S01 E06 Leaders in sustainability - Meet Ayesha Naseem

Updated: 3 days ago

Our former interviewee, Dr. Ally Dunhill, pointed us in the direction of Ayesha Naseem.

Ayesha Naseem

A female entrepreneur, passionate about collective social responsibility, in a part of the world which has the reputation (from here, in Europe) not to care at all about women and sustainable development, this is an interview you need to read!

1. The birth of Ayesha's passion for the environment.

Science by Trianon: 

What are the origins of your passion for sustainable development?

Ayesha Naseem:

The reason I am doing what I am doing, i.e. passionately shouting from the rooftops

'We need to do something about it,
we need to act on it now,
why is this not a priority?'

was a consequence of something that happened when I was a little girl.

Our school had organised a competition.

We had to do a ten-minute presentation in front of 500 students on how to protect the environment.

I was ten!!!

It made me realise that we have known about the environmental problems for ages and the situation has been bad a long time before we learned about it at school.

Communication about sustainable development… Improvement is necessary.

Science by Trianon: 
What do you think about the way sustainability challenges are communicated?

Ayesha Naseem:

Part of the reason for the sluggish development in terms of environmental politics is the way it was presented to our generation:

“Hi, here's this big giant mess, it's not your fault but it is your responsibility to clean it up!”

The way in which education systems have been traditionally set up and continue to operate is not really going to solve this problem.

We have to focus on fundamental and applied science to solve the problem.

Our problems are presented as a doom and gloom scenario and either we remain hopelessly optimistic or we bury our head in the sand.

It is rather unfortunate that we have many conflicting narratives about how bad the problem is.

It is easier to fight something when everybody is on the same page.

But people are not so much on different pages, they are in different books.

To stay in that metaphor, that means, you are not fighting the problem anymore, you are fighting to get other people into the same book.

2. A fearless entrepreneur

Science by Trianon: 
It led you to become the founder of Livewire, and be engaged in social entrepreneurship, tell us about your journey.

Ayesha Naseem:

First of all, I asked myself these questions:

Why is it so difficult to start a start-up?
Why not make it easier?

This led me to lay, the foundation of LiveWire, making it easier for fellow and future founders to figure out whether, first, they want to be a start-up founder, and secondly, to consider what that path would look like.

On this journey, I was extremely fortunate to receive a scholarship sponsored by NAMA Women to study Social Entrepreneurship and establish an ed-tech venture that would fulfill the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as it bridges the education gap experienced by disenfranchised youth.

It was not just theoretical knowledge, it was very much learning by doing.

The program was centered on creating an idea and starting a start-up around it.

My studies led me to a number of places, and

I realised that there is not one country on this planet that recognises a social enterprise.

Whether a country is 500 years old or just 50, not one country has a legal framework that allows social entrepreneurs access to grants from agencies or public and private funding.

That again made me think “Why do we not have that?”.

This, in turn, led me to Niqash, a platform I am currently working on.

Niqash explores how the education system at large is either too out-dated or too tired trying to catch up to figure out the answer to why science at school isn’t enough to do something about our problems.

Why does science not undo the damage that has been done and why, as a second step, does it not do anything to ensure that such a situation does not arise again?

LiveWire: from a blog to a social entrepreneurship platform

LiveWire started as a blog about quitting, and that is something that people in any start-up community rarely talk about.

They never talk about quitting unless it's about how a quitting attitude is a sign of weakness. Pivoting? Sure. Quitting? No-no.

They talk about perseverance, passion, enthusiasm, especially in these times of the pandemic.

We were talking about changing your path and see where that would lead us.

It then evolved into a media platform.

After a while, we realised that we needed to do a bit more than just sharing information and from there on it has developed into a platform for fellow and future founders in the UAE.

We organise RoundTables open to all where we discuss a range of issues and connect founders with resource persons.

One particular issue we have been discussing is mental health and well-being.

Livewire Round Table

We have also discussed social business model canvasses and common legal issues in addition to offering project management tools as well.

It is our core policy to never charge start-ups for advertising.

They can take over our social media channels and more.

It is most important for us to offer them a place where they can talk about their stories, regardless of the narrative or their manner of speaking.

We are based in the UAE, so if you decide to move your business here, we'll be happy to help.

We are based in the UAE, so if you decide to move your business here, we'll be happy to help.

We also run a podcast series in which we reflect on what they (the entrepreneurs) do, why they do it, and what makes them continue doing what they do.

The next season focuses on the stakeholders who can support them in their success.

Science by Trianon:

Allow me to clarify this. The LiveWire is a platform for social entrepreneurs by social entrepreneurs?

Ayesha Naseem:

The manner in which we operate, which is dictated by our ethos, in effect means

we are a Social enterprise - a for-profit business for good.

Science by Trianon:

What does the demographics of your start-up look like with respect to men/women, old/young, experienced start-up'ers/newcomers to business?

Ayesha Naseem:

A majority of our audience is in the age group of 25 - 34 and two-thirds of them are women.

With a female founder and more female Fellows making up the team, we address the start-up world without any limitations based on age, gender, or cultural context.

LiveWire is for you, whenever you may decide to pursue the path, whether as a college student or a professional quitting after 15 years in employment and anywhere in between.

Science by Trianon:

How does the government and the general public react to this increase in social entrepreneurship? 

Do they see it as an incentive to step up their own game or do they just rely on the work people like you do? 

Is there public debate about these matters?

Ayesha Naseem:

There are three parts to this:

Part 1 is whether the government supports it and I think it does very much so, cf. the scholarship program I mentioned earlier.

Taking into consideration that this country is not even 50 years old yet we are about ten times ahead in the conversations we are having than most other countries when they were at a similar stage.

All government initiatives have always been directed at the whole community, not just at subgroups such as men, women, or children.

The focus was always on how to build stronger and more resilient communities.

If it helps everyone and if it doesn't, or if it is to the detriment of any particular portion of society the scheme gets scrapped or reworked.

Part 2: Who takes initiative?

The government has set and raised the bar when it comes to taking it upon themselves to forge ahead.

In addition to the Ministry for Tolerance and Coexistence and Ministry of Community Development, there is a conscious effort to establish strong public-private partnerships for collective social responsibility.

Ma’an, the Authority of Social Contribution, was established by the Department of Community Development in Abu Dhabi (capital of the UAE), with the aim to bring the government, private sector, and civil society together.

It leads a score of initiatives in addition to its grants program and a social incubator and accelerator for startups!

Science by Trianon: 

Was it difficult to set up your, if I may call it that, incubator? Was it difficult as a woman, was it difficult as a person living in the UAE?

Ayesha Naseem:

As regards the expenses you face as a start-up, the UAE has a limited tax system, so there is no system in which you are taxed at a lower level at first and have to pay back later as you grow and become profitable.

We have a heavier burden on the start-up cost and thanks to COVID 19 there has certainly been a shift in making starting a business easier and cheaper as well.

The relief measures announced by governments of different emirates have helped in the struggle to survive.

They are looking into ways to incentivise more start-ups because it leads to the creation of jobs.

I wouldn't think it was any more difficult to start the business as a woman, and conversations with other lady entrepreneurs have corroborated this impression.

I think the one issue I have got (and this is not specific to the UAE) are all these women-empowerment panels.

Please do not talk to me about empowering women, instead engage me in conversations and actions about advancing women, because we know we are empowered.

Ayesha Naseem & Adwa Al Dakheel

3. General awareness with respect to environmental problems in middle eastern countries like the UAE

Science by Trianon: 

The general view here is that the Arab countries had tons of money from the most lucrative oil business but little concern for environmental problems. 
Is that true or does that just show how little we know about the civil life in the Arab world?

Ayesha Naseem:

OK, that is a two-part question, part one is whether the past facilitated the awareness of environmental problems, and part two is has there been a change?

I was born and raised in the UAE. Since the country’s official religion is Islam, the tenet of Zakat (charity) has been a way to support the upliftment of local and international communities.

This laid the cornerstone for doing business conscientiously.

'Social entrepreneurship' is a tagline, a name for a concept that has always existed.

Capitalism has become such an important tool for survival for so many people that we have to give the good people a name to recognise that.

It's not that social entrepreneurship is new, people have always built businesses that supported communities, it was when it became more profitable to not worry about that, to not worry about the environmental or societal impact this or that action would have, people stepped away from that responsibility.

It needs to be said a majority are supportive of doing business for good.

Their work tends to be overshadowed by the actions of the few.

The awareness of the youth in UAE

I believe the youth here in the UAE has always been very empowered to do what is right.

The government and every organisation, whether in the public or private sectors, have the responsibility to make sure that we are building capacities to navigate the path that lies ahead, no matter how unpredictable it may be.

There is a lot of importance given to understanding the importance and relevance of science in order to ensure the survival of mankind.

From initiatives including the One Million Arab Coders, The Emirates MARS Mission – Al Amal, to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, and a woman, Her Excellency Sarah Bint Yousef Al Amiri leading as the Minister of State for Advanced Technology, there are ample examples of where the country stands on its commitment to advancing scientific studies and its application to solving crucial problems.

Badiri Social Entrepreneurship Program - India Learning Block Alma Mater

And if art was the perfect medium to talk to the general public about sustainability?

The headquarters of the largest waste management facility in Sharjah was designed by the famous Zaha Hadid Architects.

The UAE's leading integrated environemental, recycling & waste management company designed by Zara Hadid Architects

Now, you may argue that a waste processing plant and a star architect firm would not belong in the same sentence, but it exemplifies the emphasis placed on these matters by the Emirati government.

In a country as wealthy as UAE, do people wear the tag of social entrepreneurship with pride?

It is a question I have often asked many people as part of our podcast and in conversations as well.

Do people introduce themselves as a social enterprise or just as an enterprise? The general answer to this was ‘it depends’.

It depends on how informed the person they are talking to is.

If you enter a room full of people who are aware of the UN's SDGs then your battle is half won.

4. Social entrepreneurship according to Ayesha

Defining something literally means to limit something.

With this caveat in mind, I would say social entrepreneurship is business for a good cause.

Social entrepreneurship is the way to go for businesses.

All your initiatives, projects, whatever it is you do, needs to have a positive impact or at least should be mindful of the impact it would have, once implemented.

If that impact is good it's a social enterprise if it's not...

Science by Trianon: 

How do you see the future of entrepreneurship?

Ayesha Naseem:

I hope that social entrepreneurship is a word that we use less and less frequently.

As I said, social entrepreneurship is the way to do business and if it becomes the norm we don't have to talk about it specifically anymore.

Eventually, it will be just business and there will have to be a term for those who do not conduct business the right way.

5. If you had a magic wand...

Science by Trianon: 

That brings me to my final question. 

If you had a magic wand what would you do with it?

Ayesha Naseem:

I would use it to get everybody onto the same page.
As regards to COVID 19, I would make people understand that it's best to mask up, wash hands and stay home.



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