Every entrepreneur has their own story! When we heard about Agora and Reem Kassem, we couldn’t wait to learn more about them. That’s why we decided to interview Reem Kassem, the Agora for Arts & Culture Founder.
We started by asking her about her career journey.
How did you begin your entrepreneurship journey?
“I started my professional journey very early, when I was 17 years old. I am a graduate of the German School Deutsche Schule Der Borromerrinnen in Alexandria – Handel’s section, allowing its graduates to work right after school graduation. This was when I joined the Library of Alexandria in 2003.
When I was 8 years old, I used to pass by the library’s construction site and imagine myself working in that historical site which played a crucial role in the history of knowledge and human advancement.
I was always fond of the history of my city Alexandria and fascinated by the vision of its founder Alexander the Great, for the city to become the capital of his Empire (the Greek Empire) and become a city of “World Cultures.” For centuries Alexandria was the hub of knowledge and discoveries. It was a melting pot of the minds of great thinkers. In the year 2007, I participated in the ‘International Biennale of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean’, which took place in Skopje – Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great. The theme of the Biennale was based on ancient mythology. It was titled ‘7 Gates’. To mirror the theme of the Biennale, I submitted a literature piece about the city of Alexandria titled “The City of 7 Cultures”, telling the story of the rise and fall of Alexander’s city and various civilizations that influenced its culture.
In my research, I came across the ancient AGORA (meaning the open space of gathering) and the vital role it played in shaping the city, in addition to the extraordinary female leadership demonstrated by the philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia. Hypatia was a teacher at the ancient Library of Alexandria. I saw many similarities between us. Her constant fight against extremism, her advocacy for tolerance, mutual understanding, and dialogue between people from different backgrounds. I had a dream to revive the ancient AGORA for its essential role in bringing people together, strengthening the sense of belonging and space, and, most importantly, the dialogue and connectivity it facilitated in the society.
My efforts were always diverted towards finding avenues to improve the well-being of the society.” says Reem Kassem.
She continues by discussing the time when she started Agora.
“In 2011, amidst the Egyptian revolution, I founded AGORA for Arts and Culture, with a public space festival in Shalalat Park in Alexandria on 24th February. At a very critical time in the country’s history, I saw an opportunity and had to make quick plans and difficult decisions. The festival was titled “Start with Yourself” and was attended by almost 8 thousand people with the kind support of the Military Council in Egypt. This was the inauguration of AGORA and the beginning of my work on “Arts for social and economic development.”
Following the inauguration, AGORA led a series of festivals in Alexandria’s different public spaces that aimed at facilitating creative community involvement and a program with underprivileged communities on skills development through arts. Both the festival with its new title, “Bab El Bahr” (meaning Sea Gate), and the skills development program are still ongoing till date, where the skills development program has been developed into my Ph.D. research. In my Ph.D., I am investigating how hybrid cultural engagement can help citizens from disadvantaged communities develop resilience and emerge stronger from any kind of crisis.”
Financial Sustainability of the Cultural Sector
While continuing with her answer, Reem further says:
“Throughout this journey in Egypt, I have always been concerned about the sustainability of the Cultural Sector financially. Diversifying the sources of funding for the sector has been at the top of priorities since 2012. By establishing AGORA as a cultural enterprise in Egypt, it was one of the very first for-profit companies to craft a new model in the region. When COVID-19 hit the sector and enforced interruption in operations, cultural institutions and artists worldwide started sharing their creative content online for free. On the one hand, I was thankful that society finally realized the importance of arts and culture to our well-being. Still, on the other hand, I was very concerned about taking a rushed approach to digital transformation.
I saw another opportunity that implied quick decisions. With Eddie Hasweh and Adnan Joubi, we co-founded a virtual venue/theatre and an income-generating platform for the sector, www.basita.live, where content can generate income for artists and institutions. On Basita Live, discoverability is organic and left entirely to the user. Statistics are very detailed and designed in a way that aids the content owner in making informed strategic plans. With Basita Live and with the support of the Drosos Foundation, we are working on developing the managerial skills of performing artists in the MENA region and the technical capacities of theatres in our Basita Fellowship Programme. We have 17 fellows from Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in addition to partners from the same countries who we work with on technical capacity building.”
Access to Culture through AGORA and Basita Live
Reem also discusses Basita Live and its impacts on us.
Reem shares, “In the Basita Live app, we have embedded the “Download” technology that allows content download in case of free events. This feature has been added specifically to allow access to content to underprivileged communities and address the digital divide challenge. Through our app, crafts workshops are facilitated with girls’ care shelters in Alexandria in collaboration with the Rotary Club Alexandria Cosmopolitan. The girls follow the instructions on the app without needing WiFi to create art pieces that help them develop several skills.
In both AGORA and Basita, I try to highlight how creative community involvement, whether physically or virtually, or in a hybrid format, has a tremendous impact on the well-being of our societies and our mental health. We are better human beings when we are creative!”
“What do you believe is the most crucial part of continuing business seamlessly?” We asked Reem.
She believes that “Consistency is key! Entrepreneurs face many challenges, especially when their idea is unique and hasn’t been applied before. Along the way, they might sometimes feel weak or tempted to give up. Being consistent gives strengths, developes trust, and ensures impact achievement.”
“We saw that you are active as a leader in multiple companies. What are your goals through your companies, and how do you plan to help individuals with it?” we asked her, knowing that she manages both Agora and Basita.
She says, “AGORA is all about community engagement through arts and culture and working with underprivileged target groups. We do what no one else does; trying to fill a gap in the society. Through my Ph.D. research, I’m working on policies to ensure that those gaps are filled beyond my work and lifetime. Basta.live is all about financial sustainability for the cultural sector, which complements AGORA’s mission from a different angle.”
She is such a wonderful person that we had a wonderful time interviewing her. She is a truly dedicated and passionate entrepreneur and even describes herself as a lioness.
“Does employees’ energy and enthusiasm have a hand in business success? How do you plan to motivate your team to go the extra mile?” Our next question to Reem.
She states, “I care about the process more than the outcomes. I ensure that my team is enjoying, learning, and being fulfilled through the process. The outcomes are then very positive by default. But my primary focus is the process.”
How would you describe your leadership style?
“I have been identified as an authentic leader! You get what you see, and when I say something, I do it! I have very high work ethics which doesn’t allow any room for nonsense or waste of time. But I must admit that this is a challenge in some cases.”
When we asked Reem, “Did you face any challenges during your career span? If so, how were you able to overcome them?”
She said, “As a female leader, I had to work my way through many societal challenges, especially since I have been doing festivals in public spaces, in complex settings, and with underprivileged communities. But being brave, bold, authentic, and consistent helped me navigate my way to success.
In some phases of your life, you may start over again or leave everything behind and take a new road. That’s fine! In fact, that takes you forward quicker than moving forward in the challenging direction. In my career, I had to do that several times! But I always remained consistent. No matter what road I took, consistency was the common factor. “
Lastly, we asked her, “Would you like to say anything else to our viewers?”
“Although I have faced a lot of challenges in my professional journey. I always managed to do it myself through hard work and commitment and proudly without a Wasta – because I am a genuine hard worker! My dedication made my team and my followers believe in me and trust that whatever I promise, I do! And that is priceless – peoples’ trust!” says Reem Kassem while concluding the interview.
Connect with Reem Kassem on LinkedIn.
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