When we started our specialty food company Date Lady in 2012, we were excited to conquer the world with a new product that would offer a clean alternative to the processed sugar predicament stalking US households. We had discovered date syrup while living in the Middle East. We were attracted to the syrup not only for its luxurious taste, but because of its simplicity as it is made only with 100 percent dates. Sure, there were things like agave nectar on the market, but deriving agave nectar from a plant is a complicated chemical process that takes some education. Date syrup production can be surmised by just about anyone – an uncomplicated, one-ingredient product without anything added to it, full of natural vitamins and minerals and ready to be enjoyed on pancakes or in coffee. We loved the concept of clean, simple food and saw the opportunity in an increasingly concerned US market. So, we went for it, and we immediately sold the syrup to some of our favorite specialty and organic food stores and eventually expanded our line to include six products. One of those products was a caramel sauce that used the natural caramel notes of the date syrup for a base. By reducing it a little, and then adding caramel extract and sea salt, we were able to create a delicious sauce without the use of any added sugars.
Eventually, we ran into a complication with the caramel extract. Most of you know what an extract is. Think of vanilla extract. You can easily make it yourself at home by splitting open vanilla bean pods and letting them soak in an alcohol (such as vodka) for a length of time. The alcohol extracts the vanilla from the vanilla bean. It’s a straightforward and wondrous process. We inquired of our then supplier about the caramel extract and how it did not add any calories or significance to the nutrition if it indeed was extracted from actual burnt sugar, cream or any of the other common ingredients you would use in real caramel.
They never answered these questions directly and eventually changed the title of the product we were purchasing to caramel “flavor,” which changed the ingredient by definition. We were reassured by that supplier, and others, that the flavor was non-GMO and contained none of the common allergens, which put our minds at ease to a point.
We kept coming back to the same question – How can we sell a product without knowing what is in it, no matter how minimal its amount is in the recipe? Since our company mission is to offer only clean and simple ingredients, you can understand our dilemma. If we couldn’t understand an ingredient, no matter how accepted by the public, then we couldn’t feel good about putting it into our products. Was it our second best selling item? Yes. Would people continue to buy it regardless of our troubled conscience? Yes. So could we keep going with it? Negative.
As we got to the end of our caramel flavor investigation, we decided that we had to make a change. We still had the caramel in Amazon inventory, in our warehouse, and on shelves in stores around the country. But we knew that we had to make the transition. Just like that. We saw the restock orders come in from retailers and distributors and we contemplated making further batches to fulfill those orders, but the truth was, if we did that, we’d be continuing to invest in & promote a product that we didn’t feel 100 percent about just to avoid losing sales or to take the easy path.
I had always wanted to produce a different caramel, in a more traditional way, using real cream. I had done some experimenting just for fun, with the future in mind, but had never brought the recipe to completion. With the original caramel now at its end, we decided now was the time to get that caramel with cream ready for market. We ended up going into absolute overdrive on the recipe hoping to launch it as a replacement for the caramel without missing a beat.
Not only did that put us in a precarious situation to quickly find the right suppliers and get the recipe sewn up, but it required a substantial amount of test batches, as well as investing an exorbitant amount of cash in lost product, labor and marketing. I think most of us know what the cash flow is like for young companies. Tight! The other notable factor was that the original caramel was dairy free and because of that, we had a significant vegan following. So even if we had a caramel to replace the old version, we didn’t want to leave our vegan customers hanging. So, we rolled up our sleeves and simultaneously worked on another option we had started on a year prior that hadn’t been completed. Vegan Coconut Caramel.
We ran into many problems and it almost broke us. But in the end, after many long hours, late nights and restless sleep, we had two new products ready for retail to replace the older one that we were discontinuing. We often questioned if we were making a good choice, but we always came back to the fact that we couldn’t sell something that wasn’t true of our philosophy.
So, in March 2017, we launched both caramel sauces. We ended up winning the prestigious Specialty Food Association Sofi award for our Date Caramel, a competition we had entered our original caramel in for three years previously without success! And, our sales are already showing favorable results with both caramels together on a path to outpace the original caramel numbers. Regardless of those successes, are staying true to our brand, and that makes us happy.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.