Phuong Mai was a management consultant who traveled—a lot—and was ruining her spine with every over-sized, heavy bag she lugged over her shoulder. A collar bone injury from yes, the weight of her bags, was the last straw. There had to be a better—and more stylish—way for business women to take along everything they needed without risking spinal injuries. And so, it was a no-brainer for Mai to start making her mission a reality and P.MAI, her line of luxury women's backpacks, was born.
“What I see these backpacks doing for hand bags is what ballet flats did to heels ten years ago," she explains. “Ballet flats in the work place were just smarter and more comfortable, but a professional alternative to the pump. When Tory Burch came on Oprah with her ballet flats, it was like, 'Oh that's genius.'"
Now that Mai works on P.MAI full-time, she's a true champion of female entrepreneurs as she's recognized that when brought together, they're a force to be reckoned with. Here, Mai shares her best tips, thoughts and observations for any woman currently in business for themselves—or about to take that leap.
What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned as an entrepreneur?
This is my first company and I've learned that female founders are a unique tribe. It's grown over the last few years with the Lean In movement, Girl Boss and this pride that women now have be more vocal about being a feminist all while taking calculated risks to pursue what they want. I'm all about that and want others to hopefully feel inspired to look inward and wonder, 'Well what would it take for me to do it too? How could I get started?' I've been very honest that it's not all glamorous and that's why I tend to ask other entrepreneurs about their initial struggles and how they dealt with them because I want people to have a very authentic impression of what it takes—but then also know they're not alone.
How do you recommend getting a business idea—and support network—off the ground?
Be calculated in the risk, be smart and understand what problem you're trying to solve. Start testing it out in small ways and be prepared for rejection. Every artist knows that they must be ready for criticism the moment they put a painting up. As an entrepreneur, it's the same way. Don't let it stop you but know it will happen and seek progress over perfection. It's okay if you're not perfect. You'll realize even the most put together people aren't put together at all. They say that in different moments, people are like ducks. They're calm and unruffled on the surface but really, they're paddling like crazy underneath. You'll find the more honest you are with yourself and the more willing you are to share your struggles—people not only relate but will genuinely want to help you—and it would be silly to turn your back on that.
You're a team of one—how do you stay sane?
Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of my own team yet but it's certainly a goal of mine in the coming future to build that out. So, how do I bounce ideas and how do I keep sane as a founder? The answer is I have fellow entrepreneur friends that I lean on who I can always text for thoughts, advice and even quick pow wows. I'm active in female communities—no matter where I am.
I've lived in San Francisco for the last five years and that's where I have most of my entrepreneur friends. But, that doesn't stop me from reaching out elsewhere. Recently, I was in Toronto and I wanted to see what their start-up scene was like. Well, I had recently met this one woman in line at a Hillary Clinton rally who worked for a Canadian accelerator. So, I reached out to her, she just powered off like four emails and I ended up meeting with a couple of great women. It's just a matter of putting yourself out there. Ask for help and pay it forward.
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.