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The Real Transformers: How Women’s Daring Is Advancing Economies

Arab Women Rising”, a new book from Knowledge@Wharton, co-authored by Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar, showcases the bold achievements of 35 female entrepreneurs from the Gulf to North Africa, including Baraka Bits founder Rama Chakaki. Here Syeed shares the impact of their work.

As an experienced journalist in the Middle East, what surprised you most about these women’s stories?

For me, this project opened a whole new way of looking at the situation. We often focus on women asserting their rights in the public square, but overlook their status in the economy. So I was surprised at how, despite the towering sociopolitical problems that many face, these women have instigated change and continue to take initiative.

Another really big thing that struck me was how many of these women left stable careers to strike out on their own. So many basically said, “I want to be my own boss,” and made good on that maxim, defying societal expectations. How many of us would be that bold?

How has the internet increased women’s options?

It really hit me when I was sitting next to one of the women in Cairo and she kept scrolling down Facebook, showing me tons of women-owned businesses, mostly her friends, who had started things like baking companies and event planning services. The Internet affords them this wide-open space to experiment and connect with customers, and in many cases eventually transition to a brick-and-mortar business or service.

It’s also a space for them to get the know-how they may need to grow their business. Access to knowledge is more horizontal, so not just the very wealthy, but even the middle-class can do it.

What changes might we see 20 years from now?

I’m no fortune-teller, but it will be interesting to see how the kind of women we talked to will influence the next generation. Maybe we’ll see women take even greater risks as perceptions around starting one’s own enterprise (as opposed to sticking to a safe IT or government job) shift and it becomes more acceptable.

As more resources to help entrepreneurs become available, perhaps more women from underprivileged backgrounds will have the chance to get into the game.

Finally, maybe by then outsiders will be less astonished that Arab women are advancing by their own gumption because it will be seen as the norm.

For more info – Arab Women Rising

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Jennifer MacKenzie

Poet, writer and teacher Jennifer MacKenzie grew up on Bloomcrest Dr. in Bloomfield Hills, MI, which inspired her to wonder about places with patterns other than floral. Following her education at Wesleyan University's College of Letters and the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop, she followed a zig-zag course that included a pilgrimage across the top of Spain and a long sojourn in Syria in pursuit of the language of Muhammad al-Maghout and Moudthaffar al-Nawwab. While in Damascus she completed the books of poems "Distant City" and "My Not-My Soldier" (forthcoming from Fence Books) and edited the magazine Syria Today. Her poems and essays can be found in numerous journals including the Kenyon Review online, Guernica, Quarterly West, and Lungfull. She currently lives in New York.

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