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Many businesses in the Middle East face a challenge when it comes to finding talented, home-grown leaders.

“Some people in the region say that there is a lack of talent,” says Dr. Annas Abedin, a McKinsey alumnus and former entrepreneur. “But this is a myth. We have the talent—we just need to get better at finding it and nurturing it.”

Typically, exceptional young people are sought out, recognized, nurtured, and launched on successful career paths through fellowships, awards programs, internships, and scholarships. Annas knows this from his own experience. He is originally from the Middle East but grew up in Germany and had opportunities to develop a career trajectory through fellowships and programs that didn’t exist for his peers and family members in the Middle East.

His answer: working with McKinsey to create a fellowship for Saudi university students that provides mentorship by senior executives, leadership training, and career opportunities. Called Qimam (meaning “the peak” or “tops”), the program’s first cohort of 50 fellows recently completed the program, giving it rave reviews.

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Workshop during the 12-day Qimam Fellowship program

Early on, to get the initiative off the ground, Abedin approached some of his former colleagues.

“The primary way we ‘give back’ in the Middle East is by developing talent through workshops and leadership programs, so this fit right in,” says Tom Isherwood, a partner based in McKinsey’s Dubai office who supports public-sector and education clients. “Qimam offered a way to broaden access to opportunities, to include those who may not come from the wealthiest families or the best schools. There’s tremendous talent here, but it’s not always where you expect it to be.”

Isherwood and Abedin soon signed up 13 top organizations, both Saudi and multinational, spanning industries from mining to telecommunications. To develop the selection criteria and offerings, they studied programs such as the Rhodes Scholarships and the Truman Scholarships. They also leaned on McKinsey’s experience in designing leadership and education programs around the world, such as the Youth Leadership Academy in Malaysia.

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Class of 2018 Qimam Fellows

Initially, Abedin worried whether the program would appeal to applicants given that it didn’t offer a monetary component, such as a grant or prize. He need not have: 13,000 applications arrived within five weeks from all parts of the kingdom.

More than 50 senior business leaders then interviewed 150 short-listed candidates, seeking individuals who not only had strong academic records but also showed initiative and social responsibility. The interviewers’ feedback was gratifying. “I’m so humbled; they’re so much better than I was at their age!” one executive confided to Abedin. “This makes me think differently about how I can raise my daughters and what opportunities they may have,” said another.

Isherwood interviewed one young woman from a small city in a remote area in the kingdom who was picked on in school because she was of mixed ethnic background and whose father didn’t live with the family. She supported herself through university and, on the side, programmed robots and performed fund-raising to enter robotics competitions. “I was amazed by her resilience and determination,” Isherwood says.

Over the course of 12 days, each Qimam fellow received personal career advice during one-on-one mentoring sessions with senior leaders in their fields and visited a variety of organizations on tours led by top executives. The group also attended leadership workshops and career training.

Computer science student Aisha Dabbagh, for example, learned to overcome her fear of public speaking. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re only here for a few days; you have to challenge yourself,’” she says. She spoke out—“I was shivering and nervous,” she said—and, after finishing Qimam, decided to join a Toastmasters International club to keep developing her presentation skills.

Importantly, the students had lots of opportunities to get to know one another, says Sumu AlKhudair, who is studying nanotechnology applications in solar energy and raises money for cancer and poverty. The fellows have established local groups and have had several meetings since the program ended. “We met as strangers and left as a tight-knit family,” says AlKhudair, who also received two internship offers from Qimam partners.

Next year, the organizers plan to refine the program, and expansion beyond Saudi Arabia is likely in the coming years. But the goal remains unchanged: find and nurture the next generation of leaders from all types of backgrounds—to shape a resilient future for the country.

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