Beirut mum engineers a bright idea for the little ones

The Life: Entrepreneur Rana El Chemaitelly talks about her global plans for a business specialising in educating children in engineering.

For Rana El Chemaitelly, it is not the US$20,000 (Dh73,455) cash injection into her start-up that has made a difference in the year since she won the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards 2011. Instead, it is the flurry of publicity The Little Engineer has received - and the offers to invest in her Beirut-based business and take it global.

"We've benefited from exposure," she says. "Not just in the Middle East. We've had several investment offers from around the world."

Ms El Chemaitelly set up The Little Engineer in 2009 to provide children and teenagers with a place to build their engineering skills after school and during the holidays. Her inspiration was twofold.

Having taken a part-time job in the engineering department at the American University of Beirut (AUB), she realised the students had little practical appreciation of the subjects they were studying. She was also concerned her young son was becoming increasingly unsociable as a result of his devotion to computer games.

A mechanical engineer by training, Ms El Chemaitelly started her first company in 1997. It was a digital imaging business and, at that time, she was a pioneer in the field. Competition was scant. But after seven years, the market became increasingly competitive and profits were harder to turn. She also had three children to take care of.

"I realised I would have to identify a new trend to stay in the market or leave to take care of the kids," she recalls. She opted for the latter. "If I could not be a successful mother then I was not the successful woman I wanted to be."

She didn't want to stay home entirely, though. And so she returned to AUB to complete a master's degree in engineering management. On graduating, she was offered a job with a monthly salary of $5,000.

"For Lebanon, that's great," she says. "But I didn't want to be an employee. I didn't want to be out of my home for long periods every day. So I offered to volunteer at the university. Instead, they assigned me as an instructor."

And that, of course, is where the idea for The Little Engineer dawned. "The students were very far away from real life," she says. "I wondered: how can we expose them to the challenges they will face in the future?"

She tested the idea during the summer of 2009, offering activities for eight to 12 year olds. She alerted neighbours and parents, who also asked for activities for other age groups. The Little Engineer's programme now spans ages four to 18. As well as engineering, renewable energy and 3D graphic design are also on the programme.

Keen to expand the business, Ms El Chemaitelly has settled on a franchise model. There are four centres in Lebanon and two more are due to open soon. A centre is opening in Libya this month and she is almost 80 per cent of the way to closing deals in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco and Armenia. She has also agreed to collaborate on an education initiative with Airbus Middle East.

As part of the Cartier scheme, Ms El Chemaitelly also benefited from mentoring and one-to-one coaching. "This gave me a great push," she says. "I got help not just about entrepreneurship, but also life, leadership and how to handle things such as stress."

Ms El Chemaitelly now coaches four other budding entrepreneurs.

"I want to give back in the same way with others," she says. "I want to inspire others and help them achieve their goals." She says another rewarding aspect of her new-found recognition is being asked to give motivational speeches.

One question is whether it is possible to be a successful female entrepreneur and a full-time mother of three young children.

"You can't do everything 100 per cent," she says. "You have to delegate. I have a helper who cleans and does the dishes. But I teach the kids myself … to be responsible the way I am."