Business-bound women with zeal and determination can get far in Lebanon, where a great number of women thrive as entrepreneurs. From a million-dollar tech company incubated in the startup hub of Beirut, to an agribusiness in North Lebanon, female entrepreneurs can be seen across the country. Whilst Lebanon affords women greater freedoms than other countries in the Middle East the extent of these freedoms differs from community to community.
Female entrepreneurs from Lebanon’s urban areas may not even cite gender as an issue when starting and running their companies. For these women managing a business involves other challenges not related to gender. This is particularly the case for tech companies, which have a high proportion of female entrepreneurs. "The typical response I get from female Lebanese entrepreneurs is that being a woman is just not an issue. When you press women on their challenges, most of them say that their gender has never factored into their challenges, it is startup challenges that they are facing,” says Nina Curley, editor-in-chief of online startup platform Wamda. She makes the disclaimer that Wamda interacts to a large extent with a very specific tech-oriented startup community, where women’s participation in entrepreneurship is high.
Though gender is not the greatest obstacle among urbanites, gender barriers do exist. The gender conversation that is taking place globally is one worth having, according to Curley. She started a program in the summer called Wamda for Women in the Middle East targeting urban and tech-oriented women. Initially launched alongside of their Mix N' Mentor roundtables, as a separate but complementary conversation. Wamda for Women tackled issues of work-life balance, financing, stereotypes, and role models and leaders. They are planning on bringing it to Lebanon. “It just seemed like a conversation that no one was having. And it seemed like a conversation that was happening on the fringes of events,” says Curley.
Delphine Edde is a partner and publishing director with Diwanee, a group of online women’s content websites that attract 5 million users per month. At a roundtable discussion organized by the NGO Endeavour, Edde described challenges to starting a business — many of which were not related to being a woman at all. One of her major challenges, she says, is finding the right talent in Lebanon. Out of 130 employees, 80 are from Lebanon, with some in Dubai and a team of developers in Serbia. However she pointed out that women have some additional challenges when managing a business. In many cases, women did not know how to balance between work and personal life, and this dissuades many. “Women don’t know that they can have a husband, a baby, and can continue to work. They think they are bad wives,” she says.
Even for urban women who enjoy relative ease in starting a business compared to their rural counterparts, financial figures showing stark inequalities cannot be ignored. According to data from the International Finance Corporation, only 3 percent of bank loans are extended to female entrepreneurs. Financial institutions’ bias towards women is not confined to Lebanon or to the Middle East, but is a worldwide phenomenon. According to Tania Mousallem, head of strategic development at BLC Bank and leader of the Women’s Empowerment (WE) initiative, which works to increase access to finance for women entrepreneurs, private equity funds in the United Kingdom invest only 1 percent in women. Some banks’ initiatives in Lebanon have sought to remedy the situation through Kafalat, the government sponsored collateral-free loan program that is offered through many banks. BLC Bank has implemented programs to curb lending bias towards women. In addition to instituting a collateral-free loan that looks at a woman’s capacity to repay rather than her assets, BLC has also implemented policies to educate their employees to stop stereotyping women and belittling their capacity to run businesses. Loans to women tripled internally since the program was launched in 2012, according to Mousallem.
The impact of gender plays out differently from community to community. As a loose trend, the farther a woman gets from a city, the more prominently cultural and religious customs are manifest in skepticism toward female entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, in some communities taking out loans with interest is considered haram, meaning women must turn to informal methods to access finance, such as taking interest-free loans from family members.
“I think [women] definitely face different challenges, mostly on a family and social level, depending on rural versus urban,” says Nadine Okla, country director of Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, an NGO that supports underprivileged groups in Lebanon and in the region. “If you look at central Zahle [in the Bekaa valley], which is where we are based, and then you look at the outer parts of Zahle you can almost consider Zahle to be like Beirut. So in Zahle, although it’s traditionally an underprivileged community it’s very different from the surrounding areas,” she says.
Interestingly, cultural perceptions dissuading women from entering entrepreneurship can break as soon as the woman proves to be a bread-winner. Okla recalls one young woman who had a business plan to market her speciality chocolates but met resistance from her family.
“She had a fantastic idea, and she was super excited to be a part of the program but her family said no.” The woman’s father reluctantly agreed to let her participate in the initial four-day training after meeting with the organisation. “Right from the beginning, she started seeing profits,” says Okla, as the chocolates she produced were put in expos. “And her father started driving her to each of her sessions.”
Despite the barriers, if a woman has the will and ability to break through social stigmas — of varying intensity — she has the potential for success in Lebanon. “The women I’ve worked with so far who are serious and who are well-prepared have all found funding and are doing well,” says Allyson Jerab, regional coordinator of the Arab Women’s Entrepreneurship Program run by AMIDEAST. “I think if you have a proper business plan and you have your vision, and you have your matters in order then you face the same opportunities as men do,” says Jerab.
One of their successful entrepreneurs is Ameena Barakeh, a young woman from Saida who turned her passions for skateboarding and graphic design into a business. In 2011 she founded SK8 961, which sells custom-designed skateboards with parts imported from Canada. Her skateboards are available at various branches of Lebanese sport retailer Mike Sport, whilst some Lebanese skateboarders stock them at home, ready to sell to local enthusiasts.
“I don’t know if it’s international or just Lebanon, but people would rather buy skateboards from people they know,” says Barakeh. Her business idea attracted the attention of Samir Saliba, owner and managing director of Mike Sports. Now an investor and a partner, Saliba was introduced to Barakeh’s ideas when she pitched her business on television for the Ideaz Prize. Saliba was a judge on the show.
Barakeh describes the choice to start a business versus having a family as the choice between two worlds. “As a woman it is challenging to have a business because we’re expected to get engaged. Through the course of my startup my aunts got me about four suitors,” she says. At one point her parents put so much pressure on her that she drifted away from her business and got a regular job. “But through a lot of struggling and believing in the idea I got my family to get back on track with me and they’re supporting me,” she says.