Earlier today, I attended the #SheMeansBusiness panel, part of the Facebook Mena Tech Week 2018 hosted in Beirut. The panel involved 3 local businesswomen who are breaking the barriers of entrepreneurship in Lebanon and the whole MENA region. Sarah Beydoun from Sarah’s Bag, Elsa Aoun, co-founder of Ounousa and Malak Karajah, co-founder & CMO of Petriotics.
How did the panelist’s business come about – Sarah’s model was based on her passion for social impact and learning on the go how to do the job, whether it’s design, or how to run a business. Elsa was able to find a missing link in the Arab community for Arabic articles online, especially for women, so she started Ounousa. And Malak loved her dog and is used to buying online that she squeezed herself onto the Petriotics founding team and became one of them, where she was able to assist in quadrupling the number of orders on the platform.
What factors helped in the success of the panelists’ businesses – According to Sarah, asking for help and seeking mentorship are key to building the base of a successful business, as well as building a good team to fill in the parts that you are not expert in. Elsa built her business by bootstrapping funds and reinvesting them within the company without using any of the profits until her business engine was well up and running. She also believes that applying for funds is a good step to bring in financial support and build a solid business model. As for Malak, she declares that everybody one meets can be useful to one’s learning experience. Ask questions, meet people and converse so you can add to your knowledge pool.
What were the main failures you had to deal with – Sarah believes that failures are actually lessons in disguise, and to really learn from one’s mistakes, you should reflect on what went wrong, take a minute to re-strategize and learn from any given opportunity. She tells us about the time she only got 2 orders after a show in Paris from existing clients, believing that the curation of the collection during the expo was not optimal. Elsa’s story revolved around creating an e-commerce platform way too early for the targeted community, to which she pulled the plug after a few months to cut losses and avoid wasting time. She then was able to relaunch the e-commerce platform when the time seemed more appropriate. Malak’s experience with failure is very positive, and doesn’t believe that it should be an excuse to throw in the towel. She witnessed companies scrapping years worth of work because of the learning curve from the mistakes learned. Take your time, and start again as many times as necessary.
What challenges do female entrepreneurs face in the Middle East – Sarah’s business revolves around women, whether her team or her clients, Sarah’s Bag is a great example of how women’s solidarity can result in a successful business, limiting her challenges to juggling between her family and work. But with a solid system put in place involving her family, Sarah is able to punch in late hours at the office. It also helps that he partner is very supportive and respects the hard work that comes with running a business. Elsa’s background in consulting and her experience in the corporate life has resulted in her deciding to make her own rules and work on her time without feeling guilty for having children or demotivated for not getting that promotion only because she’s a woman. The challenges of a patriarchal system pushed Elsa to create her own life on her own terms. Malak on the other hand doesn’t believe that women are any different from men, and the professional challenges should be faced and dealt with. But she does get asked about her personal marital status by people around her, a lot more than they ask about her professional life and successful business. The double standard that exist in the Middle East is still a long battle to fight. A question from the audience stressed that issue, pointing out that in 2013, 35% of online businesses were run by women, and yet, in Elsa’s hunt for funding, she felt that investors take women “less seriously” and it would be better if one of the co-founders were a man.
This specific discussion makes me wonder if this question would’ve been asked if the panel was made out of businessmen only and if they are usually asked whether they find it challenging to raise a family and succeed in their businesses as much.
One last piece of advice for women entrepreneurs – Sarah vouches for women empowerment, if a woman helps another, the ripple effect will be extraordinary and would help in the success of women in the entrepreneurial and business world. Elsa urges you not to fall victim of people’s judgements. Prove yourself by reaching new heights in your business endeavors, meet with incubators and investors and pitch your idea confidently. Malak had way more than one piece of advice, amongst many, don’t be affected by peoples’ doubts about you and your ideas, don’t give up and if you’re passionate about your idea, nothing will stop you in making it happen and actually succeed. And one of my favorite piece of advice involved getting educated, read and use all the available resources online. Her secret to survival is adaptability, so make sure not to stick to one vision but to give yourself enough headspace to adapt with an everchanging ecosystem. And last but not least, a point that Sarah passionately supports, work with a purpose and don’t let money be the only end to your work.
On that note, it is very refreshing to attend such insightful and inspirational panels in Beirut, the turnout was motivating and I hope that Lebanese and Middle Eastern women set an example of how bold and fearless businesswomen should be.