Marking International Women's Day
A socially conscious businesswoman takes a systemic approach to effecting change in Egypt.
By Mohamed Elporame for Al Masry Al Youm
Some social entrepreneurs create jobs; others work to preserve cultural heritage or save the environment. Rania Salah Seddik, the 35-year-old founder of GebRaa for Egyptian Treasures, does all three—and more.
It didn’t take her long to find her calling. After earning degrees in economics and cultural policy, she worked and volunteered for a long list of national and international organizations, from USAID and Doctors without Borders to UNICEF, always striving to advance social and economic wellbeing. By 2008, she had figured out how to bring all her passions together: She would create a company that would sell sustainably produced crafts made by Egyptian artisans.
After chosing the name GebRaa—“Geb” is the god of the Earth, “Raa” is the god of the sun—she began crisscrossing the country to find artisans who still practiced traditional crafts, some dating back thousands of years. In her travels, she discovered wooden boxes intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl; vibrantly colored hand-blown glass; appliqued fabric once used on desert tents; hand-woven textiles and fine embroidery. Each had an incredible history, and she learned everything she could.
She also discovered the precariousness of many of these crafts—one artisan specializing in mother-of-pearl inlay had only five employees, down from 40. Among the many causes for this decline were Egyptian’s lack of appreciation of their own patrimony, their inability to pay for the highest quality goods and the flood of cheap Chinese reproductions sold to tourists.
Seddik knew that to effect lasting change, she would have to take an holistic approach; her goal was to help artisans streamline and adapt production to increase profitability and to find new international markets for their creations.
It was ambitious, but the potential benefits were considerable. On a broad level, her initiative would help preserve Egyptian culture and support cultural diversity worldwide. Locally, it would give artisans more income, respect and status in their communities, allowing them to transmit their skills to younger generations and create jobs. “I knew that if I could bring work to craftsmen in their home cities or villages, they wouldn’t have to migrate to Cairo or even another country,” said Seddik.
She was savvy enough to know that traditional items would need to be tweaked to appeal to a sophisticated international clientele, so she hired a designer to work with the artisans (more recently, she has launched an entire GebRaa home décor line). She also knew that ensuring that products were environmentally friendly, 100 percent Egyptian and fair trade would be important selling points.
After studying various options, Seddik made the shrewd business decision to eschew retail sales in favor B2B, attending international trade fairs and marketing her goods to importers, distributors and gallery owners—she now sells to the United States, Europe and Lebanon. In Egypt, GebRaa creations are sold at airport duty-free shops and high-end craft markets, and businesses often order them as corporate gifts. Currently she is in the process of ramping up her website to become a B2B tool that will cater to customers both in Egypt and abroad.
While GebRaa is now in the black (it turned a profit for the first time in 2017, on an annual turnover of 300,000 EGP), its success didn’t come easy and is a testament to the grit and tenacity of its founder. In 2011, Seddik was able to get her initiative off the ground thanks to an $8,000 SEED Award for Entrepreneurship in Sustainable Development. “But things were still very difficult,” she recalls. “So I entered a World Bank competition and won $25,000. That helped me relaunch my project on a larger scale. I recruited some employees and reached out to a number of craftsmen in other Egyptian provinces. I also reached out to members of the Egyptian diaspora to help me find markets for our products.”
Since 2014, GebRaa has been headquartered in the GrEEK Campus, Cairo’s first technology and innovation park. She currently has a staff of four, three interns and a stable of independent contractors. Her vision is for GebRaa to become the springboard for other initiatives; already she has launched the Karama Foundation, whose mission is to foster new generations of artisans through apprenticeships and continuing education programs. “We recently received a $250,000 grant from the Drosos Foundation to help revive Egyptian inlay crafts,” she said with satisfaction. “All we need now is government approval.”
More long-term, Seddik hopes that Karama (which means “dignity”) will help meet the basic needs of the communities where craftsmen live and work: clean water, sewer systems, education. Ultimately, she would love to see GebRaa make enough money to finance much of Karama’s work, thus closing the circle that starts with the artisan sitting at his loom or workbench….
Project We Forgot: Taking Care of Young Caregivers
By Charmaine Ng for The Straits Times
After her father was diagnosed with early onset dementia at age 54, Melissa Chan’s life changed forever.
At just 14 years old, she became a young carer and struggled with the sudden role reversal. Where her days had once been filled of catching up with school friends, they were now spent bathing her father and preparing his meals.
As a teenager, she didn’t understand the disease nor why it was stealing her father away. When he eventually forgot who she was, Melissa began to doubt her own worth. “I wondered if I was not good enough to be remembered. A lot of questions ran through my head,” said Melissa, now 28.
Back then dementia was not talked about as much as it is now. “I never knew what dementia was, medically, and how it affects your brain,” said Chan. “Looking back, I would have really appreciated knowing what the symptoms are and how to cope as a young carer.”
And so three years ago following the death of her father in late 2014, Melissa decided to start something that would help her caregiving peers who feel as lost and overwhelmed as she did.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business management and working nearly four years in the finance and hospitality industries, she founded the social enterprise Project We Forgot.
Heavily committed to the project, one month in Chan took the plunge and quit her full-time job to entirely focus her energy on the new venture.
Project We Forgot offers a support system for young caregivers aged under 39. The online platform enables them to share their experiences and connect with others with the help of social media.
Inspired by the photoblog Humans of New York, she started the website and related social media accounts to give young caregivers a platform to share their experiences and encourage one another online.
Jason Foo, CEO of Alzheimer’s Disease Association commented; “Some of them [young caregivers] don’t even know what to do and they are so used to having their mum or dad taking care of them. The role reversal can be very difficult for the child to accept.” He estimates that every year, up to 200 young caregivers are “thrown” into the role because more people are getting dementia earlier in their lives.
According to the National Neuroscience Institute in 2015, four times as many patients below 65 were diagnosed with dementia than in 2011. In Singapore alone an estimated 40,000 people live with dementia and one in 10 are under 65 years old.
“If you think about it, this means the caregivers are also getting younger because the patients are getting younger,” said Mr Foo.
Chan added: “This is where Project We Forgot comes in”.
After working on Project We Forgot solo for more than a year, Chan realised she would require more manpower and a bigger platform. Last year, her one-man team expanded to include chief technical officer Neo Kai Yuan, 27, and community manager Clarence Oo, 31.
So far, the business has managed to build a community of 3,000 caregivers across social media channels. It has also engaged with more than 200 caregivers who have reached out to the social enterprise directly for help.
On top of building a community, Project We Forgot also conducts workshops, training and outreach programmes at schools and other organisations.
A social networking app for caregivers is also in the works, and is expected to be released by the end of the year.
By providing these tools and services to meet the needs of caregivers, the team hopes to figure out a sustainable business model as a social enterprise soon.
“One of the first few things people say to us is that we should be a non-profit or charity instead, but as a team, we want to see how we can shape the business model for social causes,” said Melissa.
She stressed that the ultimate aim of Project We Forgot is not about the revenue, but that its success is dependent on its social impact.
“As a social enterprise, it’s not just about setting up a business. It’s also taking into consideration the lives we’re impacting and that’s what stresses me.”
While Project We Forgot has not yet seen any profits, it has earned financial support from both the private and public sector -- its only source of funding at the moment. Last year, it was awarded a $20,000 grant under the Singtel Future Markers programme, and another undisclosed amount under the Singapore government’s National Youth Fund.
While these successes have been satisfying, the journey to ensuring Project We Forgot’s long-term future is still not an easy one, said Melissa, who has used her own savings to set up the business.
After more than two years working on the social enterprise, Melissa said she has learnt so much more about caregiving for patients with dementia -- more than she did while her father was still alive.
Each Mind is Unique
How one young woman’s experience of applying to university inspired her to improve the system for future generations
By Yannis Palaiologos for Kathimerini
Diana Voutyrakou has represented Greece at the World Robotic Olympiad several times, and she is one of the few females attending the School of Electrical Engineering at the National Technical University in Athens. Despite this impressive track record, she wanted to do more to challenge stereotypes against women in the sciences and close the gender gap in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
So in 2016, at age 21, she and a fellow student, Pavlos Simentis, co-founded Unique Minds, an NGO with a mission to inform high school pupils about their academic options and help them make the right decisions about what to study
“Unique Minds was created because of the social stereotypes I experienced as a [female] high school student preparing my university application, in combination with the inability of the system to bring out the best in each pupil,” said Voutyrakou. “Though I was certain of my choice [of subject], it proved very hard to convince those around me about it. Everyone – family, friends, teachers – tried to get me to apply for other subjects, so that I’d be sure to get accepted somewhere.” She also felt that many other students in her university program did not share her enthusiasm for it. “They had chosen the school because their parents were engineers, or because they thought they could do well professionally and financially.”
Unique Minds fills an important gap in Greek education policy. Mary Papayanni was a high school senior when she found out about the organization. “I heard about them randomly, through Facebook,” she said, noting that her school did not offer academic orientation services. “At the Unique Minds event in Peristeri, I learned a lot about marketing as a course of study. It is important to ask people close to your age about what things are really like in each department. My fellow students at school and at after-school tutorials picked their university subjects based on the available job prospects during the years of economic crisis.”
Unique Minds’ activities fall into four categories. A Unibuddies platform connects pupils with students via online chats; YouTube videos feature student volunteers discussing their schools; UNIque Days events present university programs to high school pupils with interactive workshops; and professional orientation seminars highlight the importance of basing university applications on personal interests. Since late 2016, the organization has reached nearly 3,000 students through its live events, and its videos have attracted more than 21,000 views
Voutyrakou believes that better information for high schoolers on the opportunities and challenges that come with each academic discipline is vital. But she knows that information alone won’t solve the problem of massive over-representation of men in STEM classes. “It is a problem that begins in the first grades of primary school,” she said, noting that in Greece, “the perception is shaped that girls should follow a theoretical academic direction, or study law or pedagogy, whereas boys should go into STEM.”
She feels the solution is purely a matter of education, “offering equal opportunities at school, encouraging girls to get into physics and math, familiarizing all pupils with the full range of prospects out there. People should be made aware that girls are no less innately suited to STEM than boys.
Nearly two decades ago, an earthquake jolted Selma Demirelli into action—and she hasn’t stopped since.
By Barçin Yinanç for Hürriyet Daily News
It took only 45 seconds. In the early hours of August 17, 1999, an earthquake struck Turkey’s Marmara region, killing tens of thousands of people, including Selma Demirelli’s husband. Like the millions of other survivors, her life would never be the same.
After getting through the initial shock, Demirelli found salvation in helping others, signing up to work as a field coordinator for an NGO, the Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work. She soon witnessed the many and varied problems earthquake survivors endure; she also learned that while traumas caused by natural disasters are in theory gender neutral, they often affect women, children and the handicapped more than others.
She was lucky to have been an exception. A few days after her husband’s funeral, his relatives asked her for the deed to her house, which was flattened by the earthquake. Turkey has equal rights of inheritance, but there are still certain patriarchal legal practices that work against women. A widow without a child, for instance, becomes obliged to share her husband’s property with his relatives. And in marriages where the husband is the only income provider, the property is registered under the name of the husband.
As it turned out, Demirelli was legally entitled to keep her house, but the realization that not everyone was so lucky prompted her to found the country’s first women’s housing cooperative to empower women as property owners.
“The amount of money we started with was so small that when I took it to the bank, the manager made fun of me,” she recounted. “‘Why are you wasting your time?’ he said. ‘You are a beautiful woman, find a man and remarry.’”
His comment left her in tears, but it also strengthened her resolve. She made countless trips to the capital city of Ankara to secure the allotment of real estate, then enlisted NGOs and institutions such as Istanbul Technical University to help with aspects such as housing design.
Meanwhile, she became involved in another housing project. When a local charity group composed of businessmen offered to provide a yearlong supply of food to earthquake survivors, she explained that it would be better to help with a more long-term solution: She convinced them to construct houses for 200 families instead.
It was typical of Demirelli, who has become known for her efforts to make assistance sustainable. Her work in camps built for earthquake survivors, for example, involved gathering women to talk and to provide them training. Soon however she realized that many of them were not able to participate because there was no place to leave their children.
That prompted her to found the Water Lily Women’s Cooperative—once again, she made numerous trips to the capital to secure the allotment of a real estate for a center to provide day care for children up to the age of six. It took years of persistent efforts; national and local government bureaucracies hoped to wear her down, but the opposite happened. When they realized she would not give up, they gave up. She got the real estate for the center, beating out rival groups who wanted it for a commercial project or gas station.
Today the activities of the Water Lily Women’s Cooperative are not limited to childcare. Mothers use the free time they now have to attend training programs—in finance, business development, entrepreneurship—that enable them to join the work force.
Most recently, Demirelli has turned her focus to projects to end violence against women, which has reached alarming levels in Turkey. In addition to raising awareness, she is seeking new approaches to combat this problem. “I’m not against shelters where women who are victims of violence can seek refuge,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it deprives them of their freedom. Why should women have to leave their homes? We also need to address the men who use violence against women.”
That 1999 earthquake may have destroyed much of Demirelli’s world, but it did not destroy her. Instead, she used that tragedy as a springboard to help build better lives for so many others.
Airlifting Medical Care—and Hope
During the past decade, a young woman has revolutionised emergency health care in West Africa.
By Anwuli Nkem for The Nation
Few would have predicted that the first air ambulance service in West Africa would be launched by a 23-year-old woman. The year was 2007, and the woman was Dr. Ola Orekunrin (now Dr. Ola Orekunrin-Brown). Following a personal tragedy, she channeled her grief and courage into an initiative that has saved hundreds of lives.
Born in England, she grew up in a small town in southeast England and went on to study medicine at the University of York. While she was completing her studies, her 12-year-old sister fell ill while vacationing with relatives in Nigeria. She needed to be airlifted to a hospital where she could get proper treatment, but to the great dismay of Dr. Orekunrin-Brown and her family, the closest air ambulance they could find was in South Africa. Her little sister died before help could arrive.
It was anguishing for Dr. Orekunrin-Brown to know that her sister didn’t die because of her illness, she died because she couldn’t access treatment in time. The tragedy would stay with her as she completed her medical studies, graduating at age 21 to become one of the youngest doctors in the country. Once she started working, she began saving every penny she could with the idea of perhaps starting an air ambulance charity.
She eventually traveled to Nigeria to take up the challenge, initially studying the models in other developing countries. She soon came to the conclusion that a business would be a better way to realise her goals, and she went about raising money—a considerable challenge for a young woman. She also had to deal with tedious bureaucratic processes and a host of other issues. With no business experience, she had to learn as she went, giving up many of the activities that young people in their twenties enjoy in order to devote herself to her project.
Her drive and perseverance paid off, and before long she became the CEO of Flying Doctors Nigeria Limited. Her new company offered air evacuation services to the private and public sector as well as wealthy individuals, airlifting injured workers from offshore oil rigs, for example, or repatriating sick British expats.
But with international evacuations costing about $60,000 and local evacuations about $20,000, she knew she needed to offer a more affordable option as well. She eventually came up with the idea of using unsold space on airlines, building special units that could easily be installed over a row of seats. The ingenious concept managed to bring the cost down to about $1,000, and has been a win-win for airlines and patients alike.
Based in Lagos, Flying Doctors now has outposts across the country, with 20 charter aircraft and 44 doctors who deliver quality care en route, fulfilling the company’s promise to get “the right patient to the right facility within the right time frame.” Dr. Orekunrin-Brown has made a point of ensuring that her company’s services are available to people in remote areas of Nigeria, saving the critically ill as well as victims of car accidents, gunshot wounds or other traumas.
To date, Flying Doctors Nigeria remains the only indigenous air ambulance service in West Africa and has transported some several hundred patients. The life-saving service has earned Dr. Orekunrin-Brown and her team numerous accolades and awards. Most recently, she won the 2018 Extraordinary Business Achievement Award presented by The Silverbird Group, a Nigerian multimedia company. She is the youngest person ever to win the prestigious distinction and the only woman to have done so in the past decade.
She has also been named one of the “100 Lionesses of Africa”—extraordinary African women whose example serves to motivate and inspire other potential entrepreneurs. Speaking at their 2016 annual conference, she said, “Here’s to the women who will change the narrative of African women: May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”