It’s one of the last hot days in September in Tunis. At 2 p.m., with the heat at its top, I will meet Hanna Ben Ali, a young Tunisian Consultant specialised in social business. Hanna asked me to meet her at the terrace of the Intercontinental hotel in downtown Tunis, just next to Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Named after the first President of the Republic of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba Avenue is one of the capital’s emblematic streets and the historical, political and economic heart of Tunisia.
Hanna was the first person I wanted to interview within this new interview project, so I felt a bit nervous about how it would be. When I saw her arriving with two big bags in her hands and a big smile on her face, I knew everything would work out well. Hanna is a very sympathetic and dynamic young Tunisian woman. With her open attitude and her genuine interest in human beings, she makes you feel at ease right away.
Discover Hanna's story
Part 1 Each person in unique – Hanna’s way into the world of social business
Hanna’s way into the world of social business
Before working as an independent consultant offering training and coaching to social and ‘traditional’ entrepreneurs, Hanna studied workplace psychology. She started her professional career in the Human Resources department of a local microfinance institution. “At that time, I discovered entrepreneurship, micro-entrepreneurship, and the life of entrepreneurs. I really enjoyed it and I thought ‘maybe that’s what I’m really looking for.’” She just might be right. Entrepreneurship is one of her guiding themes, but Hanna is also very engaged in topics linked to local democracy, participatory democracy, decentralization, and local governance. Post-revolution Tunisia needs her.
Hanna discovered the concept of social business when she started to work with the ‘Tunisian Laboratory for Social Economy and Solidarity’. “I really appreciated the approach of combining entrepreneurship and solidarity. Since then, I have not stopped working on it”, she says.
In the beginning, she admits, she didn’t know what ‘social business’ was and what it means. In her mind, it was a luxury product that ‘normal’ people sell to people that are better off (just think of organic food). With time and experience and while collaborating with social entrepreneurs, she understood that creating a social business is a kind of a life project. “You have to sincerely believe in your project and the values behind it. One can die of hunger working as a social entrepreneur.”
Social businesses are at the service of local communities
Hanna underlines that there is no clear definition of what social and solidarity entrepreneurship actually is. “What I discovered in this field is the human and the social aspect and the responsibility. I refused to work as a pure HR, workplace psychologist or administrator. I do not manufacture 15.000 chairs just to make them, but I make them because it’s good for society, because I know that I have employed 15.000 people.”
“As a consultant in social business, what is interesting for me is how to guide each idea, each person, each product, each source of product and each quality. In my opinion, a social and solidarity company is at the service of the community and the locality.” She underlines, “for me, this territorial and local approach is very important so as to know the real value of a local product”.
About self-doubts and the importance of self-confidence
When I asked her about the challenges she has been encountering along her way and how she has overcome them, she leans back and thinks for a while. Then she answers, “in fact, I also consider myself an entrepreneur that needs to develop his or her skills. As a consultant, for example, it is not easy to find markets and projects. I know what an entrepreneur can live and feel in his daily life. The real challenge is to gain self-confidence every day because every day you will fall and every day you will need to get up on your feet again. At some point, you say to yourself ‘am I good enough?’, ‘maybe I’m not the right person for this project?’ or ‘maybe I should do something else?’. So you ask yourself existential questions. I think that the real challenge is to be sure to succeed in this project.” To underline this, she continues saying, “on an intrapersonal and interpersonal it’s important to be a fighter and an activist for one’s own projects”.
Networking is key
Is there any other trick, I ask and she says, “I think it’s very important that there is a network, people that believe in the project and that want to join in on it. It’s important to find people to collaborate with, but also people whom you can count and who can motivate or help you to find, for example, a market or a product you are looking for.”
She adds with a smile, “among the trainings I propose to entrepreneurs, I have a ‘Networking’ class. Networking is not only about how to develop a professional network but also how to use it for your career, service or project. You have to be confident and have to have a network that promotes that trust. It’s like a stepping stone or something I can count on when I have nothing. Also, people who are more experienced than me can give me advice. I will save time and I will overcome difficulties more easily.”
Every day has its own story, there is no typical workday
Being curious by nature, I wanted to know more about a typical day for her as a consultant. “Every day has its own story because every day I meet a new person or I participate in a new project. Each day, I discover and I learn a lot. Every day also has a unique story because you live and share the story of each person you accompany or train. There is no routine. What I like as a consultant is that I can work on several projects at the same time, so I am in different places and meet different and interesting people each day”.
My future lies in social innovation
Where does a young woman see herself in 5, 10 or 15 years? Hanna affirms, “I want to continue on the same path, especially since I want to work in social innovation. When we talk about social innovation, we talk about democracy, the local education system community, the university, and research. It tempts me a lot because the human being is at the center of social innovation, and it’s also about the human aspect, the human brain and about human ideas.”
Fear is like a motor that allows you to renew yourself every day
When asked if she has hopes or fears, she immediately responds “yes, certainly there are fears because you simply cannot control everything. Fear is like a motor that allows you to renew yourself every day. I don’t speak about a disabling fear that inhibits you, but a fear that motivates you, a stimulus. Like if you don’t do it, it means you will fail, so I say to myself ‘No! Ok, I will do it!’”
Each person is unique
Everyone has a philosophy of life and I feel Hanna’s philosophy is especially close to mine. After taking a sip of her coffee, which by this time must already be cold, she responds, “since my childhood, I decided to live on a basis of experience and learning. It worked very well, because you discover the environment and the others, and you discover yourself. I have some convictions and principles. Especially, I believe that each person is unique. This helps me a lot to accept people and to listen to them as well as to myself. If I consider that you are the same, I won’t lose my time to get to know you.”
Hanna continues her explanation. “Each person is unique. Each person has his or her own story. Each person has her experience, her sufferings, her fears, her motives. This helps me a lot to understand and to ask questions, especially since I am working with human beings and not with machines.”
“I’m lucky to have traveled a lot and to meet a lot of different people. I have a very interesting network with very interesting people in it. They are very smart too. These people inspired me”, and she adds, “maybe I also inspired other people.”
What guides me is to imagine what I can achieve
Hanna takes a deep breath and continues, “before I worried a lot about controlling my life, but I understood that reality is different. The labor market is different, society is completely different from what I thought. So I said to myself that it is necessary to open oneself to other people and the world. One has to open to what exists, especially to what I myself can offer and what I can achieve in life. What guides me is to imagine what I can achieve. I want that this is a good thing for others, it’s not war or hate.”
Accept that we are all completely different and be patient
What advice would she give to others, I ask. “You have to consider and accept that we are completely different. We can never know how much we are different. If we accept this reality, and if we try to understand what the other thinks, we can exceed a lot of conflicts. If you work with humans or in the social sector, you need to be very tolerant and very patient. In the beginning, I had a lot of difficulties with being patient, because I am the kind of person that wants everything right now. To develop this ability, I decided to work on myself. It was difficult, but it saved me a lot of energy that I could invest in more important things.” She smiles and adds, “if we really want to succeed, we must be patient and accept the difference, and more than this, we have to love it.”
Part 2 How is it to live in… ? – Hanna’s vision on Tunisia
Tunisia needs more cultural and political change
When answering the question about life in Tunisia and the challenges the country faces, I see some hesitation in her eyes. Hanna then says “I like living in Tunisia, it’s nice, but, for example, there is not enough cultural life in Tunisia. It’s not every day that you can go somewhere to see an interesting film, concert or theatre play. We don’t have this, but we are working on it. It takes time to change a culture.”
She adds “I also would like to see more change in regards to the political process. After the revolution, a lot of things changed positively. Young people have taken a more prominent position in society, but it’s still very little. People in Tunisia are politically speaking not active enough. We are in the process of decentralization and will soon have municipal elections. Nevertheless, we do not really know when exactly, and in my opinion, it’s not sufficient. I feel that there is no political will to do and advance things, and to finally assume the principle of the revolution. I do not have too much confidence in the government right now and I do not feel that it represents me.”
Hanna continues saying, “I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on a social and economic level. There are also issues regarding the health and education system. Today, public schools are the second choice for parents that prefer private schools. We all know that the system has become really precarious. The children are bombarded by exercises, school bags that are too heavy and empty heads .. I think I was part of the generation who benefited from an education system that was not so bad.” When she said this, I thought it’s the same everywhere, unfortunately.
Tunisia made huge progress with freedom of expression
When it comes to the opportunities, Hanna is more optimistic. “Tunisia has long been very open to the world. Especially after the revolution, many foreigners have come to Tunisia, and I feel that the minds of the people are more open and the prospects for society are a whole lot better. We have made huge progress with freedom of expression and the role of civil society. Today, we can speak, we can express ourselves, we can write, we can dance and many other things.”
Hanna looks at me and says, “I have never met a person like you, who comes to Tunisia to do interviews on social and solidarity entrepreneurship. Today, we are here together, we talk, and I think it’s very interesting and important.” I agree without hesitation.
Part 3 What’s the Mediterranean for you? – Hanna’s message for the Mediterranean
What’s the Mediterranean for you?
“I haven’t visited many Mediterranean countries, but in my mind, the Mediterranean is linked through the very special marine life, the food, and also the nature of people. The people of the Mediterranean really like to express themselves very emotionally and I think that the majority of people also love life, as well as the sun that offers its energy. Of course, also, the family is very important!”
Hanna’s message for the Mediterranean
“I think that the debate on the Mediterranean is kind of reserved and not very much shared. We hear about Europe and Africa and we talk about African-European programs, but we don’t use the adjective ‘Mediterranean’ a lot. It is not valued. That’s why I value your initiative a lot.
It is important to exchange experiences. It’s clear that we are different, but well, for example, for a craftsman, it will be easier to sell his product in the Mediterranean. We are really close to each other as countries and traveling are very easy. It’s very important to exchange our experiences because we have a lot to learn from each other and to share together. I think it’s beneficial for geographic and cultural proximity. That’s why I said that I value your initiative. It encourages other young people to work and realize their ideas. I would perhaps make an initiative like this, not the same, but an idea that will bring together the Mediterranean.”
Part 4 Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Hanna’s insider travel tips for Tunisia
Places to go
“I always recommend the Medina of Tunis and I think we have to live there. My favorite places in Tunisia are Tozeur, Kerkennah, but also Bizerte where you have the mountains and very pretty beaches. Then, there is also the city of Chenini Nahal in the Gabès Governorate. It’s an Amazigh city that is built in the mountains, that’s very rare to see.”
“I love the Cinematographic Days of Carthage (JCC). It’s a cultural event with a lot of film projections and a film competition. This five-day festival is very affordable, especially for young people. I also love the jazz festivals in Carthage and Tabarka.”
Part 5 Discover new books, films and music groups – Hanna’s cultural recommendations
Authors & Books
“I like Rumi, a Sufi author, who has worked on the “40 Rules of Love”, it motivates me a lot.”
“I listen to all types of music, but mainly to classical and symphonic music. I also like listening to jazz, blues and spiritual music (for example “secret spirit”). Tunisian music is also great, especially Hedi Jouini.”
“I don’t watch many movies, but two films that I like are “The Perfume” and “Into the Wild”. The last one is about a philosophy of life which I adore.”