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Unstoppable: 15 Stories of the Middle East's Fiercest Women Entrepreneurs

Conquering frontier technologies, pioneering in CleanTech, and leading the battle against sexual harassment, these feisty MENA lady bosses are shattering more than the glass ceiling.

Shattering glass ceilings is an understatement for female entrepreneurs across the Middle East, whose grit and passion has helped build some of the most innovative enterprises the world has seen. From biogas crafting companies born in Egypt's rural South, to mobile apps in Morocco that combat sexual harassment, Arab women are an unequivocally powerful driving force fuelling both the startup ecosystem and the economy. These are the stories of 15 of those women. 

1. Elissa Freiha, the Serial Investor Challenging Gender Bias

Only 12% of venture-backed startups in the Middle East have female founders. But Elissa Freiha is setting off to change that. The founder of Womena is this year taking it one step further to launch Womedia, a platform for Women of MENA to reclaim their story. We revisit the interview to Freiha, along with co-founder Chantalle Dumonceaux, to unveil how these female warriors are upturning the game. 

2. Manar El Mokkadem, Egypt's First Pole Fitness Instructor

A fearless young acrobat is disrupting the fitness world with an activity traditionally frowned upon. Defying taboos and taking responsibility for educating the crowds, Manar El Mokaddam rapidly built a fitness empire when she began to teach pole fitness to her friends in a studio in Cairo’s Garden City, inaugurating a tradition that has now converted hundreds to the wellness benefits of the often-misunderstood sport. Read the interview here

3. Meet the Entrepreneur Behind Tunisia's Most Badass Social Startup

She’s one of the MENA's most daring boss ladies: Sarah Arbi calls her meetings Hors-G and sets off to transform the way advertising is done in the Middle East, adding social impact to every single campaign her startup, G-Dice, creates. 

4. This Egyptian Female Engineer Teamed Up with Local Farmers to Create Energy out of Garbage

Breaking barriers in Egypt’s conservative rural south, embarking in a male-dominated field, and disrupting deep rooted practices to spark environmental change; she stepped out of her small town of Sohag to travel the corners of Egypt and find outlets for her startup to thrive. No wall was to high for Shaimaa Omar, the 27-year-old engineer from Upper Egypt who is transforming agricultural waste into biogas with her startup, Biomix. 

5. "No One Will Tell you That You Can Do it" Coterique's Founder Dana Khater Demystifies Female Entrepreneurship

 

Her office is bustling with pink and yellow sticky notes hanging on walls. Behind the big desk that presides in the room, the calendars, lists of designer brands, and fashion week cornerstones are impossible to ignore. On the following table, a mix of sleek blazers, reptile bags, and chic designer purses pile up. Much like Anne Hathaway roams across aisles as she directs her e-commerce platform in The Intern, Dana Khater seems to be on top of it all. But, instead of a huge office set in the heart of Manhattan, she is based in the much less glamorous Middle East, and valiantly runs the entire startup on a team of three. At 22, Dana Khater has built a fashion platform with clients in Los Angeles, Montreal, and Dubai. 

6. Azza Fahmy, the First Lady of Egyptian Jewellery

A free spirit, passionate soul, and a pioneering woman who is not afraid to defy social conventions, Azza Fahmy immortalises and reinvents Egyptian heritage, crafting unique pieces of jewellery and extending a tradition as old as the iconic pyramids. He built her jewellery empire defying social and gender stereotypes, at a time when it was socially unacceptable for a fine arts graduate to work in a workshop full of men, But Fahmy put on her overalls, tied up her hair, and spent countless days learning the tricks of the trade. “For Arab women, jewellery is their bank, their investment and their safety. The tradition comes from peasant people. They don’t put money in the bank; they put it in their hands through precious jewellery, which they can sell whenever they need."

7. How this 17-Year-Old Entrepreneur Invented a Product that Can Save Lives Around the World

“I emailed a lot of labs and a lot of universities, asking them to let me do the research, but, I got a lot of rejections just because I was young,” says Deena Mousa. At 17, the Egyptian student invented a medical composition that could stop severe bleeding at a faster ratio than the medicines used in hospitals.

8. "I flew to the USA Not Knowing I Would Share a Stage with Barack Obama"

A photo of her sitting next to the US President and Mark Zuckerberg inundated the net in 2016. Who was the Egyptian woman shining at the centre of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit spotlight? Mai Medhat talks starting from zero, dismissing labels, and the journey that led her to the world stage in this interview.

9. This Moroccan Female Entrepreneur Created an App to Fight Sexual Harassment in the Arab World

Across the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of women mirror Zaineb’s experience and have to walk the daunting path of everyday sexual harassment; according to research by UN Women, 93 percent of women across the MENA region have suffered it at least once in their lives. Striving to tackle insecurity on the streets and to empower women across the region, Moroccan Samia Haimoura set off to launch Securella, a mobile app that allows women to trigger an ‘alarm’ when they feel at risk. We speak to Haimoura as she plans to launch the social venture in Egypt and Tunisia soon.

10. There's an App that Can Read your Emotions - And It Was Created by an Egyptian Woman

Sitting at a panel at the Spark Entrepreneurship Camp, all the way from the USA, we met Rana El Kaliouby, the Egyptian scientist pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence by deciphering people´s emotions in real-time -through a webcam. Her company Affectiva aims to be the emotional AI platform and driving innovation across a myriad of industries such as media and advertising, gaming, online learning and health, having raised over $34 million in venture capital. 

 

11. The Entrepreneur Behind Egypt's Uber for Home Cleaners

“Nobody has treated maids or cleaners as a customer segment,” says Gehad Abdullah. Venturing into one of Egypt’s most vulnerable sectors, the entrepreneur allows people to find domestic workers online, while helping migrants and refugees find dignified work. 

12. This Egyptian Young Woman Developed an App to Help Refugees in Turkey Find Work

The young AUC graduate developed an inspiring social startup in a lightning-fast, competition at NYU Abu Dhabi’s International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World.

13. How This Female Entrepreneur Created Lebanon's Coolest Startup Campus, Antwork

A co-working space with a manifesto? You read that right. A daredevil entrepreneurial hub at the heart of the Lebanese capital, Antwork did not set off to just offer space for freelancers; it boldy embarked on a mission to redefine work - not in an isolated way, but by nurturing the generation of free-thinkers who refuse to fit into categories. We speak to Zina Bdeir Dajani, the Lebanese mastermind behind the co-working space setting off to spark tech nodes across the Middle East.

14. For the First Time Ever, an Egyptian Woman Makes it on Forbes 30 under 30 Europe

Cairene graphic designer Ghada Wali was just selected as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 Europe, marking the first time an Egyptian woman makes it on the annual European list. The artist, who studied in Florence, Italy, was included in the in the 'Arts and Immigrants' category of the list, which previously featured figures like Maria Sharapova and Adele.

15. The 25-Year-old Powerhouse Empowering Egypt's Female Entrepreneurs

It’s hard to keep up with Rania Ayman’s pace. At 24, and in less than a year since founding Entreprenelle, she has hosted more than five workshops and five mega events across Egyptian governorates. Her startup strives to democratize an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is heavily English-language focused, but connects women with resources to become entrepreneurs - in Arabic. Read the interview here

Video and photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions. 


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