Follow The Leader: Jean-Michel Gauthier, CEO, Oliv

Jean-Michel Gauthier, CEO, Oliv, started his company with an aim to reduce youth unemployment in the Arab world.

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If you, as an entrepreneur, could turn back time, what would you have done differently along the journey of your startup? For Jean-Michel Gauthier, co-founder and CEO of the Dubai-headquartered careers platform Oliv (formerly known as InternsME), the answer is, well, not a lot. "I'd do most of what we've done, except much faster," Gauthier says. "A specific improvement would be to increase our product centricity from the start, and build at a more global scale in mind, at an earlier point."

Jean-Michel Gauthier, CEO, Oliv.

One can unpack quite a lot about Gauthier and Oliv from this answer of his. For one, here's an entrepreneur who's clearly fueled by his absolute conviction in what his startup offers, and the promise of what it can do for the MENA region- Gauthier has always stated that he started his company with an aim to reduce youth unemployment in the Arab world, and that's the mission that Oliv remains rooted on. "Our focus in the early days of Oliv was always on building the right team, and fostering an impactdriven culture," Gauthier says. "Whilst our platform was pretty basic in the beginning, we managed to hire talented, hard-working people who were completely aligned with our vision of defeating youth unemployment in the region. With this we were able to hit the market early with an MVP and start offering a solution. Today, we tenaciously pursue our North Star metric: number of placements. That's our value driver. Defining this as early as we did in the lifetime of the company meant we have been able to connect everything back to a single important goal, which is a very powerful motivator for the team."

Oliv today declares itself to be "the world's fastest career platform experience built with the youth in mind." As a marketplace that connects youth in the MENA region with leading employers in a variety of industries, Oliv aims to help students and new graduates secure everything from internships to part-time and graduate jobs. In the years since its inception, Oliv claims to have screened more than 150,000 university students and fresh graduates for the platform, which today has more than 1,000 businesses –ranging from startups to corporates- using it to fill their talent needs. "In terms of impact, we're very proud of the 3,000+ placements (internships and full-time graduate jobs) we've been able to facilitate to date, and help young people in the region start their careers in organizations like Careem, Coca-Cola, Emaar, Samsung, and many more," Gauthier says. "The activity and engagement on the platform is up to 1,000+ employer- candidate interactions (such as interview invitations) being initiated monthly."

And the work that Oliv has been doing hasn't gone unnoticed. Besides securing a slew of awards and accolades over the years (it won the Digital Startup of the Year title at Entrepreneur Middle East's Enterprise Agility Awards in 2016), Gauthier's company was also the recipient of the first disbursement of funds made by the AED2 billion Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund, an initiative that has been conceived and sponsored by the UAE's Ministry of Finance. Oliv's innovative offering is what has allowed the startup to achieve all that it has so far- there aren't many other enterprises that can claim to showcase that kind of inventiveness in what they do. And Gauthier is cognizant of this fact. "Innovation is definitely a buzzword nowadays," he says. "We see a lot of incremental innovation, where entrepreneurs improve existing processes and solutions in a few small ways. Depending on the size and maturity of the market, this can be enough to build a business, but what excites me most, and what I'd love to see more entrepreneurs strive towards, are innovations that are a 10x improvement over what's currently available. In other words, innovate, and build something that makes the old way redundant."

Jean-Michael Gauthier, CEO, Oliv, started his company with an aim to reduce youth unemployment in the Arab world. Image credit: Oliv.

And keeping this in mind, the region, according to Gauthier, still offers a minefield of opportunities today. "It's definitely a good time to start a business in the MENA. Every year our markets evolve, new opportunities present themselves, and more success/failure stories become available to learn from. The future belongs to fast-moving, customercentric startups, and SMEs that are able to capitalize on the needs of, and deliver differentiated value to, the market. There are many opportunities in localized software, "productizing' professional services, as well as within the large, incumbent industries which are also ripe for disruption- for example: banking, insurance."

From a leadership point of view, Gauthier acknowledges that running a startup requires a plethora of skills, and his approach toward it has evolved through the years. "As a startup CEO, you have to wear multiple hats and constantly shift gears, between being an entrepreneur, innovator, fundraiser, problem-solver, manager, and mentor," Gauthier explains. "Today, most of my time is spent on the important things: helping the team (anything from providing feedback on work/plans, coaching, helping with customers and deals), recruiting new talent, and gearing Oliv up for international expansion." Much like other leaders of repute, Gauthier is insistent on his team's integral role in the success Oliv has seen so far, and that governs his attitude towards them as well. "For almost all businesses, finding the right team is the absolute make-or-break," he notes. "For early-stage companies, the challenge is in attracting the talent that has a lot of other options available to them from larger companies, including better pay, more stability and security, and additional benefits. To overcome this, we've focused on the things larger organizations can't always offer: an entrepreneurial work environment, empowerment, meaningful work, a learning-based culture, and a dynamic, close-knit team. The launch of our employee stock option plan has been a major milestone in offering upside to reward and recognize our team's ownership mentality, and long-term commitment to Oliv."

This emphasis on the people in his team also explains Gauthier's interactions with them as their leader. "Great leadership starts with great communication," Gauthier says. "Being transparent and authentic are key, especially when inspiring a millennial team. This means being brave enough to let them know when something hasn't gone right, or when you've made a mistake. It's also important for leaders to be fiercely accountable, to set high standards for themselves, and to reflect the work ethic they want embodied in the team. Training, motivating and trusting your team to get things done (without micromanagement) empowers them to operate like owners. The best leaders are able to do this whilst making tough decisions with limited information, under tight time constraints, and are resilient when things don't go to plan." It's a formula that has worked so far for Gauthier- and it's one that will surely stand him in good stead as Oliv makes its way into the future. And yes, this is an enterprise you should keep an eye on- it definitely seems to be going places.

ASK THE EXEC - Jean-Michael Gauthier, CEO, Oliv

What are your tips for entrepreneurs wanting to find success with their enterprises?

1. COMMUNICATION MATTERS "Keep communicating- when times are good and also when times are bad. Silence and opaqueness from leadership does not default to positivity in teams."

2. ASK FOR FEEDBACK "Be open to criticism, and continuously develop yourself. This sets a strong example for your team to follow."

3. INVEST YOUR TIME IN HIGH LEVERAGE ACTIVITIES "Speak to your team members one-on-one, mentor them to find solutions to problems, and gather information that helps you make better decisions for everyone."

4. TRAIN AND MOTIVATE "These should be amongst your daily, ongoing initiatives. As soon as you have team members ready to train and motivate others, let them."

5. LOOK AFTER YOURSELF "Find time to take care of your own mental well-being, grow your resilience, and reflect on successes and failures."

Related: Follow The Leader: Najla Al-Midfa, CEO, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa)