Shonda Rhimes, the mastermind behind many courageous and strong female characters said once to Elle Magazine that “The beauty of being a feminist is that you get to be whatever you want.” And, that is exactly the point. Women have had enough of being limited by societal norms and gender bias. Instead, they are choosing to walk in their purpose and be their own boss.
While entrepreneurship has typically been regarded as a male strength, female entrepreneurs are on the rise. They are fearless and unapologetic, embracing and celebrating their insecurities, traumas, scars and placing their vulnerability at the heart of their businesses. They are here to leave their mark whilst empowering and opening pathways for other generations of women, creating a remarkable and unbreakable circle of sisterhood.
Enabling women to invest more in their well-being regardless where they are
Hala, a Palestinian-Jordanian born in Dubai has lived across the UAE, Algeria, Jordan, and the UK. After spending a few years in the consulting business, she pursued her studies at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and became a certified health coach. Despite the financial security that her former job offered, it did not reflect her true passions: female empowerment and health and well-being. A beautiful marriage of the two brought to life her business venture called Healthy Feminist in 2019, a holistic health coaching platform for women encouraging them to focus and invest more in their well-being.
“It is not just holistic health coaching, it is about creating a community of women for women while promoting equal access to sustainable healthy lifestyles for all women, no matter where they are.”Hala Sabbah, Healthy Feminist
Reflecting on her journey, Hala says “The lack of information or someone to guide me through felt lonely at times. Especially as a SWANA (South West Asian North African) woman, where there is even a bigger need for such female initiatives due to mobility restrictions and language barriers. Therefore, I was determined to create that safe space for young women to openly share their insecurities or learning with each other, catering to both English and Arabic.” She did not stop there. To pursue her vision of equal access, she decided to dedicate 25% of her profits to providing free health coaching to women from low-income communities and refugees in SWANA.
Despite her business being only a few months old, the response to her vision has been overwhelming from individual clients to corporate well-being workshops to growing social media followers. As females, we have been raised to have a lot of shame about what our bodies go through: puberty changes, periods, menopause, mood swings all in while competing with various unrealistic role models of “healthy”, “beautiful”, “successful” on social media. This is why, when it comes to social media, Hala chooses to be extremely careful with the content she shares, focusing on promoting body positivity and self-acceptance.
There is a real need to speak and understand female health more. What makes Hala’s vision special is that she looks at health holistically to account for our cultural heritage, where we live, where we call home, what we eat, how we sleep, who we interact with, what we do with our spare time, all of which might impact our well-being every day without us noticing. Her vision of “healthy” is the right balance between mind, body, and soul.
When asked about her hurdles as a female and feminist entrepreneur, Hala said: “There is a significant misconception that ‘women are bitchy to other women’, placing us on this unhealthy competitive light.” On the contrary, her journey in both the corporate world and her business has led her to some incredible women who have been remarkable supporters. “We need more women in leadership positions. We need to pave the way for women with limited mobility so they too can start their own businesses. We need women to be financially independent and run their households. We need women to finally not accept anything less than their worth,” she adds on the importance of supporting female entrepreneurship.
While she admits that her journey as a business owner may sometimes feel lonely and lacking the same level of social interaction of working with other colleagues compared to the social interactions from working with colleagues, she also recognizes how much she has learned about herself in the process. She emphasizes the importance of having and showing grace to yourself. As women, it is in our nature to be highly critical and spot our mistakes a lot quicker than the victories. As Hala teaches us: “Life is not linear and our worth should not be linked to success. Some days are productive and remarkable, while some might not, and that is okay.”
Challenging perceptions of female entrepreneurship, empowering women to carve own path
Aya’s journey started in the financial industry after finishing her studies in one of the top London Business Schools. She was born and raised in Belgium from Lebanese parents. Reflecting on her childhood, Aya tells me: “Growing up I was very much into playing sports and you could say I was a bit of a ‘tomboy’ – I didn’t like anything girly, refused to wear dresses and most of my friends were boys at the time. As I grew older, my passion for sports remained but I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin.”
“In a traditionally male-dominated industry, I wanted my company to be about women. I wanted to give them better choices; choices that made them feel empowered while educating them about sustainability.”Aya Ahmad, Fyne Jewellery
Aya’s journey to entrepreneurship initially started in 2014, when she launched a Sports App called Sportable in cooperation with her husband now, Adam. Unfortunately, as the app did not reach the required level of engagement, they both decided to pursue their respective family businesses in 2016. After having completed a graduate Diamond Course, Aya began to work more closely with her father in their diamond trade business. This way, she became the first female Diamantaire in her family, starting to carve out a path of her own. “From my very early days as a diamantaire, I knew I wanted to do something different and wanted to stand out as my own woman in this field. I really wanted to create a jewelry line that was innovative and tailored to the modern woman,” she adds.
Growing up and living in a progressive society such as Belgium, Aya was empowered to challenge any gender limitations placed on her as a young woman of Arab origins. It was important to her to shine the light over the inequalities women in Lebanon face despite the media portraying it as one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. “For instance, women are not allowed to give their children a Lebanese passport while men can pass it down or give it to their foreign wives.” Not only did she want to start her own business but she was also determined to celebrate how far women have come collectively. “I never used to call myself a feminist when I was younger because of the stigma surrounding it. However, the older I get, the more I realize that everything feminism stands for, I stand for as well.”
Drawing inspiration from her family legacy in the diamond trade and fuelled by her commitment to equality for women, Aya founded Fyne Jewellery in 2019. Fyne headquarters in the Middle East and specializes in cultured diamonds, which makes it a conscious luxury brand without the hefty price on our natural resources or the environment. Her Fyne Jewellery line is a combination of refined but edgy design pieces telling a powerful story. They may seem fragile on the surface but in reality, they are wearable reminders for women to stay strong and powerful in their element.
Aya shares that when it comes to women, entrepreneurship is often perceived as a temporary hobby until they get married or have children rather than serious business. She found that despite a significant rise in Middle Eastern female entrepreneurs, there is a lack of resources and platforms available to share the learnings or support their growth further. “Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey which drives us, women, to proactively seek out other female entrepreneurs to share experience and knowledge. That can open a multi-dimensional view of the working world, and/or lateral thinking across different industries that perhaps corporate life does not.” Looking back at all the hurdles she has faced with humility and gratitude for the important lessons, Aya is excited for the Fyne Future ahead of her. She is committed to exploring different ways of enhancing the sustainability lens in the diamond business by working with trade gold providers to minimize health and environmental concerns typically associated with artisanal gold.
A new dawn for female entrepreneurs
The numbers vary among different countries depending on the socio-economic landscape as well as gender norms and bias. For instance, in the US, female entrepreneurs are increasing more than double the rate of other firms creating about 23 million jobs and contributing to the overall economy by a staggering $3 trillion. However, in the UK, despite it being the leading European country for start-ups with about 1100 new businesses each day, only 6% of women run their own businesses compared to 11% in the US and 15% in Canada. If only UK female entrepreneurs matched UK men numbers, the country’s economy would benefit from an additional £250 billion. Therefore, investing in female-owned companies is not only good for gender equality, but it is also a great business.
The conversations with Aya and Hala left me inspired and incredibly optimistic for the future. While feminism is a crucial part of who they are and what their businesses stand for, they are using it as a much bigger platform than simply women empowerment. They are shining a light on important issues affecting women’s ability to have equal access to the same opportunities as males and addressing key sustainable goals from health, lifestyle and environmental impact. They are two of many incredible SHeroes who regardless of how many times they may fall, are getting back up even stronger. They are showing us all that there is no limit to what women can achieve if they ignore the NAY-sayers, the skeptics and the cynics along the way and walk proudly in the light of their authentic purpose.