The last twenty years have witnessed a steady, though slow, growth in the participation of females in the community of MSEs entrepreneurs.
by Farah El Akkad
According to a research conducted by Professor Alia El Mahdi and published by Cairo University’s economics department, though the government and a number of Egyptian NGOs have played different roles in supporting this trend, “female entrepreneurs are still at a disadvantage. The lack of specialized training, modest educational background, social hindrances, the difficulty in accessing finance and the relative higher degree of informality are some of the challenges that have to be dealt with in future years, that is if women are to play a more vigorous role in economic life.”
#BentBi100 (a woman equal to a hundred men) is a hashtag introduced by Entreprenelle on Facebook that tells the success stories of young women entrepreneurs who decided to break down barriers and do something different with their lives. One of these women is Reham Sadek, a 38-year-old mother of two who established a medical tourism company in Germany after accompanying her mother for surgery there.
“I was in charge of everything; finding a good doctor, a hotel near the hospital and all the papers and booking. I liked the idea, since I am a naturally active person who hates routine and a 9 to 5 job. I decided this is the right job for me.” Sadek believes it is never too late to follow your dream. She also explains that part of the struggle Egyptian women deal with are different stereotypes such as that married women can only cook and take care of children. Sadek is lucky to have a supportive husband who encouraged her to pursue her dream.
Another #BentBi100 is Nesma El Far, co-founder of wafeyat.com. A 2011 marketing graduate, El Far’s initial experience in entrepreneurship started with Entrepreneur Society, an activity she and her friends Youssef El Sammaa (later husband) and Omar Hamdallah led during college after participating in different entrepreneurship student activities. “We started ‘The Hit’ in partnership with souk.com. It was a live competition which streamed online weekly,” El Far says, explaining that the students applied product ideas and introduced a prototype and the winners sold their products on souq.com. The idea of wafeyat.com came about after a friend’s relative passed away right after graduating. Being there for their friend during this hard time made them see “how exhausting the process of publishing an obituary is, how much time all the preparations needed for the funeral take and also how costly it is,” El Far says.
The Wafeyat team realized that most people their age do not read newspapers and usually inform their friends about any deaths in the family through social media. “So we decided to establish the first online platform in the Middle East to offer obituary announcements and condolence services so people can announce obituaries. We also make it easier for people with the option of publishing in Ahram newspaper and/or on our website,” she explains. In addition, Wafeyat also offers people the service of donations. “People usually pay from 5,000 to 7,000 to publish an obituary in Ahram. Instead we can donate the same amount of money on behalf of the deceased family member through foundations such as Misr El Kheir,” El Far adds.
Far explains the most challenging aspect of being a female in business is that people usually do not take you as seriously. “I was in charge of business development. While conducting a deal, some people do not take women as seriously as men. After some incidents, I would usually start the deal then have one of the male co-founders complete it. Others are not even serious about the deal from the beginning when they learn you are a female; they just want to meet to talk or flirt.”
On the other hand, El Far believes being a female entrepreneur gives one an edge. “I think it is one of the main reasons we got to 500 Startups in California in 2013, it was very obvious people were impressed and interested that a female entrepreneur is coming from what they term “a conservative” society such as Egypt.”
El Far believes other challenges women entrepreneurs face is the never-ending pressure because of the older generation who still see entrepreneurs as people who do not have “an actual job and no guaranteed future.” “My parents were not convinced and advised me to take on a traditional 9 to 5 job and get on with my career. However, the pressure and worry decrease when they see the success we are making and how happy we are,” El Far says, adding that she feels positive about the entrepreneurship scene and thinks that unlike the past couple of years women when women were only into fashion or design, they are now moving aggressively into the tech field.
El Mahdi’s research finds that female-owned enterprises are still relatively smaller in terms of invested capital or number of workers. “They are primarily concentrated in trade activities, and a very limited numbers of their MSEs are operating in services, and to a lesser extent in manufacturing. One of the main explanations of this pattern of concentration is the fact that trade activities are relatively easier to pursue, while service and manufacturing activities require prior training, skills and hands-on experience.”
A classic example is Dana Khater, who founded “Coterique,” a platform where buyers can find fashion from cool designers around the world from countries such as Jordan, Dubai, London, Lebanon, Australia and Turkey. “One can go online and shop by either country or by different designers that are not mass produced,” explains Khater, who is now 22.[caption id="attachment_469427" align="alignnone" width="620"] Dana Khater of Coterique.[/caption]
When she was 19 and a student at AUC, Khater started a fashion magazine called Vitrina. “I had the idea to sort of collaborate with all the Fashion Boutiques in Cairo and help them sell their products through a platform — Coterique,” Khater says. She applied to Flat6Labs and got her initial round of funding after completing the program. “I would basically go to AUC in the morning, do my classes and go to the office and do Flat6Labs at night.” An economics major, Khater has always had a passion for fashion and did an online degree with the Academy of Arts in San Francisco while studying economics. “I was also interested in the publishing and editorial side of it. Vogue was my dream job so starting Vitrina allowed me to work as editor in chief. It made me see all the different aspects of a magazine and how they come together,” Khater adds. “Coterique” is “Coterie” (a trade show in New York for emerging designers) and “boutique” put together. Khater explains she chose emerging designers because she believes “they need help to grow because they are stuck, need money, working on the collection. I love that we can come in and help them grow.”
Khater explains one of her biggest struggles was convincing her parents and family that she would not go into the traditional corporate world. “My mum is an HR director, which is very corporate. The idea that I was taking on interns instead of going and doing an internship myself during university was very odd. They kept saying, “Oh Khater, we will get you a job,” and I would say “no thank you,” Khater recalls.
In terms of female entrepreneurs, she believes there is no difference between them and male entrepreneurs when it comes to starting up a company. “I do not think I would have gotten any more preferential treatment if I was a male. I think we female entrepreneurs need to do whatever we want, it is as simple as that. There is no actual struggle that comes just by being a female alone,” emphasizes Khater.
Her mother being her biggest supporter and role model, Khater thinks that changing mindsets of how people view entrepreneurship will come with time and that more people nowadays are forgoing traditional 9 to 5 jobs. “I think a couple of years ago, the entrepreneurship scene in Egypt was still in its baby phase, but nowadays you can see a lot of young people who are into it. When I first started Coterique there was not much. It has grown a lot since then. I think a lot more people are working on startups and are into doing something they feel they have their name on and is a lot more personal which is a sign of hope.”
Most importantly, Khater thinks young entrepreneurs must learn from their failures and from other people’s failures as well. “I think the one thing we need to learn is that people fail in order to succeed. Here in Egypt people usually talk about how many times they have succeeded but never talk about how many times they have failed.”
In addition, Khater does not agree that there is a specific field women have gone into when it comes to entrepreneurship. “I think I would have easily got into a different industry other than fashion. I do not think that there are specific industries for females or males only,” she explains, adding the one things she believes young women entrepreneurs need to learn is to start. “Go ahead. Do it now, especially if you are young. You will thank yourself later even if you fail because you do not need to support a family, you do not have a kid or you do not have to buy a house or pay loans. You are a carefree person and you are probably still taking money from your family and that is the best place to be,” Khater advises.
Khater also cautions that there is no immediate goldrush as soon as a startup is launched. “Working on a startup barely makes money for the first couple of months. Entrepreneurs need to be able to sacrifice time and money, which are the most valuable things you can worry about when you are older but when you are younger, you have all the time in the world. Even if there is something to be said about having more experience, but you can learn a lot of it and when you are working with your hands, you can learn a lot faster than through reading a book about it. Start and fail and do it again and again because you cannot get to the finish line unless you show up and start.”