Sarah Beydoun was researching a project that helps to rehabilitate female ex-prisoners for her sociology thesis when an idea came to her.
If someone equipped them with career skills, they could use them to help rebuild their lives.
So she decided to do just that and in 2000 started teaching women in prison in Beirut the skills they needed to make handbags. She gave them a cut of everything they produced, which she sold through her luxury label, Sarah’s Bag, plus she certified the most talented women, who came back to work for her when they were released from prison. The women also went on to train other underprivileged women in their communities. Now, 16 years later, the company sells its goods all over the world and has improved the lives of dozens of women.
“Sarah’s Bag has a positive ripple effect on the community,” says Ms Beydoun, from Lebanon. “Our employees train other women and this way we have a larger network working with us. Now we have 200 women, 50 of whom are in prison and the rest are underprivileged women working from home.”
Ms Beydoun was among dozens of women from the region who attended an event last week to celebrate the launch of a new initiative from Facebook called #SheMeansBusiness, which supports female entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa.
The initiative has partnered with UAE organisations such as Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), Emirates Foundation and Egypt’s Ahead of the Curve to train 10,000 women in a year via workshops, training sessions and online resources to equip female entrepreneurs with the knowledge, connections, skills and technology required to build and grow their business online. Facebook has had 70 per cent growth in the number of women setting up businesses on the platform in the past year, according to Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) at Facebook.
“Today on Facebook there are 65 million business pages. And the wonderful thing is it’s free. Anyone can set up a business for free on Facebook and you can start to reach the people that matter to you,” she says.
Nihal Fares, chief product officer and co-founder of Eventtus, uses Facebook and other digital platforms like Instagram to market the mobile app and online engagement platform, which helps with event planning, networking and ticketing. She hopes #SheMeansBusiness will help her to network more.
“I think the most important thing in #SheMeansBusiness is the network. And the network of the mentors they will assemble for us,” she says. “Even connecting entrepreneurs with each other is very beneficial, because what got us to this point is the help and support that we got from all the people that we met along the journey.
“We are now in a very interesting phase in our start-up life, which is scaling because we have a good product. We have customers wanting this product and we are focused on scaling this. Our goal now is to dominate the Middle East.”
As the chief executive and editor of Sail Publishing, which produces an online magazine that reaches 15,000 readers a month and publishes books digitally, Iman Ben Chaibah’s business also relies heavily on social media platforms.
“It is the best way to reach people, whether from within the UAE and across the region. And we can target specific regions as well,” says Emirati Ms Chaibah, 32. “For example, if we know something will be more appealing to Egypt we can target them. If we know something will be more appealing to the US, we target them. We have the access to do that.”
She hopes Facebook’s new initiative will offer her business the opportunity to use these tools more effectively and connect with other entrepreneurs.
“That’s important because when you have your own business you forget to reach out to other people who can help your business and their business at the same time,” she says.
Sarah’s Bag says its international expansion corresponded with the rise of social media.
“We rode this wave and it was very impactful for us. People got to know us from Instagram,” says Ms Beydoun. “We were able to connect to new retailers from Instagram and Facebook. We were able to connect to influencers – very important in the fashion world. The fashion world is very visual, so any picture you post is a chance to sell the product.”
And as an experienced entrepreneur with a successful business, Ms Beydoun sees #SheMeansBusiness as a chance to give back. Having worked with female prisoners and sold bags to women at the other side of the spectrum, she has learnt a lot about how women can use their talents to make a success of their lives.
“When you see this whole spectrum you realise that the most important thing for a woman is to be productive and financially independent,” she adds.
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