Authors Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar roamed the Middle East and North Africa in search of something common but often overlooked: Successful female entrepreneurs. In their 2014 book, Arab Women Rising, published by the Wharton Business School, Syeed and Zafar profile just 35 of the hundreds of innovative women they interviewed. Coming from diverse background and fields, the women shared their candid insight and personal stories about how they’ve made it in volatile business environments where female faces have often been made to feel unwelcome.
Here are samples of 16 of the stories profiled in Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World:
1. Deena Fadel: “Work is not work for me. It’s a passion. It’s love.”
Deena Fadel, an Egyptian artist, quit her job at an advertising agency to start her own home accessories line, Joude. She takes inspiration from Cairo’s crowded streets, integrating traditional Arab motifs and calligraphy into every usable items, from coasters to pillows.
2. Asma Mansour: “We have to think of how to solve social problems and to push the economy for growth.”
During the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, Asma Mansour found herself asking: How does one fight for social change in a sustainable way? Mansour researched several models, and subsequently co-founded the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a social innovation incubator that offers fellowships to those with new ideas.
3. Dana Al Taji: “Why not play around with it?”
When Palestinian designer Dana Al Taji started to wear the Abeeya, a full length black cloak, she felt constricted by the options. So Al Taji took to Facebook and started her own line, called LAYAL, and now has her own boutique in Cairo.
4. Jalila Tamallah: “I would like to provide for my kids, so they can have a future. I don’t want them to have a hard life, as my husband and I did. That’s the future and that’s what makes me work.”
Tunisian Jalilah Tamallah dropped out of school when she was younger to go work on a farm. Now she and her husband run a flower-farming business on that very same land. They started off using microloans to support the endeavor.
5. Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri: “Confiding to someone that you’re take antidepressants, for instance, isn’t something people often talk about, even in urban areas, so I would imagine in rural areas the shrouding of mental illness is even more pronounced.”
Dr. Yasmin Altwaijri is one of Saudi Arabia’s most senior scientists and a pioneer in the study of obesity, diabetes, and mental health issues in her country. She hopes that her work can help to raise awareness about mental health issues and lower stigmas associated with the diseases.
6. Esra’s Al-Shafei: “Our countries are praised for their ‘progress’ and ‘achievements,’ with no acknowledgement to who’s actually building this: workers working under deplorable conditions.”
Bahraini Esra’s Al-Shafei is a leading Internet activist in the Middle East. She requested not to show her face publicly for security reasons due to the Bahraini government’s restrictions on media and political freedoms. Now based in Bahrain, she is the founder of Migrant-Rights, which works to improve conditions for domestic workers around the Middle East. Al-Shafei also created CrowdVoice.org, a crowdsourcing platform for gathering information on protests.
7. Maali Alasousi: “Being socially aware and helping the poor and disadvantaged is something that’s part of our religion and what we’re obligated to do.”
Kuwaiti Maali Alasousi studied in Egypt and the United States, and returned to Kuwait to start her own tourism company. Then a trip to Yemen in 2007 changed her life: Alasousi was so effected by the poverty she saw in Yemen that she decided to sell her company, move to Yemen, and start an NGO to work on a range of social projects.
8. Yasmine El-Mehairy: “We face this problem, like when content comes from the West — it might be translated, but it’s not localized.”
Egyptian Yasmine El-Mehairy found herself frustrated that there was no online platforms that resonated with many mothers in the Middle East. So she created the pan-Arab parenting site SuperMama, which offers an array for information from pregnancy tips to cooking videos. El-Mehairy made sure that SuperMama is in Arabic and written and produced by Arabs.
9. Heidi Belal: “The thing that really pushed me on was that now these people are getting a salary from me — what are they going to do if we close down?”
Egyptian entrepreneur Heidi Belal co-founded the web development firm Code-Corner with her husband, and then went on start the baked goods producer Cookies ‘n More with her sister. Cookies ‘n More focuses on delicious but healthy options. In the early days of her companies, Belal had to shuffle between back and forth between her stovetop, laptop, and caring for her daughters.
10. Loula Zaklama: “… Small entrepreneurs are going to help the economy of this country. It is not the big guys; it is not the mega projects anymore. It’s this series of very small microentrepreneurs that is going to save this country.”
Now in her 70s, Loula Zaklama was just one of a few women in business in Egypt a half-century ago. Back then her husband was in prison and she had two children to support, so she took over an advertising agency. Now the early entrepreneur runs Rada Research and Public Relations and works with multinational corporations.
11. Nisreen Shocair: “If you looked at our business in the early 2000s, it was all about Western books, English-based music and movies, and then the younger generation that have become powerful consumers are saying, ‘No, I’d rather listen to my own music.”
Nisreen Shocair is President of Virgin Megastores MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Shocair is Syrian and currently based in Dubai. While at Virgin she has helped to transform the company into a leading entertainment brand in the region.
12. Rasha Shehada: “My mother is the type of person that is eager to learn and was very supportive when my father wanted to start a business.”
Rasha Shehada beat out her brothers to take over the family business. Shehada’s family is Palestinian but lived in the United Arab Emirates. In 1997 her father started Diamond Line, which has since grown into a leading hotel supply distributor.
13. Randa Abdou: “I don’t see why we cannot compete and why we cannot be as big as multinationals. We just need self-confidence, that’s it.”
Randa Abdou is the daughter of political activists and currently the CEO of Creative Lab Group, a housing marketing and advertisting firm. Abdou credits her family’s past activism with teaching her how to be fearless in the business world.
14. Rama Chakaki: “I’m pushing to make sure that women of my generation are starting to invest financially, but also invest socially and be able to kind of profile themselves and the people in their communities…”
Syrian Rama Chakaki is the founder of BarakaBits, a “good news from Middle East” news site with a long-term focus on staying sustainable. The site’s content covers an array of social and cultural topics, raging from music education to gaming development.
15. Sally Sabry: “Even before wearing niqab, I wanted to work. I mean it was in my mind; I wasn’t closed that I have to get married and sit at home or anything. I want to have a goal and make it, inshallah.”
Egyptian Sally Sabry co-founded Best Mums with a friend in 2006. They use local cotton and producers to make breastfeeding covers for women. Both Sabry and her co-founder, Doaa Zaki, wear a full body and face veil. They are proud that there work defies stereotypes associated with their dress.
16. Yasmin Helal: “We developed a model that we called dream-driven development, which basically starts with asking the children what they want and then helping them figure out what they need in order to get there.”
Yasmin Helal is a former pro-basketball player and engineer. Now she’s founded and runs Educate-Me, an initiative in Cairo that works to improve education for underprivileged kids and redefine education.
Adapted from Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World by Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar, published by Knowledge@Wharton, 2014
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