Leadership Insights

Aramex founder delivers hope in the Middle East

Sunlight comes in at all angles at Ruwwad, a community center founded by businessman Fadi Ghandour for the refugee community of East Amman in Jordan.

In a courtyard, a man holds up a snub-nosed camel he's drawn at the art workshop for mentally disabled adults. Down in one of the alleyways, a 10-year-old has made another piece of art: the model of a magic palace where all the homeless find a place to sleep.

Fadi Ghandour listens to two children on the “dream path” at Ruwwad. As part of the programs at the center, children were invited to create artwork that expressed their dreams and fears.
Source: Ruwwad

Meanwhile, upstairs, young men and women, some in abayas and some in jeans, debate taboo subjects from religion to suicide in a weekly, guided conversation.

"We respect women. We respect ideas. If you come to Ruwwad, you're engaging in a process of accepting diversity and critical thinking," said Ghandour.

The community center, which has opened five other locations in disadvantaged or refugee communities throughout Middle East, is one of Ghandour's proudest accomplishments.

That is saying a lot.

Ghandour founded the shipping giant Aramex, which now employs 14,000 and trades with a $1.3 billion market capitalization on the Dubai stock exchange. Having left his role as CEO three years ago, Ghandour is emerging as a social and entrepreneurial activist in Jordan.

"What amazes me is the people who find him," says Christopher Schroeder, a U.S. Internet executive whose book, "Startup Rising," covered Ghandour and draws attention to entrepreneurs in the Middle East. "They approach him because they think they'll get a fair shake. He's just become one of these figures that people reach out to."

We respect women. We respect ideas. If you come to Ruwwad, you're engaging in a process of accepting diversity and critical thinking.
Fadi Ghandour
Social entrepreneur, founder of Aramex

Ghandour's influence is important in part because many of his initiatives are in Jordan. This Arab nation is a critical U.S. partner in the Middle East, a tiny country of 8 million that has absorbed more than 700,000 Syrian refugees and is now stepping up its military campaign against Islamic State.

Through Ruwwad, Ghandour helps disadvantaged communities overcome marginalization. Ruwwad offers programs like jobs training and civic engagement sessions and helps its communities obtain resources like, in East Amman, a police station and health clinic. It also provides scholarships to youth, many of whom come from families displaced by the region's violence.

In 2013, Ghandhour started working with the United National Development Program to fund microbusinesses to help the country respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The pilot program has funded 142 businesses, which are expected to create 500 to 600 jobs, from diaper makers to dry cleaners with investments up to $9,000. The program uses a cutting-edge approach called microequity that requires businesses to pay investors only if they succeed.

Read MoreArab Spring 2.0: The rise of women entrepreneurs

For a world-class entrepreneur from one of the toughest regions of the world, Ghandour is surprisingly not an intimidating man. Six feet tall, the 55-year-old smiles broadly, laughs often—"laughter is always good," he said—and has the nervous habit of squeezing a rubber ball during conversations.

In an interview in Amman, he talked with CNBC about what drives him as a leader.

An activist's second act

Ghandour, whose father was founder of Royal Jordanian airlines, is well-known as a businessman for his 30 years at the helm of Aramex. Building Aramex, which now works in 60 countries, was no mean feat in a region where delivering goods often means navigating around a war. Ghandour and a co-founder, Bill Kingson, leveraged a relationship with Seattle-based Airbone Express, delivering its packages in the Middle East—and then, he says, the decades were long, hard slog of cash flow crises and customer building.

"There were many mornings when I woke up thinking, I don't want to wake up today, but I have to. I have to answer all the phones. I have to answer all the clients. I have to be nice to everyone."

But Ghandour's next act as a philanthropist and investor has received less attention in the West, mostly because of his choice not to court the Western media. With a partner, he is an investor through a fund called MENA Ventures, in 75 start-ups. But he also plays a sort of godfather role to social projects that fit his philosophy of progressive ideas and empowering marginalized people. For instance, in 2011, he helped a Jordanian professor win support from Aramex— a few thousand dollars and free shipping services—to start a reading program for children, We Love Reading, which has since spread internationally.

In every way he can, Ghandour seems to be trying to push the fast-forward button on building a stronger civil society in Jordan and the Middle East.

The roots of leadership

Ghandour came from a wealthy Jordanian family, but he never expected to become a leader.

"You can be born a leader because of certain lineage. You can grow into it or you suddenly discover it without knowing it. That's where I fit."

Read MoreHow entrepreneurship in Middle East is stunning

He became conscious of that sense of responsibility as a freshman at George Washington University. His sister, nine years younger, has cerebral palsy. Their mother brought her to the States for treatment at Children's Hospital.

"My freshman year I was waking up at 6 a.m. and taking her to the hospital," he said. "I didn't kick and shout and say, 'I want to go have fun.' Freshman aren't supposed to go and meet doctors and translate Arabic to English and take care of a child."

"But I never questioned it. It seemed natural to me."

It's about hope, and giving back

Ghandour treats his role as philanthropist lightly.

"They need the money more than I do," he shrugged. "I don't believe in this story of giving back. You just give. You participate in society. You have a vested interest in it."

Read MoreThe rise of the young social entrepreneur

The Ruwwads have locations in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt. Each center is run separately, with priorities set by the community. The center in East Amman is the oldest and serves a community of about 50,000. Ghandour establishes each new center— this year he may open one or two more—by networking with local business leaders who help fund and support it.

The Ruwwads have funded college educations for 1,450 students at local universities. The scholarship winners keep the centers going: They are required to volunteer for four hours a week in exchange for the money.

"These people on the edges of society also have things. They have knowledge. They have capabilities," he said. "They care about their community a million times more than I care about their community. A million times more than I care."

Focusing on the Middle East

After years of establishing relationships with companies in the West, Ghandour says he is now focused on strengthening his own region. His successes as an investor include Maktoob, an online portal that was acquired by Yahoo, and Souq.com, one of the region's biggest e-commerce sites. Some of his start-ups include Jamalon, an online bookstore (founder Ala' Alsallal is a Ruwwad graduate) and Kharabeesh, an online video platform with 1 billion YouTube views.

Read MoreThe Middle East's Silicon Valley moment

He sounded a little tired trying to explain, again, that there is more to the Middle East than the Western media portrays.

"You think you can send us bombs and armies. But the most beautiful thing about you is your entrepreneurial spirit. That's the beauty of the United States of America. ... But I didn't see you send us Silicon Valley.

"We need to build businesses so your soft power can actually notice us."

Ghandour is known for preaching listening skills and humility—knowing when to hire people better than yourself—to the entrepreneurs he works with.

He can also be unyielding at times, such as when, a few years after Ruwwad's founding in 2005, a smear campaign started. There were leaflets on the streets and speeches in mosques claiming Ruwwad was a front for foreign investment and that girls weren't safe there.

Ghandour went to have a meeting with an official from the Muslim Brotherhood. He thought they might have been behind the campaign.

"Of course we are a threat," he said. "If you want to look at it from a market perspective, it's a struggle of ideas in a community that is in need."

He took a simple approach with the official.

"Being the stubborn, tenacious, entrepreneurial people that we are," he said. "We just told him, we ain't leaving."