On her terms: Ghada Khalifa is making a social impact across the Middle East and Africa

Wanting to make lasting change in her own community, the philanthropies leader took Microsoft’s mission to empower others to heart

During the Egyptian revolution of 2011, urban youth groups across Egypt came together to call attention to the variety of societal challenges their communities faced, including economic issues such as high unemployment rates and low wages. With such a pervasive threat to the future of Egypt’s youth, major corporations began to advertise philanthropic programs that aimed to help.

Ghada Khalifa, who was Microsoft’s philanthropy lead for Egypt at the time, noticed a slew of campaigns aimed at supporting the people of Egypt. Despite these commitments, she said, life wasn’t necessarily getting better for the average urban Egyptian; tools and technology that would lead to jobs and empower people never materialized.

“Little to no money was put toward actual community development,” Khalifa said.

Microsoft wanted to take a different approach, using its expertise and technology resources to empower Egyptians so they could then—in turn—enact lasting change. The company assessed the situation, uncovered opportunities to truly add community value, and committed to creating programming that would prepare Egyptians to transform their communities through long-term solutions, Khalifa said.

This was the type of integrity that Khalifa had dared to wish for when she first interviewed with Microsoft for a role in antipiracy in 1996.

Khalifa had challenged her interviewer to better understand how antipiracy was being managed in Egypt. “In my religion, Islam, people who copied the software were committing a sin, so I was passionate about the company’s efforts to prevent it,” she said. “I would never accept a role because it simply drives a company’s bottom line. I would take it on because it was what I wanted to do for my country.”

She hoped her sense of responsibility to improve life for Egyptians—and her strong convictions—would be embraced.

Khalifa had first been introduced to Microsoft years earlier, while working for a friend’s computing magazine, when she had an opportunity to interview several Microsoft employees. She was invited to visit the company’s campus and learn more about its mission, which sparked her initial admiration for the company. “It was very transformative for me,” she said of that first exposure. “It gave me a long-term vision of how tech could impact life, especially in Africa, where tech can make a huge impact on our continent.”

Now, the moment to be a part of Microsoft’s work was right in front of her. But it would have to sync with her principles. Khalifa told the hiring team that if the company did anything that was non-supportive of Egypt, she could not sign on. Her hiring manager explained that that was the passion they desired in the candidate. It turned out that Microsoft valued Khalifa’s conviction and her commitment to Egypt and her culture. She was brought on board.

It was the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Microsoft and Khalifa, who would later move into a Philanthropies role, which would ultimately help to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of her fellow citizens.

Platform to make a difference

In response to the protests, Khalifa spearheaded and led an employment initiative to help Microsoft bring real value to the youth of Egypt. Her team looked at the community and government to identify opportunities for local youth, with the goal of reducing the unemployment rate. At the time there was a staggering growth in the youth population, while unemployment rates were nearly 10 times higher for urban youth with college educations than those who had completed only elementary school.

“We wanted to prevent them from going in a harmful direction, and encourage them toward a beneficiary one,” she said. “I wanted to provide the youth with hope and opportunity, while getting them out of poverty and preventing a stagnated future.”

Khalifa and her team partnered with the Ministry of Youth, the United Nations, universities, STEM schools, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to launch the initiative, part of Microsoft’s global YouthSpark program, which creates opportunities for youth around the world through technology.

The Egypt initiative kicked off in 2011, targeting underserved communities and their respective youth centers to provide IT training, web and app development courses, business training, freelance consulting company setup, and sessions on entrepreneurship. Khalifa explained that after the revolution, jobs were scarce, so the objective of her program was to create opportunity for the very youth who were in the streets during the protests.

“I spent seven months researching, attending research sessions, and meeting with a lot of the youth” to better understand the needs, then rollout the program in phases, she said.

Since 2012, the program has created 91,000 job opportunities with more than 1,400 employers in Egypt. Over 80,000 youth participants have attended career advisement sessions, and more than 400,000 youth have accessed digital, entrepreneurial, and employability skills training.

In addition to her work with the YouthSpark initiative, Khalifa was also a leader in Microsoft Egypt’s intern program. Rather than seek students from top-tier universities, she sought young adults who showed initiative, interest in tech, and came from less affluent backgrounds.

“It’s important that you allow them to innovate and drive out their capacity for leadership, then watch them excel,” she said. “We had to be willing to share the knowledge and take the risk. They learn from you, but you also learn from them.”

Khalifa—now the regional director of Microsoft Philanthropies (Middle East and Africa)—is currently working on other community development programs, using technology to address societal challenges. It’s especially exciting, she says, to be able to take this type of initiative to Sub-Saharan Africa and make an impact.

An example of such impact: across the broader Middle East and Africa region, more than 968,000 youth were upskilled through YouthSpark program activities, more than 462,000 accessed employability services, and 88,000 were connected to job opportunities in 2017 alone.

A strong foundation

“Being strong means you can stand up for what you believe is right, regardless of what others think.”

Khalifa’s father taught her this rule, which became one of the many mantras that has guided her life.

She is most grounded when she is helping others. The practice of giving back is second nature: Khalifa, born and raised in Cairo, says she was taught to always consider the welfare of others.

Her father, a former fighter pilot in Egypt, strongly believed in equality between all genders, backgrounds, and religions.

“He always encouraged us to not judge others and embrace them for who they are and to see the good in them,” she said. “When I was about 9 years old, I made a judgement about a certain sect of Islam. He was so furious that he made me read many books about other religions, not just that sect.”

Khalifa said the exercise reminded her that she is “not a god on Earth” and of the importance of being humble and respecting people of all religions and backgrounds.

As for her mother, she continues to challenge her to this day—although, Khalifa says, her mom doesn’t realize it. Khalifa laughs while explaining how her mother has this “capability of forgiving anybody for everything and never holds grudges.” As a person who is easily angered when she sees another person or an animal being treated unjustly or inhumanely, Khalifa often fights an internal battle to forgive.

“I can’t do that, but I’d love to one day,” she said.

Khalifa shuns the idea of being title driven. For her, it’s not about the position, rather it’s about the good you’ve done in the world.

“At the end of life, your position should not be measured as an output of your life. It should be about the people around you,” she said.

In her spare time

Khalifa has always been a world traveler. “I love history and archaeology, especially ancient history. I’ve enjoyed going to old monuments since I was very young and tagging along with my dad,” she said. “There’s so much wisdom. I find it impressive to see how people during that age used to think.”

Her next stop? She would love to visit China and India.

Meanwhile back home, she’s the “mom” to three Rottweilers (Star, Tarazan, and Rex) and three cats by the names of Posy, Eldu, and Lily. A staunch advocate of animal rights, Khalifa said she’s never one to back down from a fight when she’s sees an animal being harmed.

“I’m crazy about animals,” she said. “They teach humans the value of loyalty, cleanliness, calmness, and warmness.”

With her upbringing, her dedication to helping others, and her fondness of animals, Khalifa continues to embody the tenets of humility and selflessness that her parents taught her. She acknowledges that life can get busy but says one should never forget they can help and improve the world as we know it.

“Sometimes you forget humility as you go along. But, sometimes you just need to be reminded.”