Amani Circle Founder And CEO Deborah Webster On Creating A More Ethical, Responsible, And Sustainable Way Of Doing Business
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"I'm disappointed, at least in terms of results from the region,” says Deborah Webster, founder and CEO of Amani Circle (Amani means “harmony” in Swahili), a Dubai-based consultancy on sustainable business practices, when asked how satisfied she is on the impact of her venture in the GCC market over the last few years. “However, I keep reminding myself that change happens by a few taking the lead, and until I find those few, I need to keep chipping away.”
Born and raised in the GCC region, Webster launched Amani Circle in 2017 with an aim to unlock the region’s potential when it comes to achieving harmony between business practices and the environment, society, and communities. However, she now finds a greater appetite for her work in the UK and Europe. “There are healthier ecosystems to drive innovation,” she explains. “They also have more robust approaches to issues such as sustainability, data privacy, and ethical consideration around technology. The message and approach in the UK and Europe are vastly different from the 'move fast and break things' doctrine touted in Silicon Valley, which I frequently hear repeated in the ecosystem here.”
Since it’s fairly rare to talk with a startup founder and/or advisor who is not unnecessarily bombastic, and does not shy away from giving constructive feedback in order to make things better, I ask Webster to share with me her thoughts on the UAE's entrepreneurial ecosystem in particular. “It pains me to say this, but I think that there's a lot of talk about innovation, and there are some brilliant people here, but it upsets me to see people taken in by fancy pitches and not peeling back the layers, so [the main challenge is] the lack of proper due diligence, and the lack of responsibility and thought around technology, data, and simple ethics,” Webster responds. “We seem to be backing 'me-toos' in a way that is akin to fattening up a cow to sell on the market. This, for me, is not innovation. It’s replication. And while we do this, the true innovators are being overlooked.”
Webster is not just talking about the need to prevent such mistakes in the ecosystem- Amani Circle is a testament of her intention to do something about it. To start with, Amani Circle is focused on helping companies become both profitable and purposeful. “The two matter, because if a company doesn't make a profit, it is unsustainable, it can't hire the best people, and/or won't be a secure place for those people to invest their time and talent,” she says. “When we say purpose, we look for those whose practices are a true and honest reflection of that purpose, i.e. purpose in action. One of the secrets in the sauce, so to speak, is finding out people's aspirations and whether they can fulfill them through their work. We like to say, you pay people to turn up, but they choose to donate their heart and their mind.”
The next pillar is responsible leadership. “Firstly, we create a distinction between leaders and people in positions of power, since just because people have a title doesn't mean that they are leaders,” she says. “Responsibility and accountability are key in drawing that distinction. Competence is one thing, but responsible leadership is about moral courage. It's about character (not personality). Is this person a person of their word? Can they be trusted? Character and responsible leadership are tested in tough times, like now.” According to Webster, another way to look at all this is as personal governance. “People talk about family governance and corporate governance, but, in reality, we’re only as good as our weakest link, the decisions and actions of individuals,” she explains. “So, being able to understand and strengthen the human factor is very important.”
Through Amani Circle, Webster also explores sustainable business practices, especially when it comes to the situations which she describes as 'good' people doing 'bad' things. “This is justified in the name of profit, or under the other popular banner of 'that is standard practice,’” she says. “For me, it begs the question of why we are creating and allowing corporate practices to corrupt people. Why do we think it's ok to act in a way that disregards consequences?” Amani Circle also analyzes the ethical use of data and technology, Webster notes.
“This is a big one, and where all of the above play a critical role, because just because we can, doesn't mean we should,” Webster notes. “I'm of the view that to unleash powerful technologies, when we do not seem to have the character maturity to deal with them responsibly, is dangerous. With the current lack of global standards and regulation, some are behaving abysmally, because 'legally,' they can get away with it. In the process, they feel it's ok to collect and analyze copious amounts of data, which is, in effect, hacking people's inner worlds, and thus, the ultimate invasion of privacy. I believe when Socrates said, ‘Know thyself,’ he meant for humans to know themselves and their inner world, not for Alexa, Siri, or Google to tell us who we are or what we want.”
Webster started her career in the marketing field, which is what got her convinced in the power of relationships. Towards the end of 1990s, she moved to the US and worked for a startup that aimed to digitize the yellow pages in those early days of the internet. In the midst of Webster talking about her love of building things in new domains, I notice that this part of her story carries a lesson for how to go about making decisions in difficult situations- so, dear reader, pay attention! “That was also where I faced a tough moral dilemma, because, through the books, I saw that funds came in from investors one day, and the next, large payments would be made to the directors as loans to officers. No one else in the company was aware of that. In the meantime, they were not meeting payroll. I remember the CEO calling a town hall meeting to explain the situation to people, and that they were trying to figure it out. He added that, if anyone had any bright ideas, they were willing to listen. I remember speaking out to say I did, but advised it would be better if we discussed it in his office.”
At this point, it's important to note the power dynamics at play: Webster was then “a little 25-year-old girl,” and she was having to state her case to a burly ex-Chapter 11 attorney from California. “I told him that I saw some loans to officers so maybe the officers should pay them back,” Webster remembers. “I cheekily pointed out a loan is, by definition, a payment due, but, in his mind, the loans were instead of them taking out salaries. I challenged him on that point, highlighting that that meant all the risk was sitting with the employees.” To emphasize the point, Webster paints the picture by telling me about one of the employees- a manager from the office in New York, a single mother, with no other source of income. “So, if I stayed, I would be lulling people into a false sense of security that everything was fine, but in effect, putting them more and more into a financial hole. If I left, it would likely be taken as a signal of trouble, which could lead to some people, if not all, leaving, which meant that we would not finish the product, and hence, no revenues.” But Webster wasn’t satisfied with the two routes she had in front of her- so she went on and created a third option. She contacted recruiters and got new roles for the team.
This personal initiative and commitment to help others served as Webster’s first foray into the recruiting industry. “It was about really understanding the client, the vibe of the company, and other little things to get the 'fit' right,” she says. “I also got really good at profiling candidates, because by understanding both the candidate and the company, I could zero in on targeting the right candidate for the right role/right company, saving time, and improving outcomes. Some of the jobs were just filling in for someone for the day, but the fit was so right that by noon on that day, the client would call asking if they could take them on board full-time.” Working in recruitment, Webster says, taught her the power of a paycheck, “and how a job, even for a day, can make a marked difference in the lives of people who live hand to mouth.”
This period of her career holds one more interesting story which happened during the 2008/2009 financial crisis. “I remember getting a call from a past candidate, who was with Lehman Brothers, asking if I could help him and his team. So, I started meeting them and profiling them, not really knowing what I could do given what was happening around us. So I called a client who was also a mentor, and after I explained the composition of the team, and that I hadn't met the heads yet, he said, ‘I’ve always known you do things differently, but today you've gone up in my estimations even more.’ It turned out that every recruiter in town had contacted him trying to sell him the team, but no one had sat down to figure out the engine, so to speak.”
Before you finish reading this feature, I will share with you a few other valuable lessons from Webster’s fruitful career. Some years ago in Malta, Webster took part in a Nokia challenge for innovative solutions using low tech phones to solve a problem for people living on less than US$2 per day. The solution did not win, but the project was successful nevertheless. “If we want to change the world, we won't do it through charity, but by changing the way business operates,” Webster concludes. “Solutions exist, but a key obstacle is human apathy; therefore, aligned interests and appetites are essential if we want to build traction and see results. And, lastly, we need to reverse engineer the keys that bring mutual success to companies and people. They are the ones that, in reality, set me the challenge to plough all my experiences, research, patterns into a model that we call Amani.”
Four Notes Deborah Webster Has Made On Businesses Navigating The COVID-19 Crisis
1.“Some companies that have a more command and control style of leadership struggled to deal with the working-from-home environment. Some were tempted to compensate for the lack of ‘visibility’ by deploying authoritarian-like technology to monitor people’s inputs. Companies need to think through what matters more– input or outputs. They also need to consider what employees’ expectations will be post-crisis, and ensure they have the environment and circumstances that enable bright people to operate.”
2. “In some cases, there was poor handling of treatment of people. For instance, to cut costs, some companies decided to let go of people, which impacted not only their paychecks, but other factors like health cover and visas. The UAE government was very good in changing some of these regulations, but the reality is then when lockdown is lifted, the 30-day window is likely to be back in place, and these people will have to leave the country. Others chose to relegate the responsibility of announcing layoffs to HR where, in reality, this is the leadership’s responsibility. The other factor was the trickling of decisions of this nature, creating further angst in a situation that is already rife with uncertainty and fear. This is a sign of weak leadership, and needs to be addressed.”
3. “Some companies, especially startups, need to consider that what they were working on, and/or their approach may have been relevant before the crisis. But they must not underestimate how the crisis will impact the relevance of their business and/or approach. They must factor this in deciding what to do going forward.”
4. “There may be a temptation to use the crisis to implement technologies that are more akin to surveillance tech. There may not be any legislation currently to stop these practices. But as founders, investors, and decision-makers, we have a moral obligation not to deploy tech that has the risk of taking away people’s privacy and freedom– regardless of the spin and hyperbole media and project promoters may be using.”