Amy Mowafi is the Co-Founder and CEO of MO4 Network which is one of the leading creative and media agencies in Egypt. Born and raised in the U.K., Amy moved to Egypt in 2002 and has been living there since then. She began her professional career by joining ‘Enigma’ an Egyptian Lifestyle magazine as a writer and worked her way up to Managing Editor.
“Growing up, I barely spent more than a couple of weeks at a time in Egypt; I was there just to visit family so I didn’t really get to see Egypt for what it really is. Egypt that I experienced when I moved here and started working in a lifestyle magazine was just a whole new world for me, I just loved being here; I loved the energy and the spirit” Amy says.
In 2012, Amy started MO4 with her three brothers, which has grown from a team of four siblings and two developers to over 200 people now, with offices in Cairo and Dubai, and soon in London. Today the agency powers a number of the biggest content platforms in the Middle East – Cairozoom.com, Cairoscene.com, Startupsceneme.com, Scenenoise.com and elfasla.com
Writing has always been Amy’s passion throughout the years; from writing in student publications and magazine columns to publishing two books, of which one became a bestseller ‘Fe-mail: The Trials & Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl’, which mainly discussed being divided between two cultures (Eastern and Western) and how to live with it.
“I was never one of those people who would be good at all these different sports; I was very academic. The one thing that I had an affinity for was telling stories, it was very instinctual” Amy adds.
Tell me more about yourself and how MO4 started?
I graduated from the University of Bath with a BSc. in Business. After I graduated from university, I decided to come to Egypt, I wasn’t planning on staying here for long, I just wanted to explore but I ended up landing a job as a writer at an English lifestyle magazine ‘Enigma’, while doing my masters in media at the American University of Cairo (AUC) at the same time. I worked in ‘Enigma’ for 10 years; I loved what I was doing there.
At some point, my brother Adam had started an online ticketing website called Tazkaraty and was starting to dabble in online media. He was very persistent in encouraging me to join him but I kept refusing because I loved my job at the magazine. I love writing and journalism; it’s my passion, it’s what I do, it’s my career. I’ve put so much time and effort to make a name for myself throughout those 10 years I’ve worked in Enigma. So, I was at a point in my career where I was settled. Then the revolution happened and everything just felt very different. Also, being the managing editor at that magazine, I felt that there was no place for me to grow although the CEO had given me an amazing level of empowerment and power but I thought it was time to make a jump and to make a shift.
I had also gotten married just before the revolution and had came out of experiencing my first pregnancy that ended with a miscarriage, so there were a lot of things shifting and changing. That was the time I decided to take the next step and join my brothers. Back at the time, my husband was working in London and I was pregnant with again, so without him knowing I moved all the furniture out of the apartment and moved into my parent’s house, and we turned the apartment to an office. That was our first office for MO4 and it was just me, my brothers and two developers, we didn’t have a clue how we were going to make this happen or how we are going to survive.
At that time Tazkaraty was just an online ticketing site and Cairoscene.com was just a blog. I started by going out there trying to sell banner advertisements on the website using my client database; I had a very big client base. Then something interesting happened, clients didn’t want to buy advertisements; they were interested in doing what we were doing in social media. We were trying to promote our sites by telling cool stories in social media but we didn’t realize that was the thing clients wanted. We just wanted people to know about the websites and to visit them. This was before fan pages, before Facebook became monetized and even before Instagram. So, this is how it started and that was how this idea of an agency came about, by using our skill sets to create branded content for client and over the years agency grew very organically.
We didn’t do any business plan, we didn’t have investors and we weren’t part of an ecosystem as the startup ecosystem didn’t exist in Egypt at that time, it was pure hustle. I look back and ask myself what were we doing and how did people believe us, just literally a group of crazy kids with so much passion and so much belief in our vision of what digital media and marketing in the digital age should look like. Content and creativity has always been the core of this company, which is what has driven and fueled MO4 all along. It is only in the last couple of years that we started to figure out how to become an organization and to structure ourselves. There are other agencies and organizations that are very good at the business side of things but we see ourselves as storytellers, I myself am a storyteller at heart.
How did you find your passion for writing and storytelling?
It was my mom who kind of figured it out because whenever I went travelling during university and also during the year I spent abroad studying at the University of Texas, I used to always write e-mails. I was just writing normal e-mails to my friends about what I was up to. Then the strangest thing that happened was getting replies from people I didn’t email, so people were forwa
Nothing makes me happier than writing, but being an entrepreneur now and managing a growing business, I’m no longer a storyteller which is always a frustration. I spent the first part of my career focusing on me and wanting to be in the spotlight, making a name for myself and wanting to be known. Now it’s different because I’m in a position where it gives me so much pleasure and excitement to give a platform to other young people to do these things. Now I can honestly say that all the amazing work on our websites isn’t me, I’m just the person that’s screaming and yelling in the background.
Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times.
For me, that would be faith and optimism. There are a lot of really great companies, ideas and talent in the world and I think that the one thing that separates those that make it through and those that don’t is persistence. This means getting up at the most challenging moments and times when you really need a lot of faith. We’ve made a lot of mistakes and we’ve also been unfairly treated at times, and my idea is that as long as our intentions, ideas and desires come from a good place then I really believe that the best will come to us, even if at a certain moment you don’t understand why something is happening or things are not working as they should. Also, I’m a natural optimist; I always believe in a better tomorrow and my dad has always told us, from the very beginning, that you don’t need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, you only need to have enough energy and strength to take one more step forward, I think people underestimate the power of baby steps when that’s really how anyone ever gets anywhere.
What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?
What’s interesting is, and I see this all the time, if men in my office do anything, regardless of how small or big it is, they will make noise, they will ask for a raise or a promotion and they will make sure that everybody knows what they’ve done. While some of the women who are just insanely talented, would work so hard for months and never say anything because I think the problem is women expect to be noticed instead of making themselves noticed, and they’re kind of shy about that. They are very reluctant to step out and show off what they are doing. Women wait to be invited to the table rather than setting it up themselves and inviting others to join. So, I think this is one of the things that hold women back. I would hate to generalize but I see it all the time in my company. We have 15 departments of which 12 are led by women; some of them are very active in showing what they’re doing and the others are quieter in shouting out about what they are doing, so I need to focus and pay more attention to those. Also looking back at my career, I never thought to ask for a raise for 5 years although I really deserved it. Then the first time I asked for a raise I was very embarrassed, emotional and nervous about it when I’m not a shy person to begin with. I really don’t know what it is; I think it might be something inherent.
Tell us one of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?
Genuinely speaking, I would say survival is our greatest accomplishment. As I said we didn’t have any external investment which has put us in great trouble sometimes, especially that we were growing very fast, and our cash flow hasn’t been always able to keep up. There were times when we were unable to pay salaries or rent which had very negative consequences on moral, perception and reputation. Also when we first started, our ideas and the things we were saying we’re planning to do were ridiculed. The first meeting that I ever had in a big FMCG that is our client, people actually laughed when I said they should create video content for social media. So surviving all this, being persistent and just carrying on will always be our biggest accomplishment and it goes back to what I was saying about faith, optimism and insisting on getting things done and fighting for it.
The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?
People know now that if I disappear for a little bit, I am probably crying in the bathroom and I’m not shy about saying this. I know that there are many CEOs and managers who are very careful about the persona they show to the world and within their companies, but we still have the startup mentality of being transparent and open with the team. So I always say to them that I was never a CEO before and I’m figuring this out, so I’m going to make mistakes and I’m going to freak out but trust that I am really trying to do the best for us and for the company. Every day I have fear and it took me a really long time to figure out how to deal with it.
Around three years ago we were facing a really difficult situation and I had an absolute break down. That was when I realized that I haven’t taken a day off or even an evening off for two or three years. So I came to the conclusion that the anxiety and concern for the company will always be there, but I have to learn to switch it off and just push it aside for a while. I’ve had to learn to switch of my phone at least for one day of the weekend, not only for myself but also for my two kids. I had to learn not to feel guilty if I’m taking a day for myself even if I haven’t seen my kids for a week, because if I don’t do this for myself then I won’t be able to survive.
The pressure of coming every morning to the office to 200 people who are looking for you for answers, and expecting you to take care of them and the company, to deal with 160 clients and mange two offices in two countries can be suffocating unless you learn to be very centered and in the moment, which took me a long time to learn, and I’m getting better at it. Also, learning to stop for a moment appreciate the small things and being grateful instead of always running and not paying attention to all the great things that are happening. Perspective is everything; it’s all about your mindset!
What do you believe will be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?
Women are half of the society and I believe they are much better than men; they just get things done, they are more practical, they don’t give excuses and they have less desire for credit just for the sake of it. Now when I look around and see what all the women in my company have done, I wonder how the world is run by men. Also women bring thoughtfulness to the workplace, dedication and a very strong ability to multitask.
Tell us what your greatest personal challenge is, and how you’ve achieved success in spite of it.
That would be the maternal guilt which became the backstory of my life, but I’m very lucky to have an incredible support system whether it’s my mom who’s basically bringing up my kids or my husband being extremely supportive and understanding. So it is the constant questioning of whether what I’m doing is right by my kids or I’m just being really selfish, especially that I constantly travel and sometimes I don’t see them for days.
But I would die if I don’t work. I have tremendous respect and admiration to women who devote everything to their household and children, I think it’s the hardest job in the world but I don’t have that in me, and I would fall apart if that was my life. I love my kids, they are the most amazing thing I’ve ever had but my job is something that I do for myself. The other challenge is that I don’t have a social life because if I do have ten minutes outside the office, then I would so much rather be with my kids that in any social event. I’m working towards being able to delegate and trust more so that I can have more time and it makes me feel so happy when I see that things are happening without me, it means something is working correctly.
What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?
Within the workplace, men who are in management and leadership positions should pay attention to the women, because they will not be the ones coming to you and telling you what they’re doing although they are probably doing amazing things. So pay careful attention to the women and what they’re up to; make time to listen, to find out and to ask the right questions. Also creating flexible working environment that makes sense for women is very important. Women should never be penalized for having kids. A woman that is happy and satisfied in her life will give so much to her work, and if she has kids, it means creating an environment where she has time for them. I believe we should get rid of the traditional ideas of how the workplace should be. Finally it is very important to provide them with the flexibility so that you don’t start losing women in the workforce from early on.
If you could know the answer to only one of the following, which one would you choose, and why?
- What happens after death?
- What is the meaning of life?
I don’t really want to know the answer to either of these questions because half the motivation in life is the sense of possibility. I think knowing what happens after death make it so final. I also think if you know the answer to what is the meaning of life then there’s no point in living anymore, because surely half the fun is the experience and the drive that pushes people to keep going and trying to figure out the meaning of their own life and what they’re going to make out of it. I think it would be kind of a door shut in your face if you just know the answer to that.
Finally, what would you say to young women out there?
I see so many incredible women never exploring or achieving their full potential because they connect personally to the wrong men. Because women, especially in the Middle East, don’t understand that they will never be happy from an outside source, they have to find happiness on their own. So they cut their lives so short by being with men who don’t understand that this is a partnership and everyone is entitled to their full freedom to explore their lives in the way that they see best fits. Nothing has broken my heart more than seeing incredible women who have stopped their careers short, because they are with the wrong men who don’t give them freedom, support , encouragement or make them feel guilty about leaving their kids to pursue a career. So the first step is having absolute control and ownership over your own life and your own decisions. Whatever partnership status you decide in your life, make sure it does not affect having control over your own freedom to choose and figure out what you want and what makes you happy. Also, remember that you can’t share a life that you haven’t even created yet.