Working with the marginalised to give heritage a new life: A Lebanese businessrises up to the challenge

19. September 2014, 14:36
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With Beyt by 2b Design, French-Lebanese couple Benedicte de Blavous and her husband Raja Mubarak are playing the CSR card, and it seems to work

His voice is frail and his movements uncertain. Having motor disabilities since childhood, Michel Halajian struggles to move and to articulate. These deficiencies, however, do not prevent him from working. With his hands, this 41-year-old Lebanese produces unique works.

"You see these pieces of scrap iron, these are balcony grilles from a Beirut home from the 1920's! My hands will make them into lamps that will be distributed around the world," he says proudly while adjusting the iron on the anvil to start shaping.

Michel works daily at the Arc en Ciel workshop, a local NGO that employs the disabled, carrying out his mission for Beyt by 2b Design (http://www.2bdesign.biz/), a Lebanese company that turns the remains of architectural elements from destroyed traditional homes into decorative objects.

The project was founded by Benedicte de Blavous and her husband Raja Mubarak, a French-Lebanese couple in their fifties. She used to do humanitarian work and has a passion for art and deco. He comes from the world of multinationals.

Inspired by the charm of Lebanese houses, Benedicte de Blavous had the idea for the social venture, Beyt by 2b Design, when the couple arrived in Lebanon in 1994. "In the aftermath of the Civil War we rejoiced in reconstruction. Unfortunately, nothing was done the proper way. Real estate developers reigned over Beirut and chose to sacrifice precious architectural heritage."

Faced with the rapid urbanisation taking over Beirut, Benedicte de Blavous chose to devote herself to the preservation of Lebanese architectural heritage. She recuperates whatever she can from old abandoned buildings, in ruins or destroyed, to make decorative objects for the home.

In order to pursue their social beliefs, the couple decided to work with the marginalised. Amongst them is 38-year-old housewife Rania. In her Jeitawi workshop, this affable young woman finishes working on what will be a console, with a gesture of certainty.

"I started working here six years ago when my husband had an accident," she says. "He was immobilised for three years and could not work. His company did not pay him any compensation. I had to find a job in order to support the family and pay for medical care. That's when my father, who was working with Arc en Ciel at the time, put me in contact with Benedicte and Raja," she continues.

Rania knew nothing about the work she is currently doing; she learned everything by working alongside Benedicte. "I had worked before my wedding, but nothing that required special training, just a few odd jobs. After six months I was self-sufficient and capable of transforming a balcony grille into a console."

Today her husband has a new job. Rania, however, will not leave her own. "Not only am I helping my family, but I am also involved in reviving our heritage," she says, in explanation of her commitment.

There is no Social without Economy

Beyt by 2b Design is one of 935 companies in the world to be certified as a B Corporation, a coveted title awarded to companies using corporate resources to solve environmental and social problems. It is the first and only "B Corp" company in the Middle East and North Africa (excluding Israel).

Why did Benedicte and her husband decided to start a business rather than anNGO? "Economic viability is a prerequisite for sustainable social impact," explains Raja. "NGOs do not have the economic sustainability that businesses do."

To boost the company’s social influence, the entrepreneur aims to replicate the concept internationally. "Our model is transferable wherever there is an endangered heritage and marginalised peoples," says Benedicte. "After having worked in Syria and Egypt, we can continue to recuperate little bits of heritage from anywhere. Turning to new markets is necessary since all our social action ultimately rests on our sales," adds Raja.

Two years ago, the couple reached a new milestone, investing $250,000 to open a gallery in Boston in the United States. "This is where Laurraine, the latest recruit to Beyt by 2b Design works," says Raja. "After a difficult journey, strewn with drug addiction, prison and the street, the young woman has begun a new life working with fabrics and materials from far corners of the world."

According to Raja, the entrepreneur, this social approach is better appreciated across the Atlantic than in the Middle East. "There, customers are much more sensitive to the concept of corporate social responsibility," he says. The European Commission has defined corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a "concept whereby companies voluntarily integrate environmental, economic and social concerns into their operations and interactions with stakeholders."

The concept is flourishing, but not easily put into practice. "As a social enterprise, our competitiveness is naturally being challenged. Each piece we produce is in direct competition with Chinese standardised products," says Raja.

Furthermore, where traditional companies seek to minimise labor costs, Beyt by 2b Design tends to recruit. "We employ people that no one wants to hire. It takes time, training and funding—the price of social commitment," explains the entrepreneur.

Despite the difficulties, the couple is confident and count on the benefits of long-term profit.

In order to continue recruiting others like Michel, Rania and Laurraine, the entrepreneurial couple bets on a new form of financing—impact investors. These types of investors are on the lookout for projects that have a positive social or environmental impact, like Beyt by 2b Design. Within this framework, "it is less about presenting the investor with the dividend yield of the company and more about showing our commitment to society," explains Raja.

Though there are many projects and challenges ahead, the entrepreneur says that he is on the right track, "I am convinced that a business cannot sustainably survive if it does not address and pursue its civic duty." (Soraya Hamdan, L’Orient-Le Jour, Lebanon)

(The original version of this article was in French.)

  • Having motor disabilities since childhood, Michel Halajian produces unique works for Beyt by 2b Design.
    foto: soraya hamdan

    Having motor disabilities since childhood, Michel Halajian produces unique works for Beyt by 2b Design.

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