WeMENA: Elevating Female Driven Innovation in the Middle East and North Africa


Amidst talk that we no longer require the World Bank as an institution and could perhaps get along just fine without it, it has created a program that has brought it right back into the 21st century with WeMENA, focused on bringing innovation and prosperity to female lead entrepreneurial pursuits in the Middle-East and North Africa.

Concentrated on an area of the world where women are predominantly viewed as second to their male peers, the program is an expansive and intellectual look at how going forward, the world has an opportunity to change through business formulated by both men and women - regardless of geographic inadequacies or religious practices in the region.

The program is now in its second phase, having successfully completed Phase 1 in 2015, it now opens itself up to a wider span of cities, of which candidates can choose from to concentrate their entrepreneurial plans. How can their ideas foster change and protect the cities of Alexandria, Amman, Beirut, Byblos, Cairo, Casablanca, Ramallah, or Tunis from the frequent knocks they receive - be it natural or otherwise is the big question WeMena have asked, and the women of the world (only females may apply) have responded, in their droves.

Yasmine El Bagarri - Courtesy of Microsoft Office

YouNoodle - tech giant and startup guru, is behind the concept with the World Bank, and together the competition they’ve created has captured minds from all over the globe to come and pitch to the team.

Yasmine El Baggari, founder of Voyaj and an entrepreneur herself, has also joined YouNoodle as an ‘on the ground’ ambassador.

“With the help of this program, women in the region will be able to provide private sector solutions to these challenges, and in doing so create jobs, economic prosperity and a more equitable society.” Said Yasmine

The opportunity to not only work with this team but benefit from financial stimulus toward your business has already been reaped by three women last year who got to share the spoils of $150,000 towards their individual ventures aimed at improving living standards in Beirut and Cairo.

Rawda Romston, Sara Helo and Hoda Mahmoud became the first winners of the elite competition in 2015 of the ‘Women for Resilience Initiative.’ for which they each received $55,00 towards their respective projects in Beirut and Cairo. From modern housing initiatives to improvement of the public transport systems - the practicability of these ladies’ projects was what won them the grand award and why they’ve inspired so many others to come forward and attempt the contest, which can really only benefit you in the long run, even if you do not succeed in winning. The participation will further your ambitions regardless, for, as winner Romston notes - networking really is the very basis of any entrepreneurial pursuit.

“The MENA region is ripe with innovation and many women in the area are leading the effort to develop ideas that will help to sustain local economies and create responsible investment opportunities for investors,” said Olivier Lavinal, Advisor to the Vice President for the MENA Region at World Bank.

The competition is as forward thinking as it is powerful - who else is doing something so new and so boundary breaking in regions such as this where women have always very much paled in comparison to their male peers on the business stage? For those female entrepreneurs coming up in the UAE for example, many comment that while the business opportunities are there, and aplenty, women are nudged into typically feminine directions, such as healthcare, beauty and education. Never before have we seen an institution with the level of reach the World Bank has, and a tech company with the recognition and worldwide acclaim of YouNoodle come together to task the world with a competition such as this. They are daring the women of the MENA regions to forward their dreams; ideas; abstract concepts - to formulate a plan to turn them into a reality, and using feminism as a catalyst for this push.

“By building sustainable innovation ecosystems, MENA countries can make substantial steps towards a knowledge based economy and become a global player in the technology and innovation ecosystem. This program will help to ensure that these efforts work toward continued idea generation and investment in this region,” said Torsten Kolind, CEO of YouNoodle.

The emulsion of organizations as prolific as these for this sole purpose means that while this might be the first of such programs, it most certainly won’t be the last. This sends a global message to those excluding the prowess of the female in the industry of these regions; this wards off ignorance and staves the sexist. These women are ultimately paving the way for better and more sustainable living standards, while removing the stigma behind female-cultivated business at the same time. We salute Rawda, Sara and Hoda and look forward to seeing the next batch of ladies come through from 2017’s finalists. With the span widening to a larger group of cities to focus their efforts on, this year’s competition can only prove more fruitful than the last and excite an entrepreneurial thrust into those places sorely lacking in forward thinkers and innovators.

Female innovators interested in entering the competition can find more information by logging on to: www.we-mena.org.


Taking My Own Advice: How I Learned To Let Go Of The Things That Are Out Of My Control

It seemed like everything happened overnight because, well… it did.

One moment, my team and I were business as usual, running a multi-million-dollar edible cookie dough company I built from scratch in my at-home kitchen five years ago and the next we were sitting in an emergency management team meeting asking ourselves, "What do we do now?" Things had escalated in New York, and we were all called to do our part in "flattening the curve" and "slowing the spread."

The governor had declared that all restaurants immediately close to the public. All non-essential businesses were also closed, and 8.7 million New Yorkers were quarantined to their tiny apartments for the foreseeable future. Things like "social distancing" and "quarantine" were our new 2020 vernacular — and reality.

What did that mean for us? Our main revenue source was the retail part of the business. Sure, we offered delivery and take-out, but that was such a small portion of our sales. I had built a retail experience where people from near and far came to eat edible cookie dough exactly how they craved it. We had two stores, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, which employed over 55 people. We have two production facilities; an online business shipping cookie dough nationwide; a wholesale arm that supplies stores, restaurants, and other retail establishments with treats; and a catering vertical for customizable treats for celebrations of all sizes. And while business and sales were nearly at a complete halt, we still had bills. We had payroll to pay, vendors we owed, services we were contractually obligated to continue, rent, utilities, insurance, and none of that was stopping.

How were we going to do this? And for how long will this go on? No one knew.

As an entrepreneur, this certainly wasn't my first-time facing challenges. But this was unprecedented. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. Certainly unplanned. This control-freak type-A gal was unraveling. I had to make decisions quickly. What was best for my team? For my business? For the safety of my staff? For the city? For my family and unborn baby (oh, yeah, throw being 28 weeks pregnant and all those fun hormones in there, it's real interesting!). Everything was spiraling out of control.

I decided to take the advice I had given to many people over the years — focus on the things you can control. There's no point worrying about all the things you have no control over. If you focus there, you'll just continue spiraling into a deeper, darker hole. Let it go. Once you shift your perspective, you can move forward. It's not going to be easy; the challenges still exist. But you can control certain things, so focus your energy and attention on those.

So that's what I did. I chose, for the safety of staff and customers, to close the retail portion completely — it wasn't worth the take-out and delivery volume to staff the store, open ourselves up to more germs and human contact than absolutely necessary.

I went back to our mission and the reason I started the business in the first place — to spread joy. How could we continue to bring happiness to people during this uncertain time? That's our purpose. With millions of people across the globe stuck inside, working from home, quarantined with their families, how can we reach them since they can't come to us? So I thought back to how and why we got started.

Baking, for me, has always been a type of therapy. I could get lost in the mixing bowl and forget about everything else for a moment in time. Sure, I have a huge sweet tooth, but it's about the process. It's about taking all of these different ingredients and mixing them together to create something magically sweet and special. It's about creating and being creative with the simple things. It's about allowing people to indulge in something that brings them joy — a lick from the spatula or a big batch of cookies.

It's about joy in the moment and sharing that joy with others. So my focus is back on that, and it feels good.

We could still ship nationwide, straight to people's doorstep. So we are making it easier and less expensive to send the ultimate comfort food (edible cookie dough) by introducing a reduced shipping rate, and deals on some of our best-selling packages.

In a way for us, it feels like we are going back in time… back to our roots. When I first started the business, we were only shipping nationwide. There were no stores, no big team, no wholesale. It was just me, a small crew juggling it all, and we made it work then. And we'll make it work again. We have to leverage our online business and hope it floats us through this time.

We are focusing our digital content strategy on sharing recipes, activities, and at-home treats with our engaged, amazing social following so they bake with their families and stay busy at-home. We started live baking tutorials where our fans can bake-along with me and I can share all the tips and tricks I've learned over the years with them.

I've leveraged the cookbook I published last year, Hello, Cookie Dough: 110 Doughlicious Confections to Eat, Bake & Share, to come up with fun content and additional things to do at home. We started shipping it and our at-home baking mixes for free to encourage people to get busy in their kitchens!

And as a business, we will continue to connect with our community to bring them joy and focus on what we can control, including our attitude and outlook first.

During times of uncertainty, which this certainly is, you should do the same. Identify the things you can control and focus your time and energy on those things. Distract yourself with the positive. Force yourself to stop asking and worrying about all the what-ifs. Do what you can for the moment and then the next moment. Make a list, and take it day-by-day.

It's going to be okay. You will be okay. We will all be okay.