management style.

How has your MWB assignment changed your world view or inspired you to look at things differently?

Because of the differences of my own cultural background, my MWB experience has definitely been an eye-opener, in spite of my very “international” career prior to this assignment. The vast gap between the socio-economic backgrounds of my colleagues here and myself has probably also been a major contributor to why we have perceived many situations differently. I take much less for granted now in terms of what my counterpart should or could know, or how they might perceive or react to certain events or facts. I accept that depending on our different cultural or socio-economic backgrounds, and of course our personalities, we are motivated by different drivers. But I am more convinced than ever that the most basic values, such as mutual respect and honesty, are universal.

How has your experience as an MWB Advisor shaped your career and aspirations?

Working with Al Kawtar has provided a great lesson in communications, politics, and cultural differences. I believe that organizational behavior is critical for success in any type of organization, be it a large corporation or a small NGO. I have understood the importance of transferrable skills. Coming from almost eight years in the banking sector prior to this project, I was surprised to see how much of my past experience was directly applicable here as well. Working as the general manager for Al Nour is a great experience in people management—it’s the first time in my life that I am directly managing more than 20 people.

Overall, I am now more convinced than ever that I want to remain a generalist rather than a specialist and I want to make sure management and working with people remains the focal point of my career. I would also like to continue to contribute my time and effort for the benefit of NGOs or social enterprises. I already have an idea how I would like to try to stay involved with Al Nour after my departure.

Jailan Adly

Jailan Adly

Jailan Adly is the Director of MBAs Without Borders where she is responsible for the overall design and implementation of the MBAs Without Borders program. In addition, she manages various International Corporate Volunteer programs for clients such as IBM, FedEx, John Deere, Medtronic, and Novartis in Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, Tunisia, and India.

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