Tara Hermez is the co-founder and CEO of 3QA – a regional social enterprise that provides quality assurance solutions to third sector entities.
Hermez has forged a solid background in humanitarian and refugee support within the sectors of education, capacity building, and monitoring and evaluation. She has worked extensively with both local and international NGOs active in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
Awarded the Chevening scholarship by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK, Hermez graduated with a master’s in public administration and management from the University College London. Before her master’s degree, she worked for Oxfam in its regional office covering the Syria crisis response.
In parallel to her career, Hermez continues to invest her time in hands-on social work. She supports Palestinian youth within the areas of conflict resolution and education, which includes assuming the role of a coordinator of the national committee for the United World Colleges (UWC) – an organization that provides scholarships for refugees to study abroad.
She is also a dedicated volunteer at Blind with Vision, a group that supports visually impaired running enthusiasts by aiding them in training for marathons. Furthermore, Hermez takes initiative to mentor young women interested in pursuing a career in the third sector, offering guidance and support navigating this complex field.
How did you get your business idea?
Two brilliant minds approached me while I was living in London interviewing for posts in international institutions working in development in the Middle East: Karma Ekmekji and Nasser Yassin. They had recognized a problem within the civil society sector that they wanted to tackle and reached out to me to engage in the brainstorming for potential solutions. A few months later, I packed my bags and moved to Beirut. I realized that with my particular experience, I am needed much more back home.
The idea is simple: how can we guarantee that an NGO is credible? There are so many local and international NGOs in Lebanon and this calls for accountability and effectivity. How can we fly someone in from China interested in volunteering in the North of Lebanon without guaranteeing that the NGO they will be working with operates according to some qualifiable standards? This was how 3QA was born.
What was the main drive that pushed you to start your business?
After working in the nonprofit sector, also known as the third sector, for over 8 years, I came to the realization that though the sector does a lot of great work, there are no infrastructures or systems in place to ensure that the organizations are operating at their most effective potential and in a sustainable manner.
There is an assumption that non-profits can run solely on two main components – the goodwill of the people running the organization, and the justified need for particular services or activities within a certain community. Because of this, a blind eye is often turned towards good governance and the actual impact an NGO is making on its beneficiaries. It is not enough that hearts are in the right place.
There’s a lot of cash-flow into the third sector, and organizations are not being held accountable for it in the same ways that private companies are. Often, it is the programs – its volunteers and its beneficiaries – that suffer the consequences of rickety infrastructures.
What was your biggest fear before starting up? How did you overcome it?
What happens if we fail? The fear of failure is always hard. But with time, you realize that there’s no such thing as failure. Only learning.
The success of a company depends on its capacity to adapt to the changes and challenges presented to it over the years, the team and certainly the environment you work in. In our case, the minute we stop adding value to society is the minute our time is up.
Baby steps with big footprints, that’s how I overcame it. I started to measure the small differences that we were able to make as they came through and made sure to write them down and remember them when things were not necessarily going according to plan.
How do you describe your core business activity and what’s the key value you offer to your customer?
Our social enterprise – 3QA, invests in Lebanon and the region’s third sector. 3QA supports non-profits, foundations and social enterprises by enhancing the quality of their work through a variety of services, including training and tailor-made coaching programs, in addition to offering an international Quality Assurance standard, the first of its kind in Lebanon and the region.
3QA’s programs and services focus on holistic organizational management and excellence in governance and are based on a well renowned British Quality Mark offered in partnership with the NCVO (the National Council for Voluntary Organisations), the leading agency in the UK that provides quality assurance to third sector entities.
Through these programs, 3QA aims to propel the third sector in the region towards improving its professional caliber, elevating its operations to align with international standards of good governance and sustainable practices, and ultimately, enhancing its credibility with the donor community.
What are the key strategies you use to expand your business?
Collaborations and partnerships are key. In this day and age, expanding any venture without creating key partnerships and collaborations with various stakeholders will only limit the impact of the venture.
As 3QA, we have been working very hard on establishing a network of different partners and collaborators from the private, the public, as well as the international community. For us, if we want to see a change from within the third sector, everyone needs to advocate for it simultaneously. Organizations need to see the benefits of working with 3QA. They need to trust us, to believe in us, for the community to gain trust in us as well.
We have already established a solid international partnership with a leading entity in the UK – the NCVO. Regionally, we are collaborating with the banking sector, the multinationals as well as with the donor community. We also created a solid relationship with the British Embassy in Lebanon, where they have been supporting our work from the very start. All stakeholders need to work together and speak the language of quality assurance, of transparency, and most importantly of accountability.
What do you look for when recruiting an employee?
We look for individuals that are driven, innovative, patronage and team players. The technical expertise is a minimum requirement, but that’s not usually the difficult quality to come across when recruiting. Those who make it through the interview process, are those that stand out and are willing to not only do their job but go the extra mile required in a startup. They need to be willing to find solutions to challenges that surface and possess particular flexibility to adapt to the startup environment where tasks that have been agreed upon at the start of the month may change drastically after week 2.
How many employees do you currently have? How do you describe your management style?
The team is made of 12 people – between the technical experts, the research and development program, and the program officers. My management style is collaborative, I recognize and appreciate that everyone has something to bring to the table. I once read something about leadership that spoke to me so mightily: “A leader is somebody who understands their limitations and knows the help they need to fill in their gaps, and somebody who demonstrates curiosity and has a hunger for learning.”
Everyone in my team, from the program manager to the intern, to the technical expert, is there to enrich 3QA. A large part of my role is to ensure that everyone is heard, communication is open, structured and effective, and priorities are set clearly.
How do you describe yourself in 3 words?
Persistent, ardent and adaptable
What’s your favorite part of your business, and why?
The journey. Every day, I learn something new, and the path ahead of me becomes clearer. Not less rocky, perhaps, but clearer. Having your own business forces you to learn about HR, Finance, Logistics, Programming – you have to be on top of every aspect that makes an operation run.
Without realizing, when you look back, starting your business forces you to learn the building blocks of an entire company. On the other hand, when working for a company, you’re placed into a department and that’s where you are expected to deliver. In a startup, you have to be part of every department for it to grow. It’s a very enriching experience.
How do you advertise your business? How do you advertise your product/service?
Through our networks. For us, there is no stronger form of advertising than through the people that we’ve worked with and worked for. Our team is very diverse, and we intentionally chose it to be that way, coming from all sorts of sectors including the public, international community and most importantly the third sector. Through their networks, they have channeled in many opportunities.
We give great value to our digital presence as well. 3QA will be embarking on a rigorous marketing campaign so stay tuned for that!
What made you choose this type of business?
There’s so much potential within the third sector, in the region and particularly in Lebanon. It is a sector that has produced the highest number of jobs in the past decade and has served every community you can think of around you. I believe in this sector, and believe that for it to grow sustainably, it needs to adopt the right ingredients. 3QA provides these ingredients.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
There’s never a good time to start. There will always be reasons why it’s a bad time. With the right idea and the right people, one has to take the leap of faith. The right people here override the idea, because as solid as an idea might be, without the right team of experts you will not be able to translate your idea into a sustainable model, let alone execute once the model is ready.
So, find three or four people that share a common vision, preferably from different walks of life with a range of experiences, and jump on that boat!
Also, be sure to enjoy the ride, the ups the downs, they are all experiences to cherish.
How do you balance the different aspects of your life? (well-being, family, social and professional)
I’ve come to understand that an early start to the day is key. My day begins at 6:00am before the daily grind sets in. I set realistic goals for the day that include the tasks that I have to complete and the meetings I have to attend. I always make sure to find an hour throughout the day to step out and exercise, this hour allows me to step out of the day to day hustle and find clarity in my mind to continue for the rest of the day.
The family and social aspect come during the weekend, I make sure to clear my work schedule and take the time to decompress and reboot. Sometimes there are pressing deadlines that require me to compromise and devote more time for work. It’s important, however, not to make that a habit, and do it only if there’s an urgency. But the rule is, no matter what, Sundays will always be the day where I completely switch off and spend time with my family. That’s the only way, I have realized, that keeps me sane and ready to press play for Monday.
Women on Top Series
Berytech has partnered with the Lebanese League for Women in Business – LLWB, to create ‘Women on Top’ to highlight women entrepreneurs and executives in a series of motivational interviews about their stories, overcoming their own challenges and their entrepreneurial endeavors. Read more. The series is also highlighting successful women in sports and business.