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Exceptional, July-December 2012 - Cartoon heroine: Rubicon - EY - United Kingdom

Exceptional, July-December 2012Cartoon heroine

“You will never find a Rubicon product that is anti-culture, anti-religion or violent, or that doesn’t promote tolerance. It is entertainment with a purpose — we call this edutainment.“
Randa Ayoubi, CEO, Rubicon Group Holding

Randa Ayoubi’s faith in the power of “edutainment” – entertainment with a purpose – has propelled the growth of Rubicon Group Holding from a small Jordanian start-up to a global operation.

Randa Ayoubi ranked 12th in CEO Middle East magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women list in 2011. While this is an achievement in itself, even more impressive is the fact that Ayoubi is the only businesswoman in the top 12 who has neither climbed the corporate ladder to become CEO nor inherited a family business. Ayoubi made the list through her own initiative, as CEO of 3D and computer graphics company Rubicon Group Holding, which she founded in 1994.

The company has since expanded beyond her native Jordan to the United Arab Emirates, the US, the Philippines and Australia.

Ayoubi, however, is not one to boast. She prefers to emphasize the merits of an entrepreneurial attitude and a willingness to take risks, attributes that she believes are lacking in young people in the Middle East.

“Rubicon is a story to aspire to, not a work of genius,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is an important way of tackling change and a good alternative to looking to the government to provide a job. That is why nice stories about people taking control of their future are important to get across to young people.”

Ayoubi took control when she decided to leave her job and set up her own business.

With a degree in computer science from Texas Tech University, US, under her belt, Ayoubi noticed that there was a niche in the market for multimedia education. “In the Arab world, there is a huge gap between the cities and villages and between private and government schools,” she notes.

“Meanwhile, technology is changing so fast that no school can keep up. When I started up Rubicon, I wanted to make a positive change through technology and education.”

Ayoubi struggled to get the initial seed capital of US$160,000 and faced considerable challenges in the company’s first few years, when it was developing school curriculums on CD-ROM. “A lot of things failed and many doors were slammed in my face,” she admits.

Getting off the ground

Rubicon’s growth journey began in earnest in 2004, when Ayoubi secured US$3m in capital from — among other sources — the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, a non-governmental organization that aims to support human and infrastructure development in Jordan.

The cash injection enabled Rubicon to develop Ben and Izzy, a cartoon series that aired on television in 2007. The cartoon, whose two eponymous characters are American and Jordanian respectively, was developed with tolerance and cooperation in mind, principles that Rubicon has stuck to as the company has expanded globally.

Prestige through partnerships

Rubicon took its first big step into international markets in 2007, when it made an agreement with Hollywood’s MGM Studios to co-produce and co-finance the cartoon series Pink Panther and Pals.

With MGM now handling distribution, Rubicon has seen both its efficiency and its prestige soar. “The partnership helps us in two ways: it gives the selling process to people who do it better than we do, and it enables us to learn from their systems.

That makes doors open for us,” explains Ayoubi. The company is, for example, currently working on a forthcoming 3D film of Postman Pat in partnership with the UK’s Classic Media.

To maintain the high standards of its products, Rubicon creates all of the computer graphics at its headquarters in Amman, Jordan, and has post-production work done in Los Angeles, US. It also works with units in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, to develop the cartoons, enabling it to remain competitive on costs.

“As a value chain, we capitalize on the best output,” says Ayoubi. “We are cheaper than the West, although more expensive than the Far East. The model is sustainable because we offer quality, not quantity.”

What’s next?

In addition to going public, Rubicon will enter a new phase in the next two years. Two feature-length cartoons, one in 3D, are to be released in the coming year and Rubicon will start merchandising toys based on its edutainment characters.

In the meantime, the company is completing the design of the Red Sea Astrarium, a US$1b theme park in southern Jordan that will feature cartoon characters created by Rubicon. The theme park is creating new opportunities for Rubicon, too: the company has already been commissioned for a similar project in Australia, and there is another one in the pipeline in China.

With Rubicon valued at more than US$200m — which Ayoubi aims to double over the next eight years — could Rubicon become too big?

“What scares me most is what’s next,” says Ayoubi. “It is not about the size or the number of employees, but new projects. Are we insatiable? I don’t know. But I don’t think Walt Disney thought his company would become like it is either.”

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