Supporting Female Entrepreneurs in Lebanon – American University of Beirut

IMG_7893Increasingly, women around the world are starting businesses, but the numbers are still low. Female entrepreneurs face unique challenges when trying to start a business; they are less likely than their male counterparts to receive funding, discover crucial mentors, and find the necessary confidence and time while balancing work and life. In the MENA region in particular, total women entrepreneurship activity is as low as 4%, with an average business lifespan of 10 years.

The American University of Beirut in Lebanon has successfully paired up with Citi to provide crucial support and mentoring for female entrepreneurs in Lebanon and the MENA region with the goal of increasing their numbers significantly. I spoke with Dr. Dima Jamali, Kamal Shair Endowed Chair in Leadership, and Ms Fida Kanaan, Director of Executive Education the Olayan School of Business about this initiative.

What is the Citi OSB Women Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEP)?

Women constitute more than half of the Lebanese population and their contribution to the entrepreneurship arena has direct implications for Lebanon’s economic development. Yet in the MENA region, total women entrepreneurship activity is as low as 4%, with an average business lifespan of 10 years. The Citi OSB Women Entrepreneurship Initiative aims to fill the women entrepreneurship business education gap by supporting female entrepreneurs in formalizing their businesses and entering new markets while assuring their company’s sustainable growth. It was designed to cover both gender-related core concepts and key strategies of growing the entrepreneurial firm.

Why did you start the initiative?

The Citi OSB Women Entrepreneurship Initiative was initiated from a keen interest by the OSB Executive Education programme? to extend its services not only to larger organizations, but also to start ups and, more specifically, to women entrepreneurs looking to expand and grow their businesses but struggling with the low support provided by the ecosystem. This intent was matched with a grant by Citi Foundation, which came in support of Women Entrepreneurs. OSB pulled from its different resources focused on gender, entrepreneurship and CSR and ran a focus group session with stakeholders from the ecosystem to identify the underserved segment and understand its needs. The programme stemmed from this session.

What happens during the programme?

Programme features include:

  • Direct application of concepts learned through opportunities to apply knowledge
  • Bridging women entrepreneurs with networks of organizations supporting women and entrepreneurs in the region
  • Connecting participants to other active stakeholders supporting women entrepreneurs (during and after the programs)
  • A clinic-like post-program follow-up one year after the programme

Programme graduates are also invited to all CSR, Gender and Entrepreneurship-related activities organized by AUB OSB.

What have been some of challenges?

Initiatives like WEP cannot be self-financed, hence their sustainability depends on available funding. The school is looking to generate new revenue streams to support future programs like the WEP. Additionally, local SMEs are finding it difficult to thrive in the current economic environment. Unfortunately, 2 out of the 24 participating companies closed their doors in the past year due to this.

What have been some of successes of the programme?

The programme, as well as our partnership with Citi, has been quite successful. In the follow up done a year after the program was completed, we discovered that many participant’s business models had undergone a pivotal change due to what they learned during the programme. Many also moved to new markets and expanded their portfolio. Two of our participants were featured in Jordanian Venture Magazine as leading Lebanon’s start up scene. Many of the entrepreneurs also collaborated on projects and provided mentoring and support to each other’s businesses.

Two of the women participants were selected for the 2015 Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women-U.S. Department of State Entrepreneurship Program for Women, in which they completed a program at Harvard and the U.S. State Department. Additionally, two participants were finalists in the World Bank Women for Resilient Cities Entrepreneurship Award and Abillama Eco-Entrepreneurship Award. More than half of the participants’ companies now belong to mentoring/women networks, such as the Blessing Foundation and the Lebanese League of Women in Business

What advice do you have for schools exploring similar ideas?

Entrepreneurship education needs to assure application-focused concepts and tools. It also needs to address the challenges of the targeted companies based not only on their organizational maturity, but also their business contexts. Understanding their business maturity stage and unique challenges is critical for designing and delivering a program with impact.  We are looking for further funds to finance this initiative’s next round and plan to infuse the next round with modules focused on responsible leadership, business social responsibility, subjects related to women in business, HR strategies and value propositions in support of women’s needs in business.

Are there other initiatives you are working on that you would like to share?

We have an on-going initiative on gender and sexuality, entitled the Knowledge Is Power (KIP) Programme and led by Dr. Charlotte Karam.  KIP is focused on examining issues relating to gender and sexuality with the aim of positively contributing to the empowerment of women and other marginalized groups. The project is research-oriented, seeking proposals that focus on either gathering data/information or generating knowledge relating to the following five thematic areas:

    • Sexual harassment and other forms of abusive behaviors or discrimination disproportionately targeting women and other marginalized groups at work, at school, in universities, and in other traditional or nontraditional structures in Lebanon
    • Barriers and facilitators affecting participation and representation of women and other marginalized groups at work, in government, in management and leadership as well as in other decision making roles in traditional or nontraditional structures in Lebanon
    • The current health and wellbeing practices and perceptions around gender and sexuality in Lebanon
    • The next generation: the perceptions, attitudes and current practices of youth and young adults in relation to gender equality and sexuality in Lebanon
    • Conceptual etymology and legal genealogy of gender, sexuality, and bodily rights in Lebanon

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