Abdellah Aboulharjan gets young French immigrants off the streets and helps turn them into entrepreneurs.
Peter Van Dijk | April 2008 issue
Brahim Branki left his native Algeria as a young man to study urban planning in Paris, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. But after working many jobs in Algeria and France, he found himself unemployed in 2005. His dream was to start his own takeout restaurant, in protest against “la mauvaise bouffe,” the bad fast food he felt was available in France. When he met with a banker, the balding, heavyset Branki was so nervous he could barely speak. His self-confidence had been eroded by his jobless status.
Today, Branki has found his voice—and founded Océane, a bright, simply furnished restaurant in the centre of one of France’s most troubled cities: Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris. “It was a militant idea, a statement against unhealthy meals,” Branki says. The restaurant has been open for a year and is an obvious success. Branki beams as his German wife watches from behind the register, smiling.
Sitting at a table in Océane is the man partly responsible for Branki’s restaurant: Abdellah Aboulharjan, whom Branki met through an entrepreneurial friend. Aboulharjan, together with Aziz Senni, another immigrant businessperson, set up Jeunes Entrepreneurs (“young entrepreneurs”) in 2002 to give young immigrant entrepreneurs a helping hand. “As you can see,” he says, referring to Branki and his bustling restaurant, “working is good for your self-confidence. It gives you respect. Creating your own company is a good way to help shape your life.”
Branki agrees. “Now I’m suddenly treated with respect,” he says. “People in the neighbourhood stop and chat with me.”
Back in the autumn of 2005, the locals in Mantes-la-Jolie were making a different kind of news when two youths died while fleeing the police, and riots broke out in the French banlieue, the grim suburbs surrounding France’s big cities. Some 4.7 million people live here in grey concrete houses. Fifty-six percent are on unemployment benefits. Only one in four people between the ages of 17 and 24 has a high school diploma; one in three is unemployed. Blinded by frustration with the hopelessness of their situation, young immigrants torched thousands of parked cars.
It wasn’t the first outburst of despair, and it wouldn’t be the last. Late last year, fresh riots broke out in Villiers-le-Bel, a half-hour drive north of Paris. Nearly every day now, French papers tell of uprisings near Paris or in the poorer neighbourhoods of cities like Marseille, Dijon, Lyon and Toulouse. Many fear the same unrest could be brewing in cities around Europe.
Through Jeunes Entrepreneurs, Aboulharjan—who, with his light fringe of beard and thin-rimmed glasses, has a rather intellectual look—is trying to provide young people with a more productive outlet for their energy by encouraging entrepreneurship and economic development in the country’s 700 official quartiers sensibles, or problem neighbourhoods.
In the 1960s, many immigrants to France got jobs in the car factories of Peugeot, Citroën and Renault. The Moroccans, who came from Berber villages near the port city of Agadir, settled in the depressing apartment blocks in Val Fouré, a section of Mantes-la-Jolie where youth gangs gathered under plane trees lining dusty squares. The immigrants’ wives and children followed under the family reunification program. Aboulharjan’s father had been working in the Renault factory for 15 years by the time he was able to bring Abdellah, then 9, to France.
“I didn’t speak a word of French,” Aboulharjan remembers. In school, he struggled to keep up, but his parents continued to push him, his three brothers and two sisters to learn, and Aboulharjan got his bac, or high school diploma. He studied communications at the Technical University in Évry, south of Paris, where he learned another way of thinking and working: “We barely knew the Western world; we played and messed around in our own little Moroccan world.”
One of Aboulharjan’s uncles had a greengrocer’s shop, while another had a butcher’s shop. Aboulharjan worked at both and considers those experiences the springboard to his own entrepreneurial spirit. When he wanted to set up telephone shops for immigrants in 1997—during the privatization of the former French telephone monopoly France Télécom—his uncles put up $10,000 in starting capital. The shops became a resounding success. Two years later, Aboulharjan started medinashop.com, an online retailer for handmade Moroccan products, with his own money. He left the telephone business to his brothers, who had meanwhile set up a telephone company as well as a travel agency in Morocco.
His success didn’t go unnoticed. In 2002, Aboulharjan was chosen as one of the first recipients of Talents des Cités, a prize awarded by the Ministry for Urban Development and the Senate to offer moral support to enterprising young immigrants. Winners were lauded with the title “ambassador of success.” Their task was to guide future winners. Aboulharjan took this assignment very seriously; that same year, together with Aziz Senni, he set up Jeunes Entrepreneurs.
He and Senni have been presented with 250 projects in the past six years. Fifty of them were realized: shops, clothing companies, market booths, garages, home delivery services, restaurants, car-rental enterprises and so on. Jeunes Entrepreneurs’ approach is simple. Immigrants visit one of its offices, located in Mantes-la-Jolie, Paris, Gennevilliers and Trappes, armed with a good idea, or even without an idea. Either way, they’re asked numerous questions designed to determine their strengths and needs. If they have the right qualities, a business plan is drawn up and a strategy devised to enable them to realize their goals.
These budding entrepreneurs—many of whom are under 40—are mentored by people who are often of foreign origin themselves and who have their own businesses. These mentors are therefore aware of the problems facing startups, including discrimination. Lawyers and accountants from the network of Jeunes Entrepreneurs provide their services free of charge. The young businesspeople only have to pay once they start to make a profit.
Successful projects mean jobs, and not only for the project founder. Some projects have created work for as many as 30 people. Many of those jobs will go to young former troublemakers. Aboulharjan doesn’t think any of the young people who helped put his organization on the path to business success are hooligans. “Though, of course, it’s not impossible,” he says. “If I was still on the street, I would have joined in. These are ordinary kids, a little cynical maybe, but they’re not criminals. It’s important to help young people in the problem neighbourhoods, like myself at that time, find something meaningful to do, develop themselves, develop self-esteem. Entrepreneurship brings out the best in us—particularly the will to succeed, to have control over your fate, direct your own life.”
Aboulharjan visits neighbourhood schools to spread this message. Studies show that twice as many young people in France’s problem neighbourhoods want to become entrepreneurs compared to the national average. He feels this should be encouraged in a country where—according to a 2006 opinion poll of students—70 percent of young people between ages 13 and 25 would like to be civil servants. In early 2006, students organized mass demonstrations protesting a draft law that would have made it easier for firms to fire as well as hire new personnel under 30. Politicians and the business community believed the new law would create more jobs for young people—but students felt otherwise.
Mayors regularly beseech Aboulharjan to open offices in their suburbs; provincial authorities are prepared to act as guarantors for bank loans; millionaires make huge donations. Aboulharjan worked with a budget of $540,000 in 2007; the number is now up to $870,000. Two-thirds comes from the private sector, the rest from regional authorities.
This year, offices are planned in Lyon, Bordeaux, Lille and Marseille. Aboulharjan has calculated that with 40 branch offices, he can serve all of the 700 problem neighbourhoods in France. In order to fully dedicate himself to the effort, he withdrew from medinashop.com last year and set up a national organization with Senni, Jeunes Entrepreneurs de France.
Meanwhile, he has also become the director of Business Angels des Cités (BAC), a venture capital fund established by Senni and a couple of major French companies. The fund has some 70 investors, including well-known names like Gérard Worms (Banque de Rothschild), Eric Rothschild (Domaines Barons de Rothschild vineyards), Claude Bébéar (AXA insurance) and Gonzague de Blignières (Barclays Bank). Investors must put in a minimum of $70,000 and investments are only made in promising enterprises that allow mentorship.
BAC also wants to invest in Océane, but Branki wants to hold off for now.
BAC is looking for a stake in the company, Branki explains, and wants the money to go toward expansion: several more restaurants and possibly a health food shop. But Branki isn’t interested yet. “I want to focus on what we have for the first 12 to 18 months.”
For Branki, there’s plenty of time to find more fish in Océane—and for Aboulharjan, plenty more entrepreneurs like Branki to help.
Peter van Dijk is the former Paris correspondent for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad.