Helmy Abouleish: Life is Great

“Life is great” – this is Helmy Abouleish’s exemplary motto. So simple on the one hand, for Helmy Abouleish however, as profound as characteristic. Anyone who knows him a bit deeper, recognizes that he tells that maxim especially when a problem arises – with a smile, nota bene. “I am absolutely convinced that we learn from challenges and that they are determining our development,” says the CEO of SEKEM, full of conviction. And that is exactly what Helmy Abouleish deeply believes in: development. “For me, the meaning of life is to constantly develop ourselves and the earth that we live on.”

Helmy and Ibrahim Abouleish SEKEM
Helmy considers his father Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, the founder of SEKEM, as a “spiritual brother”.

The son of SEKEM founder Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish was very active and motivated as a child. He played football, went skiing, took piano lessons, and at the age of 14 he began to read the first philosophical works. In this context, Helmy Abouleish also engaged himself in the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, a holistic view of the world, in which the scientific knowledge of the history of mankind is transferred to the modern age in connection with spirituality. Through this philosophical approach, the Muslim tries to holistically explore the fundamental questions of life, such as the question of freedom in the acting and thinking of people. Through intensive conversations with his father on these profound topics, a “fertile brotherhood” has developed between father and son, which characterizes Helmy’s entire past life.

Mission development

Born and grown up in Austria, Helmy Abouleish accompanied his father to Egypt at the age of 16. “There were no doubts or sadness in regards to leaving my old life. I was full of curiosity and anticipation for the country, which is so different from Europe”, he recalls. At that time, Helmy hardly spoke a word Arabic, but quickly entered into the new culture. He spent a month with Bedouins in a tent in the desert, while at the same time attending the German School in Cairo. “I am very grateful that I carry these two cultures inside me and that I am able to reflect one out of the other”, he says.

Helmy Abouleish was and always is committing himself to the development of SEKEM. Whether at his office in Cairo, at the SEKEM Farm itself or at conferences and lectures all around the world. Sometimes it seems that he never finds rest. Even during his daily drives to the office, he takes one phone call after another. Sometimes in Arabic, sometimes German, then again English. One is about finances another one on agriculture – but Helmy also deals with his co-workers in regards to spiritual topics, visits concerts, or gives lectures on the importance of art and culture for the development of the individual. Helmy Abouleish is not just a manager. He is a social, even a strongly culturally influenced entrepreneur. He is a philanthropist, with a great passion and apparently inexhaustible energy.

Carried by the community

Also his schooldays in Egypt were characterized by an extraordinarily strong activism – as head boy, captain of the football team, or editor of the student’s magazine. At the same time, Helmy put all his entire leisure time into building up SEKEM. “I never had a master plan but also never the smallest doubt that the vision of my father would become reality.” SEKEM founder Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish was deeply convinced of his vision to establish a community in the desert, in which people and nature develop in harmony, so that he had a very motivating and inspiring effect on his son and all other supporters.

However, no one expected that SEKEM would be as successful as the initiative, with all its institutions, is today. Even Helmy Abouleish, who has besides his father the deepest insights into all the different dimensions of SEKEM, still perceives the community in the desert as miracle. “SEKEM was born out of the vision of my father, but in fact, it is a masterpiece that could only be realized with the support and passion of many hands and minds.” And these hands do not only carry SEKEM, but also the work of Helmy. A very special role in this community is filled by his wife Konstanze, with whom he is married for 35 years, has four daughters and who “supports him constantly through her love and deepness.”

Entrepreneur to the core

Although the community spirit, arts, the humanities, or music are of great importance in Helmy’s life, he is thoroughly an entrepreneur. Before taking the position as the CEO of SEKEM (already at the age of 23), he made an internship at Weleda and generated the first credit for SEKEMs cows at the newly founded GLS Bank. And when his father was not able to pursue his duties for a while, the young Helmy took over the management of SEKEMs Head Office in Cairo from one day to the other. He supported the early beginning of the EBDA (Egyptian Bio-Dynamic Association) and took care of SEKEMs first contracted farmers, which spread the Biodynamic agriculture all over Egypt.

Shortly afterwards, it was Helmy Abouleish, who brought SEKEM the first European customers. Amongst them, Ulrich Walter, Managing Director of the German Organic company Lebensbaum, as well as Volkert Engelsmann and Willem van Wijk, founder of Eosta, one of the largest European enterprises for Organic fruits and vegetables. In addition, Götz Rehn, CEO of Alnatura, one of the most successful German Organic supermarkets, Peter Segger, founder of the largest Organic company in Great Britain, Roland Schätte, pioneer in the field of sustainable animal nutrition and many more who still play a big role in Helmy’s life and became close friends. Together with them and other Organic pioneers, SEKEM later founded the International Association for Partnership in Ecology and Trade (IAP), which is one of the most important sources of inspiration for the passionate social economist.

Helmy Abouleish and Ulrich Walter, CEO of the German company Lebensbaum became close friends.

The SEKEM CEO, who is always in a positive mood, worked almost day and night during the founding times. After his father had received the Alternative Nobel Prize for the initiative in 2003, Helmy’s activities grew enormously strong and he later considered it as “no longer healthy for my development.” He jetted from one high-profile event to another. Sometimes he dined with Angela Merkel, sometimes he met Barack Obama or Prince Charles. Helmy didn’t had time for his four daughters or for the cultural work, which he once classed as so important for his and the development of SEKEM. Even his so characteristic confidence faded. “I was stressed, disappointed and not sure where to go because I did not find time for my individual progress”, recalls the 55-years-old. “Although I was in contact with all the big decision-makers in the world, I became more and more hopeless.”

Blow of fate: “It became clear to me that I was much freer behind the prison walls than in my own world in the past few years.”

Finally, the destiny, in which Helmy firmly believes, interfered. During the Egyptian revolution in 2011, former President Mubarak arrested several ministers and private activists to with the allegation of corruption. Helmy Abouleish was remanded in custody for 100 days before the charge was dropped. This initial tragic event later emerged as one of the most important development chances for Helmy: “The first miracle at this time was the inner calm that came over me at the very first moment when the prosecutor read the accusation. Calmness and the belief that whatever Allah had planned for me would also offer an opportunity for me”, he tells.

Without mobile phone and computer, the 49-years-old had no choice but to deal intensively with his individual development again. He formulated a number of questions that he was searching for answers – on his relationship to the mythical Islam, Sufism, the economic system of the future, or his role in Egyptian society and in SEKEM for instance. “It became clear to me that I was much freer behind the prison walls than in my own world in the past few years”, says Helmy retrospectively. “I suddenly had time to read, learn and reflect. For all the things that are important to my personal progress and whose neglecting had interrupted this process in the years before.”

Instead of resigning in jail, Helmy Abouleish found back to his original conviction that progress comes either through understanding or crisis. Since the understanding came too late, he took advantage of the crisis. Among his fellow prisoners, Helmy was known for not taking part at any “negative talks”. He tried to walk at least 5000 steps per day, and organized a cultural salon in the evenings, discussing subjects such as the freedom of humans, common good economy, or guidelines for economic activities in the Quran, with the other inmates, all high-level representatives from politics and economy. Abouleish Jr. has been hope, optimism, and laughter for many, as he learned later.

Development through understanding instead of crisis

Today, Helmy Abouleish realizes again that family, community, cultural and spiritual work is as important as economic and political commitment. Today he knows: “I initiate much more changes in this world with SEKEM than if I would try again to turn the big wheels of politics. I also do not believe that politicians alone will make a change, but rather civil society and socially-oriented entrepreneurs.” And it is this understanding that he wants to spread into the world: “I want to show that through the synergies of Biodynamic Agriculture and living communities, optimal conditions for the being and development of people are created.”

Moreover, Helmy Abouleish learned during the 100 day in prison that there is no failure: “Development is always happening. This is laid down already in the history of mankind. We can, however, commit ourselves to let it happen through understanding instead of crisis.”

Helmy Abouleish believes in development by understanding instead of crisis.

Hence, Helmy is also not worrying too much in regards to the current development in world. Be it the fundamental Islam or all the challenges Egypt is facing. “We have a crisis. Wonderful. Means, progress will follow soon.” Helmy Abouleish believes that enlightenment will surely come in the Islamic world, as well as the realization that sustainable forms of agriculture, society and economy are inescapable. Just as Goethe has already said it: “…no time there is, no power, can decompose the minted form that lives and living grows.”

The deep faith in the good and his unconditional confidence are characterizing Helmy Abouleish’s charisma. Even if the SEKEM CEO is very busy and regularly under time pressure, he usually has a smile or a firm, cordial handshake for his opposite. His religion, the Islam is supporting him in this. The father and “spiritual brother” Abouleish showed him the sources of inspiration in Islam and thus demonstrated where bridges can be build.

Helmy Abouleish is Egyptian, Austrian, Muslim. He is a philosophical, anthroposophical and holistically inspired seeker – Helmy Abouleish is an exemplary cosmopolitan. He wants to promote sustainable development in Egypt and the world and, above all, help that this happens not by crisis but through understanding. And, because life offers the only chance for development, Helmy is and always will be deeply convinced that life is great.

Christine Arlt

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