At TOP CEO 2019 in Bahrain, I caught up with Silicon Valley raised Lisa La Bonte, a global entrepreneur, consultant, and technology investor who heads MENA’s 12-year-old Arab Youth Venture Foundation (AYVF).
I interrupted her breakfast which quickly turned cold but nothing could extinguish La Bonte’s burning desire to share her excitement at leading regional youth towards more rewarding frontiers, now that she made Dubai her home again.
“I launched AYVF to support economic diversification, and ultimately, strategically to support economic visions such as UAE 2021 and Saudi Arabia 2030 to add fuel to regional burgeoning Knowledge Economies,” La Bonte told me, the glimmer never leaving her eyes.
“From inception, AYVF’s aimed to support job creation in the MENA starting at the root to boost youth development starting at age 6 via strategic and engaging extracurricular activities. So far our efforts have impacted over 5 million youth, 6-26 years-old among 105 nationalities across 11 nations in the region including GCC, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, plus Afghanistan.”
Funding and fundraising
AYVF was originally funded by La Bonte, she says, “to be agile enough to get things done and for ‘proof of concept’ that is to ready the NGO for financial support from Middle Eastern organizations which typically need to see the idea in action and often have a harder time conceptualizing ideas. I believed that if I funded the venture and could demonstrate through example, then I’d have an easier time of raising external funding. And it worked.”
“I went to thought-leaders in Abu Dhabi and within two months we were fortunate to gain support, largely I believe because we were doing something that hit a nerve and ticked the right boxes,” she says.
La Bonte says AYVF is not a ‘fluffy youth’ organization, but rather a serious, strategic NGO aiming for supporting 20 million jobs regionally by 2020 as part of its 2007 mandate. The seriousness of attaining large-scale and sustainable regional workforce development is evidenced by the companies who’ve backed AYVF programs such as Mubadala, ADNOC, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, to name a few.
Jobs and a fortified future for youth
Who is Lisa La Bonte and how is she going ahead with her ambitious plans?
La Bonte’s calling is tech and venture finance. She’s a born entrepreneur and driven to align strategic business frameworks and worthwhile causes around unique and winning concepts.
La Bonte has worked in 21 nations, calling UAE home for 10 of those years and is a globally recognized advisor at the highest levels dealing with royals, international VIPs, sovereign wealth funds, HNWIs, and Fortune 50 multinational corporations.
But La Bonte also allocates and dedicates time to be hands on with entrepreneurs helping raise funds and develop successful businesses.
Meanwhile, invented in MENA, AYVF has had many firsts –private sector programs not even existing in USA, such as the creation and delivery of integrated space education, training, and outreach across the GCC. Programs, contests, FLL and Mars robotics, public STEM and space festivals in Malls including a portable planetarium and an art/design lab, Model U.N. special briefings, Arabic story/literacy tent and puppet theatre, K-12 teacher space trainings, USA space academies and perhaps most well known, AYVF’s historic long-term internships for Emiratis with NASA in USA.
In late 2009, after two years of negotiations initiated by La Bonte, NASA and AYVF signed an historic International Space Act Agreement (typically reserved for collaboration between NASA and national governments or large educational institutions). The NASA-AYVF Innovative Partnership was the first of its kind and its inaugural program gave UAE engineering students the opportunity to work with U.S. scientists and engineers on ongoing NASA missions, undertaking research at NASA's Ames Research Center in California as a world first. Since 2010, NASA has used the AYVF model for its international internships, further impacting students around the globe.
“AYVF actually introduced STEM in the UAE, if you can imagine, it was an unknown acronym in 2007 and reminded folks of “stem cells” and so our founding Board, we came up with a new acronym, ‘STEAM” as our ‘hook” for extra-curricular education was Astronautics, Aerospace, Aviation, and Astronomy –Space! The idea was that space had the ability to engage kids like nothing else. And so the STEAM acronym for “inspired STEM” was invented in UAE and used in the public domain two or three years before what many widely know from its US bandwagon as STEAM (an “A” for art).
…local why now
“STEM/STEAM skills-building aside, the underlying basis of AYVF since inception has been creativity, confidence and resiliency building (to minimize risk aversion and fear of failure), teamwork and diversity– all of the soft-skills and characteristics that are indicative of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial employees,” La Bonte says. And, this is another concept that is now starting to trend.
Meantime, it’s known that MENA has a huge youth bulge where 65% of youth are under age 25, and unemployment rates in Arabic speaking North African Arab nations are as high as 25%. It’s this joblessness that creates regional risks as there is empirical evidence that links large scale unemployment and idleness with extremism behaviors such as terrorism and populism.
“The combination of hard-skills in STEM coupled with soft-skills build the strength of human infrastructure (or, talent or human capital) and are the proficiencies that bolster work readiness, and ideally company creation, which will then generate jobs in the private sector. My goal from the beginning was to turn the burden of the youth bulge into valuable ‘demographic dividends’, a term we’ve fully embraced in our mission.” says La Bonte.
“We do a lot of extracurricular hands on, minds on, and very practical training so that GCC youth will be able to fill national pipelines for new jobs in local economies trying to diversify into aerospace, aviation, cyber security, AI, loT (‘smart’), and other key sectors,” explains La Bonte.
She adds: “In this region, youth are ahead of many of their global peers when it comes to STEM aptitude and keen intuition (intuition being a critical attribute of successful entrepreneurs) however, our youth seem to have generally lower emotional quotients that other peers. We must develop greater introspective capability, gratitude, empathy, and thicker skin -the ability to better process or let roll of one’s backs – criticism. The ability to let things go and bounce back, in essence, the skill of getting back up, brushing oneself off, and getting on with it after setbacks is what leads to greater chances of business successes.”
(Geo)politics and decisions by government leadership are closely linked to economic performance in the region and so it’s important to find the right balance in an uncertain world,” explained La Bonte. “We must fortify our youth to withstand external assaults of all kinds and including economic volatility.”