Photo Credit: Sana Afouai
Sana Afouaiz is an award-winning, gender expert, women advocate, and public speaker on feminism and women issues. She is author of “Invisible Women of the Middle East”. She has spoken in 40 countries at universities, panel discussions and international events.
In 2016, she established Womenpreneur Initiative, an organisation with a community of 10,000 across 20 countries, that aims to advance women’s place in entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation & society. Through her work, Sana reached thousands of women, to drive visibility, social impact, and resources for women in the ecosystem and beyond.
For the past 6 years, Sana advised United Nations, European Commission, corporate institutions and organisations on gender issues. She was heavily involved in SDGs discussions, she helped drafting several resolutions and recommendations on gender in New York, Bali, Geneva, and Paris and presented to UN representatives.
Background story and Inspiration to Founding ” Womenpreneur Initiative“ and what this initiative is all about?
My name is Sana Afouaiz, I am the Founder and Director of Womenpreneur Organization, which is basically an organization that supports women economically speaking. We try to empower women to have a mindset of innovating and creating for the future. We work in more than 20 countries, focusing on the East North Africa region, we have since 2016 empowered more than 10, 000 women, we help them by creating their own initiatives, projects through different empowerment tools and we are also working on challenging the changing mindset of society that has use women in a traditional way. We are using entrepreneurship as a tool and our objective is the empowerment, freedom, and independence of women.
Before establishing the organization, I travelled to more than 50 countries exploring the situation, the issues of women in different countries. I worked for International organizations like the UN and the EU, I actually started my journey as a blogger, I was basically collecting stories of social injustices and I was doing social complaints against gender discriminatory laws, including my own country Morocco. We had the law that allowed the rapist to get married to its victims, so I did a quite extensive complaint against that, some for my blog and some complaining in different countries, I also had the experience and the opportunity of travelling to different countries exploring different situations. Then I decided to establish my own organization. I also published up the middle east where I basically tell stories of women that I met and interviewed in the middle east who share their perspective on the gender views and ideas that explain the issues that they are going through.
What has been the Highlight for you since you founded Womenpreneur Initiative and how would you describe work for you during the pandemic?
This is a very important question, I think working in this field is definitely very challenging, when we try to operate in certain countries, the issue is not just empowering women to learn new skills, establish their own initiative and projects, you find yourself dealing with gender discriminatory laws, you find yourself dealing with traditions, cultures, in situations, some women cannot come to take part in a training or a program because they should not be mixed with other men. Then you have the whole, the environment, the perspective, the way society see women. The self-perception that makes women not be in the front line, this mindset blocks them from exploring different opportunities, possibilities etc. so I think one major challenge for us is the challenge in the change of this mindset.
How do you handle running your business successfully in this social clime and what Is your mission?
The corona virus really hit us badly and I think that is the case of everyone. We had different plans and projects that was supposed to be launched in March but then the crisis happened and everyone was locked down so we had to cancel and postpone different projects. But actually that period was also good and a reflective period for us because we had to adjust to the change and come up with new innovative projects, we just launched recently a call for applications online program to support women during the crisis. At the same time, the crisis was a good reflective moment for us to explain how important it is to work on gender issues because the crisis is going to cause a lot of job loss worldwide and a lot of these jobs are held by women.
Photo Credit: Sana Afouaiz
In addition to the crisis, we have the digital revolution. There is already change in our life systems everyday and its going to cost a loss in more than 75,000, 000 of jobs by 2022, again these job losses are held mostly by women. So, when crisis like this happens, gender issues become bigger and bigger. If we do not have the right plans before hand, we are going to have a serious problem.
I’m afraid that gender problems and it’s going to be a problem a few years from now when you look at the world population and you see that more than 50% of these population are women and they are discriminated from every single field, we are losing talents and we are actually violating the human rights at the same time.
How do you stay innovative?
The thing that I always say is that we always need to look at the needs of our target group, the needs change and we always need to adapt to that. The first thing we did when the crisis happened was to check in and do a field study of how this crisis is impacting women and at the same time we did a study of how in different countries of how crisis different crisis, economic, political crisis have affected women that has helped us to gather the right information and to come up with as we believe the right tools or solutions and that was the reason why we launched the acceleration program
So the program called Generation ‘W’ stands for ‘Women” as we know we talk about generation Z, Y, so what about generation W? This is an accelerator program for 6 months, focusing on providing skills, tools, support and advice for women to cope and manage crisis and stay innovative. Women entrepreneurs or who are interested in entrepreneurship, and those who find themselves with no jobs so they need skills to adapt to the needs of the job market. They have to apply, and then 50 women will be selected. We recently launched this program in Brussells for now to see its impact and how it’s going to support these women, before we launch it in different countries.
After they are selected they are taken through 6 months of activities through our online platform, Generation W platform dedicated for these women only, they will have different resources, mentorship opportunities, trainings, capacity buildings, inspirational meetings and also access to networks of the job market. After these 6 months these women graduate from this program and the objective is that they link to other projects or for those who are looking for a job, to find a job opportunity and for those who want to become entrepreneurs to have the right guidance to start their own businesses or their initiatives.
Photo Credit: Sana Afouaiz
Challenges on your journey and Lessons…
From my own experience, being a woman is already a challenge. It is not easy, that’s why I do believe that women are real fighters. I think when you are young and you know your worth, your objective and your goal, it does scare society. So growing up in Morocco it was challenging everyday to really fight this mindset, the mindset perceived in women that as women we have few spaces to explore. I always refute that, and I always had issues with the men culture were the men are treated as kings and are allowed to do everything whereas women are kind of limited to explore different things. So growing up for me was always a case of constantly fighting this mindset for me to get normal things, basic things, but I think that has built my character to actually be a real fighter in the field of entrepreneurship.
So I left Morocco, I lived in different countries, first in the US I did my educational degrees in different european countries then I decided that If I wanted to support women, I need to understand women and their needs. So from my environment where I grew up In Morocco I first thought that the needs of women were the same but it was often an experience for me when I travelled to these different countries then I understood that it was often not the case and then I decided that I was going to stop working for other organizations and I was going to create my own and that was a challenging process because when I presented my project to 20 investors, I got zero funds. Everyone believes in gender equality, yes its cool, we need to have equal societies but yet its not as important as other issues, it’s still as I said earlier a pink issue, its not seen as a serious one and people think that doing these events on the 8th of march, giving women flowers is enough contribution to gender equality.
So, It was very difficult at different points In times, actually there was an incident, I was with a colleague of mine, when we met a quite interested investor in the project, after I pitched the project and I asked to go to the toilet, he basically told my colleague that if he is the manager of the project that he will put the money in. Because for him as a young woman my plan in life is to get married and have kids. So that was quite a challenging situation, I was very shocked and my colleague felt not really well at all to be in that situation.
It happened to us several times, It happened to us recently like a year ago, we wanted to reserve a space for women, we went to visit different spaces, this time the woman who owned and managed the public space kept referring to him, although I was the one who wrote the email to her, I was the founder of the organization. She was kind of talking to him as if he was the one running the project, she completely excluded me from the discussion, and whenever I asked questions, she would not respond. And at the end she told him, I really don’t believe in feminism, but I’m very happy to see that there is a man, so that moment was like, you know when women themselves are part of the misogyny and the challenges are more and more, its like everyday when you are an entrepreneur it’s a challenge and when you’re a woman it’s a double challenge.
That is a learning experience, I’m very proud of the impact that womenpreneur is contributing, and we try to do an act by example, I always say it is important to share our vulnerable moments, I keep telling our women community that I’ve been through this, it’s not the end of the world you have to go through it.
Your Plans for “Womenpreneur Initiative” In Five Years, Upcoming projects and what you hope to achieve?
With projects we always implement as we go along, however our objective for the upcoming years is to grow over the region, definitely to impact women, more women, and our dream is to challenge and change the mindset which is the biggest problem in every culture/country. We want to make sure that we put women in the frontline in the digital revolution, that women are involved in every level of decision making, that the female voice is not only heard but also taken into consideration and that is what we work with.
Tips on how you handle when the going gets tough?
Basically in every situation, what I do, and this maybe due to meditation, I try to be always calm and study the issue and I think for every issue there is a solution and then you make different possibilities. Challenging times they will happen today, they happened yesterday and they will happen tomorrow and that’s why I think its important that we invest in the future by coming up with different plans, on every level it is important especially for women, study very well the situation and don’t be dependent on any one, that’s a very important thing.
Final words to entrepreneurs and women in our community
Thanks to Leading Ladies Africa for having me, if there’s anything I’d say to women is basically asking them to free themselves from the social prisons and from their own self perceptions, the day they free themselves from the cage, they will see the different possibilities out there.
Interview by: Precious Akpan
The Leading Ladies Africa weekly interview series focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
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