Panel One: Women Digital Entrepreneurs:  Growing Beyond Borders

The first panel of NAWF Women Entrepreneurs kicked off with a courage overdose as four ladies from several Arab States joined the panel on entrepreneurship in the digital world. The ladies have achieved success in different fields and brought their experience into the spotlight. The panel was held under the title: “Women Digital Entrepreneurs:  Growing beyond Borders”. It shed light on opportunities offered by the digital economy to a great number of women who have managed to take advantage of such opportunities to start new businesses or breathe a new life into their pre-established ones.

Aside from bringing up women entrepreneurs’ success stories, the first panel showed how the digital world has become so pervasive and how new job opportunities in this sector can therefore be created whereby technology has taken the lead in all industries. Dr. Nibal Idlebi, head of Innovation Section at ESCWA Lebanon tackled this approach to inaugurate the first panel as its moderator, saying that technology cannot be considered a sector in itself, hence the need to invest in it across all sectors, and most importantly to reap its fruits at the social level.

How to capitalize on technology at the social level; a question that has led to the core of the first panel’s discussions whereby women entrepreneurs started sharing their experiences with Dr. Idlebi. The latter mentioned several studies revealing that women account for 16% of the labor force in the economic field across the Arab region, a small percentage compared to men. “Women’s presence in this sector gives a huge economic push to the GDP in any given state,  knowing that out of the 72 million young Arab people, 32 million young women are unemployed, and if ever their potential were to be invested in economy, women’s added value would be around 50 billion US dollars annually”, she added.

“Many problems prevent women from taking part in the economy, not only in the Arab world but also in the West since women’s participation in the labor market is so weak and limited to 30% according to the statistics”, she added. “I would like to say that women have huge potential in the IT sector, and all opportunities that are available nowadays fall within that scope, and we need to prepare those young ladies to embark on the journey of technology”, she concluded.

Ms. Inas Abdulaziz, CEO of Dotspace Group in Kuwait gave a live testimony on women’s ability to succeed in the technology industry and derive its benefits. She said that the current technology advance should be shared with everyone in order to leverage the experience, stating how her business has developed and gone digital. “I started my career in written press, but business has declined since 2006, so I decided to move to Kuwait, and I later became editor in chief of Mondanité. While I was carrying on my marketing business, one of the magazine’s advertisers told me that he wanted to reduce ads as he was planning to “go digital”, which was a major turning point for me. And that is how I decided to open a digital affairs and imagery company, and we are currently one of the most important companies in the Arab World, and have our own advertisers in foreign countries as well. Our aim today is to achieve digital literacy”, she added.

Ms. Mona Itani, Managing founder of Riyada, Lebanon shared her experience in digital technology, where it all started before the opening of the company, when she was working in a Telecom Engineering company and had to quit her job to get married and have children, as there was no flexibility at work for her being a married woman and a mother. “I wanted to delve into the teaching field later on, and I also worked in the research field, and it was then that I discovered how pervasive entrepreneurship has become and how important it was for enhancing the economy, provided you are passionate about your business”, she said.

The numerous societal problems that Lebanon is suffering from have been a trigger for her. “Why not invest in important entrepreneurial projects for the country’s sake? This was the idea behind Riyada which turned Technology into a tool serving the sustainable development goals”, she added.

Ms. Layal Jebran, CEO and co-founder of Moubarmij, Lebanon, talked about her entrepreneurial journey where she was faced with many obstacles due to her young age and people’s doubts about her ability to start a private business. “I proved later on that I could make it, and that I was able to secure an income for investment, and that is how the idea of Moubarmij was born, an electronic learning platform providing professional software lessons in Arabic. Today we are working on various levels and contributing to the creation of job opportunities for the youth’, she said.

Panel  Two:  Role of Enabling Institutions in Promoting the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

The role played by institutions contributing to enhancing the entrepreneurial ecosystem is a primary factor that opens wide the door for women who choose to have a successful entrepreneurial career, hence the panel’s title: Role of Enabling Institutions in Promoting the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem”. The topic is of an utmost importance especially in light of the increasing number of incubators and institutions supporting start-ups through funding and mentoring in the past years.

Loans granted by funding institutions and banks are considered as major facilitations providing women with primary capacities to achieve success despite all kind of obstacles that obstruct their business sustainability. It is therefore important to note that other factors need to be put in place alongside funds, such as the full knowledge that enables women to start a business, i.e. the non-economic services. These services refer to the workshops, seminars, training sessions and systems providing an environment conducive to small businesses that women might choose to invest in. Dr. Tarek Kettaneh, senior lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, moderated the session and stated that the main aim behind supporting women’s work and investing in female potential is to introduce change, mainly social change through entrepreneurship. He asked the panelists to share their experience with the audience.

Mr. Ahmed Sufian Bayram, co-founder of Techstars, Germany, touched upon the role played by the company in supporting primary projects. He explained how to contribute to the creation of a successful business through an ecosystem that provides support for male and female entrepreneurs so that they can bring new technologies to the market. He also said that the company’s main objective is to select, adopt and support specific projects through a series of projects that it offers. The company also provides counsel to numerous start-ups, non-profit organizations and global organizations, according to him.

Ms. Thanaa Al Khasawneh, Business Manager at the MENA, Mowgli, Jordan, spoke in turn about her company’s role in incubating and supporting sustainable entrepreneurship and developing SMEs. “We normally work on projects ready to be invested in, as opposed to unready projects; which is why we select the most appealing project based of course on other factors related to the financial resources needed to start the business. So first we choose the project and then we study the market’s surrounding environment as well as other relevant details’, she said.

Ms. Sanaa Afouaiz, founder and CEO of Womenpreneur, Morocco, said that the forum was an occasion for her to recall all the ladies whom she worked with and helped start small businesses from different Arab states. “There was once this lady called Roukiyya who had the biggest influence on my career, she is a rural woman who worked alongside her husband in the fields for more than 12 years, and when she wanted to become financially independent and openly expressed it to her husband, he divorced her. Afterwards, Roukiyya came asking for my help, and I reassured her that she was going to succeed but that she needed to be provided with knowledge, hence the importance of having an assistance for the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem”, she added.

Ms. Corinne Kiame, investment manager at Insure and Match Capital, Lebanon, tackled four major impediments on women’s entrepreneurial path, as follows: “first the societal environment, especially education and everything that has to do with social inherited stereotypes; second, the financial issues and mode of investment; third, the infrastructure along with aids and soft loans provided by the government; fourth, the human rights dilemma and how women should be judged based on their potential.” We would like to say in turn that all women have potential and can make a difference”, she said.

Ms. Tania Mousallem, AGM-Head of Support and Marketing Groups at the BLC Bank, Lebanon, spoke of the role of banks in providing financial incentives. “We cannot for instance offer a car to someone who cannot drive; that is why we mainly aim for success in the first place and not just for providing funds, and this is how the WE INITIATIVE was born. We want to respond to the needs of the women entrepreneurs in particular, in order to create an environment conducive to success”, she said.  

Panel 3: Differentiating your Business in a Saturated Market

This panel was moderated by Dr. Fida Afiouni, Associate Professor of HRM at the Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. The speakers were Ms. Randa Bahsoun, Partner at PWC in the UAE, Mr. Karl Naim, Co-Founder of ChefXchange in the UAE & Lebanon, Ms. Rima El-Husseini, Founder of Blessing, Lebanon, Ms. Soughit Abdelnour, Director ME Human Resource at Deloitte, Lebanon, and Mr. Hussain Dajani, Chief Operating Officer at Hug Digital.

The panel stressed the importance of creating an added value for products while preserving the competitive advantage, especially that every idea for a product has probably been already consumed. Speakers have discussed methods they use to convince clients that their brand or service is the one worth buying.

To spark discussion, Dr. Afiouni addressed a question to the panelists about “competition that represents the biggest challenge, and the way such kind of obstacles is overcome”. On that topic, Ms. Bahsoun said: “There are many factors impacting work, mainly worldwide trends, demographic changes, technology advances and other factors that prompt us to develop work patterns away from any possible impediments. That said, we have made working hours comfortable, taking into consideration the millennial generation in trying to understand and meet its requirements and needs, mainly the urgent need for an environment of freedom and communication with others”.

“At ChefXchange, we have worked on bridging gaps; between home cooking after a long day, eating at a restaurant or fast service, we have decided to offer our clients a special chef making the best meals, while taking into account the era of speed”, said Mr. Naim. “It is extremely important to serve clients based on their requirements, that is why we strive to improve quality and managed as a small working team to achieve tremendous success, being a platform targeting 7,5 billion food markets in the Middle East and the Arab Gulf”, he added.

“Thanks to social media, we are trying to better understand clients’ needs, especially the new generation’s young ladies who are in search for new, inspiring and sophisticated ideas for dress designs. We have to be constantly creative, which is why our team is made of young university fresh graduate designers”, said Ms. El-Husseini.

Ms. Soughit said that “what distinguishes Deloitte is that it relies mainly on development, creation and innovation that it constantly offers to its clients”. “There are also numerous high tech programs such as “Deloitte Green Houses” providing solutions for the environment and business development at the same time. We work in collaboration with the Harvard Business School and contribute to community actions through our innovation camps, since innovation is at the core of all businesses”, she added.

Mr. Dajani in turn stated the following: “If we take a look at multinationals such as Pepsi, Redbull and others, we notice the progress they have achieved within few years of innovation, but today they have no idea where they are heading to. Even digital companies nowadays lack loyalty, a pivotal element that can only be inspired by reintroducing passion as a main value through which those companies were made a reality. That is how we succeed in responding to our clients’ needs and make our goals and services of high credibility”.

“For instance, look how Apple is striving to attract its clients based on that loyalty element, because clients have become loyal to that brand even though the device’s battery is a failure compared to other trademarks’ products. I also insist on the importance of knowing your customers’ needs; Take the Careem Arab Company for example, which has gone ahead of the global Uber Company for transportation, by targeting children and women. Besides, all its services’ fees are directed towards charity organizations, and so it has managed to study the needs and requirements of the consumer”, he added.

On another note, Dr. Afiouni asked “how to empower women at work, especially since it has been proven that three out of four people are women”.

El-Husseini said: “Our Company is made of a network of over 250 women and it was specifically designed for ambitious women who wish to sell their products and need help in doing so. We also help them post their stories online so that they can be introduced to the market to expand their business and ultimately reach rural areas”.

Ms. Bahsoun said: “Through our participation in NAWF Women Entrepreneurs, we are ready to contribute to such efforts. We are also contributing through our mentoring programs that target women who are suffering from personal problems”.

Ms. Abdelnour also stated the following: “We support women through our facilitations, such as the flexible working hours at part or full time jobs. We also work on ensuring balance and equality in terms of women’s number, for not only are they Deloitte’s workforce, but also managers with a leadership spirit”.

In turn, Mr. Naim said: “When we employ, we do it based on how passionate a person is about their career regardless of whether it is a man or a woman. We are thrilled today at seeing another platform like “Tawlet” gathering village women around a food preparation initiative, as well as “Kammoun” that supports women through preparing famous homemade meals that every mother or housewife is known for. We do encourage every platform that works on empowering women and spreading cultural heritage through the art of cooking”.



Panel 4: Success Stories

The panel was moderated by Dr. Kathy Shalhoub, Development Coach at ICTN, & LLWB member, Lebanon. It featured the following speakers: Ms. Nada Alawi, Co-Founder of Annada, Bahrain, Ms. Tamara Abdel Jaber, Founder of Palma Consulting, Jordan, Ms. Priscilla Sharuk, Co-Founder & COO of Myki, & LLWB member, Lebanon,Ms. Yasmine El-Mehairy, Founder of Coushies, Egypt, Ms. Randa Farah, Co-Founder of Lebtivity, Lebanon, and Ms. Chantal Abou Jaoude, Founder of EDGE, & LLWB member, Lebanon.

Women entrepreneurs from different backgrounds shared their experiences on starting a business while shedding light on their achievements and the obstacles they were faced with throughout their journey.

On what success meant for those women, Ms. Abou Jaoude said: “It is a mixture of things combined together, like money, fame and ability to influence the lives of others or maybe living the life you choose to live”. As for Abdel Jaber, she said she believed “success is a full self-satisfaction and awareness of the goals we set for ourselves”. Ms. Sharuk in turn stated that “success is moving from one failure to another without losing that inner momentum driving us forward”. Ms. El-Mehairy herself stressed “the importance of striking a balance in all aspects of life”, a statement shared by Ms. Farah who insisted on the power to “bring about change and make a difference in society”. Ms. Abou Jaoude then said that success is “the ability to overcome obstacles and go beyond one’s ambitions”.

On men’s role in supporting women to achieve success, Ms. Abou Jaoude said: Throughout my experience, I noted that people whom we worked with were mainly men, and most of them have been of a great support to me, having had a positive influence on my productivity.”  On the other hand, Ms. Alawi asserted that “the most important thing a women or girl could ever have is her father’s support as a child, as well as her colleagues’ appreciation and the support she gets from her superiors who are mostly men”. Ms. Sharuk added that “it is also important to educate men on women’s empowerment and their fundamental role in life, and on breaking gender stereotypes and valuing the concept of equality in order to enhance women’s status in society”. As for Ms. El-Mehairy, she said: “when I was in a relationship with a man as I was just starting my business, we had a talk on who should provide money and make food”. “It is a shame and it all depends on how an individual has been raised and the mentality that should change nowadays”, she added.

On the turning point that made them the successful women they are today, Alawi said: “It is all about my supportive family who has provided me with all the love for who I am. That is how I became more at ease with myself and therefore knew how to personally choose things that I identify myself with and that I like. Today I am very fond of my career, and I have even become obsessed with it”.

Ms. Abdel Jaber said: “It is the hard work, good intentions and ultimate goals that are key elements for success, since working ethics are something essential for an individual’s success, as well as the encouragement I got from male counselors and mentors, which put me on the right track”.

As for Ms. Farah, she said: “I lost my father when I was so young, and so everything I do is a tribute paid to him”.

As an answer to a participant’s question about “what women would have said to themselves in their twenties”, Ms. Sharuk said: “Do not fear any criticism coming your way. Yes you are tantamount to failure time and again, but you shall definitely make it”.

Failure is the First Step towards Success

In another round of discussions, every panelist took the floor to share their ideas on the concept of failure and their personal experiences.

“It is very important to be careful of failure, regardless of whether it is prerequisite for success, that is why we should be knowledgeable in every aspect of life, such as crises management and finding proper solutions”, Ms. Alawi said.

“I try as much as possible to fail as fast as possible to learn faster. I am harsh on myself and I am perfectionist”, said Ms. Farah.

“The idea is to always look forward’, said Ms. Abou Jaoude. Ms. Abdel Jaber commented on the issue by saying: “failure is when we stop trying”. In turn, Ms. Farah wondered: “Have we drawn the lesson from failure and understood it?”

As for Ms. El-Mehairy, she pointed out to the fact that failure for her is “when we wake up unsatisfied with what we have achieved. This is the biggest failure ever”. “Quit that job that makes you miserable, face the results and look for something that makes you full of energy to wake up in the early morning and tell the world here I come”, she added.

On finding the right job and how to get there, Ms. Abdel Jaber said: “I was thinking of a way to make a change in the world, but I started my career on a smaller scale. That is why I decided to take some time to get prepared and established an action plan on that basis. I thought I had to study something that would provide me with a basic knowledge to make a progress at what I was doing, but it was the moment I met my teacher and mentor that my company was created”.

Ms. Alawi said: “I have never planned for this. When I graduated, I have become the head of sales and marketing for an oil and gas company. However luckily, when my father reached the age of retirement and once I got my MBA, I felt I needed some kind of a hobby, and so my passion for drawing reawakened in me after having long been shut down ever since highschool”.

“Here I found the real me and I saw myself easily bonding with customers who have become lifetime friends of mine. Today I can say that I am capable of working 24l7 relentlessly”, she added.

As an answer to a participant’s question on whether any of the panelists ever experienced regret, Ms. Alawi said: “I wish I were more daring for I have always been very prudent, and so I would say I wish I were stronger.” Answering the same question, Ms. Abdel Jaber stated: “one should take things one step at a time and pay attention to customers’ multiplicity and take into consideration the importance of plurality and diversity”. In turn, Ms. Sharuk stressed “the importance of time management and non-procrastination”. As for El-Mehairy, she insisted on “how important it is to stand up for principles, values and job ethics, for a job might vanish on day, but the values and principles last forever”. On the same subject, Ms. Farah said that “a person has to be daring in life and not fear of taking responsibility”. Ms. Abou Jaoude has finally highlighted the “importance of satisfying the customer”.

Importance of Mentors and Counselors for Business Success

Precisely on that topic, Ms. El-Mehairy said that “in order for someone to succeed, they need to be in full harmony with their mentor”. “It is of an utmost importance to tackle obstacles faced in one’s career. Once we get all these instructions and means of assistance, we have to become ourselves mentors for others who also need our help”, she added.

As for Ms. Abdel Jaber, she noted that “we all have our own mentors; my uncle was for example my mentor and idol”. “The official organizing mentors are the source of inspiration and successful work”, she said.

In that same regard, Ms. Alawi said “it would be very important to build a good relationship based on mutual understanding and dialogue between the person and their mentor”. “The most important thing that my mentor taught me is to get to know the customers and understand their requirements”, she added.

At the end, a Q&A session was held between the panelists and participants, with the most important question being the following: “How do you see yourselves in five years?” Answering that question, Ms. Alawi said: “I see myself as an important brand worldwide”. Ms. Abdel Jaber said: “I dream of developing my career and issuing my own book.” Ms. Sharuk stressed “the importance of principles at work and how crucial it is to meet all people’s needs in natural landscaping”. As for Ms. Farah, she highlighted “the need to make the first step and not rush any future steps”. In turn, Ms. El-Mehairy said: “There are no plans; it is all about going crazy”. Finally, Ms. Abou Jaoude revealed that she sees herself as “a teacher one day”.