Interview: Feras Jalbout, Founder & CEO of Baraka
Empowering Middle East millennials to actively invest.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your journey leading up to building your company
I’m Feras Jalbout, Founder and CEO of baraka – an investment platform that empowers Middle East millennials to actively invest. I started my career in asset management, working with multinational private banks, where I focused on traditional investment advisory for about a decade. I then went on to join a family office, where I had the opportunity to expand into investing beyond traditional asset classes by exploring alternative asset classes, including Venture Capital.
Launching a venture-backed business in asset management felt like a natural transition. I founded baraka about a year ago because I believe that everyone should be able to invest. The whole idea was to create the tools and resources that would help anyone take control of their investments – from people starting their investment journey to more experienced investors who want to access global markets from the region.
How are you personally coping with the current situation?
It was challenging and frustrating being away from extended family, but in some ways it’s been a blessing in disguise. It gave me a lot more time at home with my young family. I repurposed the hours I would have been commuting, to exercise and spending time with my daughter. It’s been just as much of an adjustment getting used to things opening back up.
How did you recalibrate your operations amidst the pandemic breakout?
From a work perspective, we are still in building mode and aren't as impacted by not being physically present in an office. We started the company in the heart of the pandemic and, as odd as it seems, we have become accustomed to it. We did all of our hiring and fundraising on Zoom, and we continue to work from home three days a week. It’s allowed us to build a team remotely and to be more efficient with our time. We always joke that we don’t know what it will be like for all of us to meet up in the real world.
What did you need to adapt or change in your business model?
Operationally, there was no shift at all - we are a fintech company that lives in the digital realm and therefore didn’t see much of an impact on our day-to-day business. Where we had to recalibrate was primarily around hiring, communication and organization. Interviewing and hiring candidates has been entirely virtually for us, and that makes it challenging to establish a rapport quickly. On the communication and organization side, we remain disciplined about using technology to help us be more efficient and to manage productivity.
Has this changed the way you're thinking about your business? If so, how?
The pandemic hasn’t necessarily changed the way I think about the business, but it has changed the way people feel about our business. The last twelve months have been a massive shock to the financial wellbeing of many households and that has made people pay closer attention to their own personal financial situation. More people are interested in financial planning, investing and diversifying their income sources. Moreover, the general public have had a lot more time on their hands, which they’ve used to read and learn about the subject matter.
What happens for the business after the pandemic?
We’re going to stay focused on our mission, and continue to build financial products that empower people to invest. We don’t expect that anything will fundamentally change for us in terms of business or strategy, but we will keep an eye on what matters to our subscribers and users, so we can make sure that’s what we’re responding to.
What is something that has surprised you during this time?
One of the most interesting observations for me was the global shift in consumption and thinking. It took a few months of lockdown and uncertainty to change how we eat, live, work, shop and interact. With the world opening up again, and – for lack of a better word – ‘normalising’, I’m curious to see what will stick, and what other behavioural changes we’ll see.
Another takeaway for me, personally, was understanding that there is a substantial part of the population that physically or mentally cannot work from home, especially when you would see some people really struggling without daily human interaction. You get caught up in your own comfort but sometimes fail to understand the circumstance of another party. This has been really important in managing and motivating an entirely remote team during this time.
Finally, a surprising trend we saw was the surge in online investing, even during a pandemic where people typically tend to be more conservative and hoard cash. The average retail investor 'bought the dip' and is starting to understand market dynamics, which really helped validate some of our initiatives as baraka.
What are some lessons learned, do you have any final words of wisdom (for entrepreneurs, investors or the wider community)?
In life, I would say…don’t panic. This can be instinctive but we don’t always make good decisions when we panic. Be aware, stay calm and don’t allow others (or the news, for that matter) drive your emotions. In business, always remember that good companies don’t die, they pivot. Build a business model that is nimble and agile enough to thrive and remain resilient, through the good times and the bad.