Ramia Marielle El Agamy Khan is part of the second generation of her family business and fulfills the roles of CEO of Orbis Terra Media, a global Content Marketing Agency and award-winning Magazine Publisher based in Switzerland, and host of the podcast: The Family Business Voice and Women in Family Business.
Ramia holds an MSc in International Business and Management from Manchester Business School (UK). Born and raised in Switzerland, Ramia M. El Agamy is of Dutch-Egyptian descent and currently lives between Bern, Switzerland, Dubai, and UAE. She speaks six languages.
She is dedicated to bringing the power of content and technology to individuals and businesses to unlock their growth.
[00:00:00] - Ramia El Agamy
There's two types of family businesses in my experience, they're motivated by two types of things. There's one group of family businesses that's motivated by ensuring a future. They have a stewardship mindset, they're there to serve and to make sure that the next generation is provided for.
[00:00:16] - Ramia El Agamy
Then you have the family businesses whose mindset is all about control. Ownership is control, and keeping it in the family becomes a very negative kind of a thing, because it becomes keeping it in the family at any price, sometimes at the cost of other people.
[00:00:40] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to episode 103 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast that looks at all aspects of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR, and I'm your host, Doug Foulkes. With me is the CEO at WNDYR, Claire Haidar. This episode is our last chance to connect with Co-founder of Orbis Terra Media, a global content marketing agency, Editor in Chief of Tharawat Magazine, and family entrepreneur Ramia El Agamy.
[00:01:09] - Doug Foulkes
In the last two episodes, we've been talking about family businesses. So far, we've discovered what a family business is and that it is the most used business model worldwide, the advantages and disadvantages they face, and the skills and talents needed to navigate a successful multigenerational business today and in the future.
[00:01:29] - Doug Foulkes
In this final session, Ramia gives us some practical examples of the good stuff happening in family businesses around the world. She explains the different motivations family businesses use to grow and develop. For the last time, over to you, Claire.
[00:01:44] - Claire Haidar
Ramia, I'm going to move us into the third segment of the conversation where we specifically look at more of a practical application around your community and what you're building and all the work that you're doing in the background that you shared with us right at the beginning. Can you maybe start us off by sharing specifically about the Women in Family Business publication? Who are you trying to attract to it? If you can lay out that persona for us, and what would they typically find if they join that community?
[00:02:22] - Ramia El Agamy
I think women in family business… Thanks for the question. It's actually a question we probably don't talk about enough as we do these things. It's very cool to be asked. Sometimes you have to rephrase it because it's also changed, because we started this. You have to see Women in Family Business, our magazine, we started 15 years ago next year, and Women in Family Business more than 7 years ago, almost 8 this year.
[00:02:48] - Ramia El Agamy
It's changed as well because what we were trying to do is really to listen to what people needed. I think what came to us was the community we always had, because we find each other and then we stick together, and the content became this bond and this glue between us where we would bond over that content and we would, I guess, open up to each other. I always say, women in family business, the problem is that I will never be able to convey how many interesting conversations are actually happening behind the scenes. It's the endless treasure trove of those private conversations between ourselves that are just incredible.
[00:03:30] - Ramia El Agamy
But what they did do is they evolved our thinking around what the problem actually is, or what our sense of urgency was. We figured out very quickly, my sisters and I, and also the other Co-founders of WIFB, we figured out very quickly that we did not want to have a glass ceiling discussion, because we just don't feel it applies in the same way exactly like it does in the corporate world.
[00:03:55] - Ramia El Agamy
Again, you're born into a family business. It's a set of circumstances that is dealt you. Hand the cards, if you will. We wanted to talk about it differently. What we tried to understand what was actually the problem, and what I realized, Claire—and I don't know if you guys have the same challenge on your podcast and with the content that you create—it proved quite difficult to convince a lot of the women I knew that they actually had something of value to share. It still is more difficult for me to convince women to share their stories and to share their insights than it is men. It's really interesting, isn't it?
[00:04:34] - Ramia El Agamy
Maybe still there is a discrepancy in terms of perceived value, or perceived… Have I arrived? Am I capable of sharing insights? But what it does is it feeds further into this gap between how much content there is from the male perspective versus how much content there is from the female perspective.
[00:04:55] - Ramia El Agamy
I know now I'm going to make a very technical argument, but you're all techies here and you all understand, I think, where I'm coming from, but we are just shifting into a time and age where literally the next generation is using TikTok as a search engine, and everyone else is using the search engines as search engines, like Google, et cetera. I mean, that's all AI and these algorithms that decide what the answer is to the questions that you're researching. I dare you to ask most people whether they go beyond the first search result page of Google or Bing, or whatever they're using, or DuckDuckGo.
[00:05:32] - Ramia El Agamy
I think the reality is that a lot of people don't. If you ask questions and people learn this way, and kids now learn definitions of things and definitions of business, and goodness is this way. Then if you see the content on those first search engine result pages, and you see that most of them are authored by men.
[00:05:50] - Ramia El Agamy
That really started to worry us to be honest with you, where we were like, "Okay, so we're talking diversity, we're talking inclusion, but there's actually a lot of work to do." There's a lot of encouragement that needs to go towards women really feeling that they have something additional to say.
[00:06:09] - Ramia El Agamy
I'll give you an example. One of the big counterarguments I get from a lot of women is that they'll say, "But everyone's already said everything about this topic," and this is really interesting to me because I don't think that there can possibly be enough perspectives, especially on something as important as family businesses, because you can always learn something new and there's ultimately no absolute truth about how you're going to make your family business last into the next generation. The more the better.
[00:06:36] - Ramia El Agamy
But it's proven itself to be challenging to maybe find women who feel that they can contribute. It's becoming better, I'm really happy to say, but I think that's been one of our main motivations, actually, Claire, is to say, "Listen, there is definitely inequality there that we need to start making up," because it's going to become an algorithmic problem in the future, basically, where opinions are going to be shaped, still are going to be shaped mainly by the male perspective.
[00:07:06] - Ramia El Agamy
This is not me attacking men in any way, but again, it's just a historical advantage that we should be aware of, but that does not have to influence future generations as much as it did ours, I think.
[00:07:18] - Doug Foulkes
Ramia, I'm going to continue on the practical side of things, and I'd like you to tell us about a family business that you know of or you've interacted with that you really respect, mainly because of the way that they've handled the future of work within their business. We said we spoke a little bit about that earlier.
[00:07:38] - Ramia El Agamy
Doug, I think asking me to pick one family business is almost like asking people if they have a favorite kid. I hope you don't mind. But in preparation to that question, I think I would love to give you some maybe more generic answers of best practices that I've seen in a few of them, without maybe calling out one of them, because that would be really hard for me, to be honest. Because we know hundreds of them, and all of them do great things in their own way. They try great things in their own way.
[00:08:06] - Doug Foulkes
[00:08:08] - Ramia El Agamy
I think there's various levels of intervention for the future of work for a family business. There's obviously the owners level, so whereas a family, you do things to involve the future owners, the current and future owners into shaping the strategy of the future of the business, shaping the direction of the wealth and investment and shaping that future at the ownership level.
[00:08:33] - Ramia El Agamy
Then you have the level where you talk about really the executives, the active executives, like board of directors that are involved in the business at a very high level, so that director level. Then you have the family members or also the staff that just works inside the family business. As managers or employees, et cetera. On those three levels, there's various different things that families do I feel, that are encouraging and that I think show best practice.
[00:09:01] - Ramia El Agamy
At the ownership level, what I love to see is that I've seen family businesses create whole next generation academies to involve their next gens. They've created incubators, in-house incubators for their next generations to start startups with family capital and stuff like that and really bring in that innovation and live that innovation inside the family business construct.
[00:09:25] - Ramia El Agamy
I thought that was amazing when the family business becomes this lab for the next generation to just try out things and fail, but also just bring the innovation and then integrate it into the family business portfolio, which I think is an amazing way for families to grow as well. I thought that was really interesting that there's families who do that, basically become almost venture capitalists for their next generation, which I think is a very forward thinking way of doing things.
[00:09:53] - Ramia El Agamy
We see that a lot, actually. We see that a lot happening. A lot of family capital goes into venture and a lot of that venture is then taken up by family members. For me, it makes a lot of sense in my view as well to engage the next generation in that way.
[00:10:08] - Ramia El Agamy
At the higher level, at the director level, et cetera, what I have to say, what I've really seen is a lot of families that we've worked with have had such a shift towards building those strategies that are focused on ESG, so much more emphasis on that, that's been so amazing. A lot of work on governance I've seen now that emphasis on how governance is not just this boring thing that tells us all what rules to work by and stuff like that, but it's these constructs that help us all work together better, that help us all protect minorities in the organization, that help us all really make things fair for everybody.
[00:10:46] - Ramia El Agamy
This advocacy for governance that I've seen at that level, I think, has been very impressive and very encouraging. I'll be very honest, I think I don't want to take credit for that, but I do think that the more involvement of women at that level has really pushed that. Because I think, of course, once you have to, if it's been very male-dominated and you suddenly have to include women, there is a totally different type of thinking that comes into it.
[00:11:10] - Ramia El Agamy
I think that opening that up like that has really helped a lot of organizations to thrive and to have these initiatives and really go towards that. Instead of just calling it sustainable because it's multigenerational, to really ask those hard questions about are we really sustainable? Are we really taking care of the climate? Are we really having a social impact? Really being much more vocal about talking about values and setting those values, and letting those values really trickle down into the organization.
[00:11:39] - Ramia El Agamy
In that respect, I come to the third level, which is basically the employee level and the managerial level inside the companies, the people actually working inside the family business. I think I've seen so many different interesting things. I've seen families create open innovation platforms inside their family businesses, and it goes way beyond the suggestion box idea. It would literally be idea competitions, where employees got to compete, got to pitch ideas, got to pitch improvements.
[00:12:07] - Ramia El Agamy
There's a family business in Saudi that has saved millions, they say, they were able to show in a case study, millions of dollars by taking those suggestions for improvements of employees so seriously by running them through that platform and actually implementing the changes and celebrating people for bringing that innovation to the fortnight. Can you imagine how encouraging that is to work in an organization that will recognize your efforts like that and that will encourage you to contribute? I mean, that's hugely encouraging.
[00:12:38] - Ramia El Agamy
I think another thing that we see as well is I've seen family businesses in Scandinavia who are very adamant about more the direction of how they've already had the remote and the hybrid working models way before COVID that they really endorsed that. Health in the workplace, huge topic for a lot of family businesses I've talked to. How to make sure mental health for the employees is at the forefront.
[00:13:02] - Ramia El Agamy
I don't think that any successful family business you ever have to convince of the fact that their people are their key asset. A successful family business will know that and they will act accordingly. You see them talk about mental health, you see them enable paternity leave, maternity leave. I'm not enumerating, of course, the good examples. I'm not saying that's necessarily the norm all over, but there's a lot of good stuff going on actually.
[00:13:27] - Ramia El Agamy
What I like the most is I think this recognition that this next generation as well, they expect a different workplace. Even millennials do as well. I think that a lot of family businesses from feeling threatened by it, from feeling like it was entitlement and stuff like that, I think many of them have understood how, with small adjustments and leaning into a certain culture of openness and inclusiveness and values that they naturally have, and being purpose-driven.
[00:13:57] - Ramia El Agamy
I think they actually are at an advantage in attracting talent, because it's easy to identify with a family business because that purpose is usually there, even if it's not always formulated very clearly. But you can feel a sense of belonging very quickly with those family businesses.
[00:14:13] - Doug Foulkes
Thank you for that. My quick follow-up question on that is, you've handpicked and given us some really incredible examples of when it goes right, but is that the norm? Would you say that family businesses generally are more future-oriented to a lesser or a greater extent than their traditional counterparts?
[00:14:30] - Ramia El Agamy
I'll tell you something, Doug. Because there's no statistics about this, so it's hard to say. But I think what I see is I see, broadly speaking—if I'm going to be very black and white about it—I see there's two types of family businesses in my experience. They're motivated by two types of things.
[00:14:48] - Ramia El Agamy
There's one group of family businesses that's motivated by ensuring a future. They have a stewardship mindset. They're there to serve and to make sure that the next generation is provided for. Then you have the family businesses whose mindset is all about control. You know what I mean? It's all about ownership is control, and keeping it in the family becomes a very negative a thing because it becomes keeping it in the family at any price and sometimes at the cost of other people.
[00:15:19] - Ramia El Agamy
I think that there are definitely very dark examples, I think, of entitlement and of nepotism in that respect. But I think you can quickly tell with a family what they're motivated by. Are they motivated by the future or are they motivated by control? I think when that distinction comes in, it very clearly shows in the culture of the organization.
[00:15:39] - Ramia El Agamy
Family businesses who are future oriented, there's a few that come to mind for me in Switzerland, but also in the UAE recently. These are families that they're almost done thinking about what they can do for themselves within their lifetime like some generations. I'm talking young people, I'm not talking the older generation that's on its way out but even like people in their 40s and stuff like that, they're basically saying, "Yeah, we're doing these things to make sure that our children and their children will still have a business or still have something that they can benefit from."
[00:16:15] - Ramia El Agamy
You can see that. It's not going to benefit them in their lifetime, what they're doing, some of it. That's really interesting. That of course, it takes a certain culture to enable that. But then of course you have a lot of family businesses where it's all about who owns what? Who owns how much? Am I going to get more than my brother or sister? What is my cousin doing here? My father doesn't understand me. Don't get me started on that part.
[00:16:39] - Ramia El Agamy
Then it's all about control. That, it's weird. You'd think that just happens between the family, but you can feel it in the whole organization, because the weird thing is that a family that owns a business is much more visible than they think. I always say their culture, the culture that they have between themselves always seeps through into the day-to-day of the business, whether they are actively involved or not.
[00:17:03] - Ramia El Agamy
It's a different mindset and it's different values. You know this, guys, better than I do, I think. It's all about setting the purpose and the values and living them for people to enjoy their workplace. I think when that's not there, then it can be very toxic, actually.
[00:17:19] - Ramia El Agamy
Let's face it, some of the best movies, series, books are based on family businesses that are super toxic. Let's face it. I always say family businesses are all basically movie scripts waiting to happen. So much drama. So much drama. Yeah, absolutely.
[00:17:39] - Claire Haidar
Too funny, Ramia. You said it. Not me.
[00:17:45] - Claire Haidar
Ramia, we've spoken a lot about these family businesses in relation to how they approach the future of work and general thinking about the future. You've repeatedly said it that they tend to be very future-orientated in their thinking and their planning. In terms of the execution—we've spoken about the thinking piece—I want to specifically hone in on the execution piece. Are they leading or following in this area?
[00:18:16] - Ramia El Agamy
There's just not one answer, Claire, I'm sorry. I can't tell you. It's not a yes or no situation. The one thing that I can tell you is those that do lead in that area tend to be at the head of the pack. Because again, I feel like when family businesses embrace innovation, they usually do so with the type of fervor and the type of commitment and the type of willingness for sacrifice that is unparalleled, usually, I feel.
[00:18:43] - Claire Haidar
Above and beyond, yeah.
[00:18:46] - Ramia El Agamy
Yeah. You're expected to go above and beyond. Don't forget, when you're in a family business, it's like, put your life aside. It's all about that. But I mean, that emotional commitment can lead to them really being excelling when there's willingness for execution. I think deterrence though, can be very strong. Again, depending a little bit on what industry you're in.
[00:19:09] - Ramia El Agamy
We did a special feature on family businesses and craftsmanship. Some of these sixth generation and they have one craft, for example, I don't know, they've created violins for the last 200 years and stuff like that. Of course, it depends a little bit on what field you're in, what industry you're in.
[00:19:26] - Ramia El Agamy
I think that execution towards modernization, innovation, and enabling your employees to live that life that they want to is easier or harder. To be fair, if you have a purely digital product like some of our companies do, then quite frankly, that is easier.
[00:19:45] - Ramia El Agamy
Of course, I need people to come to the workshop to make my violins, or, of course, they have to come in and they have to learn the trade. If you want that to be your business model in the future. I understand that it's not just a matter of mindset. It is actually also a matter of how much does your industry go along with progress. Are you part of an industry that is just destined to disappear, for instance? Is it just not going to be there anymore?
[00:20:14] - Ramia El Agamy
We know that there's a lot of those at the moment, if we're being frank. There's a lot of industries that will not be there anymore in 10, 20 years simply because the use for certain products and services is going out of fashion or is becoming unnecessary.
[00:20:31] - Ramia El Agamy
So what happens to those family businesses? What happens to them? What do you want them to execute on, Claire? That's my big question then, because what if your business is not a business anymore through no fault of your own? Then what are you supposed to innovate towards?
[00:20:49] - Ramia El Agamy
Then I think you're talking more than execution. You're talking more about a total reinvention of what it is that you're going to be doing with your family nest? What are you going to do with this family that has learned to work together and has this legacy? What do you put that towards? I think that's a difficult one. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I'm not sure how many family businesses are going to be able to have that reflection in time, because I think it's a very hard thing to accept that something you've been doing for a long time is not wanted anymore and not needed anymore.
[00:21:22] - Ramia El Agamy
I think that must be one of the hardest things to accept. I remember for us, discontinuing the print edition of the magazine, and that was just after 13 years. It's nothing compared to having a 100-year-old-business and suddenly being told, "No one wants your product anymore."
[00:21:38] - Ramia El Agamy
When you have space for execution, again, family businesses that will execute, I think, will excel and those that won't, again, it's a culture of fear of change maybe and understanding tradition the wrong way. But then I also think the majority, I really don't know what they're supposed to execute on. I really don't know, Claire. We sometimes tell these families just innovate, and I'm like, "Yeah, okay, but how?"
[00:22:05] - Ramia El Agamy
What are they supposed to do if the whole industry is slowly disappearing? To come back to that example, what if no one wants to become a violin builder anymore? Where am I going to get my next generation of craftsmen, for instance? Those are real challenges, for sure.
[00:22:23] - Claire Haidar
Ramia, this has been an amazing conversation. Doug has a few more quick questions focused specifically on you.
[00:22:32] - Ramia El Agamy
[00:22:33] - Doug Foulkes
These are very quick. Can you give me the elevator pitch of your childhood?
[00:22:37] - Ramia El Agamy
We were born and raised in Switzerland as a mix from an Egyptian father and a Dutch mother. Instead of trying to fit in in one place, we decided to fit in everywhere.
[00:22:51] - Doug Foulkes
Next, what societal issue pokes a nerve inside of you?
[00:22:55] - Ramia El Agamy
Tech literacy. I feel tech literacy has not become a universally accessible. I feel we're elitist about technology literacy. I'm talking about everything that is currently enabling and will in future enable our day-to-day life and people do not know how things work.
[00:23:12] - Doug Foulkes
Third question, an author that recently captivated your imagination.
[00:23:19] - Ramia El Agamy
I'm a huge Dickensian, guys. I'm not going to lie, Charles Dickens. I think why he appeals to me so much, and actually, Charles Dickens wrote this really interesting… There's a lovely novel which is called Dombey and Son, which is essentially the demise of a family business by a patriarch focusing so much on having a son that he ignores his daughter. It's very interesting. It's a little known one, actually, from him. It's not the best known, but it's actually one of the best I've ever read.
[00:23:47] - Ramia El Agamy
I think what I love about Dickens in terms of his relevance today is that Dickens really wrote about a lot of social injustice. It was a consequence of a fast-industrializing economy. I feel we're today faced with a similar situation where our globalization has caused similar inequities and inequalities. He was very good at creating… By creating caricatures of people, he was very good at shining light on these things and the unfairness of it all. I think there's a lot to learn from that. I always say, Dickens taught me how to read people. I recognize his characters every day when I meet people, every day.
[00:24:31] - Doug Foulkes
Last question. If you could change anything today, what would it be?
[00:24:36] - Ramia El Agamy
If I could change anything, I would change the thing that will impact and damage to most people, which will currently be the climate situation.
[00:24:46] - Doug Foulkes
[00:24:47] - Ramia El Agamy
Thank you very much.
[00:24:47] - Claire Haidar
Got it. Ramia, thank you so much for being on the show with us today.
[00:24:51] - Ramia El Agamy
Thank you guys for having me. It's wonderful to have been invited.
[00:24:55] - Doug Foulkes
The time has gone very quickly. It's a very interesting conversation. Thank you.
[00:25:00] - Doug Foulkes
That is the end of our 103rd episode and our in-depth look at family businesses with Ramia El Agamy. If you found this podcast of value, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Catch us on Spotify, Google, and Apple podcasts, or, of course, on WNDYR's own website, wndyr.com. From Claire and myself, bye for now.