Unlock Her Future: Empowering regional female entrepreneurs
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Unlock Her Future: Empowering the region’s female entrepreneurs

Unlock Her Future: Empowering the region’s female entrepreneurs

The Bicester Collection’s inaugural ‘Unlock Her Future Prize’ MENA Edition celebrates women entrepreneurs. Bicester Collection’s Chantal Khoueiry and the winners share how they are driving positive change

Neesha Salian
Unlock Her Future: Empowering the region's female entrepreneurs

The Bicester Collection, a group of luxury retail destinations managed by London-based Value Retail Management, recently celebrated the achievements of the winners of its inaugural ‘Unlock Her Future Prize’ 2023 MENA Edition. The prize was conceived to identify and empower female social impact entrepreneurs from a different region of the world each year.

Open to women entrepreneurs of any age with inspiring, early-stage startup ideas (less than three years in operation) that drive positive social, cultural, or environmental impact and aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the inaugural Unlock Her Future Prize 2023 MENA Edition drew 850 applicants from around the Middle East and Africa.

From a pool of eight finalists representing Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, four dynamic entrepreneurs were chosen by a panel of industry luminaries and experts who evaluated each finalist’s vision, impact, and potential for driving meaningful change.

Gulf Business spoke to Chantal Khoueiry, chief culture officer at The Bicester Collection, about the vision driving the initiative. We also spoke to the chosen entrepreneurs to discover how they are impacting social change in the region through their startups.

Chantal Khoueiry – Chief culture officer at The Bicester Collection

How does The Bicester Collection envision the Unlock Her Future Prize making a difference for female entrepreneurs in the long term?

With the Unlock Her Future Prize, we set out to launch an initiative that is pivotal in empowering women in social entrepreneurship on multiple fronts. By focusing on different geographical regions each year, by opening to women of any age and by accepting idea stage applications, the programme is designed to build a diverse and inclusive network, providing continued peer support, which will ultimately facilitate cross-regional collaborations, amplifying the social impact of the winners’ ventures across borders.

We are committed to nurturing our winner’s growth and providing the tools, resources and networks needed for long-term success. Our MENA Edition winners benefitted from financial grants of up to $100,000 to launch and scale their startup together with a comprehensive education and mentorship programme facilitated by global experts and prestigious regional partners Ashoka Arab World and NYU Abu Dhabi.

This ensures highly tailored advice and training to hone their business acumen balanced with the development of soft leadership skills. This mentorship not only helps refine their business strategies but also addresses the unique challenges of social entrepreneurship, from impact measurement to community engagement, ensuring the sustainable growth of

their startup. We want our alumni not only to launch successful ventures, but also to become catalysts for sustainable change in their communities and beyond, to become inspirational role models for future generations and, collectively, to contribute significantly to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Tell us about The Bicester Collection’s ‘DO GOOD’ platform and its mission to empower women.

At The Bicester Collection, our mission is to make the lives of others better. Through our global philanthropic programme, ‘DO GOOD’, we aim to play our part in driving sustainable social change by unlocking futures for women and children worldwide.

We work with 11 charity partners to empower women and children by providing access to quality education, healthcare and essential resources, uplifting communities locally and globally, and paving the way towards a more sustainable and inclusive future for all. We use the influence of our global platform to rally diverse communities, organisations, policymakers, and influential business leaders to bring women’s and children’s empowerment to the front of the agenda, and we develop innovative programmes, such as the Unlock Her Future Prize, to accelerate the empowerment of women in entrepreneurship.

Our efforts are strategically aligned to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

This direction allows us to drive meaningful progress towards gender equality, economic empowerment, and social inclusion, creating ripple effects of positive social change that extend far beyond the physical footprint of the Collection in Europe, China and North America.

What inspired the creation of the Unlock Her Future Prize specifically?

At The Bicester Collection, empowering women is the core of our identity; it’s been woven into our DNA since our beginning nearly 30 years ago. Sixty-six per cent of our employees are women, 52 per cent of management roles are held by women and we have equal representation at the board level.

However, as we emerged from the pandemic, we were confronted with a stark reality. The United Nations projected that it would take a staggering 286 years to achieve gender parity at the current rate of progress, while research from the Boston Consulting Group suggested that if men and women were equally represented in entrepreneurship, global GDP could rise by 3 to 6 per cent, equivalent to up to $5tn. Yet, according to Harvard Business School, fewer than 3 per cent of women-led businesses receive venture capital. These are not just statistics designed to trigger a reaction, they are our reality.

So, in 2022, we pledged to use our platform to empower women, ideas and innovation around the globe. We supported women’s initiatives and hosted and participated in various roundtables that championed women’s advancement, naturally giving rise to the launch of the Unlock Her Future Prize.

Inspired by the resilience women have faced during the preceding two years, we wanted to create a global community of change-makers, an authentic and powerful force for good that puts women on an equal standing because we know that when we invest in women, it goes beyond financial gain.

Women invest in their communities and in their children and education, creating a ripple effect of positive change worldwide.


The Entrepreneurs

Noor Jaber of  Nawat (Lebanon)

What inspired you to start this company? Tell us more about your business model.

I grew up in a conservative religious and ethnic community in Lebanon with limited access to SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) information and services. I then worked as a public health expert in the region and spoke to Arab women across the region.

There was one thing we had in common: shame and stigma around our bodies and sexual and reproductive health. And I was adamant to do something about it. I also wanted to integrate technology into my work to explore the potential of technological advancements in changing women’s lives for the better. And this is where the idea was born. As I build Nawat now, I am pursuing further education as a certified sex counsellor.

Nawat utilises a B2C model, where women pay for consultations and educational programmes. We are also exploring a B2B2C model, where we offer our services to entities like universities, corporations, and NGOs to reach more women. Women can now access our website and register for our two brand courses: one on the basics of sexuality and another on the basics of dating and relationships.

How is the company adding value to the community?

Nawat is dedicated to empowering Middle Eastern women to take control of their sexual and reproductive health by providing comprehensive support and information. Through our platform, women can access anonymous and discreet expert advice tailored to their needs, free from judgment or shame, with privacy being our utmost priority. By offering ‘telehealth’ services, we break down barriers to access, particularly benefiting underserved communities and those in remote areas.

Our commitment extends to providing educational resources and promoting health literacy, fostering a culturally sensitive and inclusive community where women feel heard and respected. With a focus on multilingual support and culturally relevant content, we strive to ensure accessibility for all, contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals, mainly supporting women’s overall well-being and gender equality.

How have you used the prize?

The Unlock Her Future Prize grant has contributed to building our digital platform and hiring the right human resources team for the job. The programme has also supported us in organisational and institutional development, put us at the forefront and helped us gain credibility in the ecosystem – this has been invaluable.

Any lessons you’ve learned as a female entrepreneur that you’d like to share?

Confidence is key in entrepreneurship, but asserting yourself as a woman in a male-dominated field can sometimes be challenging. Trust your abilities and knowledge, and don’t be afraid to speak up and take risks. Surround yourself with mentors, advisors and peers who can provide guidance, support, and encouragement. A strong network of individuals (especially women) who understand that your unique challenges as a female founder can be invaluable.

As an entrepreneur, it’s vital to acknowledge and celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Recognising your achievements and milestones, and taking pride in your accomplishments, is a powerful way to boost your confidence and motivation as you continue to grow your business.


Sara Llalla of EcoCentric (Iraq/UAE)

What inspired you to start this company? Tell us more about your business model.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, we were alarmed by the overwhelming waste generated from food delivery packaging due to interrupted garbage collection. Despite voicing concerns to delivery companies, no action was taken. Determined to tackle the issue, EcoCentric was born.

Innovatively, we adopted a circular economy model, charging vendors a commission for successful orders while providing them with reusable containers at no cost, slashing their overheads. End-users are only charged for the container if they keep it, ensuring affordability and reducing single-use waste. Our initiative promotes sustainability and aligns with familiar market practices, offering a viable solution to a pressing environmental issue.

How is the company adding value to the community?

EcoCentric is significantly impacting sustainability by providing a platform for vendors to sell their products complemented with reusable packaging, thereby reducing the consumption of single-use packaging materials. By promoting the use of plastic-free food containers, EcoCentric minimises environmental pollution and offers a healthier option for consumers. This initiative contributes to the community by raising awareness about sustainable practices and encouraging individuals to make eco-friendly choices.

How have you used the prize?

Thanks to the prize, we accomplished two critical milestones for EcoCentric. Firstly, we utilised the funds to complete the development of our mobile application, a crucial tool for facilitating seamless interactions between vendors and consumers within our sustainable marketplace. This application is a central hub for ordering, tracking, and managing transactions, enhancing the user experience. Secondly, we directed a portion of the prize towards designing and manufacturing our state-of-the-art branded containers. These containers embody our commitment to sustainability and serve as tangible representations of our mission to eliminate single-use packaging materials from the food delivery ecosystem. By investing in high-quality, reusable containers, we not only elevate our brand identity but also provide practical solutions for vendors and consumers alike.

Any lessons you’ve learned as a female entrepreneur that you’d like to share?

Advocate for yourself. In male-dominated industries or environments, you must assert your value confidently. Don’t be afraid to speak up, negotiate for what you deserve, assert your expertise and contributions, and never undersell yourself and your achievements.


Fella Bouti of EcoTashira (Algeria)

What inspired you to start this company? Tell us more about your business model.

My passion for gardening, green designs and biodiversity inspired us to start this company. EcoTashira manufactures materials like slabs for creating vertical gardens, offering a new approach to making green building practices affordable, easy, and economical.

How is the company adding value to the community?

Ecotashira is adding significant value to the community by promoting sustainability in urban environments. Our vertical garden materials enhance the aesthetic appeal of buildings and contribute to improved air quality, reduced urban heat island effect, and increased biodiversity in urban areas. By providing innovative solutions for green building practices, we are supporting sustainability efforts and helping communities create healthier, more vibrant spaces.

How have you used the prize?

The prize has served as our primary funding source, enabling us to purchase production machinery, hire employees and managers, establish production and management offices, and address marketing and branding needs. It was crucial in jumpstarting our operations and facilitating our growth trajectory.

Any lessons you’ve learned as a female entrepreneur that you’d like to share?

One valuable lesson I’ve learned as a female entrepreneur is to persevere and keep trying until you make it happen. Success often comes from unwavering faith in your idea, continuous improvement, and a commitment to learning. So, keep the faith, work on your idea, and never stop striving for your goals. You will achieve success.


Nuhayr Zein of Leukeather (UAE)

What inspired you to start this company? Tell us more about your business model.

I wanted to create a material that is ethical, sustainable and, most importantly, authentic in its appearance and rooted in our region’s environment and flora. Leukeather is a B2B material innovation company targeting luxury interior furnishings, fashion and automotive markets.

How is the company adding value to the community?

By reusing a discarded resource and implementing our unique treatment technology, we can involve the agricultural community in our manufacturing process and create a material that is gentle to our planet. Leukeather is made of split discarded pods, where the seeds are taken out to grow more trees — this can make our material carbon-negative.

How have you used the prize?

The Unlock Her Future Prize helped us massively in production. We allocated 40 per cent of the prize to production and the rest to IP registration, small research and development efforts, and sales.

Any lessons you’ve learned as a female entrepreneur that you’d like to share?

Network, network, network, even if it’s something you’re uncomfortable with. Building the right network helps with sales and access to relevant events. This network can also help you with business advice and support appropriate to your startup. Another advice I will give female entrepreneurs is to be assertive yet flexible when change is necessary.

Read: Fostering gender diversity drives greater business success and innovation


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