by Shama Kabani
I never imagined that I would be showing a vivacious young Egyptian woman in a hijab how to stand in heels when making a pitch to investors. (Don’t sway, and walk strategically in the area given.) But, that’s exactly what happened on the last day of the NexGen IT Bootcamp in Egypt, the first event of its kind, sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program, USAID, and the governments of Denmark and Egypt. When Scott Gerber, Founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council (Y.E.C.), first told me that I was the only woman representative from the U.S., I was delighted at the honor. Little did I know that my lesson on how to walk in heels would be just as mesmerizing as my entrepreneurial advice. What followed was a life-changing experience.
Among the 38 Egyptian entrepreneurs, 9 were women. They shattered every stereotype about women in the Middle East. They were bold, confident, and had an energy that could light up a room, and did every single day that we were there. Two of the four teams that won had female team members. There was great respect between all groups– male and female, and I made friends with many of them. In my mind, I had perceived the gender distinctions sharply. But here, it wasn’t commonplace. No one seemed to think of themselves as “women entrepreneurs” or “men entrepreneurs.” They were just there, learning, working together as a team, and encouraging each other.
On the last to final day that we were there, I learned that only 16% of all Egyptian entrepreneurs were female. Wanting to understand this phenomenon better, I hosted a roundtable discussion at lunch for the women. I asked them about the low numbers, and what had initiated their own entrepreneurial journeys. Most said that they wanted to work for themselves, and have the freedom to build as they saw fit. They said it had nothing to do with being a woman. But, I persevered in my curiosity. “If being a woman has nothing to do with it, then why are the numbers so skewed?” I asked. They responded that women are expected to run households, and families often insist on marriage. Before marriage, parents stress the importance of settling down and urge them to focus on finding suitable mates. After marriage, husbands don’t always understand why a woman would want to start a business when she was well provided for. The consensus was that not much was expected of a woman outside the house.
I asked them if they thought a women’s entrepreneur group in the city would be beneficial for them – someplace where they could connect with each other, share ideas, and inspire a group of new women to become entrepreneurs. The response was strong: they said they didn’t. At the end of the day, they didn’t want to be seen as “women entrepreneurs.” They didn’t perceive themselves to be a sub-group within a larger demographic. As one young woman said, “we are simply entrepreneurs that happen to be women.”
In this sense, they echoed the sentiments of so many women entrepreneurs everywhere. They didn’t want special treatment for being women. They just want an equal platform, an opportunity to make their communities better, and to live out their dreams.
2011 speaker Shama Kabani is a Web and TV personality, bestselling author, international speaker and award-winning CEO of The Marketing Zen Group – a global digital marketing firm. www.Shama.tv