At only 17-years-old, Alexa Carlin was a CEO. And at 21-years-old, she had only a 1% chance to live. Both incredibly improbable, but both were Carlin’s reality. The now 26-year-old takes it all in stride and uses her experience to empower other women to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality by hosting Women's Empowerment Expos.
Carlin grew up South Florida and earned a Bachelor's in Business Administration from the University of Florida. She is the Founder & CEO of the Women Empower Expo, as well as a frequent public speaker, and the creator of BeAPublicSpeaker.com
She says that she’s wanted to be a CEO ever since she was a little girl. “Even though I never knew what CEO actually stood for,” Carlin says. Still, “There was this knowing, internally, that I was meant to create and lead.”
In fact, ever since she was a kid, Carlin says she’s been an entrepreneur, always creating businesses and turning ideas into reality. Her first true entree into entrepreneurship was when she was 17 and she became the sole licensee to design jewelry for the L.A. based fashion company, OmniPeace. She even donated a percentage of proceeds to help build schools in Africa.
Since then, she’s been on a mission to use her entrepreneurial endeavors to create positive change, for one person, for her community and for the world. Her work with OmniPeace led to her next passion project, a blog called Hello Perfect. The site’s mission was to “redefine perfection” and garnered support from Mark Cuban, Michael Kors, Rebecca Minkoff, Steve Madden, and Whitney Port among others.
Carlin’s future was a bright one. Until it took a very dark turn.
When Carlin was a senior in college, just a few months before graduation in fact, her body went into septic shock and doctors placed her in a medically-induced coma. She was given a 1% chance to live. Six months later, she was then diagnosed with an autoimmune disease which she now lives with every day.
Carlin says she believes “things don't happen to you, they happen for you, and when you can learn to perceive your challenges as hidden opportunities, everything changes. I decided not to wait until my life changed but rather change my own life.” That, Carlin says, is how she overcame a health crisis that had a 99% chance of ending her life. That is how she came to found WEX.
Women Empower Expo (WEX) is a one-day event comprised of workshops, panels, breakout sessions, a pitch competition, a networking lounge, a woman-owned marketplace and the like, designed for women entrepreneurs and thought-leaders. The mission for WEX is “to empower, educate and equip women with the knowledge and community to create and grow
successful businesses.” At WEX, women can “learn from industry experts and female leaders, network with entrepreneurs and change-makers, discover tools and strategies to take your business to the next level, and feel empowered to create a positive change.”
Photo Source: Women Empower Expo
While speaking at a variety of companies and women's organizations in her local community, Carlin became aware of the huge disconnect between women. “All of these women were doing amazing things but no one knew each other. Everyone just stayed within their own membership group or industry.” Obviously, networking with and connecting to women from different industries and backgrounds is vital for both entrepreneurs and business leaders. That, Carlin says, was the inspiration behind WEX, “to create a community of women who felt empowered to connect and collaborate and create real change in their own lives, in their businesses, and in the world.”
Carlin says she has always been passionate about making a difference but it was never focused on women until she created her first blog, Hello Perfect, in 2011. She was in college, interning in NYC one summer, and she became very aware of how common it was for women and young girls to criticize themselves and one another.
“I hated how self-doubt and low confidence was a common thing among young women, and I wanted to change that. That's when I began really focusing on instilling confidence in myself and young women and from there my passion grew to really make a change for women everywhere,” she explains.
To start WEX, Carlin took $2,000 from her savings and put a down payment on a venue. “I didn't know how to put on an event of this size or even how I would pull off getting 2,000 people to attend. But I believed in myself and in my mission so I went for it and learned during the process.” Carlin believes that waiting is what kills most people’s dreams. “You must execute your ideas if you believe in them.”
Carlin says that seeing thousands of women come together for the first time to collaborate, learn, and grow was unlike anything else. “It was truly remarkable. Not only seeing my idea turn to reality, but to see how much of an impact it was having on the women in attendance. It's what drives me to keep going still to this day.”
Delegation and finances are the greatest challenges Carlin says she has faced in terms in getting WEX up and running. “I've been an entrepreneur for ten years now, running my companies as a one-woman show. But for an event of this size and how fast we are growing as a company, I knew I needed help to take it to the next level.” Carlin says she finds delegating difficult for her as she wants to ensure that everything is set to the brand’s standards. “But it's been the best thing for me as an entrepreneur and for the company in general.”
Naturally, she says, the other challenge is funding. She owns 100% of the company and has supported it since the beginning. “We have been profitable but with any growing company who needs to bring on staff. It's always a bit challenging in the beginning years.”
Carlin says there have been many happy moments, but the happiest have been the stories she hears from attendees after she’s done speaking. Attendees tell her how much she has inspired or impacted their lives. “One of the happiest surprises was when a few people that have been following me online for years now showed up at WEX and they were wearing my bracelets I had created or brought me the cookbook I wrote to sign it for them, sharing with me how I've made a difference in their life.”
Carlin says her health crisis actually helped her to discover her greatest potential and, she adds, “It changed my perspective on everything. It made me realize how strong I am and just how capable we all are of achieving anything we dream.” When she looks back at that 1% diagnosis she received while in a coma in a ICU she thinks, “If the odds were that against me then, it doesn't matter what the odds are moving forward, in business or life, because I am the 1%.”
Carlin now calls her health challenges a blessing because, “I now get to share them with others and through this experience, I found my passion for public speaking.” Although Carlin says she never imagined herself running these huge events or even being a public speaker, she did know deep down that she’d be running her own company.
Looking toward the future, Carlin hopes to meet some with whom to share her life; to get her book published; to continue growing the Women Empower Expo to multiple cities; and to “see a shift in the way things have been with women, equal rights, school shootings, and leadership in government.”
When it comes to women turning their dreams into their realities, Carlin says that mindset, community, and execution are the keys to success. Confidence in yourself and your dreams is imperative, as is surrounding yourself with people who “inspire, empower, and believe in you.” Massive amounts of action is required as well, she says, and although you may never feel 100% ready, you have to simply, “Go for it. Don't wait until outside circumstances change. You have everything you need right now to achieve what you want in life. It is your job to find a way.”
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.