Are there perhaps no two greater friends in the universe than beer and bacon? I think not.
Kate Levenstien had worked for the Oprah Winfrey show until it came to a climactic end back in 2011. Following the grand finale, she chose to travel, and was sightseeing in Vietnam when she received a call that would go on to mold the rest of her life to date.
The call came from an old college friend about a job opportunity that had just arisen in Chicago. Given that Levenstien was summer-deep in a world of exploration she was very much reluctant to leave the wide expanse of travel.
After a few days of deliberation however, Levenstien decided the opportunity was too good to pass up on.
Her friend’s company had been bought by Living Social and they required more people for the team going forward. Levenstien had never been involved in organizing events professionally and at first thought the prospect daunting. Living Social nevertheless proved to be the perfect place to launch a new element to her career.
“The beautiful thing about working at Living Social was that they were very young, very eager and basically gave you the reigns to run your events and your city the way you wanted to,” she explains. With that, she was able to undertake any new venture with relative ease, gaining approval for most of the events she pitched.
She was at the helm of a team of 60 after only a couple of years with the platform and was readying herself to pitch her next round of events that were decidedly riskier than previous ventures because of their size. Levenstien was looking toward events for between 5,000-15,000 people, a dramatic increase but one she says she was fanatical about, and had researched extensively.
It had been two and a half years since she was travelling through Vietnam and received that fateful phone call, when out of the blue - Living Social decided that live events were a liability, and they would be cutting that arm of the platform off.
Having just pitched her biggest and most exciting event, Levenstien had another choice to make; would she stay within the company or pursue this series of events she had prepared and devized?
She had been running small Bacon and Beer dinners in Chicago with enormous success and the trend had begun to take root in other cities. The beer festival craze had really taken off in 2011 and she looked to capitalize on this.
“I was sitting on this idea,” she recalls, “I had all the research and information done and I believed that it would be a good thing - I was young and fearless.”
She was running trips on the side to garner capital and traction for the new venture, through a smaller company called Mid-West Adventures. They were putting on day adventures like wine outings, ski trips, themed days that were so popular, she would go on to gather enough money to launch the festival she’d been dreaming of. Having the aid of a few favoured clients, Levenstien was readying herself for a giant leap.
At 26 she founded her company Cannonball, with a view to bringing Beer and Bacon festivals to Chicago and further afield, in venues people wouldn't typically associate with food.
“There were other bacon and beer festivals around at the time so I thought if we’re going to do this we have to go big.”
Levenstien looked to situate the festivals in large arenas, sports stadiums etc., and liked the idea of the juxtaposition between food and venue, and the atmosphere that would create. Before a website was even launched, she was selling tickets to her first classic.
“I loved the idea of bringing this craft festival in to have a little artisanal spin on the hot dog - the footlong and the tall boy,” she says. And it’s paid off, majorly.
“I want to take a big risk and do this right."
This April 29-30 will be The Bacon and Beer Classic’s fourth year at Citifield in New York, and in the first two quarters of this year alone, Cannonball will host nine classics throughout the country, where in years previous, they were booking maybe nine in total for the entire year.
Cannonball is thus a most fitting name for a company that has veritably shook up the events world and arena gatherings for the next decade no doubt. Marrying two of this country's favorite commodities has proved her meal ticket, and this achievement is perfectly encapsulated in the company name.
“I was really struggling coming up with a name for the company and my then-boyfriend reminded me that I had loved the idea of Cannonball,” she remembers. “Really what our events - what the company about is taking a risk; doing something out of the ordinary; being a kid again and getting out of your daily routine - doing something unexpected, and that's what a cannonball is to me.”
While the jump out of a cannonball is really fun, it's the weapon analogy that is perhaps a more fitting reason for the brand name. “The weapon makes an impact, leaves an impression and is a force to be reckoned with,” she says defiantly - the company name, superbly mimicking its bold founder.
Where of course she cannot reveal all of the details about the upcoming festival this month, she did say that participants this year will be introduced to Virtual Reality in the VIP section, and the festival will launch its first blind tasting. The concept will test those who consider themselves beer connoisseurs and bacon lovers, and should bring a new element to the festival - a little beer fueled competition.
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.