Think of growing up in a warzone. Now think about growing up in three war zones.
Amel Derragui, grew up in India, then Algeria, then Serbia, and then Uganda. Three of those nations faced their most difficult years while she studied, learn more languages, had fun with friends, and survived!
Since then, Amel has lived in France, Austria, and finally the best (but probably not last) New York!
Her company is called BLINKandC, and it has had to fit in her suitcase! But now she’s taking it out.
With BLINKandC, Amel helps small and medium companies to attract customers, interest investors, and communicate like a big organization. B&C guides them to define their value – the essence of their brand. She tells her two compelling stories of how she could help two companies reach the communities of their clients in profound yet simple ways. One story is of a jewelry company in Iran, and the other of a French pharmaceutical company. The stories will give you great ideas for your company. One of her favorite sayings is: “Share more than what you sell “.
In this episode, Amel gives her insights into how to bring people together and what companies can do to connect deeply with customers and their communities, and how to attract people to your enterprise. Her insights are founded in her own unique story of engaging so many cultures and languages. Her understanding of human traits is rooted in her observing people in unguarded circumstances, in so many places.
Amel tells a wonderful story, of how the strife in her Ugandan school yard (in the French Quarter) was getting completely out of hand, and not being addressed by the school’s supervisors. She came up with a business idea, to bring the high school kids together.
Like other guests, she explains how her migrant perspective helps her to embrace and accept new cultures, while maintaining her own identity. How she keeps a routine no matter where she travels, which gives her own life consistency. You’ll learn the Algerian secret sauce, the French secret sauce.
Now she has arrived in New York, she has been carrying her company in a suitcase for some time. As she now joins America, for her newest and biggest challenge to date she is thinking – how to help other wanderers like herself.
Update: Join Amel on her lovely new podcast for spouses of expats: Tandem Nomads!
The only way to keep moving every two years is not to look for a job every two years; is to create a company that you can take with you, yes. So this is what I have in my suitcase; I have my company.
Think of growing up in a warzone. Now, think of growing up in three warzones. Amel Derragui, my guest today, grew up in India, Algeria, Serbia and the Uganda by the time she was 14 years old. 3 of these nations faced their most difficult years while she studied, learned the languages, had fun with friends and survived. I love her story about how the strife in her Ugandan schoolyard in the French quarter was getting completely out of hand and was not being addressed by the school’s supervisors. And she came in at 14 years old with a business idea, which bought all the high school kids together. Her company is called Blink and C and she has helped companies, you’ll hear, here and in multiple countries build strong relationships with their customers and their communities. Her company model is ‘share more than what we sell’; its pretty incredible and it’s founded on the insights that she’s gained by engaging so many cultures and languages. It’s based on her understanding of human traits, rooted on observing people in unguarded circumstances in so many places. I think you’re really going to love this. Let’s go.
[2:03] Welcome, Amel, to The Immigrant Entrepreneur.
[2:06] Thank you, Kent. I really appreciate it. Thank you for giving me this opportunity and I love your podcast.
2:12 Tell us about Blink and C?
[2:14] Blink and C is the company that started when I moved to Iran. What I do today is that I help companies who go through transitions and change to build strong brands. Actually what I realized is that with a lot of companies who go through a transition, a lot of inconsistencies begin with the branding and the way the company communicates with their clients. What I do is that I help build this consistency; actually I kind of act like a brand psychologist and analyze what is the identity of this brand, despite the transition. It’s one of the common patterns and one of those that should be changed in order to reach success and sustainability.
[3:05] Can you talk about a company that you helped?
[3:08] I’ve been working with a pharmaceutical company that suddenly merged with 3 others so that created a huge change of culture. The managers and the CEOs were worried: ‘how are we going to make our employees work together when they always behave as competitors? How are we also going to convince the doctors and our audience that we’re one group now because we’re also considered as competitors?’. What I did is analyze the culture of the company, analyze the common values between each company and analyze what kind of difference this company can make in its community that will help the four companies to be seen as one. I realized, like, ‘what’s the most important thing about pharmaceuticals?’ and at the end of the day we have a tendency to forget that is about lives, it’s about saving people’s lives and making them happier. So I came up with this communication plan that was based on saying that pharmaceuticals are about caring and because of the internal communication issues that merging can create, especially when four companies that were competitors have suddenly to work together and their employees have to work together, we had to create a set of values that was common to all of them. I offered this program where every employee would become an angel of a sick person in a hospital and they would have their own internal tool, like an internal social media where every employee would share their story of a sick person that they’re trying to support. These are the stories and my vision of branding. It’s not always easy to convince companies when they’re focused on numbers but it’s definitely something that I try to do on any venture I start: wonder how can we use in it an issue that we have to solve and make it an opportunity to make a difference. And I believe that in order to keep your customers, you have to create a relationship that’s stronger than the business itself. I think every company can make a difference in this world; we should not rely on laws and governments to make a difference. If I can use my experience and my fashion for branding to convince companies that the budget that they have for their communications can be spent to promote themselves but also make a difference, that will be amazing for me.
[5:55] Can you tell a story of one company you worked with on this?
[5:59] Yes. For example, I started the company in Iran. There are a lot of people in Iran who are good in business; they buy things and they sell them and they make lots of money. It’s just amazing; I think it’s in their blood. One of them was very successful, he started a new venture and he decided to buy jewelries from China and start a chain of fashion jewelry in Iran. He said, ‘can you help me set my branding, develop my branding and my strategy?’. I looked at the jewelries and I was like, ‘oh, my god, what value is it bringing when you look at the competition?’. It didn’t bring anything special; it was just jewelry and not necessarily great quality. I was telling them, ‘I know that you have this budget to spend on your communication; instead of just announcing who you are and making posters of your jewelry, why don’t we make these jewelries just the second part of your business and create your brand on the fact that you want to encourage young designers in Iran to sell their products through your brand?’. So he would sell those jewelries that didn’t bring much value but the core business would suddenly become more about helping the young people in Iran who are very talented to develop their talent and make a living out of that talent.
[7:35] I’d like to return to a memory of your hometown.
[7:40] I actually always have a smile when I still think about my childhood because I guess my parents were trying to protect us to be as far as possible from adult concerns. They decided to take me to my grandmother and grandfather’s city that was much safer. I was living with my grandmother for a year and that were the most beautiful childhood memories I have; with my grandmother because we bonded so strongly. I would always have this image: my grandmother did embroidery and she used to teach young girls in her neighborhood how to do that. There was like this piece of wood that you keep between your legs and insert the fabric in that piece of wood and you would have all those girls in a circle; I just loved that moment. I would just watch them and I remember I was just hoping to become one of those girls, to be able to be taught by my grandmother the skill of embroidery. She realized that and a few weeks later she ordered a small, small piece of wood that was my size to be able to attend those classes with her. That’s one of my nicest memories, I think.
[9:07] This is a small town in Algeria.
[9:09] It used to be a small town, it’s a big town now that’s called Sidi Bel Abbès.
[9:17] Can you talk a little bit more about our experience? Any aspect of you experience in Algeria, during your time there.
[9:24] I wouldn’t say I was traumatized because it would be too strong but I still have, sometimes, flashbacks from that time when the whole country was in turmoil and people were dying everyday, by the dozens. We reached half-a-million of people who died during those ten years we call the ‘black years’. I had this flashback of me like everyday when I would come back from school, put my school bag on the floor and then go to the window and just wait for my father to come back home because I would never know if there would be a bomb on the way or somebody who’d execute him because I knew that fathers were being executed. That’s a flashback that I have. Also, I would always remember when we started hearing bullets and my father would come and he would scream and grab us and put us all in the corridor, in a small corner and we would spend the night there where there were no windows so then no bullets could reach us if a bullet ended up entering the apartment. Those are the flashbacks that I have. But at the same time I think of all the people that really, really got hit by this drama and the people who lost a lot in this drama. Thousands and thousands of people were touched by this drama and still stood up and didn’t give up on life and still kept going. The country is today flourishing compared to before and I think it’s thanks to this mentality of never giving up on life no matter what.
[11:19] There’s so much power there; power that can be harnessed to creating good in entrepreneurial venture or what have you, right?
[11:29] It is. And to go back to one of the topics we had before is, how do I connect all this? I remember that actually what happened to me very regularly is that most of the countries I’ve been in as a kid were countries in difficulties. I started with Algeria when I was around 7 to 10 and then I went to Serbia where there was war. I don’t know if you remember, there was a huge war in Serbia and my parents and I were privileged compared to the Serbians but we had very, very good Serbian friends and we would see how them and even people from the other countries around Serbia, how they would suffer. I remember at that time we couldn’t go shopping for food; the only thing you would find in the stores because of the embargo was oil and flour. Some people just didn’t have any access to food. You really cherish it; we forget in our daily life what it means to be able to go to the supermarket in the corner and be able to buy food. We’re living in such a dependent society where we depend on all this infrastructure and this system; we cannot go and hunt anymore and get tomatoes in our gardens. So there was Serbia, also, that taught me a lot. And then after that I went to Uganda where it was right in the middle of the genocides issues between the Tutsis and the Hutus and I was in a school, in the French school at that time, and a lot of kids that were refugees ended up in that school. The courtyard, where the kids would play during the break, it was like a warzone too; it was crazy because you had kids from every country but also from every ethnic group like Hutus, Tutsis, and thy would just fight. I heard black people insulting white people, I heard white people insulting black people, I heard kids saying to people who were black and white, ‘you are not white, you are not black, you are nothing’. And then you would hear Hutus and Tutsis fighting on their ethnic groups; like, what’s happening here? I was really shocked and this was like the third experience in my life on the road with issues, society issues and human issues at the end of the day. I started really thinking, ‘what can I do here?’. I remember I just couldn’t stand that and I went to the supervisor of the school and said, ‘why don’t you do anything about this? Aren’t we supposed to be here to teach things to people?’. Se was shocked, he said, ‘sorry?’ and I said, ‘no, we have to do something’ and the said, ‘ok, then offer something’. I said, ‘ok, I’ll come back tomorrow and offer something’, I was 14 at that time so, ‘what can I do to make this change because I can stand it anymore’, I thought. ‘What is the thing that makes people come together despite their differences? What can it be? Obviously is not culture, obviously is not race’ I thought. But I realized it might be money; building something that’s profitable. I went to the supervisor and said, ‘listen, we have an issue for lunch, there’s no solution to be able to have lunch in this school, so let’s build our own small kiosk or snack place but it would be the responsibility of the kids to build it and to manage it’. That was an amazing experience because what I did was I tried to find 2 o 3 people that would work with me on this project and ask for the authorization of the supervisor to do it. Then the supervisor assigned a teacher to follow us through this project and the first thing we had to do was to raise money to start building it and second, to create engagement among the kids to do it. I said, ‘how can I do both of them together? How can I raise money to start constructing the kiosk and getting the food and buying all the necessary, and how do I get the kids engaged in this project’. And then I realized that one of the other things that make kids want to be together is having fun and partying so I started organizing events, fundraising events, where again, the kids would have to be involved and each of them had a mission. I remember that one of the most beautiful moments for me and what meant that the project succeeded was when we had bought everything –I had sponsors like Coca-Cola sponsoring my event.
[16:39] Oh, my gosh. This is in Uganda?
[16:41] Yes. That’s actually when I realized I wanted to do branding and marketing communications. It’s when naturally I realized it that with branding you can do a lot of businesses but you can create and make a difference. Coca-Cola joined me in this project and they gave me all the tents, all the tables, they gave all the drinks; they sponsored everything. The biggest DJ of the city came to play. But one thing I think I didn’t want to purchase was the food; I didn’t want to get catering for a purpose that I believe that food is also something that’s common to all human beings. I asked every person to join me and make the sandwiches for the party. So we spent one day where we were all sitting in a row, one would take the bread, butter it, the other would put the tomato, the other one would put the salad, the other one would put the tuna extra and the other one would close it, the other one would cut it, the other one would pack it. It was amazing to see these kids who were fighting on they’re race issues, suddenly work together on this table and pack the food for the party and prepare it together; that was just amazing. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what happens with the kiosk; the victory is already there.
[18:01] Amazing, in Uganda.
[18:03] So, yeah, we raised a lot of money and it was really great.
[18:09] Amel, how did you immigrant experience or perspective helps you to perceive the world different or helps you to perceive opportunity or deal with obstacles?
[18:22] One of the things that I’ve learnt through my experience: a lot of times when we move to another country, another culture is accepting the difference and accepting the change; I think that’s the first step. And never compare it to what we experienced before. That’s something that we as humans tend to do systematically: always compare whatever comes to us to something similar that we know. Accepting the change for me is not comparing anymore, to just take things as they are. Then, the second thing that works very well for me is to build one routine that’s very personal and that would work anywhere that I am. It really helps to build something that’s stable and that can’t be influenced by something that’s outside of me. One of them is for example exercising: no matter where you are, even in your room, you can do some movement, some exercises. Anything that would help you: if it’s reading, great; if it’s singing, great. But one thing that you can build as a routine wherever you go and that’s going to be the common thread to the journey from a place to another and to the journey of change in general.
[19:48] It’s something that you can control.
[19:52] Exactly. It’s important to take control of our lives no matter what happens around us and it can be with very little things. The mind is magical and it’s amazing what you can do with it. It’s like a muscle; you have to exercise it. And the attitude is also like a muscle: you have to exercise it to get it in shape and keep it always positive.
[20:15] you just reminded me of something. No matter where I am, if I get stressed out by some situation, what I try to do that I guess is a routine is to pay attention to details, to really zoom in like a microscope.
[20:33] It reminds me also of a study that says that the more people experience awes, like being mesmerized, the more compassionate and generous and adaptable they become; and it’s true, actually, this is a great thing. Also, when people migrate somewhere, I think it’s also important to keep our 5 senses open to be able to experience the amazing things of each place we are in; that really helps to bond with the new culture and with the new place. That’s why I always say it’s important to not compare but just to embrace the change and embrace everything that’s around us and see it in the most beautiful way we can because that’s what’s going to help us not only succeed for ourselves but also integrate with the people around us. That comes also with compassion and generosity and understanding.
[21:39] What is your Algerian secret sauce?
[21:44] The Algerian secret sauce. I told you how the Algerian people went through very, very challenging times and I think that what made them survive and still succeed and be able to day to stand up is their sense of humor. Even in the worst times they kept making jokes. I mean, we were in a warzone and people still managed to create jokes and would go around the towns. Humor is one of the big signs of hope, I think. And being problem solvers, no matter what. It can be short-term or long-term but they always find solution to every problem; it doesn’t matter how.
[22:33] How about a French secret sauce? Do you have one?
[22:38] The French secret sauce is being very analytical.
[22:45] Is that right?
[22:47] That’s something that I think, sometimes, is too much on my side, I took to much out of it; I can be very, very analytical. But at the end of the day it helps me a lot because it’s very important to be analytical when we have to face with change and to understand it. Being analytical is also understanding what’s happening and trying to draw conclusions about how to face it and what action to take.
[23:15] Fantastic. You’ve seen entrepreneurs in many countries and you yourself are an entrepreneur. What is the character of an entrepreneur? A distinguishing characteristic?
[23:28] My first idea of entrepreneur was always, ‘an entrepreneur is this smart person that can make things move fast’. But I think an entrepreneur is mostly somebody who doesn’t fear risks. This is very important because if we don’t take risks then there’s nothing that can happen. We don’t have to have 500 employees to become an entrepreneur; we just have to have the ability to take the risk to make changes in our community our environment and to build something, to create something.
[24:03] So, while you were building your company in Iran, you met your husband there.
[24:08] And a year later we got married. I had to quit my job and follow him. He has a job that takes him from a country to another on a regular basis so in the last 5 years we’ve been in 3 countries so far.
[24:23] Your husband is Austrian but you met him in Iran?
[24:25] Exactly. We always say, ‘it’s an Algerian in India, living in France meeting with an Austrian in Iran in a Turkish party.
[24:35] So, as an immigrant, you decided not to pursue another job but to create your own company. Why was that?
[24:46] Very naturally, I think, the option of setting up a company came up because the only way to keep moving every 2 years is not to look for a job every 2 years, is to create a company that you can take with you. So this is what I have in my suitcase; I have my company. And this company changes with me also; that’s the interesting part where a lot of things have changed since I just arrived in New York regarding this topic. But Blink and C is a consulting company helping brands actually define what are their core values and how to make sure that your values are shared with the audience and with the people who work with you. I always say that for me, the most important thing is to realize that we’re sharing more than what we’re selling with our clients.
[25:45] One of the things you teach to your customers or your clients is how to attract more customers. Can you give me advice here as an illustration, how do I attract more listeners?
[25:59] In terms of marketing communications, it really depends in every situation. I don’t think there’s one answer. But one of the common things between all projects when it’s about attracting people, and I go back to the fundamentals that I believe in, is having a strong message. If you don’t know what’s your message, how can you attract people? You have to have something to be attractive for. Building a strong message and knowing exactly what’s your purpose and what are the values that you share with the people you want to attract, that’s for me the most important thing to do. After, how do you implement your marketing communications strategy, that’s actually secondary; it’s very important but it doesn’t work if you don’t know what’s your DNA and what are the values that you want to share.
[26:55] Amel, what did you learn from your parents?
[26:57] What I’m amazed with my parents is despite all the challenges that they’ve been through they always stay positive and generous. I’m always amazed how they have no problem helping other people whenever they can. Being meeting with a young person who’s looking for a job that would use their natural gift possible, being an association helping them, my mother would always try to get involved in good causes. So, generosity, values and obviously hard work.
[27:34] If somebody wants to get a hold of you, Amel, what is the best way to do so?
27:39 The best way to contact me would be by email and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[27:59] Wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on The Immigrant Entrepreneur.
[28:02] Thank you, Kent. I really appreciate it and it’s been a really, really great and interesting journey to do this with you.
[28:09] Thank you so much, Amel.
[28:10] Thank you.