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Ellen Chilemba: The entrepreneur helping Malawi’s women

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Ellen Chilemba

Ellen Chilemba is one of Africa’s youngest social entrepreneurs, bringing about change and empowerment for the women left behind by society.

For Ellen Chilemba, being an entrepreneur is about affecting social change and helping others reach success. Her ground-breaking project Tiwale is making waves across the African non-profit sector. Making the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2015 and with a long way to go until she hits 30, she has a bright future ahead affecting change in Malawi’s development.

Born and raised in Malawi, at the age of 16 she was offered a scholarship to attend the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, where she studied leadership, entrepreneurship and African studies. This experience shaped her immensely and straight after graduating she launched her first major project: Tiwale. This is a social enterprise designed to train women in the apparel industry, and help them escape cycles of poverty in her native Malawi. This was a risk for Chilemba, and she doubted whether taking a year out of studying was good for her career. Fortunately, Tiwale has been extremely successful and she is now studying economics at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts while managing her business from abroad.

Believing in gender empowerment

Chilemba believes in women helping women, and that gender empowerment is the key to reducing poverty in her homeland. Gender disparity statistics in Malawi are alarming by global standards. Women have some of the lowest primary school completion rates, low socioeconomic markers and higher than average HIV and AIDS infection figures. Malawi also has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and many young women are forced to leave school and marry at 12 or 13.

With little to no education to speak of, low access to medical care and few economic opportunities, women in Malawi are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized in Africa. These are the conditions that inspired Chilemba to create a project that would improve lives in a big way. She believes that is a key factor as incremental changes are easily undone, frequently resulting into a slide back into poverty.


Tiwale finds success with a cyclic business model

It became apparent to Chilemba that although many women throughout Malawi wore bright, traditionally dyed clothing, most of these clothes were imported from neighboring countries. Having identified a potential business, she began training women to dye-print different fabrics that are then sold to designers as garment material or from their website as tapestries and tote bags. The women are allowed to keep 60% of the profit, while 40% goes back into the company to help to train more women and perpetuate the cycle.

Tiwale means “let’s glow” in the Malawian language, Chichewa. Tiwale’s purpose is to empower, guide and allow women to “lift” themselves out of poverty. Chilemba’s orignal model has grown considerably, and since its inception 3 years ago has branched into two avenues.

The first branch is the fabric design training for women in the community, where their goods are sold through the company and they are free to use their skills to start their own business, or continue working with the program in their facilities.

The other is much more ambitious, offering micro-finance schemes. These begin with leadership and entrepreneurship courses where the participants learn business skills such as inventory and accounting. After the training, the women present business proposals and the most viable ideas are given interest free loans that are repaid over 10 weeks. Tiwale has also introduced a scheme to send promising candidates back to school or college with grants paid for by the vocational courses and resulting profits. Each woman that they help then goes on to help others. Currently they have helped 40 women to become business owners and have taught entrepreneurial courses to 150 more.

What does Chilemba’s future entail?

Not one to be satisfied with her current success, planning is already underway to build an education and entrepreneur center for women. This will be used in a number of ways, giving the participants space to create their products, as well as for further workshops and additional activities. Chilemba sees a future for Tiwale where the company outgrows her involvement and flourishes on its own. She wants to focus next on the education system in Malawi and ways to attract tourism to her “beautiful country.” She says she is “excited by social entrepreneurship and has many more ideas to pursue.” Chilemba is a much needed role model for Malawi. Through her efforts perhaps she will inspire future leaders and entrepreneurs who can further drive change in their homeland.

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Catherine Mahugu: Inspiring Women in Kenyan Tech

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Catherine Mahugu

Catherine Mahugu is a tech innovator from Kenya who has built an empire on socially beneficial projects and connectivity.

Catherine Mahugu is leading the way in the Kenyan tech industry. Currently working from San Francisco for her e-commerce accessories business which connects consumers and local African manufacturers, she has made waves across the tech, IT and retail worlds. She credits her early interest in science and technology to her engineer father and at just 27, she has achieved a great deal in these industries.

Early life

Mahugu graduated from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. From an early age she broke the mold, favoring entrepreneurial projects over “corporate” roles that she considered to be the “safe option.” Her first projects were collaborations with her student colleagues at university, such as a mobile application that helps rural water vendors connect with customers by advertising their location and prices.

Combining her degree, enterprising spirit and intimate knowledge of the regional issues affecting her native Kenya, Mahugu has been at the forefront of creating many projects that benefit local people. Her first official foray into the tech world was with KamataKab, a mobile solution that uses GPS to locate taxis in the area, an option to contact and then a rating system to rate the taxi’s service for other users to utilize. Although this was the overall winner at the Garage4Kenya awards in 2011, Mahugu knows that this app was a little too ahead of its time; it didn’t meet the recent successes of Uber and Easy Taxi today. This hasn’t fazed Mahugu however, and she feels that the experience showed her that innovation was a viable career route and that her ideas had traction in the tech world.

Innovation, Innovation, Innovation

The building blocks to her latest enterprise can be seen in her next project, SasaAfrica. This provided the foundations for Soko, launching an app that allowed merchants to connect with customers using only their mobile phones. The idea for the projects came from a chance meeting with the two other founders while in Nairobi. They all believed in a future for mobile phone technology to help African enterprises. With the percentage of mobile phone usage up to 90% in some parts of Africa, they realized that is was an obvious global solution to connectivity issues between consumers and vendors. After seeing many predominantly female artisans at local markets struggling to sell their ware to a limited customer base, they decided to launch a global marketplace that these vendors could access, in which they could accept orders and then organize distribution.

soko artisans

Profiles of the artisans on the ShopSoko.com website

Now based in California, the company helps over 1,000 artisans sell their products to a global community. After joining the Soko network, users see their yearly income increasing by a massive 400% on average. They now operate in over 40 countries and plan to expand to reach vendors in Mexico and India. Mahugu is committed to overcoming the challenges that many Africans face. They were confronted with supply issues from vendors, caused by problems such as inconsistency of electricity, so they are adapting their business model to include trusted, shared spaces where artisans can create and collaborate.

Mahugu knows the struggle many women face coming from traditional backgrounds, having less access to education, and to the outside world. She is committed to rebalancing gender inequalities and believes that “when one woman helps another, amazing things can happen.” She is a role model to young women, particularly in the tech-world. When she was expanding her business, and receiving no applications from women for the technology roles, she realized something had to be done to appeal to women like herself. She explained that the gender imbalance in the tech industry was “a harsh reality that dawned on me, and that we still need more women in technology and collaboratively need to promote this awareness.” Social enterprise and IT seem to be a winning combination for Mahugu, and her commitment to social justice and interest in empowering other women in the tech-world make her a person worth keeping an eye on.

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Folorunsho Alakija: A portrait of a billionaire

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Folorunsho Alakija

Businesswoman, fashion designer and even a marriage counselor; Folorunsho Alakija won’t be retiring any time soon.

Folorunsho Alakija is not only the second richest woman in Africa but she has also been listed as one of the most powerful 100 women in the world by Forbes magazine. This is a businesswoman who takes diversified interests to a quite remarkable level, as Alakija is not only involved in oil mining and fashion design but has even written books on marriage counseling and started up her own ministry.

So how did this 64 year old Nigerian woman end up in such a position of wealth and influence?

Folorunsho Alakija: “Many have asked how I got to where I am”

Alakija arrived into the world on July 15th 1951, born into a large family in which her father had an incredible 52 children. Alakija and one of her sisters were sent to school in the United Kingdom at the age of 7 and remained there for 4 years.

Although she returned to Nigeria for her high school education, Alakija made her way back to the UK as a young adult where she studied to be a secretary and also took up a fashion design course at the American College in London and the Central School of Fashion.

Alakija began her first job in 1970, working as a secretary for Sijuade Enterprises and then 4 years later moved on to become the Executive Secretary to the Managing Director of First National Bank of Chicago (now First City Monument Bank).

From this point on, determination, hard work and the confidence to take risks are what saw Alakija’s career go far beyond her formal qualifications. While she did not have a degree, diligence and natural talent helped her carve out increasingly senior roles in the corporate world. Within two years of joining the bank, Alakija was promoted to the Head of Corporate Affairs and subsequently rose further into the company hierarchy by becoming Office Assistant to the Treasury Department.

While many people would have been happy to continue such a progression in the corporate world, Alakija wanted to use her creativity and took a gamble by leaving the security of her career to launch her own fashion house in 1983. The Rose of Sharon House (originally named Supreme Stitches) was an almost immediate success and made Alakija a household name in Nigeria as she promoted traditional prints and Nigerian styles in her clothing.

A move from the finance sector into fashion design might seem unusual, but Alakija’s massive success has been built upon her willingness to take calculated risks and in 1991 she made another bold move into yet another arena.

“A truly family business”

In 1991, Alakija ventured into the oil industry and although her prospecting license was not granted until 1993, it was the move that would turn a successful career into one that made billions. Alakija’s company Famfa Oil acquired 60% of a lucrative block of coastal oil that came to fruition in 1996 when Texaco (now Chevron) approached her to broker a deal. Negotiations lasted 3 months, but at the end of it Alakija had a deal with a multinational oil company and Famfa Oil became a juggernaut in African business. Famfa is, as Alakija states, a “family business” in that her husband of 40 years is the chairman and their four sons are the Executive Directors.

Having been happily married for four decades and being a devout born-again Christian, it is perhaps unsurprising that Alakija is saddened by the world’s increasing divorce rates. What might be more surprising about a billionaire businesswoman is that she decided to try and address this by writing a book on marriage counseling and by regularly giving speeches around Nigeria to try and help provide advice on how to make marriage work.

“A burning desire to help the less privileged and needy”

Helping people is something that is important to Nigeria’s richest woman and her huge financial clout has meant that she is able to do a lot more than write books. In 2008, The Rose of Sharon Foundation was launched to allow Alakija to invest in the futures of widows and orphans in Nigeria. Scholarships and interest-free loans aim to help those with very little prospects have a chance at changing their own fortunes.

There have been 9,000 medical and engineering scholarships thus far and in addition to this work, Alakija has provided 21 clinics for treating tuberculosis across the country, 21 science laboratories and is in the process of designing the building of two schools that will bear the name of her foundation.

Alakija’s career has been extraordinary by any standards and yet with her foundation, public speaking and the ministry she launched in 2004, there is no sign of her slowing down any time soon. And it is her religion that she insists is behind her success and her passion to keep working and promoting her belief in her faith. Although many people might look to her ingenuity, brave decision making and talent, Alakija says “Though many have claimed that I have become their role model, I assign all the glory to God.”

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Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi : The Arab World’s Most Powerful Woman

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Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi’s more than decade-long political career began with the groundbreaking distinction of being the first woman appointed to a ministerial office in the UAE.

CEO Middle East magazine has ranked United Arab Emirates’ Minister of International Cooperation and Development (MICAD, also called the Ministry of Tolerance), Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the most powerful Arab woman for the sixth year in a row. The first woman to hold a government ministerial position in the UAE, Sheikha Lubna’s long political career has enabled her to rise through the ranks of a male-dominated society.

A member of the ruling party, Lubna is the niece of his Highness Dr. Sheiki Sultan bin Mohammand Al Qasimi, the current ruler of the Sharajah Emirate and a member of the Supreme Council of the UAE. Before her political career took off, Sheikha Lubna studied in the United States, where she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science before undertaking her MBA with the American University of Sharajah.

Becoming the Most Powerful Arab Woman: Education, Family and Positions of Power

CEO Middle East magazine creates its ranking of 100 powerful Arab women based upon the number of lives each woman has touched. With more than a decade in political office, Sheikha Lubna’s position of power has enabled her to create and inform UAE policies, impacting the lives of millions.

Her professional career includes a litany of impressive feats across business and financial sectors: in 2000, she became the CEO of Tejari, the first business-to-business e-market place in the Middle East; acted as the head of the Dubai e-Government executive team and was responsible for instituting initiatives throughout Dubai’s public sector in 2004; and Sheikha served as the Chairperson of the board of Directors of the UAE’s Securities and Commodities Authority from 2004-2008. In addition to her MBA, Sheikha Lubna has three Honorary Doctorates: Law and Economics from in science, from California State University (Chico), in Law, from the University of Exeter (United Kingdom) and in Economics, from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Korea). Honorary Doctorates are given in recognition of contribution to the field, and are usually awarded after an individual and provided a commencement speech or rendered another service to a university.

In 2004, Sheikha Lubna was appointed Minister of Economy, earning the distinction of the UAE’s first female minister. After a successful tenure at Minister of Economy, Sheikha Lubna became Minister of Foreign Trade in 2008. In 2013, she was appointed Minister of the Ministry for Cooperation and Development, and in March 2014 appointed as President for Zayed University (one of the UAE’s highest ranking tertiary educational institutions), as well as the Head of the UAE Committee of Humanitarian Aid just two months later.

Moving Up, As a Woman

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi with Bill Gates

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi with Bill Gates

Sheikha Lubna’s impressive educational, professional and political career would have likely been impossible without her family connections and high standing in Emirati society. That being said, it was due to Sheikha Lubna’s perseverance and persistence that her family allowed her to pursue her academic interests.

“I wanted to be a computer engineer and my dream was to go to the US…It took a lot of [effort] from my brothers to convince my parents to let me go, but I [went to] the UK, and I stayed with a British family. As long as I was within a family environment, it was OK by my parents and eventually I went to the US,” Sheikha Lubna said at the Global Women’s Forum Dubai earlier this year.

Lifting Women along her Journey

Not only does Sheikha Lubna use her position to create positive change for Emiratis, but she is an influential figure for women throughout the Arab world. Her story of academic and professional success is no doubt inspirational for the millions of women who have not had strong female role models.

This highlights the difficulties Emirati, and Arab, women continue to face: Sheikha Lubna is from a very well-respected family, and yet it was her brothers who had to petition her parents on her behalf. When asked why she chose to return to the UAE, where her path would be presumably more challenging than if she stayed lived in a more equitable society, she said “I came back to the UAE because I owed to it to my country and to the leaders, and not many people get such opportunities.”

Sheikha Lubna has been recognized by Forbes and the Wall Street Journal as one of the most influential women in the world, regardless of region. Her sense of duty to her nation and countrywomen is truly remarkable. It has been a challenging road to be the first female minister in the UAE, and her dedication has not gone unnoticed.

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WOMENA: Taking the (Middle) Men Out of Women’s Investment

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elissa freiha

Named one of The 100 Most Powerful Businesswomen by Arabian Business, Elissa Freiha is bringing the western model of “angel investing” to the United Arab Emirates.

Barriers to entry are one of the most common challenges creative entrepreneurs face. When young business people have excellent ideas, they have few resources to make these ideas concrete: this is where angel investing comes in. Angel investing is a relatively new concept that began in the western world and is spreading to areas with high concentrations of wealthy people, such as the United Arab Emirates.

Women and Business

Elissa Freiha received a Bachelor’s in Communications from the University of Paris and has worked in publishing and entertainment, both fields where women have been relatively successful in challenging the patriarchal status quo. A native Emirati of Lebanese and American descent, Freiha knew first-hand the challenges women face getting ahead in the business world in both her home country and the European west.

Entering the business world is challenging for both founders of start-ups and for investors. Wealthy individuals need advice on where, how and when to invest, and often need a great deal of coaching and education when they are considering their first large investments. In the UAE, financially independent women are still viewed with apprehension, making it even more difficult for them to make informed business investments.

Freiha recognized the need for a platform that would connect wealthy individuals with determined young business people. Freiha saw an opportunity to combine her feminist ideals with her business acumen: women across the globe have been historically left out of business investment and development. While this is changing in the western world, with more women breaking through the glass ceiling to the top levels of Fortune 500 companies, women’s visibility and participation in top-level business is still stunted in the Middle East.

With the aim of creating a platform for wealthy female investors to meet and collaborate with un-funded start-ups, WOMENA was born. It is not only a bold rejection of the male-dominated business world (men are not allowed to have membership), but is also a play on words: MENA is the acronym used to refer to the Middle East and North Africa in international forums.


Women, Money and MENA

WOMENA is investor-focused, not entrepreneur focused. Members pay an annual fee for exclusive access to WOMENA’s extensive business connections, educational materials, hands-on advice and training workshops. The only institutional angel investment platform for women in the Middle East and Africa, it seeks to help women in the MENA region control their wealth intelligently. With a web of partners with varied business backgrounds and expertise, WOMENA offers members a unique approach to internationally and Middle Eastern focused investment. It does due diligence on all potential investment venues and, when a start-up is selected for presentation; the platform carefully goes through the risks with interested members.

According to the website, their mission is to make “investment more accessible and valuable” in that every new member and every new investment helps to redefine the role of women in business. WOMENA is a platform for progress, equality and education. We are bringing together inspiring and motivated women to make intelligent investments confidently. Development is our driving force: whether that is on an individual or collective level, we aim to push both social and economic boundaries.” Unlike other angel investing platforms, WOMENA does not aim to speed up or incubate start-ups, citing that “we have partners for that”, but are instead a platform for funding start-ups.

Ringing in the Future, Today

It is bold innovators like Freiha who will lead women in the MENA region into the business world. With money to invest and few platforms to do so, WOMENA is changing the way women handle money. A likely positive consequence of this platform will be the introduction of non-traditional start-ups to the MENA region. Women investors have different priorities than their male counterparts, and often look to promote women’s interests: several of the start-ups in WOMENA’s portfolio are apps that take out the time-consuming aspect of traditional “women’s work” so users, likely women with full-time jobs outside of the home, are able to spend more time on their careers and less time on gendered work. Other start-ups include online marketplace for used children’s clothing, an online database of e-books, an app that connects students, and more.

By inviting women into the investment seen with WOMENA, Freiha is changing the face of MENA investment. Financial independence and autonomy is an integral part of women’s empowerment, and Freiha has created a safe space for women to learn and grow as investors.

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Janine Diagou rises to number 2 in family company

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janine diagou

As head of banking of NSIA Group, Janine Diagou prepares to introduce company shares on the regional stock exchange.

When Janine Bénédicte Diagou joined the family insurance and banking business in 1999, it wasn’t guaranteed that she would be running it one day.

But 17 years later, she is group managing director and head of the banking division at NSIA Group, a leading insurer in French-speaking Africa based in the Ivory Coast, and the number two to her father, Jean Kacou Diagou, who founded NSIA Group in 1995 and serves as its president.

These are busy times for the Diagous as their company, which has pursued an aggressive growth strategy, prepares to take their bank public and introduce shares on the regional stock exchange for eight West African countries, including Ivory Coast.

For Janine Diagou, that has meant months of travel to meet with boards of subsidiaries in the region to smooth the way for the initial public offering, which will enable the bank to raise capital.

Diagou studied business in England, France

Janine Diagou studied business and finance in Paris and in London, obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in business administration in France and a Master of Science degree in finance in England.

After she finished her studies in 1995, she joined Citibank in Abidjan, and then moved to Mobil Group ACOE as an internal auditor.

She said she took what was essentially a demotion to join her father’s company at his request in 1999, trading an executive role at Mobil Group for the more modest role of auditor at NSIA.

Her father was forming a new auditing group and asked her to join as a simple auditor.

“He asked me to cut my salary in half. I was not very excited at first, especially since I did not know the insurance industry. So we had to work hard to prove that I deserved my place,” she said.

Skepticism, then success

She said she faced skepticism and took pains to avoid being perceived as having the job because she was the daughter of the boss, including addressing him as “mister president.”

She rose to become financial director of the group and then took charge of strategic development. She assumed her current position in 2011.

She said she and her father never had a game plan for her advancement.

“He never promised me anything and, believe me, he did not ease the task either. I think in my job, I won his trust,” she said.

Progress for women in business

She believes her success is a victory for women in business.

“Convincing men in industry of your competence is not simple in Africa,” she said. “The main challenge was to prove again and again that I was capable of doing the job at least at the same level as men — and even better.”

She said she and her father have not reached a stage of discussing succession. Instead she is focused in gaining investor confidence that the company is sustainable.

Family, private investors having holdings

NSIA currently owns nearly 80 percent of the bank, with the family holding 60 percent and the remaining 20 percent in the hands of private investors. National Bank of Canada bought a 20.9 percent share in the bank for approximately $94 million in 2015.

NSIA Bank, formerly known as BIAO-CI is part of the financial group NSIA, which is a leading insurance provider in 12 countries across West and Central Africa. NSIA also owns a bank in Guinea. The company reported revenue of $3.3 million in 2014 and Jean Diagou forecast revenue would increase by 10 percent in 2015.

Few details of the initial public offering have been made public and no date for the stock sale has been announced.

Ivorian law requires companies to offer at least 10 percent of their shares to be listed on the exchange.

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Najla Al-Midfa Breaks the Glass Ceiling

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Najla Al-Midfa

Najla Al-Midfa set her sights above the solid glass ceiling in the Emirati banking sector, joining as the first female board member at the United Arab Bank, and founding an online mentorship community to provide young Emiratis with more equitable opportunities.

The Muslim world is often portrayed as an oppressively sexist society despite some seemingly modern societies, such as the United Arab Emirates. Despite its widely publicized modernization, for women living in the UAE, life is undeniably inequitable: by law, Emirati women cannot marry non-Muslim men unless they convert (whereas men can marry a woman regardless of her religious affiliation), and wedding contracts are negotiated between future husband and a woman’s male guardian; sex outside of marriage is illegal, women cannot unilaterally divorce their husbands (whereas men can), and in order to petition for divorce must prove that they have been abandoned for more than three months, that they have been physically abused or that a husband has been financially negligent; and in the case of divorce, a woman’s custody rights may be revoked should she re-marry.

The First Step on the Career Ladder

Emirati women are lesser citizens than their male counterparts, which makes individual rebellions against the system all the more remarkable. Najla Al-Midfa, a native Emirati born and raised in Sharjah, is a prime example of the incredible strength and acumen Emirati women possess. Al-Midfa was born and raised in an affluent neighborhood in Dubai and received her Master in Business and Administration from Stanford University before entering the entrepreneurial world of the UAE. Upon her 2010 return to the UAE, Al-Midfa joined the Khalifa Fund. The Khalifa Fund was launched in 2007 to support young, local entrepreneurs in Abu Dhabi enter the business world. The Khalifa Fund was the perfect starting point for Al-Midfa: she wanted to use her business and interpersonal skills to promote local entrepreneurs in a comprehensive way. She guided a team through the due diligence process, and helped identify smart investments. While at the Khalifa Fund, Al-Midfa was constantly questioned about her career path: it was these questions that inspired her to create a mentorship program so that young people would have guidance after their academic careers.

Starting Up to Help Others Starting Out

Al-Midfa left the Khalifa Fund and founded Khayarat. Khayarat gives recent graduates exclusive access to existing companies, connecting them with potential mentors who can offer personal advice on entering the workforce. The online career development platform targets the 18-25 year old market so they can launch their careers in the private sector. Khayarat promotes companies through individual company pages that provide a complete analysis of the company: a Khayarat team visits each company and photographs the workspace and employees so prospective employees can get a feel for the atmosphere. For international businesses, this personal touch is important. Khayarat only visits local branches of international companies, which might not be highlighted on a given corporate website. By highlighting the local branch, Khayarat provides a comprehensive directory of local private sector companies with which recent graduates could work.


A Crack in the Ceiling

Not only is Al-Midfa the founder of her own business, but she has worked for numerous international firms and is on several boards of directors and committees. It is common knowledge that, while women make up a significant portion of the formal global workforce, their presence in the upper echelons of business is lacking. Through hard work, perseverance and a refusal to accept the status quo, Al-Midfa has cracked the omnipresent glass ceiling. In her earlier career, she worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the multinational professional services network. She is currently on the board of Education for Employment UAE; Sharjah Business Women Council; Young Arab Leaders and is on the Board of Directors and a Member of the Executive Committee at the United Arab Bank–the first woman to hold such a high position.

Al-Midfa’s impressive resume summarizes and even more impressive woman. Al-Midfa is a formidable role model for all young business people, regardless of gender or nationality. When asked for her best piece of advice, Al-Midfa said “the advice that I give most often is a piece of advice that was given to me – and now I’m passing it on… ‘We find comfort amongst those who agree with us, but we find growth amongst those who don’t.’” This advice should ring true for all: comfort zones must be left, as Al-Midfa did when she went to the USA for her MBA, and as she has done time and again in the male dominated private sector, in order to grow as a person and a professional.

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Magatte Wade, the New African Global Voice

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magatte wade

39-year-old Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade, who made her name in Silicon Valley, has brought the love for her continent and her business flair together to bring the world a taste of African soul and the world to Africa.

If you are not prepared to face a pride of lions or find yourself pitted against the former CEO of Nestlé in a debate on the importance of organics, then step down, you are not prepared to be Magatte Wade.

Walking away from a $32 million business to create her second company in 2009, Magatte Wade is no stranger to making hard decisions, shunning the easy route and following her instincts. Five successful years went into Adina World Beverages before her departure, a company whose concept blossomed from a much loved yet rapidly disappearing traditional Senegalese drink, bissap, made from hibiscus flowers. The brave entrepreneur left behind Adina World Beverages not because it hit difficulties or became financially unviable, but rather due to a realization that her beliefs were no longer in sync with those of the other key stakeholders.

Now the founder and CEO of Tiossan, which produces luxury, organic skincare products, she brings traditional Senegalese recipes to the global beauty and health market, selling online, in high-end boutiques across the US and in their Hudson, New York, based store. Tiossan gives 10% of all profits towards creating innovative schools in Senegal.

“Use the power of brands to change perceptions”

As an entrepreneur Wade saw the disappearing bissaps’ marketing value but more than this, her experience had taught her that branding is the opportunity to tell a story and she had one she wanted to share.

During her first TEDex talk in 2011, the young Senegalese spoke of brands creating a culture. At the time over 50% of the Top 100 World Brands were American and not a single one African. She observed that American culture is in all our everyday lives and she concluded, “America has succeeded beautifully in exporting its own culture,” it being one of the most sought after worldwide.

To Wade this means building a powerful consumer brand of Africa’s own, to put it on a platform to engage on a global level and subsequently having a say on world issues. There are solutions and Africa can be part of it. “I want my continent to be an economic and cultural power.” Rather than sitting waiting for the next trend to come from America, she said “we can change whole world’s problems by addressing those in the US” first. Selling America healthier drink alternatives like bissap, to reduce obesity levels, was a clever example.

Big ideas and big ambitions

magatte wadeAs a girl, she ran free until the age of eight in her Senegal family compound. Always the instigator of fun hunting and fishing trips, she led a pack of boys with her on her escapades, leadership skills she now draws upon greatly.

From her grandmother, who was her main caretakeruntil she went to join her parents in Germany, she was given a “tremendous feeling of confidence and boundless opportunity”. These attributes, she says, taught her more than anything she learnedat school.

Arriving in Germany, school came as a cold slap of new reality. The rigidness she felt from those initial days would follow her to France, where she studied from the age of 10 until 20 and attended PSB-Paris Business School, which lefther seeking to inject more warmth, humanity and soul into the business world. She made connections while on an exchange program to Indiana and moved there in 1997, before finding her way to Silicon Valley nearSan Francisco.

That special something

It appears her grandmother was onto something when she told her she had “something” special and “something”special to give the world. Ranked first in Forbes 2014 ”20 Young Builders of Africa of Tomorrow” as well as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum at Davos, the list of impressive accolades goes on.

A woman of Africa and a visionary for her continent’s future, she remains humble and good humored. About that run-in with the Nestlé heavyweight, it was his un-gentlemanliness that allowed her to gracefully side-step a technical question she didn’t have the means to answer. It was “scarier than the day I ran into a pride of lions on the Okavango. And just as beautiful.”

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An Untapped Resource: Emerging Fields of Employment for Women in the Middle East

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middle east women in tech

Echoing global trends, in the Middle East the number of women pursuing a university degree is equal to, or higher than the number of men. In Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan women constitute respectively 67%, 63%, 57%, and 51% of university graduates. Arab women outnumber men in even the hard sciences. Indeed, the number of female STEM graduates is higher in the Middle East than it is in Western Europe. But as of yet, these advances in education have not translated into jobs. The number of women in paid employment in the MENA region is the world’s lowest, at 32%. In Jordan that figure is 16%. And women are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as men in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Kuwait, nearly 80% of the unemployed are women.

Persistent social and economic barriers – both perceived and real – are standing in the way. How will women travel to work when they’re not allowed to drive? Who will escort them? Who will look after their children? And what happens if they become pregnant? Comprehensive female employment will require governments to enact new laws. And it will require companies to create separate offices, bathrooms, entrances, and more.

However, representing a highly educated talent pool and an untapped resource that could offer the region a competitive advantage, women are perfectly qualified to play a productive role in the workforce. And indeed, there are now some positive signs that fields of female employment are starting to emerge and that businesses are starting to capitalize on the potential of Middle Eastern women.

More female Internet entrepreneurs in the Middle East than in the West

Technology is playing a significant role. In a region where nearly a third of the 355 million population are aged 15 to 25, Internet and social media penetration is very high. Nearly 90% access the web from home (except in Jordan and Egypt where the figure is 44%-50%). And nearly nine in ten Internet users log in to social media every day. Nowhere in the world does Twitter have more active users in proportion to the population than in Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, the region is also the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market.

The combination is creating opportunities for women, allowing them to set up small businesses from home where they can at once conform to traditional social norms and work. Indeed, where only 10% of Internet entrepreneurs across the world are women, in the MENA region that figure is 35%.

sheburgerJust a few examples: Emirati Shaikha Eissa has built a successful burger company, She Burger, on Instagram utilizing her 25,000 followers. Mona Ataya has launched a baby product retail site, Mumzworld, targeting female shoppers, which employs 40 people and sells more than 100,000 products. And prominent Palestinian Instagrammers Ruba Abdulhadi and Badea Jaber, have brought luxury western fashion to the Middle East with an e-shop, ElMuda.com, which leverages social content.

ElMuda.com was supported by Oasis500, the first early stage and seed investment company in Jordan and the MENA region. And there are many other bodies similarly investing in the region’s female entrepreneurs. The Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator is actively working to increase women’s leadership in the Gaza start-up sector. Girls in Tech is working to inform women in urban and rural communities around the world about the possibilities that tech can open up. And the US State Department has a TechWomen initiative which pairs MENA female tech entrepreneurs with American counterparts in Silicon Valley.

Fetchr is revolutionizing Middle Eastern delivery with a female workforce

E-commerce is also creating further employment opportunities for women. For example, GPS delivery app Fetchr has developed a female workforce to revolutionize delivery in the region. Currently, much of e-commerce is paid for cash on delivery (60%), but if a woman is home alone she won’t answer the door for a male driver. This results in returned products, lag times in payment, and repeat delivery trips. In solution, Fetchr, operating in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Bahrain, has employed women to make the deliveries.

Co-founders Joy Ajlouny and Idriss al-Rifai say: “In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. Our deliverywomen will not be driving, they’ll just be knocking on doors. And because Saudi law dictates that all women must be accompanied in public spaces by a mahram, a male-relative or in-law escort, Fetchr employs family teams. Father-daughter, brother-sister, uncle-niece.” The company is also actively hiring female drivers in the UAE where women are allowed to drive.

Creating new business spaces for women

Fetchr is not the only company capitalizing on the business benefits of a female workforce. In Saudi Arabia, the Olayan Group, a 30-company conglomerate led by Lubna Olayan, is similarly committed to female employment. The Group, which deals in investing, real estate, manufacturing and distribution for foreign brands including Coca-Cola, Ritz Crackers, and Oreos, currently employs some 400 women (3% of its 12,000 Saudi-based employees). It has set a target to have 1,000 female employees in roles at all levels, from the factory floor to sales and management, by 2016.

Lubna Olayan

Lubna Olayan

The Group’s first female employees, mostly disadvantaged women, made history when they became Saudi Arabia’s first ever female factory workers, sewing surgical gowns at Enayah. Coca-Cola bottling now has an all-female bottling line. And Nabisco Arabia has a woman-only production line. Olayan companies have installed female prayer rooms and created partitions in offices, canteens, and factory floors to give their women workers privacy in line with regulations. There are also women-only buses to and from work.

Because yes, in the short term female employment in the MENA region will take some investment. But in the long term, capitalizing on the potential of a whole sector of society will also come with benefits.

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Lubna Olayan, a Modern Arab Business Leader

Comments (0) Featured, Leaders, Middle East


by Sheldon Mayer, Managing Editor

Lubna Olayan appears in “Most Powerful Women” lists every year, featured by Forbes, Fortune, and Bloomberg as a model of modern international business leadership. She was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010 by her alma mater Cornell University. After her renowned father and founder of OFC summoned her to head the Middle Eastern sector of his OFC conglomerate, Lubna Olayan raised the standards, and quietly began modernizing work flow practices, undaunted by her singularity as the only woman in a conservative, heavily male-dominated Arabic business-scape. Notably she now continues a trend to fill roles in her companies with women who are “deserving” of positions in business and engineering, in what she describes as a unique meritocracy for Middle Eastern businesses. Her meritocracy sweeps across vast borders of business and finance, and as a holding company it is uniquely diverse.

Although Olayan Financing Company is reserved in comments about their revenue and profit, assets are currently estimated to range from seven to ten billion dollars. With the leadership of Lubna Olayan the company expanded into real estate, manufacturing, and partnerships in international brands such as Nabisco and Burger King. Lubna, her brother, and two sisters sit on the board of directors of this global enterprise, each sibling taking a role as leader of a particular geographic area within the global scope.


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