From London to Lebanon: CA shares her story

Beirut
By Robert Outram, CA Magazine

30 September 2015

A six-week placement with an ambitious IT entrepreneur in Beirut was a great learning experience, EY's Amy Steptoe CA tells Robert Outram.

An assignment in Beirut sounds like the plot line from a 1980s spy thriller, but for CA Amy Steptoe it proved to be an opportunity to work in a new culture, with an entrepreneurial IT business.

Amy, a manager with the EY financial services advisory team, is normally based in London. Her six-week placement in Lebanon came as part of EY's Vantage programme, which puts the skills of EY managers together with businesses in developing countries that have been identified as having the potential to make a real difference in their economies.

The aim of Vantage is "to connect EY's future leaders with market leaders of tomorrow" to accelerate growth and job creation. Over the course of six weeks, working on a pro-bono basis, selected top-performing managers and senior managers work alongside "high-impact" entrepreneurs in emerging markets to help these businesses address their biggest obstacles to growth.

Places on the scheme are allotted by a competitive application process, and candidates do not know at the outset where they might be sent, or to what kind of business. In Amy's case, not only had she never worked in the Middle East before, but her experience lay mostly in financial services, not information technology. 

'A blank sheet of paper'

Her "client" was ElementN, a software and services provider based in Beirut, founded by Lebanese entrepreneur Rabih Nassar. ElementN has customers throughout the US and the Middle East and is one of the companies at the forefront of the Internet of Things cloud technology, providing products and solutions in the region and beyond.

Amy says: "It was an incredible experience. My brief was simply to 'help fix the business' so it was, effectively, a blank sheet of paper."

Beirut 

She had a month and a half to make an impact. One of her priorities was to get the company's financial reporting on a sounder basis. Although ElementN only employs 40-50 people, there were different entities within the group and it was important to ensure that the consolidated group accounts were providing useful and accurate information. Amy also trained the in-house accounting staff and helped to create a "strategic dashboard" for the CEO and management to keep track of important financial data, and measure profitability and performance.

Amy says that her CA training was invaluable on the assignment – financial reporting is not part of her day-to-day role at EY but the accounting element of her CA course proved very relevant.

In fact, she says: "It was just like the TPE [test of professional expertise] case study."

Transforming local economies

The project was part of EY's Vantage collaboration with Endeavor, an international not-for-profit organisation based in the USA but operating across the developing world. In Lebanon, Endeavor supports 25 entrepreneurs in 19 companies and has been operating in the country since 2011.

Montaha Abboud, account manager, entrepreneur services & growth with Endeavor Lebanon, explains: "Endeavor believes in transforming local economies by supporting the select number of outperforming small-to-medium enterprises that have outstanding job and revenue creation. Endeavor is leading the high-impact entrepreneur movement around the world by supporting these high-impact entrepreneurs as a catalyst for change."

Endeavor looks at four criteria:

  • Whether the company is at an "inflection point" (turning point).
  • Whether the entrepreneur is ethical, open to feedback and willing to give back to society, with role-model potential.
  • Whether the business has a sustainable competitive advantage that can maintain long-term growth.
  • Whether the sector is exciting.

Montaha adds that Amy's work on the project "will play a significant role in enhancing the visibility of the company's past and current finances".

'Don't judge a book by its cover'

Endeavor's work in Lebanon not only helps the local economy, but also highlights success stories in a region that is more often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Montaha Abboud says: "High unemployment coupled with a young population has created a thirst for innovation and for creating opportunities where none exists. We are proving that, despite the region's political and economic instability, there are people who persevere against all odds, believing in their country and working tirelessly to make their dreams come true."

Amy says: "Before I went to Lebanon I had preconceptions about the country, and people were telling me to be careful. But I felt very safe; it's the most relaxed, hospitable, amazing country. It was not what I expected. One of the things I have learned is 'don't judge a book by its cover'."

The challenges

There were challenges, of course. For some of the assignment she was dependent on a translator (Arabic and French are the most commonly spoken languages), and the traffic in downtown Beirut is not for the fainthearted. But she believes the city lives up to its reputation as "the Paris of the Middle East".

She says: "Beirut is where the Middle East and the west meet … you can go skiing in the mountains or swim at the beach. And the food, of course, is amazing."

Vantage is one of EY's global corporate social responsibility initiatives, but the programme also benefits the firm and the individuals taking part, testing their mettle and giving them experiences they would never otherwise have had.

Amy Steptoe is now back in financial services and currently working on a project in South Africa. It's an opportunity that, she believes, might not have come her way without having had the chance to prove her ability to work in different cultures and environments.

She says: "The idea is to stretch the individual. It's a value-add for the entrepreneur but also for the person concerned. So they assigned me to something that was outside my current job, and skill set. The idea was to throw me in the deep end … I could not have done it without my CA training."

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