At the age of 28, this young, socially aware half-Greek, half-Kuwaiti lady has already achieved far more of the ‘right stuff’ in life than most of us will ever be able to do. Yet far from being an idealist, Mariam is in fact quite the opposite. That she has been able to put her business and commercial skills into practice in the field of corporate social responsibility (CSR) says as much about her as it does about the foresightedness of the company that employs her.
But that’s only part of her story. The Mariam you’ll meet today is the epitome of the skilled, confident and successful executive that she undoubtedly is and is required to be. One of her roles is to manage the communications within Agility - a company that currently employs around 70,000 personnel in 100 countries - as well as to manage their external public relations.
Mariam joined the company three years ago as part of their CSR team. Agility was in the process of expanding rapidly, and had acquired a great number of companies in all corners of the globe. As Mariam says “The company was really thinking about how to bring everyone together, and about how we could create a common centre, a common culture and a common purpose”. In this context came the realization that the role of CSR was clearly going to become very important and useful, and the initiative was established. “Essentially this was our Chairman’s (Tareq Sultan) idea. We looked at what we were doing in communities already, and we realized that in every country in which we were then located, something was being done on a local level”. Of course, at that time it wasn’t known as ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, it was merely local representatives focusing on what they felt was the ‘right thing’. “It hadn’t occurred to anyone the scope of what we were doing, but seeing this we decided that we could do more of benefit by doing it in a more structured setting” she adds.
Through this change in attitude, and under Mariam’s guidance, Agility’s CSR team and employees have established 120 projects in forty countries throughout the last two years. By anyone’s standards this is remarkable. Even more so when one learns that through these projects they have reached approximately 280,000 people.
Mariam avoids putting a cash value on the scale of Agility’s CSR programmes, “We think it is very misleading to talk about finances. We think it is a much better guide to talk about the number of people whose lives we have impacted, and the real scale of benefits our programmes have provided”. She makes a fair point. It is easy for many companies to writes cheques for favoured projects - but there are very few companies, even on a global scale, who do so much ‘hands-on’ socially beneficial work as Agility.
“Where money is spent”, says Mariam, “we focus on tracking the impact of that donation. We approach CSR in the same way we approach all aspects of our business. Which is that we have a goal, we have a plan to get there, and we have performance indicators”. Mariam adds that such is the company’s commitment to CSR, performance and success of projects are judged at board level.
The CSR programme is split into two parts - the first of which is their Humanitarian and Emergency Logistics Programme. Through this the company can, when required and at very short notice, put its logistics expertise into practice. In the case of a natural disaster for example, there may be a need for the rapid movement of huge quantities of relief supplies and aid.
“For a company like ours,” Mariam says, “who has a local presence all over the world, we can very quickly mobilize trucks and other methods of transport, as well as provide warehousing space and facilitate customs clearance even in the most desperate of situations”. The company focuses on giving back what it is they are best at. In this framework Agility have been involved in a number of disaster relief efforts over recent years.
Most memorable for Mariam is their response in Lebanon during the summer of 2006. She recalls spending time on the border moving relief in for the Kuwait Red Crescent and Saudi Red Crescent Society’s. This was no typical executive response - with the situation as it was, both she and the other Agility personnel involved willingly placed themselves in positions of danger, at one time the border area they had been managing relief through was bombed shortly after their departure.
Writing a cheque is one thing, providing a practical solution at times like these is clearly something quite different.
Victims affected by natural disasters have benefitted from Agility’s relief efforts including the recent Bangladesh cyclone, as well as flooding in 2007 in Jakarta, Indonesia, where through their efforts in cooperation with the World Food Programme around 46,000 people were able to be fed.
Following the devastating cyclone earlier this year in Myanmar, Agility was also quick to respond and worked with the United Nations in coordinating the provision of emergency aid and relief, as well as sending a team into the country to offer further assistance.
The second part of the CSR programme Mariam oversees they call ‘Affect Our World’. “In this, we make employees the project managers”, the ideas for the projects having come from the employees too, “and we also treat this like any of our other corporate projects. The project manager reports back to us allowing us to monitor effectiveness and impact of all our work”.
“We create the space for these projects to come forward, and we get amazing projects being done through this system - from finding ways to help street-children in Thailand, to working with the Loyac and Injaz youth-achievement groups in Kuwait. Agility employees have mentored over 300 students through Injaz in the last two years”. Other local organisations to have benefitted through support from Agility include KAACH, and Operation Hope. This illustrates the other extreme and the essence of CSR in facilitating ways of giving, not money, but time and expertise to a local community - wherever in the world Agility finds itself.
Mariam earned her stripes the hard way, and seriously knows what she’s talking about when it comes to several matters of the moment.
Having completed her studies in the United States, Mariam became committed to finding a role for herself in regard to poverty alleviation. “I ended up in Indian working with a micro-finance organization which was working with women in rural areas. This involved me being literally out in the field for weeks at a time, no running water, no electricity. Whilst I felt that here I was doing something worthwhile, it was a very humbling experience”.
“I realized that, even though I’d been fortunate enough to have gone to a fancy American University, I still had a lot more to learn. And I still feel the same way today,” Mariam expressed her thoughts clearly in saying “I feel that if you’re at the point where you think you understand, you probably need to go back and look at the facts again”.
Following her two years in India, Mariam spent a further two years working amongst some of Cairo’s poorest. Through her work her aim has never been to provide charity - but instead to provide practical experience and advice on how to create long lasting solutions to enable people and communities to ultimately support themselves.
“In Cairo we started a micro-finance project, initially we were giving 200 loans per year, and by the time we left we were giving 5,000 loans per year. But what fills me with most excitement is that today the project still runs, and to ever greater success, to the extent where they are now giving 32,000 loans per year”.
Mariam is unambiguous on what she feels are basic fundamental rights for everyone, “I think everyone has a right to shelter, to enough food to sustain your body and your mind, a right to drink clean water, and a right to a basic education”. For Mariam, and others who share her drive and passion, development of societies is about freedom. Without these fundamental rights, the individual will never be free.
It is a passion that fills Mariam’s mind outside of the work she does with Agility. The development she most hopes to witness is that of cultural change.
Cultural change is close to her heart at this time in Kuwait too. “My personal passion right now is that of the issues with regard to migrant labour, and the way many of the lower-paid workers are treated here. The way the system is set up in Kuwait invites the abuse of these workers” says Mariam, “especially for domestic workers’.
“We must ensure that the legal system in Kuwait supports the fundamental rights of all workers. It’s not that hard to do, but sadly right now everyone just turns a blind eye to what is going on”.
Together with a group of like minded individuals she has established Beit Al Khadma - a group which will focus specifically on the issues facing domestic workers. “We’ve chosen to support domestic workers because we feel that they are the most vulnerable”. And this is one of the reasons why “They were excluded from the draft labour reform laws that were recently implemented”. It is certainly an inexplicable and rather disturbing omission.
Mariam is aware of the other organizations that already exist in Kuwait that ostensibly work with a similar agenda of support for low paid and domestic workers. However, she feels that individually “they are not moving forward, they are not speaking to each other, they are not cooperating”. In a society as small as this it does seem incomprehensible that there should be so many similar organizations with the same aim yet seemingly not coordinating their work.
Amongst other aims, Mariam and Beit Al Khadma will seek to create a coalition for policy reform. This is their mandate. Legislative change. “Our first idea is to get the agencies together and establish our unified aim. From legislative change I believe we can generate social reform”.
Although a new organization, who would bet against Beit Al Khadma being the one to draw society together and focus on the issues that we all have a responsibility for? Mariam firmly believes that all the best results come through teamwork, and she continues to inspire through her words - be that workplace colleagues, villagers cooperating, or now perhaps to see the hard-working organizations pooling their resources to elicit a change in the attitude of this society towards a large and key group of people within it.
If I were a domestic worker in Kuwait, I’d be very happy to know that Mariam Al-Foudery were on my side and about to make things a little fairer for me.
First published in Men's Passion issue #8