A new quiet revolution is taking place in Egypt: the female entrepreneurship revolution. This kind of revolution sees talented women unleashing their entrepreneurial spirit and rising up in the country’s young start-up market. Today, women are starting their own businesses at unprecedented rates since 2011.
According to a recent report from the Egypt Network for Integrated Development, women account for 10% of entrepreneurs in Egypt. That's a significant increase compared to 3% eight years ago. And these numbers are expected to rise as Egypt’s start-up ecosystem flourishes.
By choosing entrepreneurship, women are not only taking ownership of their own destinies, but they are also thriving in business on their own terms.
Women start companies when they see a need in the marketplace they can fill, whether it is making a much needed change, creating a new product or service or targeting an underserved segment of the market.
“I decided to start Entrepenelle a few years ago because I found women were underrepresented and stereotyped in the industry I was working in, at the time, advertising. This really bothered me so I decided to take an active role in connecting and supporting women by organizing events and meet ups,” said Ranya Ayman, the founder of Entrepenelle, an organization that supports women-run start-ups.
Yet, throughout Ayman’s work, she has also experienced gender stereotyping behavior. “I used to take it personally, but I learned not to. I do what’s best for my business, sometimes it’s wise to ignore it and sometimes it’s important to address it,” said Ayman.
But not all women enter entrepreneurship to make a change. Some simply need to support themselves and their families. “Some women are not able to find jobs and have no choice but to start their own business to survive,” Ayman explained.
For others, however, starting their own business is about taking the next step in their career. Fatma Al Zahraa, the founder of MEACOMS, the communications boutique agency, took the plunge to start her own business despite her family’s concerns. “I only had the support of my father. It was really hard in the beginning. I was just focusing on avoiding failure by any means,” says Al Zahraa.
Despite the challenges she faced, she managed to create a successful communications agency that won the African Excellence Award for two years in a row.
Egyptian women entrepreneurs can also be found in more male-dominated fields, such as technology. Like their female counterparts across the world, women in tech are underrepresented in Egypt. But that didn’t stop Eman El-Koshairy and Bahia El Sharkawy from starting their own programming boot camp school, Al Makinah.
“As software engineers, we faced the challenge of finding qualified software engineers to hire at the companies we used to work for. There was a talent gap, which led us to start researching a solution to this problem,” said El Koshairy.
Today, Al Makinah has trained a little under a hundred students and plans to train hundreds more by expanding across the region. Most notable, however, was Al Makinah’s summer program, #youcodegirl, which was initiated by Hoda Hamad, an Al Makinah boot camp graduate, to encourage more women to enter the tech space and foster a supportive community for women in the industry.
Contribution to the Economy and Society
It is no secret that the growing trend of female entrepreneurs helps support economic growth in the country. Today, unemployment is at a staggering 24% according to a 2016 report by the Egypt Network for Integrated Development. With more women entering the workforce, it will not only advance the economy and create more jobs, but it will also support the social development of women inside and outside the home.
Hana Ibrahim, an artist and the founder of Hana Designs, believes in the power of the working woman. “Women are good for the economy and society. When a woman works, she supports her family and her children,” said Ibrahim.
From her experience teaching Khayamia designs and crafts to women, she witnessed first-hand how these women used whatever little money they earned from selling their crafts to support their families, whether it is buying food, medicine or school supplies.
She also believes that working women create a supportive community for one another. “We send each other clients and help each other when facing challenges. This network helps me feel that I’m never really alone in this entrepreneurship journey, no matter how hard things get,” said Ibrahim.
Despite all the benefits working women bring to the economy and society, they still face challenges.
One of these challenges is funding. According to Ayman, women entrepreneurs have a harder time securing investments for their start-ups than men. “Although women are usually very dedicated and committed to the growth of their business, they struggle to get the necessary funding,” she said.
Another challenge faced by female entrepreneurs is the cultural expectations of the of role women in Egyptian society. While more women seem to be working outside the home and starting their own businesses, they still sometimes experience a cultural push-back that prevents them from seeking professional fulfillment.
“I was selected as one of the seven successful female entrepreneurs from across the Middle East by the US State Department, and I traveled to the United States to talk about my work. Yet, my mom only thinks of me as a wife and mother and nothing else,” explained Ibrahim.
Entrepreneurship and Empowerment
While female entrepreneurship is good for the economy and society at large, it is also empowering for women.
“I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished,” said Al Zahraa. “I feel that starting my company was worth fighting for and it is something that I will always be proud of.”
For the Al Makinah founders, entrepreneurship has changed them fundamentally, from the way they think to the way they act and the way they live their lives. “We forgot what our comfort zone was or what it looks like! When something is yours, you go the extra mile and do things you never thought you would do and challenge all limitations you believe you had about yourself,” said Al Makinah’s founders.
Despite feelings of empowerment, there also feelings of disappointment. While fellow female entrepreneurs are usually supportive of one another, society may not always share these positive sentiments.
Ibrahim has always been generous with sharing her skills and talents, not only with tradespeople but with aspiring young artists as well. One of her goals is to teach art to university students to help support young local talent in the country. “I want to apply for a master’s degree to teach art in a local university to pass on my knowledge, but very few people in my community support me,” said Ibrahim. “I now know not to listen to just anyone. I have to keep on going, even if I’ll face adversity or challenges.”
Most of all, however, empowerment seems to be about affecting change and making a difference in other people’s lives. “We are inspired by all our students who came to our boot camp courses to change their careers and their lives. It’s what keeps us going on tough days,” said Al Makinah’s founders.
Ayman, expressing these same feelings, puts it more bluntly, “If I die tomorrow, I’ll be happy knowing that I’ve made an impact in someone’s life.”
Running a business is no easy feat. Despite the challenges, it is an important time for women to make their mark in the country’s start-up market. “Women entrepreneurs encourage other women to start their own businesses,” said Ayman. “We must persist and never give up on our dreams and ambitions,” she added. After all, isn’t this how a revolution is started?
Photo credit: A participant in Al Makinah’s tech workshop/Al Makinah’s Facebook page.