By Henry Johnson

Like many brides before her, Ghada Eltanawy intended to buy her dream wedding gown for her big day. But she couldn’t stomach forking over more than the amount of a down payment on an apartment for an item of clothing that would spend the remainder of its days packed away in mothballs. “I would never wear something off-shelf, because I don’t want to look too regular,” says Eltanawy, 24. “But I couldn’t justify spending $15,000 to $20,000 for a four-hour event. It’s insane.” That gave the recent AUC graduate an idea. She began asking her married girlfriends what they had done with their dresses. They all said: “‘It’s in the closet collecting dust.’”

A year ago, she launched La Reina, or The Queen—Eltanawy spent a semester abroad in Spain—a sort of Airbnb for wedding gowns, where prospective brides can rent a gently used designer dress for about a tenth of the original price. In keeping with her target market, Eltanawy only features gowns on her website that originally retailed for $10,000 or more, and they can’t be more than two years old. Forty percent of the rental cost goes to the gown’s original owner, allowing them to recoup a little of their investment. The 60 dresses in Eltanawy’s current collection are all by “tier-one” designers ranging from Vera Wang to Maison Yeya, a local label that’s dressed Middle Eastern socialites and celebrities. Among Eltanawy’s skeleton staff is an expert tailor who can modify gowns up or down a size. Best of all, brides-to-be can browse the dresses in complete privacy; no one but her need ever know that she recited her vows in a rental. Eltanawy soon plans to expand into evening wear, offering pre-worn formal attire by Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel as well as local designers.

La Reina was named among Egypt’s top new startups at last year’s RiseUp summit, Cairo’s annual digital entrepreneurship conference. As a reward, Eltanawy and the owners of five other startups got to go on a networking trip to Silicon Valley, where they spent two weeks in April visiting giants like Facebook and Google, attending workshops and meeting with potential investors. She was in good company: Out of RiseUp’s six top startups in 2016, four were women-owned.

They are among a new wave of digital entrepreneurs that are challenging the status quo in one of the world’s most male-dominated labor markets. Economists have long stressed the importance of bolstering the role of women in the Egyptian workforce. A 2012 study by Booz and Co. predicted that gender parity could raise Egypt’s GDP by 34 percent. But like much of the region, Egypt lags behind in this department; the country scored 12th from the bottom among 144 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report. While Egypt has done much to level the playing field in education, graduating nearly as many women as men from college, female graduates are still fives times more likely to be jobless than their male counterparts, according to 2014 research by the International Labor Organization.

Still, at RiseUp, now in its fifth year, women-run startups increasingly dominate, says Farah Baki, a liaison between companies, investors and conference administrators. “Girls are way ahead of their game right now. The opportunities are there,” says Baki, 23. In the internet “ecosystem,” old boy’s club barriers that hold women back in traditional sectors don’t exist, she argues. All that matters is the soundness of your business plan.

Hani Naguib, a consultant who used to mentor startups as part of AUC’s Venture Lab, an incubator, says that particularly in the last year, he’s noticed a surge in female-owned enterprises. “Everywhere I go, I’m meeting more women entrepreneurs, and they’re no longer just making bags or shoes or whatever.”

It’s no accident that Egypt’s startup scene blossomed following the social and political activism of 2011, which energized advocates for women’s advancement. Before the January 25 revolution, you didn’t hear terms like “startup accelerator” or “angel investor” in the Egyptian capital. The turmoil of the uprising also spurred “an attitude of empowerment,” among young people, says Yasmine Helmy, a 23-year-old who handles growth strategy for Instabug, which was launched by two recent Cairo University graduates in 2012 and has since grown into one of the world’s most promising startups. The service, which allows users to report glitches by shaking their mobile devices, claims to currently operate on a staggering 800 million devices. It’s a success story in a country that has increasingly looked to entrepreneurship to help rescue its stagnant economy in the last five years.

For many of the millions of young Egyptians who struggle to find jobs upon finishing school, taking a chance on your own business is also an exciting alternative to working in a call center or leaving the country. With labor and living costs low, Cairo is an attractive market for ambitious young people who are looking for more than just a paycheck. As the social media manager for an advertising agency, Gehad Abdallah, an Ain Shams University graduate, had attained by the age of 24 what many would consider a dream job. “I was living the perfect life, going to see celebrities, attending events, meeting new people,” she says.

But she dreamed of doing something more. Last May, Abdallah quit her cushy advertising job to run MerMaid, an internet startup that connects people with trained, vetted maids. She currently has a roster of 25 cleaners, and she soon plans to expand her territory beyond her three core neighborhoods of Maadi, Zamalek and Mohandeseen to upscale parts of the satellite cities. At 27, Abdallah is her company’s CEO, human resources director and customer relations manager. When I met her in April, she was driving between business meetings; we spoke between cell-phone calls as she handled a dispute with a customer. At around five feet tall, Abdallah is an unlikely but avid rugby player, though these days she says she rarely has time to play. She admits to feeling occasionally  jealous of her peers who go to parties and take vacations and have boyfriends. But her hard work seems to be paying off. This summer, she’ll attend the Open Tech conference in Berlin thanks to RiseUp, which named MerMaid among the region’s 12 most promising new ventures.

As some have pointed out, many of the startups that have attracted buzz at the conference do things that make life more convenient for urban elites. “Entrepreneurship is still limited to those who have the resources,” acknowledges Ghada Barsoum, a public policy professor at The American University in Cairo who studies women in the workplace. She explains that there is very little available funding for local startups. “This is an economy where access to finance is quite constrained, unless you have connections and family support.”

Still, not all of Egypt’s female-owned startups are about fashion or housecleaning. Bahia el-Sharkawy, a 28-year-old self-described computer geek, started AlMakinah, Cairo’s first coding bootcamp, as an answer to the local shortage of qualified computer science workers. The five or 12-week courses, Gear Up and Fire Up, teach marketable skills that are absent from basic university curricula. Even after studying computer science for eight years, first at the German University in Cairo and later as a graduate student at Nile University, Sharkawy says her programming skills were lacking; it was only thanks to a professor who taught her coding skills on the side that she was eventually able to land a job at Novelari, a local software developer, which constantly struggles to find talent. “No company can find qualified developers, and that’s because computer science graduates aren’t taught any skills the market actually needs,” says Sharkawy.

Modeling her crash coding courses on programs in Silicon Valley, she launched her startup in late 2015, with support from Novelari. A number of graduates of her initial five-week pilot course in web design were offered jobs upon graduating, she says. Her courses now attract doctors, physicists and freelance graphic designers looking to change careers as well as recent university grads. At LE 25,000 for a 12-week course, the class is only accessible to a relatively well-off minority of Egyptians, though 12 of AlMakinah’s current crop of 15 students are being funded by companies, according to Sharkawy. The startup Elves is also financing a scholarship to encourage promising female coders.

Women remain a minority in the tech field, and even in the West, there are relatively few female programmers and web designers. An Egyptian woman coder starting a computer science training business is “the opposite of the norm,” acknowledges Sharkawy, who hopes to encourage more women to go into tech—say, by offering a second career option to Egyptian wives and mothers. 

Baki, of RiseUp, argues that, in a sense, women entrepreneurs have more freedom to take risks than men, because they are rarely family breadwinners. “If my startup fails, I’m not going to be out on the streets,” says Baki. “I’m going to be supported by my husband or father.” Of course, that’s only true for Egyptian women who are lucky enough to have a measure of financial security in the first place.

Eltanawy, who runs the designer wedding-gown rental service, worked as an engineer at Pepsico right out of AUC, only to quit after just six months, realizing that she “couldn’t manage being an employee, a very tiny thing in a huge corporate space.” Her father, who owns his own business, encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. With his backing, she tried her hand at two short-lived startups, a water park in the North Coast and an online mapping service before hitting on an idea that seems to have stuck.

A lot of educated, ambitious Egyptian women aren’t nearly so lucky. A familiar argument is that it doesn’t make sense to lobby for greater female participation in the Egyptian workforce when men can’t find jobs. Barsoum, the AUC professor, points out that even graduates of elite universities are competing for a tiny pool of positions. And going into business for yourself, while scary, is also thrilling. Entrepreneurship has allowed women like Rania Rafie to pursue their ideals as well as their ambitions. Rafie, 25, is the co-founder of Up-fuse, which makes “socially responsible” wallets,  purses and backpacks made from recycled plastic processed by workers in Garbage City. Rafie and her friend and co-founder, Yara Yassin, 26, hatched the idea during their AUC semester abroad in Berlin after noticing that grocery stores charged shoppers for plastic bags, which inspired them to think of ways of raise environmental awareness back home. 

Up-fuse has partnered with the local NGO Spirit of Youth to contract locals to transform discarded plastic bags into a compressed material that’s used to make the colorful, brightly patterned handbags. Rafie says the brand is currently partnering with retailers in Berlin, Dubai, Kuwait City and San Diego as well as five stores in Zamalek. At Up-fuse’s headquarters in the basement of a villa in New Cairo on a recent afternoon, a handful of middle-aged men who Rafie and Yassin employ to stitch their plastic designs are bent over sewing machines. Most skilled tailors in Cairo are men, explains Rafie.

She acknowledges that as a member of a privileged class, she as a business owner isn’t particularly in touch with the needs of most Egyptians. “You don’t really connect with what’s going on with the other 99 percent of the population, especially if you live in the suburbs,” says Rafie. While the new crop of 21st-century Egyptian businesswomen do tend to come from rarified backgrounds, with cosmopolitan parents who encouraged them to take chances, says Barsoum, they are nonetheless blazing the way for others: “We need to think about the conditions that supported these women as a way out for others.”

© Business Monthly 2017