Egyptian Women in Business

After the death of her husband, an Egyptian woman who disguised herself as a man for 43 years in order to make a living for her daughter was honored by the government as the ‘Ideal Mother of the Luxor Governorate’.
This reminds me of a Chinese legend Hua Mulan who had also disguised herself as a man to replace her father’s duty and fight many wars for the country. Later she received an award from the emperor for ‘his’ outstanding courage.

The above stories illustrate female empowerment rather than powerlessness. Both women had strong minds and great determination, which are essential factors to succeed as a woman. They were both facing strong and conservative local cultures with significant gender inequalities. Their proven ability and determination overcame the obstacles before them.


In Egypt, women’s rate of economic participation at 33 percent is amongst the lowest in the world. Entrepreneurship offers women new opportunities to generate their own income and help others as they do so. It is an important factor for economic growth and development. Leveraging the untapped potential of women in Egypt will have a positive impact both globally and locally. Entrepreneurship creates new jobs for men and women, which is essential in countries with a young population and a high unemployment rate. Globally, it increases women’s income, leads to relatively higher spending on family welfare, which is critical for reaching key national development goals.


Despite the wider problems still faced by women in Egyptian society, according to a recent survey, a growing number of Egyptian women are setting up their own businesses and the number of female Egyptian entrepreneurs is rising. Alia El Mahdi, a professor of economics at Cairo University, says that today’s rate of 11% of Egyptian entrepreneurs being women compares with just 3% eight years ago.


A visit by the Chinese Delegation from the All China Women’s Federation and an official visit to the National Council of Women in Egypt (NCW) showed impressive achievement and inspiration on women’s economic empowerment. Ambassador Soad Shalaby, Director of the Women Business Development Center (WBDC) provides insight into the organization:
The WBDC is a non-profit self-sustainable Resource Center, established under the umbrella of the NCW. It is one of several NCW development projects designed to achieve the economic empowerment of women, as set forth in the NCW mandate. It is a ‘one-stop shop’ providing women clientele with tools and skills to either establish, run, and sustain small to medium size businesses, or enter the Egyptian labor force well prepared via training. Additionally it assists working women in sharpening their skills for improved performance. WBDC’s training department has positioned itself in the market as a reputable center that provides quality training at reasonable costs for new graduates and women entrepreneurs with the aim of facilitating their access to courses, seminars and workshops. Improving their skills will essentially benefit them economically and socially.


WBDC Success Stories:
Reham Adel: a makeup artist and designer produces scarves for veiled women. She joined Cleostore in 2006 where she placed on-line advertisements for a whole year. As a result, she has received several job offers as a makeup artist in both Sudan and Dubai. These days, approximately 40% of her clientele have come to know her from Cleostore’s website that has, Reham added: “…increased sales worldwide.”


Dr Amira Boshra: a business woman who started her business in the early 90s in Badr City, in a shop that had no water and no electricity. Five years later, her business expanded tremendously. She has built a large factory for cosmetics and beauty products. Dr Amira joined Cleostore, which helped her expand her sales in both the local and international markets. She now exports her products to Morocco and Pakistan. Through an agreement between WBDC and the National Postal Authority, the products of business women are shipped around the world at reasonable prices. Dr Amira was one of the first Cleostore members to make use of this agreement to export her goods.


Sara Hesham: a student who attended the program Intilaaqah which was a joint venture between WBDC and Shell. The main objective of the program was to teach students how to start their own business by giving them all the information and skills needed to succeed. After completing the program, Sara opened her private store selling silver and precious stones.


Female entrepreneurship in Egypt has become more visible over the last decade, and support systems are continually developing. In the last few years, numerous businesswomen networks have been created and these associations are playing a critical role in developing successful businesses. In 1995 the First Women Business Association in Egypt was established, followed by several other associations such as the Alexandria Business Women Association, Business Women 21, the Businesswomen Association for Development, the Development of Businesswomen Export Ability Association, the Egypt-based Arab Women Investors Union, and the Women in Business Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce. Going forward, these associations are playing a critical role in developing successful businesses by promoting an environment where women entrepreneurs can thrive. Not only will this benefit Egyptian businesswomen themselves, but will contribute to the well-being of their families and communities.


Encouraging more women to lead businesses is no longer the right thing to do, but the BRIGHT thing to do and I do believe that women entrepreneurs are changing Egypt for the better.

Mary Lai is a business consultant and editor for the Maadi Messenger.


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