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Keep Growing, Keep Giving: Maha Abouelenein Armed with lessons learnt through a successful career spanning more than 25 years, this communications-pro-turned-entrepreneur is now authoring her own book.

By Tamara Pupic

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Maha Abouelenein, an Egyptian-American entrepreneur and digital communications consultant.

At one point during my conversation with Maha Abouelenein over Zoom, she holds a sweater label tag close to her camera, saying, "This is a certificate that basically says that it is an original piece of clothing that has been authenticated on the blockchain. This is the value of what we'll be able to do with Web3, and this is why people need to learn and understand blockchain technology." Out of her living room in her home in the American state of Minnesota, Abouelenein would not be imploring me (and you) to take Web3 seriously if she was not sure that it would significantly change the way we live and work.

And Abouelenein is someone you'd want to listen to- before moving back to the US in 2020, she had been working as a strategic communications consultant out of Egypt and the UAE for 23 years, and during this time, she had firsthand experience of the profound impact technological disruptions have had on the world at large. "I had a front seat into the internet being introduced into the MENA region, and then to the introduction of mobiles by launching almost every mobile network in the Middle East and Africa in more than 18 countries," Abouelenein recalls. "And now, we're about to launch into Web3 and non-fungible tokens (NFT) and become the thought leader in the space when it comes to how blockchain technology will impact brands, businesses, and our lives."

It is therefore not surprising that Abouelenein now, again, has the edge over how brands and businesses should find their voice in this new world professed by Web3- she has already led communications for some of the leading projects in the space, such as the VeeCon 2022 mega-conference hosted by VeeFriends, the NFT project run by acclaimed entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, aka GaryVee. Her prowess as an entrepreneur and digital communications consultant comes from running her strategic communication consulting firm, Organizational Consultants, with offices in the USA and Dubai, as well as its signature podcast, Savvy Talk. Besides managing the personal brand public relations for Vaynerchuk, Abouelenein also offers her advisory services to a clientele that includes noted Indian-American author Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dubai-based influencer-cum-entrepreneur Karen Wazen, as well as acclaimed companies like Target and Emirates Airline, alongside Web3 startups like Utopia, Bedu, and Vayner3, among others.

Source: Maha Abouelenein

However, it is indeed news to me that Abouelenein wants to talk with me now about an old-fashioned, paperback book, and not just any book, but a book based on her personal story. "I want to tell my story, because I want to inspire people," Abouelenein says. "I want to inspire women who want to learn how both to take care of their parents and build their own careers, entrepreneurs who don't know how to do communications but know it's an important piece of their business, people who have setbacks in their careers but realize that they can switch gears, and create a new chapter for themselves."

And now, if you expect that this interview will give you a sneak peek into how Abouelenein has done it all, you are right, it will; but her whole story will be available in 2024, when the book is expected to be published. "My measuring stick for life is based on what I am doing to bring value to others- personally and professionally," Abouelenein says, when asked about the secret to her success. "Creating value behind the scenes is about finding that value equation that comes from knowing how to choose the right strategy, how to put in the work, and how to build the right network. It all comes with experience."

Related: Infinite Possibilities: Deepak Chopra, Founder, The Chopra Foundation

Abouelenein with Indian-American author Dr. Deepak Chopra.
Source: Maha Abouelenein

Born to Egyptian parents in Mankato, Minnesota, Abouelenein earned her bachelor's and graduate degrees at Minnesota State University, and started her career by interning for Weber Shandwick and also briefly working for General Mills, before moving to Egypt in 1997 to care for her mother who was unwell at the time, while her father accepted a new assignment as the dean of a business school in the UAE. In Cairo, she first worked for Egyptian billionaire and media and telecom mogul, Naguib Sawiris. "During my time there, I was part of the team that led the country's first dual listing on the London and Egyptian stock exchanges," Abouelenein recalls. "We did the largest initial public offering (IPO) in Egyptian history, and we also worked on the largest acquisition in the history of Egypt when we acquired 18 licenses from the telco, Telecel, in Africa." It was also in Egypt that, a few years later, Abouelenein was appointed Google's Head of Global Communications and Public Policy. "I accepted the job on January 25, 2011, which was the day the Arab Spring started in Egypt, and so, I started only in March and worked on helping businesses leverage the economic impact of the internet," she explains. "We launched Google Maps Street View and YouTube in the Middle East. We invested heavily in getting more Arabic content online, and building the internet ecosystem among developers and the tech industry."

Another of her key roles in her career was being the founding Managing Director of Weber Shandwick for the MENA region, in which she set up 18 offices for the enterprise. In between these high-profile stints, Abouelenein has also been committed to her Minnesota and Dubai-based communications firm Organizational Consultants, which has helped the likes of companies like Netflix, Udacity, and Careem to help with their public relations in the Middle East. "One of the biggest things that I'm really proud of that I did, for example with Netflix, is that when they first decided to come into the Middle East, they didn't know the importance of Ramadan," Abouelenein says. "But by the next year, they had shows about food, cooking, and family, as well as television serials. So, by explaining the nuances of our Arab culture, we were able to make that bridge between East and West, and say, 'This is like our Super Bowl, where the advertising is really high during this peak period, and so watching ad-free content on Netflix would be a huge advantage."

Her advice on these matters were heeded by the likes of Microsoft's Bill Gates and Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, whom she remembers telling to not go straight into business at meetings in the Middle East, but to focus a bit more on building personal connections. More recently, Abouelenein remembers her work with Vaynerchuk serving as a reminder on the importance of understanding one's audience in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes. "I was very nervous when I first brought Vaynerchuk to the UAE, because he is in-your-face, very loud, high-energy, and all this kind of stuff, but he was actually completely intuitive at reading the room, respecting the culture, letting them lead, and listening first," she recalls. Another story from her time with Vaynerchuk serves as a more practical response to my question to her to define what the value is that she brings to others. "It's something that's important to you, not to me," Abouelenein replies. "And the secret sauce is finding out what you value the most, and then how I can deliver it for you."

Related: I Quit Google To Become An Entrepreneur

Abouelenein with Gary Vaynerchuk at the VEECON 2022 mega-conference.
Source: Maha Abouelenein

With Vaynerchuk, this meant realizing that, in addition to a 30-person team building his personal brand on social media when Abouelenein started working with him over five years ago, she had to look at how to bring him to new audiences through personal relationships, leveraging his speaking gigs and getting him in front of editors and news programs. "I had to find a lane to bring value because he had such a robust content machine team," Abouelenein explains. "I started to think about what new relationships I could create for him when he is only a direct message away from anyone he wants to connect with. I started focusing on news organizations and media outlets, and new markets like Dubai, to reach new audiences. For example, last week, Gary was on The Drew Barrymore Show, a television show that appeals to more women, which is a target audience we really care about reaching."

Our conversation now turns to the ambitious Emirate of Dubai where Abouelenein has a number of satisfied clients, including Dubai Future Foundation, Emirates Airlines, Careem, Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, Rain, and FitRepublik, to name but a few. She states that, while she is a proud Egyptian, she cherishes Dubai for "what it stands for and what it enables people to do," and aims to use her PR skills "to tell people about why they should do business with and in Dubai." Meanwhile, to Minnesota, she is grateful for "teaching her American business ethics and values." Abouelenein adds, "The best part of being an Egyptian American is using my knowledge of both cultures and worlds to be a bridge between East and West in my career. I feel it's what has given me an edge and propelled me to be in a unique position. I come from a place of tremendous gratitude for being in the right place at the right time when it comes to things like that."

Related: How Huda, Mona, And Alya Kattan Built The Billion-Dollar Huda Beauty Brand Out Of Dubai

Abouelenein with Huda Kattan and Eva Longoria at the VeeCon 2022 mega-conference.
Source: Maha Abouelenein

Abouelenein has been writing her book from that place of gratitude, and she assures me that it will not be a tell-all book, but instead a collection of her memories and personal experiences that are aimed at illuminating a larger mindset change. One example, she says, is that she wants to make the concept of switching gears in lives and careers more acceptable, especially among people in the Middle East. "You go to school, you get married, you have kids, you get a job are societal norms that exist everywhere, right? But I think now what we're learning because of new words in our life, like disruption, or a side hustle, or a startup, is that it's okay to switch gears and to pick your passion and to do things you love in addition to what you were traditionally expected to do, or planning to do."

As our conversation comes to an end, I realize that Abouelenein's career has been destined to blur the boundaries between opposing sides -be it the East and the West, or online and offline- and bring them closer together. And that is in line with the main goal that she wishes to achieve with her book- to put her knowledge in the service of everyone everywhere. "At this point in my career, I really am in a position to pick what I want to work on, and so what I think about the most now is how to scale my knowledge for everyone to learn," Abouelenein concludes. "It is because everybody should be thinking about their personal brand, their reputation, or startups about their PR, and I don't want to be on their payroll, but to give them the tools so that they can win on their own and learn critical communications skills they need."

Related: Making A Splash: Karen Wazen And Elias Bakhazi Launch Their MEA-Focused Investment Firm, KE Partners

Abouelenein with Dubai-based influencer Karen Wazen.
Source: Maha Abouelenein

'TREP TALK: Tips for entrepreneurs from Maha Abouelenein

It's ok to not know what you don't know "I became the Managing Director of my own company in 2004 when I really had no idea how to do that. I was capable of doing the work and serving the clients, but I had no idea when it came to running a 'company,' or how to manage key pillars, like finance, human resources, operations, legal, and so on. Then, you learn the gaps, and you have to hire to fill them. It was a fast awakening of all of my shortcomings- just because I knew about PR and comms didn't mean I knew how to run a PR company. Thankfully, it's 2022, and I look back and take away so many lessons from that time. The big lesson here is: ask for help, and hire the right people you need to deliver. Be humble, and admit what you don't know."

Believe in yourself "When all else fails, who can you rely on to show up? You! You have to put in the work; you have to believe you can. If you don't believe in yourself, nobody else will. Self-doubt is a killer. I really struggled with putting myself out there, because I wasn't sure anyone who care about what I had to say, or that nobody would listen to my advice. But I believed- I kept saying, if not me, then who? I can do this. And I did, one day at a time.

Invest in yourself "Nobody will ever put you at the top of their priority list. You have to do that. Information is for free- you need to seek it. So invest in yourself, learn new skills, read newsletters, and blogs, watch YouTube videos- do what it takes to sharpen your skills and stay relevant."

Managing yourself is hard work "If you are an entrepreneur and you work from home, you feel me right now! Being disciplined around time organization, the structure of your team, of your day and all from home is not easy. So the best thing to do is the best that you can. Build a routine."

Build a network "Nobody can get ahead or win alone. Nobody knows how to do everything alone, you need a network. How much time are you spending on that network- building, nurturing, growing, and supporting it? Time to get building!"

Related: Shifting The Conversation: What It Really Means To Add Value

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.


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