By Reem Abdellatif
CAIRO: Women are playing an increasingly imperative role as pioneers of economic prosperity and growth in the Arab world.
With this in mind, the Middle East and North Africa Businesswomen’s Network (MENA BWN) will launch its inaugural forum this week in Dubai, focusing on the kind of problems females face when initiating their businesses.
The opening session, which is themed “Unleashing the Economic Potential of Women in the MENA Region,” will be held April 12-13 and will focus on mentoring and levering technology that can empower female entrepreneurs.
“One of the Forum’s key objectives is to enable women by providing specific, hands-on skills necessary to grow their enterprises,” Afnan R. Al Zayani, president of MENA Businesswomen’s Network, said in a statement released on Sunday.
Participants will also discuss the issues of brand development and using new ways to overcome the challenges of accessing capital and increasing media coverage to be able to pitch their own business ideas.
“One of our key sessions is on access to capital, and we’re bringing some outstanding speakers onboard from the World Bank, PwC, Riyada Enterprise Development (RED), Tenmou and Standard Chartered to talk about real solutions,” said Al Zayani.
In developed markets where women-owned firms are not a rare commodity, female business owners are doing just that as well as growing at more than double the rate of all other companies, according to MENA BWN.
With this in mind, the goal of the Forum is to cultivate a healthy business environment for female entrepreneurs so women can contribute to economic growth in the region.
Despite the imminent need for the kind of investments in education, business development, and support services that women bring to the market, the environment for women business owners in the MENA region still remains challenging.
According to a statement released by the Forum, the market has “remarkable” opportunities, yet women throughout the Middle East still face several obstacles when launching their own businesses. Women are actually less likely to obtain formal financing for their projects and have been shown “less access” to markets, non-financial business support services, and even information, according to MENA BWN.
“That’s why we are pleased to be hosting the MENA Businesswomen’s Network Forum in Dubai this week,” said Raja Al Gurg, president of Dubai Business Women Council. “The Forum is dedicated to providing women with specific skills and resources necessary needed to achieve success, develop their businesses and build their communities.”
Attending the discussions will be several leading females from the Arabian Business list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the Arab World. Discussions will revolve around how to create and support financially stable and responsible women-led start-ups.
Yasmine El-Mehairy, co-founder and CEO of SuperMama (www.supermama.me), a tech start-up launched in 2011 that provides women with advice on various topics from pregnancy issues to balancing work and family life, was among many women invited to attend.
Although El-Mehairy and her co-founders received an invitation to attend the Forum in Dubai, she told Daily News Egypt that due to “lack of funds,” she will not be able to attend
El-Mehairy, an Egyptian tech-savvy entrepreneur in her early 30’s believes that gender should not be an issue and business should simply be judge on the quality of their work.
“The idea of this forum is great but I am slightly worried because the labeling forces you to be gender specific; I don’t want to be stereotyped as a business women, I just want to be a business owner,” she said.
Although SuperMama has received recognition in Egypt as well as abroad for being innovative, El-Mehairy and her female co-founders have been unable to find access to funds in the region.
El-Mehairy however, believes that the real cause for lack of financing is due to the overall state of the economy in Egypt, which has been battered over the past year since the January 25 uprising.
SuperMama was recently chosen as one of 20 finalists from over 4,200 applicants who applied in “Start With Google,” an initiative that aims to help boost startups in the Middle East.
“Five out of these 20 businesses are female-led companies,” said El-Mehairy. Although she hates being labeled a “businesswoman” and not just a “business owner,” she said she has found difficulty being accepted in the Egyptian community.
“I was part of a TV show on an Egyptian satellite channel recently to discuss our work at Google and after the show I received harassment emails,” said El-Mehairy.
She said she found derogatory comments in her email from men harassing her for being a business owner as well as crude comments with flirtatious tones, simply because she is a woman.
“Just talking about it is not going to help,” El-Mehairy said in regards to the Forum. “We must reeducate the society.”
Overall, the ultimate focus of the MENA BWN is to create the kind of economic prosperity for families, individuals, and communities in the region.
The two-day event will be held sponsored by Sheikha Lubna Al-Qasimi, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Trade. MENA BWN’s organizers, represent over 2,500 members from 10 countries in the region. The Forum is also sponsored by ExxonMobil and supported by Vital Voices Global Partnership. Members of the Dubai Business Women Council will also be present at the discussions.