When Randa Bessiso, Founding Director of The University of Manchester Middle East Centre, first took the call asking her to set up the program, she was getting ready to leave the sector. Over a decade later and under her management the institute is one of the region’s leading executive education centers.
There can’t be many people in the world who can say they started a university sat at their own kitchen table, but Randa Bessiso is not like most people. “I was the founding member, the office boy, the driver, the cleaner—I literally had a couple of hundred students before I even had an office and someone to pick up the phone,” she tells me as we bask in sunlight on the terrace attached to her now-buzzing Dubai workplace.
Bessiso has spent the last 12 years pouring her contagious energy into building the Middle Eastern arm of The University of Manchester into one of the region’s most prestigious MBA programs. In 2006, Manchester Business School opened its Middle East center—its third international center at the time—with 20 students representing 14 nationalities. By its second year it had 300 students. Today it has helped over 2,200 students from over 100 nationalities, and that’s just for the part-time MBA. Look ahead and the numbers are set to grow.
Last year the school announced that it was to officially become The University of Manchester Middle East Centre. Far from being just a name-change, the executive education on offer was also to expand. Whereas before only courses from the business school were being offered, now courses on healthcare, leadership, engineering liability and asset management are also available, with more courses planned for the future. The multinational institute wants to become one of the world’s top 20 universities by 2020 (it currently hovers around the 40 mark), and transnational education is a vital part of that agenda.
While achieving this feat, Bessiso has found herself on Forbes Middle East’s list of the Top 100 Arab Businesswomen no less than three times. An impressive and surprising accolade for someone who spent her own student days dreaming of a career on the stage. “It chose me, I didn’t choose education. I was very artistic and dreamy. I wanted to be a movie director and tell stories,” Bessiso laughs.
Born the youngest of four children to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, Bessiso grew up in Kuwait, where she eventually put her dreams of fame aside in favor of a more serious vocation. Inspired by her father, who spotted and encouraged her nascent leadership qualities from childhood, she studied business at college and after graduation started her career in a small learning and development consultancy. By her early twenties Bessiso had been promoted to general manager and was delivering training in universities and local companies across Kuwait.
By 2000, Bessiso’s sense of adventure was kicking in. At that time, she was making regular weekend trips to Dubai to visit a brother who had emigrated to the emirates. “I’d visit him every month, then every other week, then every week. You could see history was being made here and it was very attractive to be a part of it,” she explains. The city was still young, and the vision was mesmerizing. In 2001, Bessiso packed her bags and moved to Dubai, meeting with a representative of the British Government when she arrived.
It was the first and only official job interview she has ever had, and by her own account it was not her proudest moment. “I would not have hired me!” she cries. “Honestly, I had a ribbon in my hair, what was I thinking? It was the worst.” Luckily, the recruiting manager didn’t agree. Appreciating her genuineness and honesty, he offered her the role.
Supported by the Higher Education Funding Council in England, Bessiso was hired as part of a new project to set up a platform that would promote U.K. universities across the world. She helped build the initiative from scratch, and the feeling of ownership and achievement had her hooked. But after four years, a career in education was still not looking appealing as a long-term option. Bessiso decided that having tasted success she wanted to give something back.
In 2005, she applied to the Austrian children’s charity, Save Our Souls (SOS), to become a fundraiser for village communities that take care of displaced orphans. Getting ready to join the community in Lebanon, she was applying her mascara before setting off to sign her contract when the telephone rang. It was her old boss—the University of Manchester had been in touch, and they wanted Bessiso. “I said well, I’m not going to do education anymore, and he said just give me three weeks, help me set it up, help me find the logistics. And you just get attracted, and with it being from scratch you think I’m gonna build it and I’m going to do this,” she remembers as she mimes rolling up her sleeves. That was nearly 13 years ago.
From the start Bessiso’s strong connections in education spurred her forward as she set to work building Manchester’s Middle East center. Sat in her kitchen—sending thousands of emails out from her gmail account and surrounded by two phones and a fax machine—she connected with policy makers, ministry contacts, British councils and embassies, taking advice to make sure that the courses the school was planning to bring and the way it planned to teach were in the right direction for the country. She acquired licenses, she set up bank accounts. Then she got to know her students.
A typical Manchester student is in his or her mid-30s or older, already in a middle to senior management position, and seeking to study a part-time MBA while they work. Manchester’s reputation makes it stand out. “It’s one of the few MBA schools that has AAA accreditation,” one of its current students tells me. “It has a good ranking in the world, Europe and the U.K. Plus it’s a flexible study module so I thought I would still be earning and gaining experience while getting a recognized MBA.”
Bessiso was determined to meet a selection of potential candidates to get an understanding of who they were and want they needed, but with no office and no driving license, her options were limited. “I couldn’t have people come to my kitchen for meetings,” she laughs. Not easy dissuaded, she would walk half an hour from her home to the Dome Café in Burjuman for meetings—finally finalizing the business school’s strategy from her favorite coffee table.
Fast-forward 12 years and of the university’s six international campuses—in Dubai, Hong Kong, Manchester, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Singapore—the Middle East is the fastest growing. “It has to do with how much passion you put into it,” believes Bessiso. “Business is personal—it’s the relationship you have with your partners, with the community, with even your competitors that sets you apart. Success is a byproduct of you making sure your entire network wins.”
Passion and good networking has led to a number of key milestones. In 2009, the Middle East center set up the Manchester Innovation Award in partnership with the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. An initiative aimed at young emiratis, aspiring entrepreneurs aged 20 and above are encouraged to submit their business projects, with top projects winning funding to bring them to life. Projects must be innovative, commercially viable and in some way support Emiratization. In the first year, over 100 projects were submitted. Mohamed Al Hajri, a civil engineer, was announced as the winner with his proposal to establish a factory that would collect waste oil and recycle it to produce irrigation water and bio-fuels.
That year also brought some tough times as the region was rocked by the impact of the global financial crisis. Rather than allow that to halt its progress, the center innovated. It made arrangements with banks that allowed people to pay in installments. The 2009/10 academic year ended up being one of the school’s most successful in terms of applications.
Then in 2013, the Middle East center became the first outside of Manchester to hold a graduation ceremony for its students. This is now an annual event. The center’s office has a wall dedicated to photos of every graduation ceremony, group shots of each new cohort of students, covering the last decade—in every picture the founding director is smiling proudly alongside the class.
“It is very fulfilling,” Bessiso says. “On a personal level I know I have an amazing story to tell my daughter and I have the responsibility of being a role model for her. You become what you practice. Act as a leader, you become one.”
This philosophy is at the heart of Bessiso’s roles as a working single mother, an influential leader and a successful Arab businesswoman. Roles that she does not take lightly. One of the key messages she wants to get across to women is that of the power of determination and faith.
“A lot of what happens to women in business is really a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she explains. “They say I’ll never break that glass ceiling, and they won’t. You pronounce your destiny—if you think it won’t happen, it won’t. It’s not a secret formula. It’s not just for the chosen ones. You work hard and put your mind to it and it happens.”
Looking ahead to Bessiso’s continued destiny and things don’t seem to be slowing down. The university is building its own hotel in the U.K., thanks to a £15 million donation in 2014 from David Alliance—a move that also saw the business school being renamed the Alliance Manchester Business School. The Middle East premises are also likely to expand once a planned extension to Dubai’s Knowledge Village is underway. New programmes are being discussed and India, Pakistan and Africa are being considered as the school seeks to expand its coverage.
While overseeing all this, Bessiso has no plans to move on—“The car comes here on auto-pilot,” she admits. However, she has not given up on her dreams of charity, social enterprise, or indeed acting.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved. I’m happy where it’s led, but I always wonder if I was doing something I was born to do.
“You never know, I might be a late bloomer,” she smiles.