Social innovation and sustainable development

Engineer, Mona Itani, believes that we can use innovation to fix the social problems that we are facing.

by Lucia Conti

Mona Itani is a Lebanese engineer, entrepreneurship and business development expert, professor at the American University of Beirut, and a published author on ethics, innovation, entrepreneurship and engineering education. 

She is the founder of Riyada for Social Innovation SAL, an enterprise providing high-quality training to help participants build capacity to develop tech solutions for social problems. This approach and vision align with the universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Itani also co-founded Girls got IT and trained over 3,000 girls in technology and engineering, all over Lebanon.

On July the 16, 2020 she spoke as a role model at UNIDO’s International Online Conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” placed within the framework of the UNIDO project, “Promoting Women’s Empowerment (PWE) for Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development in the MENA Region.”

We might say that you stand at the intersection between technology, social commitment and business …

I graduated as an engineer and started working in the telecommunications sector. After a year spent working between Dubai and Beirut, I did my master in engineering management and it was then that I got to know the business world better.

I took a course about entrepreneurship and was placed in a group with real entrepreneurs. Some of them were Lebanese female role models in the field and they inspired me a lot. I moved another step forward when I started studying the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as a researcher. Eventually, I caught the entrepreneurial bug myself.

Sometimes I felt very conflicted in terms of how I should perceive myself: an engineer, a businesswoman or a professional committed to social good. Only four years ago I connected all the dots when I started my own business.

You definitely have connected the dots because your company, Riyada for Social Innovation, pursues social good as much as profit. 

Exactly, and we think that combining the two factors is not just an ethical choice, but will end up being a very positive business case. If we merely pursue profit, without taking social and global challenges into account, we will only earn short-lived achievements.

Social innovation is putting the social good at the core to move forward, to make a real change in terms of environment, pollution, education, and healthcare. Covid-19 is clearly showing how much innovation is required to overcome crises, but if we just keep a profit mindset we won’t get far.

What’s the vision behind this approach?

I truly believe that we’re all responsible for one another and the planet. We’re all linked, we’ll be all safe or all doomed.

That’s why we need to center our innovation efforts toward solving social problems and pursuing sustainable development goals. I have taught this in the engineering department at the American University of Beirut for 10 years now. I encourage my students to always remember their social responsibility and to go the extra mile to serve humanity by creating innovative solutions to make the world a better place.

When it comes to women’s empowerment, what is the main challenge you think of? 

We have to advance women in tech. I am an engineer and I know that women excel in STEM fields, all over the world. What we have to do is remove the cultural stereotypes about women and technology that still hold female tech entrepreneurs back.

How can we do that? How do you do it, for instance?

In my environment I’m pursuing women’s empowerment in a very indirect and subtle way, mainly working with young people. I don’t create “female-only programs,” because in my opinion this would create a bubble and change nothing.

I want women to work with men, even though I also make sure to always include a certain percentage of women which should never drop below a specific threshold. I just don’t advertise it, it is a communication choice. And I make sure that there is no room for gender discrimination in my programs, this goes without saying. I just create the conditions for boys and girls to explore technology together.

You also founded Girls got IT, which led the way for Lebanese girls in technology, and has supported many people.

We wanted to help as many high school girls in Lebanon as possible. After the first huge success, UNICEF Lebanon provided us with a budget to launch the second and further editions.

We also had the chance to train a group of Syrian refugees. It was not easy because they could only speak Arabic whereas tech subjects are usually taught in English, but we could eventually manage it by offering them tailor-made workshops and the initiative was covered by the New York Times.

Are you in touch with some of those girls?

Many of them have become part of very interesting programs. At the moment, my company is partnering with the United Nations Development Programme for the Youth Leadership Program and several girls from Girls IT are included.

It’s very rewarding to know that we have been able to have those girls develop an interest in innovation and technology. I’m very proud to see how much they are now inclined to think outside of the box and create untraditional solutions. This was the goal beyond Girls got IT. To provide them with a set of skills that might change their lives forever.

You are an ambassador for UN Global Compact Network Lebanon. The UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt socially responsible policies. This sounds a lot like you.

Exactly. Here we’re talking about sustainable and more conscious businesses and private and corporate sectors acting responsibly and caring about society, the planet and the “global goals” in general.

I’ve always shared this vision and appreciated the initiatives of the UN Global Compact Network. Eventually, they asked me to be an ambassador and I’m very committed to spreading this new mindset based on responsible business and innovation.

For instance, I was a training facilitator and a mentor in their latest young social innovators program, which is tailor-made for corporate employees who are part of the network. It was fascinating because we were working within the company, and with young teams of employees developing their social initiatives, aligned with business purposes. I am not a fan of purely philanthropic social responsibility, I believe in connecting business achievements, innovation and social good.

In conclusion, the Global Compact Network is doing a great job in Lebanon and I feel like I definitely belong to the project.

What are the hopes for the future of your company and how will you keep promoting your vision?

As an engineer, I strongly believe that we can use innovation to fix all of the social problems that we are facing and achieve positive and long-lasting progress. This is where I find myself combining all of my areas of interest and my goal is to create a new generation of social innovators and change-makers.

We are addressing global challenges, severe financial crises and a pandemic, and our old mentality is not helping. We have to build a new scenario on new foundations if we want to rise. Therefore, I’d like to grow my social enterprise, and the mindset behind it, to reach as many young people in the world as possible and help them become responsible leaders of the future.

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