She is Arab: Making a difference to women in the region
Samar Alshorafa talks about her unique initiative - "a call to action with a mission to magnify the impact and achievements of Arab women."
In a recent conversation with City Times, Samar Alshorafa, CEO of She is Arab, struck a chord when she quoted Michelle Obama, who once said, “Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
For Samar, success is about trying to make a difference in the lives of Arab women via her platform She is Arab, through increased global representation of Arab women in business leadership, media and speaking events.
Samar, a Palestinian who grew up in Egypt and moved to Dubai in 2007, was “happy and proud” to be featured on The Arab Power List 2021 and also on The Changemakers list of ‘25 Women Who Inspire’ as She is Arab continues to build a unique community of female professionals from the region.
She revealed the inspiration behind She is Arab - which faced challenges as a start-up during the Covid pandemic - while chatting with City Times.
“She is Arab is a platform dedicated to connect and enable professional Arab Women, by building an active and collaborative community for them, and offering a range of customized services and opportunities for their growth, development and increased global representation.”
Samar also opened up on the importance of supporting women-owned businesses, how the UAE has been instrumental in providing a start-up ecosystem for women entrepreneurs, the lessons she took away from the onset of the Covid pandemic and more.
Tell us more about She is Arab.
It is an initiative by Arab women for Arab women; a call to action with a mission to magnify the impact and achievements of Arab women. This call to action stemmed from a combination of personal experiences and is backed by data. With low workforce participation rates of women in MENA (20% per the ILO and decreasing), a limited number of women in senior leadership positions in our region (11%), and a rising number of manels in the region due to lack of women speaking at events, something needed to be done to address it.
We started off with offering speaker bureau services and focused on showcasing success stories and role models from the region. The reaction from external audiences, regionally and internationally, has been overwhelmingly positive. We also offer capacity building and advisory services, all the while building a unique community of female professionals from the region.
Being a woman, one often has to face many more obstacles than a man in the professional and corporate world. How do you feel women should deal with such challenges? As a successful woman entrepreneur, what lessons have you learned and what advice would you give aspiring women entrepreneurs?
This is a tough question! Globally, women must deal with a host of different challenges such as unconscious bias, stereotypes, unequal access to opportunities, impostor syndrome, confidence issues, post-maternity work conditions, and so many others.
My humble advice is to use your voice, believe in yourself and have a positive growth mindset which will allow you to enhance and develop your skills and work towards achieving your goals and aspirations.
I truly believe that if you’re really passionate about something, you shouldn’t shy away from sharing this passion with the world. It will guide you to having a clear understanding of what your purpose in life is and you won’t believe how many people will step forward to support you and open doors to help you achieve your endeavours.
You were featured on The Arab Power List 2021 and also on The Changemakers list of ‘25 Women Who Inspire’ alongside a diverse group of accomplished women leaders from around the world. How did this make you feel and why do you feel this exposure is important?
It made me feel so happy and proud! It means that the work we are doing at She is Arab is getting noticed and it confirms that there is a need for it.
It also confirms that, as Michelle Obama said: “Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
I believe that as a purpose-driven business and with all the passion I have personally put into this business despite the hardship that Covid-19 brought to us as a start-up, our mission resonated with many. I’m very grateful for this recognition, although I am cognizant of the fact that we have a long way to go as we unravel how we will be delivering the services women really need and contribute in the long-term to their full economic inclusion.
How has the UAE shaped your perspectives on women empowerment and how has it helped you define and achieve your goals?
We are so lucky to be based in the UAE, a country led by such progressive thinking leaders. The UAE ranks first regionally when it comes to driving gender equality and there are a number of initiatives driven by the government, the private sector and the non-profit sector to drive women’s economic empowerment.
There is no doubt that the start-up ecosystem in the UAE, which is among the top in the region has played an integral role in helping define and achieve our business goals. The UAE provides the start-up scene with a business-friendly environment that enjoys favourable regulations supported by a government that has truly embraced both SMEs and the power of innovation.
She is Arab has been supported by incubators such as in5 Tech in Dubai, which is where we are registered, and Sheraa Sharjah through their SEED program.
As we can tell from your social media, you are an advocate of women-owned businesses. How can the public do their part in supporting such entrepreneurs?
There are many things you can do to support women-owned businesses. I believe that it’s important for each individual, male or female, whether in the private, public or non-profit sectors to actively ensure that they work with women-owned businesses. I’m sure there are many more things one can do to support women-owned businesses. Once you’re conscious about the need to support them, you’ll inevitably do something about it. I can think of many suggestions for the public to do their part in supporting such entrepreneurs, such as:
*Depending on your industry, go through your supply chain and ensure there’s a female supplier. If there’s a women-owned business, consider working with it.
*Introduce her to businesses, incubators, VC funds or contacts who can help her make it happen.
*Mentor or advise the entrepreneur if you have something useful to share.
*Invite women to speak and share their experiences at your events. Make sure you have gender-balanced panels.
*Buy from her (product or service) – more so if it’s a social business supporting local or underprivileged communities.
*Promote her business and advise others to do the same. A simple post on social media can go a long way!
*Invite her to your company events or even trainings you think would be useful for her.
In a post about the recently concluded Academy Awards you spoke of your support for two Arab nominees. Do you feel Arab women are adequately represented in international/Western cinema?
Certainly not. Arab women’s representation in the media in general, even in our region is very low. When it comes to international/Western cinema, it’s a definite no. The Academy Awards this year marked their most diverse and inclusive year yet! It was a first for us to have two Arab women nominated for their work in filmmaking. But the mere fact that they made it, gives us hope and success stories to talk about to younger women from the region who may have thought such an achievement to be impossible.
She is Arab was featured in an international magazine that was distributed at pre-Oscar events. Why do you feel it is important for women in the Western world to understand and relate to women from the Middle East?
A major part of the work we do at She is Arab is working to break prevalent stereotypes, which were essentially exacerbated by Western media. It is so important to highlight that the challenges faced by women in the Middle East are in fact very similar to challenges faced by women globally, especially when it comes to achieving their full economic inclusion.
Showcasing success stories from the region is integral to fostering understanding among people across the globe, bridging cultures and raising awareness about the progress achieved in our region. By shifting the narrative and introducing success stories that are reflective of the true progress of women in our societies, we open the door for a new and progressive discourse when it comes to working towards achieving gender equality.
You have spoken on panels and conferences on subjects such as diversity/inclusivity, female leadership and more. What can you tell us about your recent discussion ‘Start With Leading Yourself’ at the Global Limitless Conference on May 5?
It was a great panel!
I shared my belief that I was my own biggest challenge when it comes to stepping up and becoming a leader. I highlighted how important it is to have a positive growth mindset and be on a continuous learning curve; no matter how steep it may be - more so for entrepreneurs. To build on that growth mindset, we also talked about the importance of finding the right mentor and seeking professional coaching when needed. This has made a major difference in my personal growth and development.
I truly believe that I got to where I am today by making A LOT of mistakes! In my quest for continuous learning and growth, I have shared two recommended readings to help anyone interested in understanding their purpose in life, defining their values and aligning them with their actions. The books are: Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and Flying Without a Net by Thomas DeLong. Both books emphasize how important it is to be vulnerable, embracing that vulnerability and in fact drawing strength from it to have courage to lead. It’s a prerequisite for growth and it is definitely okay to make mistakes in the process!
Growing up who were the female personalities who most inspired you?
It goes without saying that my first inspiration was my mother!
But I was also always inspired by my late grandmother who built a new life for our family as refugees, helped re-establish the family business and kept us grounded to our roots. She was a fearless and powerful woman with so much wisdom, which made her earn the respect of everyone who knew her.
Having said that, as a young girl growing up in the region, there was a lack of female role models to look up to besides members of royal families or first ladies in the region. It was entirely up to you to find role models for yourself through your readings in books or newspapers or on TV shows! So, when I landed a job that entailed a lot of travel across the region, I met incredible women in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia. I’m inspired by those amazing women I meet everyday. There are hidden gems across the region and that’s why She is Arab came to being. We are working to highlight these stories and share them to inspire the younger generation of men and women across the region and around the world.
You recently also shared a video about kindness during the Covid pandemic. How have you dealt with the effects of the pandemic personally and what are some of the lessons you have learned from the experience?
The pandemic has brought major challenges in every household. From wellbeing issues to mounting pressure due to a lack of work-life balance; it’s an ongoing challenge to us all.
I have personally learned many lessons and the most important one of all is to really think and reflect about issues within your control and those out of your control.
It is so important to understand that as human beings, we are good at adapting. Who would have thought that it’s normal for us now to walk around with face masks? Who would have known that it would no longer be taboo to discuss mental health in our region? So many changes and learnings, especially to the way we do business, which I honestly view as a silver lining.
I said it in the video, and I’ll say it again: family comes first! Prioritizing family and health is my key takeaway from this pandemic. I wish all your readers good health and quality time with their loved ones.