Changemakers: Bader Nasser Al Kharafi

Middle East business leader who advocates for sustainable change – and the value of purpose in every human interaction

By Aine Doris 15 May 2019

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I know I am one of the most privileged people in the world,” says Bader Nasser Al Kharafi, CEO of Kuwait’s Zain Group.

“It would be such a mistake not to use my position to make a contribution. Like most people, I want to make changes that have a really positive, lasting impact – even if they are just small steps in the right direction.”

Al Kharafi EMBADS2016 has played a significant role in leading the charge on positive empowerment and sustainable change in the Middle East for more than a decade. Still only 40, he has enjoyed a career as diverse as it is distinguished, cutting his teeth in engineering roles with Kuwait Petroleum Corporation before going on to board-level positions with Gulf Bank, Bahrain Steel’s Foulath Holdings, Coutts and Coca-Cola, among others. Most recently he lead a consortium in a winning bid in the first privatisation of its kind in the region, buying 44% of the Kuwait Boursa (stock exchange).

In 2011 he joined the board of Zain Group, a leading, multinational mobile voice and data services operator. In 2017, 15 years into his career and a year after completing his Executive MBA at London Business School, he took over as Group CEO and Vice Chairman. He believes passionately that every leader should cultivate emotional intelligence: “Leadership is a team game. The leader’s role is to share the vision and empower all those working towards it. Every member of a team must be equally invested towards a common goal. They need to feel able to bring their particular strengths to that process and know those strengths are recognised and valued.”

‘You can’t have growth in productivity in any society or economy without supporting the role of women...I believe it’s time for serious reforms’

Ranked the region’s most influential personality by Arabian Business magazine, Al Kharafi is a vocal advocate for Kuwait’s youth: “The work we do with youth, witnessing their growth, is a very rewarding aspect which we take very seriously. We are trying to lead by example by investing in the next generation. Their prosperity will pave the way for a brighter future for us all.” 

He has spoken out about the need to drive creativity and redress the gender balance in the Kuwaiti workforce and beyond – issues that he sees as obstacles to the advancement of Kuwait and the wider Middle East: “We are facing the fourth industrial revolution, a major shift that not only has profound implications for our economic systems but for every aspect of our society – education in particular. Once-essential skills are slowly becoming obsolete; business structures are quickly becoming outdated. The most sought-after degrees are changing. Companies are looking for new skills, aptitudes and qualifications.”

The education system is not keeping pace with this change, he argues. Youth unemployment in Kuwait was 14.75% in 2018, according to the World Bank; slightly higher than the global average of 13.23%. Al Kharafi says: “At Zain, we’ve looked at shocking data that shows how the largest corporations today are generating significantly higher revenues with only a fraction of the number of employees. I believe educators and leaders have a duty, more than ever, to empower young people with new skillsets and help create more jobs.”

In 2016, he oversaw the launch of Zain’s Generation Z programme, a youth empowerment initiative aimed at supporting the career development of young and enterprising Kuwaitis while stimulating a start-up mindset in the company’s own workforce. The Zainiac platform is an internal community for ‘Zainers’ to share and collaborate on new ideas and solutions.

“People often perceive a company that seems successful to be operating without any turbulence,” he says. “But any business leader can attest that their daily job is problem-solving. Problems arise continuously and are fundamental to progress.”

Zainiac was initially a far-sighted solution to a problem. “The ecosystem for all telecoms companies has changed in recent years,” Al Kharafi explains. “We embraced the need to pivot early on as the industry was being disrupted. We took the opportunity to re-identify ourselves for what the market demanded. Zain became a digital services company primed for digital transformation.”

The process demanded streamlining and cost reductions, as well as the need to focus on having a team with specific skills that matched the new vision. “The economies we operate in are in desperate need of job creation. The private sector needed nourishment; we needed more entrepreneurs.”

“Wanting to keep the staff within our family and to maintain a positive environment, we came up with the idea that, rather than letting go of talented staff, we would empower them instead. We began acknowledging and nourishing their great ideas by partnering with them, giving them the opportunity to see their idea to fruition.”

Zain created an internal process giving staff the chance to present their ideas; the most feasible were invested in. The initiative has exceeded its brief:

“The benefits are manifold. Our staff feel motivated, encouraged to break their routine and collaborate creatively with others. Not only that, we have seen a few of these start-ups within Zain opening up multiple new revenue streams.”

It is, adds Al Kharafi, a win-win situation: “Zainiac has revealed a pool of unique potential entrepreneurs and I’m looking forward to seeing their contributions across many industries.”

“At a time when cultivating innovation and ideas is of the utmost necessity, we need to inspire our employees to bring their best selves to the business.”

Gender diversity is another issue he feels passionate about. In 2017, he launched the Zain Women Empowerment Network, a 12-month plan that supports the intake of female employees and their advancement, while championing women entrepreneurs.

“You can’t have growth in productivity in any society or economy without supporting the role of women,” he insists. “Our region in particular is lagging behind in this sense and I believe it’s time for serious reforms.” Under Al Kharafi’s stewardship, Zain was the first Kuwaiti company to sign the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles and the company has seen an increase of 83% in female executives since the programme’s launch. 

“Zain has always been a catalyst for change in the region, where its dedicated diversity programmes and clear ambitions have become a part of the culture and I feel particularly proud of that,” he says. 

“We’re also looking at new policies for paid parental leave and flexible schedules for mothers of young children as part of our drive towards a minimum 25% female representation at our leadership level.”

This is not only a question of doing the right thing; because gender diversity impacts positively on the bottom line, “that also makes it the smart thing to do.”

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Beyond this, he believes that employee wellbeing should be a corporate concern: “Corporations need to nurture their employees. At a time when cultivating innovation and ideas is of the utmost necessity, we need to inspire our employees to bring their best selves to the business.”

He credits his parents with instilling good values in him: “I strive to pass these values down to my children. I take great pride in the work I do and in the commitment of my team, who work tirelessly to achieve the goals of our initiatives. I am also blessed to have a wonderful partner who has been a pillar in my personal and professional life.”

He hopes that initiatives such as Generation Z, Zainiac and the Women Empowerment Network will have a domino effect and inspire other organisations to experiment with similar initiatives by showcasing the benefits of purpose in paving the way to a brighter future. 

“Purpose is a great motivator in the workforce,” he says. “It is a basic human need. Many people imagine it is about having a specific mission to fulfil, but I see it as about valuing whatever we have been given. 

“I truly believe that purpose is immensely powerful. It gives us meaning, it drives us and we get an enormous sense of pleasure and wellbeing when we see our actions positively affecting others. So, every meeting, goal, initiative and task should be done with purpose. It’s a commitment to developing ourselves, those we meet and everything we do.”

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