When you were 17, what did you want to be?
If I remember well, I wanted to be an ice skater. I’m not at all good at this sport, but I wanted to be an ice skater. And after that I wanted to be a banker. I learned everything about banks. I took pictures of banks, printed them out, and taped them to my wall. I knew everything about the services of banks, the rates, the financial products, etc. I was not a capitalist. It’s absolutely not sexy at all to think about money, and I still hate money, I don’t buy anything. I’m almost anti-capitalist. But at that time, I think I had the intuition that maybe if I was working at a bank, I could control the money and write the money system, and then do something else with it. That’s why I chose the economics option at school, but then I didn’t do that at all at university.
I studied cultural mediation and communication with art history, and it was my best two years of studying, because when you study cultural mediation and the history of art, that is not for your career. Nobody had a career with art history or cultural mediation. It was just for general culture. And that’s why I added communication, because communication was the tool to work with.
My high school was in Morocco, and at 17 years old I went to France for my first year at the university in Lyon. For 2 years, I studied cultural mediation and art history. Then I went to Montreal for one year for an exchange at the University of Montreal. I didn’t want to do the same thing, so when I had the opportunity to choose my option, I said, “I’ll do politics and international relations.”
When I was 17, my only goal was to travel. I always wanted to study abroad, to go outside Morocco, to see what was happening outside. International relations came naturally. And politics is the framework of everything. So I had the thought that I should know more about how things work internationally, so that’s why I applied for this exchange in Montreal.
I spent one year there, and the French system is more difficult than the Canadian one, so I was very good at it, A+ A+ A+. Because I had good marks there, I came back to France and I had my bachelor’s with honors, which allowed me to apply to a better university in Paris, La Sorbonne, in a master’s of Political Science. When you learn theory, in France, and maybe it’s the same in the US, the academics you learn depend on your professor because it’s the result of their research. So in La Sorbonne or in another university you will not learn the same; it’s not just a package you need to learn for the master degree. It’s important for the critical spirit.
So I had my master’s degree in political communication, and at the same time I had studied for a master’s specializing in university research in geography and history. It was the only master’s that integrated these enemies, which was an amazing discovery. It was geography with the dynamics of history and history with the basis of geography.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
During my studies I worked a lot for short-term contracts and internships. Every year I had at least two or three internships. At university, I had between 10 and 15 hours of courses a week, so I really needed to complete my time with practice, especially because the university degree is less qualifying than the business school degree. I knew that I had to fulfill the qualification of my degree with experience. So after 5 years of university, I had almost 5 years of experience, so I could challenge someone from business school.
My first interest was ecology; I worked for Greenpeace in France. I also had an internship in the City Hall of Lyon to work on the United Nations conference on climate change. My mentor was so generous with me. She invited me to all the meetings, even if I didn’t understand everything. This internship allowed me to go to the next international climate change conference, which was held in The Hague in Holland. I was working there for one month as local staff, so it was great. I was speaking English better at that time (laughs).
No, your English amazing! Much better than my French or Arabic.
I also worked three months on a dogsled race with maybe 20 countries [La Grande Odyssée]. It was the second time that kind of race had happened outside Alaska or Canada, in the French and Swiss Alps. It was a huge challenge, and for me as a Moroccan, it was amazing. I learned a lot.
My first question was, how do the mushers communicate with their dogs? Just with their voice. It was forbidden to have any kind of whip; the rules of the race said that you had to just speak with your dogs. So for communication, it was a huge message for me. You don’t need to oppress people. Just be familiar with them, take care of them, be a part of the community with them. It was a very impressive experience. And of course the huge logistics of it - after that experience, I was a master of logistics. I had to organize a press conference in the middle of the mountains; I was frozen, and I had to answer questions. So now for me, events are easy.
I was also the Moroccan international observer for the election in Ukraine, during the spring of 2004. I spent a week in Kiev. And I went to Peru for two or three months to work on an original TV program.
After my graduation, I went to Mali for one year. I was looking for a job in France, and I didn’t find a job easily. So instead of staying and doing nothing, I applied for a job abroad in the cinematography and audiovisual field. I really love Mali. It’s an amazing country, the people are very artistic.
After that, I came back to France to apply for work in Europe again. I thought nobody would hire me with my CV. You need to be stable. You need a master’s degree and an internship in the field of your master’s degree, and then a job. So me, I had a patchwork of everything. Now, I can see the logic, but at that time it was just serendipity of opportunity.
I applied for a job in the political communication field for a public housing program.
I worked there for three years. But I knew exactly what my future would be. I knew that after 2 years I would be the chief of the department of communication, and then after 5 years, the communications director. I was 25 years old, and I didn’t like to see my future like that, so I decided to go to Canada.
My partner had work in Canada, so I quit my job and we went to Montreal. I was looking for a job and it was the first time I had worked freelance. It was very difficult. It was a new country. I was lucky that lots of people knew La Sorbonne, but other than that they did not know anything about my CV. It took time, but it was interesting because it was my first entrepreneurship experience.
I had a side job writing a lot of letters, press files, and press releases in French, or translating from English to French, or writing content for websites. It was not interesting for me but it paid the bills. And because I was freelance, I had the chance to work in a coworking space. I had discovered this world, and from that time my only goal was to create something like that.
After Montreal, we spent a few months in New York. I helped directors present their movies at the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. It was a lot of fun. I did not have the right to work in the US so it was volunteer, but I still work with them now.
After that we decided to come back to Morocco, to our country. That was 6 years ago. And Hassan [my partner], because he’s an engineer, it’s very easy for him to find any kind of employment. But when you are in humanities, it’s always difficult. You have to adapt to the country, to know the history of the country. If you want to work on advertisements, you have to know the stories of the people, the mythology. You need to know the country, the culture, the jokes, the food, everything. Or it doesn’t fit. Engineering is international. It’s math, it’s process. So he found a job here in Morocco very easily. And we founded the coworking space, 7AY. So I worked for my business in communications as well as for the coworking space. And after 5 years, I think it has worked.
Before the coworking space, working in open spaces was not popular. Open spaces are like an aggression for people; they want their private space, and the more important you are, the more private space you have. We didn’t make any market studies before opening 7AY coworking, because if I did so, I would never have opened a coworking space; all the signals were red. We don’t have the tradition of open space, we don’t have the tradition of working together, why will people pay for common space when they can work at home for free? I didn’t pay attention to any of that. I have some small business experience and I also have some intuition, and we just did it. The culture came with the experience. And now, people cannot understand how coworking didn’t exist 10 years ago.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I receive lots of young people here at 7AY, they are 20 years old, and I just tell them the truth. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to study first. You don’t have to have a master’s degree, but you need to be cultivated, to read books, to learn about your field - even if it seems useless - not just run your own company.
Biology was useless to me when I was obliged to study it, but I exported lots of communication concepts from biology, like the communication between cells. Everything is connected. Scientists say they don’t need to read literature. Come on! All the sciences came from literature, because the writer imagines science-fiction things and then it becomes science. Lack of imagination makes bad science.
I was always very happy being creative. I wanted to draw, to travel, to read books, to go to the cinema. But I would say to myself at 16 years old that you need to focus on boring skills. Because when I see now, for example, the accounting for our business, it’s absolutely not sexy at all, but you count everything. Even if you don’t work, you have a home budget. If you don’t have an excel spreadsheet in your head, you just go with your mood, so you have too many expenses or you don’t take enough risks. And now with the business, I’m obliged to know it. You don’t need to be a master in accounting, but you have to understand. Otherwise, you will always be dependent on someone else.
And reading is really important. It’s old-fashioned advice, grandma advice, but really it’s important. Now in the 21st century, if I have advice to give to people, it’s read. Not only on a screen, but on paper because it excites another part of your brain. You can focus, you can imagine, you can write a story, be a character in the story, follow a long story. My advice is to read, and that boring skills are important.