Leena Al Olaimy is the Co-Founder of 3BL Associates, a people + planet strategy consultancy and think-do-tank accelerating global sustainable development through collaboration and cross-sector partnerships. Leena is passionate about approaching social and environmental issues in a holistic, collaborative way that convenes stakeholders across sectors. She is the author of the forthcoming book Compassionate Counterterrorism: The Power of Inclusion in Fighting Fundamentalismthat advocates the humanization of counterterrorism to address the underlying conditions and root causes of violent extremism by building societies grounded in full economic, political, and social inclusion. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Leena ranged from the difficulties in changing mindsets to the importance of Bodhisattva to her life and work.
What motivated you to start 3BL Associates?
In my mid-twenties I was working extremely long hours and wanted to use those hours doing more meaningful work. This was during the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, so I took paid leave from my job and volunteered with the World Health Organization Iraq office. I then did some volunteer work with an American NGO at Peace Village in Vietnam, and later worked with the Bahraini government at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After bouncing from the corporate world, to the nonprofit sector, to multilateral organizations, then to government, in the end I came full circle back to the private sector. I believe we can make a difference using the tools, structure and business models of corporates, combined with the heart, soul and mission of the social sector.
During my master’s program in the U.S., I was introduced to social entrepreneurship through a War and Peace class assignment on the Nobel Peace Prize (Muhammad Yunus, social entrepreneur and founder of Grameen Bank had just won). At the same time, Tariq, my brother and Co-Founder of 3BL Associates, was doing his undergraduate degree in London. He was studying risk management and investment during the 2008 financial crisis and got involved with extracurricular activities around social entrepreneurship working with marginalized communities in London.
When we moved back to Bahrain we were both looking for a way to problem solve for societal and environmental issues in the same way that management consultancies like McKinsey problem solve for business and other sectors. We wanted to do something that was sector agnostic; whereas, most social enterprises have a very niche focus. There aren’t many generalists in this space looking at how all of these social issues intersect.
We are trying to develop innovative, inclusive business models that promote collaboration and work to break down the fragmentation and silos we see in the social sector. We are also cross-disciplinary in our approach and like to blend together different methodologies. We couldn’t find an organization at the time that functioned in this way, so we created one. We always say that we’d like to be billionaires, with the definition being: to impact a billion people.
“We wanted to do something that was sector agnostic…We are trying to develop innovative, inclusive business models that promote collaboration and work to break down the fragmentation and silos we see in the social sector. We are also cross-disciplinary in our approach and like to blend together different methodologies. We couldn’t find an organization at the time that functioned in this way, so we created one.”
What advice would you give to young people who want to become social entrepreneurs?
The best advice I’ve heard is just to start and let the work teach you. I don’t think that there’s a roadmap and nothing is the same as just doing the work and learning from the journey. Also, collaboration is very important so don’t try to do everything alone.
We are on a collective journey towards social change and advancing social progress — it’s not about “hero-preneurship”. It’s important to think about who else can own a piece of the problem you’re solving and how you can integrate or build on what already exists and is already happening.
Who are some of the people who inspire you in your work? Your mentors?
I’ve always looked up to my grandfather as a social change agent. He was a political activist and started a newspaper at the age of 19. He fought for Bahrain’s independence and became Bahrain’s first Speaker of the House in the 1970s.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are my inspirations, as well as Muhammad Yunus, who was the first person that I looked to as a role model for the type of work that I do. John Elkington is also an inspiration and mentor ; he is a British academic who coined the term “triple bottom line” and is widely known as the godfather of corporate sustainability. We’re lucky to have John on 3BL’s advisory board.
My Bodhisattva teacher, Mary Anne Mueller, is also a mentor, an incredible social entrepreneur and an amazing person. She runs a Foundation in Chile that provides an alternative education model that takes in youth who have been expelled from school. When you are kicked out of public school in Chile, no other schools will take you. Her school takes those kids and teaches them compassion, meditation, organic and technical farming in addition to all of the regular subjects.
“Many of us in the social sector are bad at looking after ourselves and being compassionate towards ourselves. It is so important for us to take care of ourselves to avoid burnout so that we can continue doing the work that we do..”
Could you tell us more about Bodhisattva and its meaning to your life and work?
To me, the Bodhisattva teachings have been about cultivating indiscriminate compassion and the desire to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings without exclusion. This means not alienating or shaming certain stakeholders who may be perceived as adversaries to social or environmental change; and to be firmly rooted in the pure motivation of working for their benefit — even when they themselves are working against their own self-interest. But this is neither passive, nor does it mean not speaking truth and enforcing justice. I talk a little bit more about what compassion means to me in my TEDx talk.
It is also important to have compassion for yourself and this is something I have struggled with over time. Many of us in the social sector are terrible at looking after ourselves and being compassionate towards ourselves. It is so important for us to take care of ourselves to avoid burnout so that we can continue doing the work that we do. We must be able to cultivate compassion in-wardly.
We launched an initiative a couple of years ago called Recipes for Wellbeing that we co-created with a few other social enterprises. The project centers around wellbeing and self-care within the social sector and is also useful for regular enterprises and corporates.
What are your thoughts on the future of social entrepreneurship in the Middle East?
Social entrepreneurship is not mainstream here yet — and isn’t really mainstream in any part of the world, but there is a growing recognition that doing good and doing well aren’t mutually exclusive and you can have both.
When we first started doing social entrepreneurship workshops and asking if any one has considered becoming a social entrepreneur, no one would raise their hand. However, today, we are seeing more and more youth wanting to become change makers, and even “regular” startups that are interested in integrating impact into their business models. There are countries in the Middle East with a higher concentration of social entrepreneurship, for example in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon.
What challenges did you face in starting 3BL Associates?
What we’re doing is very much selling change and changing people’s mindsets. This isn’t something that happens overnight or with the signing of a contract. The biggest challenge we face is getting people to recognize that adopting a more sustainable approach to doing business is in their own self-interest. When you’re trying to disrupt any system, getting that initial traction is always a big challenge.
“We are on a collective journey towards social change and advancing social progress — it’s not about hero-preneurship. It’s important to think about who else can own a piece of the problem you’re solving and how you can integrate or build on what already exists and is already happening.”
What have you found to be the best strategies in changing mindsets?
In trying to create social change it is important not to alienate an entire organization or take an adversarial approach because this can eclipse the greater mission. We’ve always taken the approach of trying to collaborate — even if it’s just finding that one person within an institution who is trying to do good — rather than labeling the entire institution as bad.
In changing mindsets, it is also important to align your interests and priorities with other stakeholders to really make it relevant. A few years ago we were working on developing a national social business strategy for Bahrain with Grameen Creative Labs and different government entities who had been asked by the Minister of Social Development to be involved in the initiative. The best feeling was being in those meetings after explaining the relevance of social business to different partners, and to see them explain concepts we had introduced to them and to take ownership of them! Once you start to think in this way, you can’t unlearn it or go back.