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.

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Fresh Voices

How I Went From Shy Immigrant to Co-Founder of OPI, the World's #1 Nail Brand

In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.

One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.

Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.

When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.

There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.

With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.

Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today

Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.

I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.

Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.

There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.

You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.