Iman Bibars and WISE Women Entrepreneurs


Interview by Aslan Media

Iman Bibars, Vice President of Ashoka Global and Regional Director of Ashoka Arab World, is a leading expert in the field of social entrepreneurship, with particular focus on women’s development issues. The author of several books on gender issues including Victims and Heroines: Women, Welfare, and the Egyptian State and The Women of Tahrir, Bibars established the Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship, a program to foster social entrepreneurship among young women. Iman recently spoke to Aslan Media about Ashoka, social development, the Middle East, and the future.

Aslan Media: What was the primary impetus behind launching Ashoka Arab World back in 2003?

Iman Bibars: I was already working with several organizations and active on women’s issues and consulting for international organizations when I was introduced to social entrepreneurship. Susan Davis was in Egypt said she wanted my help to identify social entrepreneurs. Seventeen years into my work, this new concept was extremely inspiring. This happened in 2002 after 9/11 and I thought there were two important things in finding social pioneers:

1-[Social entrepreneurs are] the best ambassadors to the West. By just identifying these people in an international way, the leading social entrepreneurs will be the best ambassadors. For instance, one of our people is a Palestinian working on peaceful resistance.

2-The second impetus [for doing this kind of work was to show that] young people in Egypt and Middle East are local heroes and despite the darkness around us there is light.

I can identify local heroes who are not talking big words and are doing real work. It was a time when everyone in the Middle East was depressed – the high time of when Mubarak and his people were decadent and there was no hope among the young people.

AM: From a development perspective, has the idea of social entrepreneurship caught on in the Middle East?

IB: Nine years after I started, yes. People know and understand the difference. Ashoka is seen as the flashpoint for social entrepreneurship and innovation in the region. There is not a legal framework for it but there isn’t one anywhere except the UK.

Ashoka is training people in building capacity not only in Egypt and the Middle East, but also the Diaspora to know what type of investments to make. People in the Diaspora should know to invest in the innovative people in their home countries. Most Diaspora members are entrepreneurs themselves and are innovative and worried about their home countries but they never know the problems on the ground in these countries, they only know about traditional problems like corruption. We need to educate them and help them understand that social entrepreneurs need know-how support, not just financial support.

AM: How has social unrest over the past year and a half in the Arab world affected Ashoka’s work in the region?

IB: We have worked more [since the Arab uprisings of 2011]. What has happened in the Middle East you can see in different ways like the rise of fundamentalism and lack of security but on the other hand it has given voices to young people and destroyed walls and brought out innovation. While countries were burning, inside Ashoka we had an influx of thousands of kids coming up with new ideas. We developed new mechanisms for these kids who were confidently saying they wanted to change the world, socially not business-wise. With 27 fellows from Egypt and 7 from Palestine and Lebanon and others, we created an innovation factory – it’s a cyber factory so they can funnel their ideas. You become a member and anything you want to do you find there.

We divided the kids up and attached them to Ashoka fellows who gave them 10-12 hrs a week. We also held monthly meetings with them. We offer different types of support. For instance, a lot of our kids wanted information on markets like if you want to start a project on a food chain market or if someone wants to start a restaurant.

One person in Egypt is starting a website with referrals and reviews of consumer products like Angie’s List.

AM: Can you offer specific examples of challenges that prevent women in the Arab world from becoming social entrepreneurs and those that are faced by existing women entrepreneurs?

IB: In general – not because of revolutions or unrest – but in general you want to be an independent social entrepreneur in your 30s – usually women are afraid to take this step. They don’t have the same access to information as men do. Most of the way you get information in the region is informal in the café or club at night. Women after 5pm are mothers or daughters or whatever. They can’t easily go to training abroad or at night. If you’re a middle class woman even if your husband is open minded, who’s gonna take care of the kids? Care work from men is not there. An issue facing existing women entrepreneurs is the scaling act. If a guy wants to go meet a business associate he’s taken more seriously than a woman. He has easier access to courses. The problem is people just don’t take women seriously. It’s subtle in the West but more pronounced here.

AM: How does WISE (Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship) remedy that?

IB: It addresses the abovementioned problems in particular. We had 3 target groups:

1-High school students and university girls

2-Mid-career women who have small initiatives

3-Existing social entrepreneurs

With the first group, we try to give a girl confidence while she is still young. We start by training them and involving them in social entrepreneurship and community engagement projects that they develop after an internship.

With the mid career women we try to create a women’s club and building networks among women from different sectors in a structured way like having meetings and salons every few weeks and discuss successes and challenges. Our job is to put fire under them and trying to get them to do these things and then they go and take action themselves if they have a particular skill or need.

Then there are our female fellows. Here, it’s about capacity-building, networking, business planning, financial projections, and giving them subscriptions to Economics journals. These women are social entrepreneurs who lack business acumen. Even if the product is for free you still need to market it, figure out how to get funding, and how to present it and get business people to invest in you. All these things men get at an early age but women are excluded. When I say women are excluded I mean those who come from traditional conservative families – only liberal international schools cater to 1% of Egyptians. A lot of these women are not exposed to experiences that give them the know-how and the courage and the networks to achieve their potential. Everyone complains that women do not work together. Look at a girl in middle school or primary school. In the best circumstances she plays tennis or squash—individualistic games. Boys play soccer, football, or handball—team games. Boys learn that ‘in order for us to win we have to coordinate and work together.’ They know the divisions of labor to reach their goal. This becomes a part of your DNA without you noticing and because girls usually compete with other girls, they begin to see each other as competitors. In Ashoka we encourage the girls to play team sports for gender empowerment. We provide the space for these girls to work together. Through our fellows we create competitions serving several objectives and to educate the community that girls play just like boys.

AM: Along with being VP of Ashoka Arab World, you are also chairperson of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW). How would you compare investing in social entrepreneurship and microfinance?

IB: Social entrepreneurship is the umbrella of any innovative idea. ADEW was my entrepreneurial project. It was the vehicle. The goal was ‘these are poor women who have no access to money’ so I wanted to empower women economically. Sustainability is not just financial; it’s about transmitting the idea to others. We started microcredit in the Arab world and now there are thousands of organizations doing it. We started legal aid for women now thousands are following us. Social entrepreneurship is about expanding the market of products. Ashoka expanded the social market. In some cases you do it via a business venture sometimes a social venture. It’s about expanding the market for social inclusion and social empowerment.

AM: As an Egyptian, do you agree with the sentiment that women’s rights were better protected and promoted under Mubarak?

IB: No. I think the question is flawed. It has more to do with that we expected more after the revolution and now we’re suffering more. I think having people at the top telling people to protect us has hurt us. Anything that came from Suzanne Mubarak is wrong because of the association. Anything top down from a corrupt unpopular government harmed us. The association that those corrupt people gave women rights hurts us – not just the masses but also socialists and so on. All our efforts went down the drain. So after the revolution, women who were educated and upper class, even activists like me, anyone that looked like upper middle class were with Suzanne Mubarak. She hijacked all of our work. Suzanne Mubarak pushed through laws [that pertain to women’s rights] as if it was a privilege and not a right. By saying they are Mubarak’s laws the Islamists are using it against us. Even in the last years of the Mubarak law when a quota was in place all the women in power were NDP (the ruling National Democratic Party) women.

AM: You recently said: “The revolution gave us a voice and we cannot hide that…but I think the product after the revolution is against women.” Please expand on this.

IB: I thought this revolution was going to change things for everybody. It came out against corruption, injustice, and decadence. The people who were excluded from everything including women and Christians were ready to die for a better Egypt. The expectation was that we would all get our rights, we were slaves and now we would be liberated. Both women and Christians have been given a big slap on the face. Those that claimed they were giving a voice to everyone slapped Christians and women in subtle and not so subtle ways. The majority of these people are Islamists but even in the parliamentary elections, liberal parties didn’t put women at the top of their lists. They put women as tokens on these lists. Even the progressives and young people did this because deep in their hearts they’re not as progressive and liberated as they think they are.

AM: Sixteen months into the Arab Awakening, would you say it has been good for women?

IB: No. But it has not been good for anyone (laughing). Saying that does not mean I want us to go back. We have gained our voice and we will not give up but unfortunately all these evil voices of the lords of the darkness are rising because they’re more organized than us because we are still finding our way. I’m referring to the fundamentalists. And by fundamentalists I am referring to the Muslim Brothers and Salafis. Look at their core message. Anybody who tells you women are complementary to men means they are not equal. The core of the Muslim Brotherhood is conservative and fundamentalist and do not treat women equally. The Salafis are even worse. And by the way neither the Muslim Brothers nor the Salafis represent Islam. They are people that use their understanding of Islam for political reasons. Not to go to heaven. It’s about control. These are political entities using their interpretation of religion.

AM: In 10 years, what kind of initiatives would you like to see Ashoka spearheading in the region?

IB: I would like us to have an innovation laboratory across the region. I would like us to be in more countries. I’d like us to have collaborative platforms among the fellows so they can work together within sectors and across countries. We have similar problems across countries, and we need to help innovators and fellows tip the sectors so fellows can work together to ensure there are policies addressing various problems on a regional level. Then we can move to international. I want social entrepreneurship to be the unifying factor among Arabs in the Greater Middle East so they understand we have no one to help us but ourselves.


Is Everyone a Changemaker?


How do you help children from poor, rural communities to identify themselves as changemakers?
In order to break the cycle of poverty, people must be empowered to make change happen in their own lives. But in the rural community in South Africa where I work, change comes at a slow snail’s pace. I am always trying to discover new ways to teach children – many of whom who eat the same thing for dinner night after night and rarely leave their village – that they have the power to change things, to solve problems and to make a difference in their lives and in their world.

Bill Drayton, a renowned social entrepreneur and founder of Ashoka, envisions a world where everyone is a changemaker. And with his words in mind, I began to question people in the community.

Regina Hlabane, the thoughtful and articulate chairperson of the local weaving cooperative, likes the idea that children should learn that they can change the world. However, she adds, “First you must teach us how to change the world. We don’t know that, so how can we teach that to our children?”

She makes a good point.

Next, I speak with a local primary school teacher, Sonia Foure, who feels that children first must learn they can change themselves. They can learn to care for their clothes and their hair and their school books and then feel proud of themselves. “You don’t have to have money to take a rag and clean your shoes,” she says succinctly.

And Emerencia Mohlolo, the administrator at the local primary school, believes that success comes when children are encouraged to dream. She makes appointments with some of the poorest children to simply listen to them and encourage them to dream of what could be.

But it is as I watch children in an art class working with their teacher to paint the wall of the nursery school that my attention is truly captured. They are creating change in the most visceral of terms; an aged once-white wall is becoming a brightly colored mural of an elephant standing by a stream at dawn.

Walter Sibuyi, balanced on a rickety ladder with a can of red paint, begins the mural painting. But soon all the children have a paintbrush, a cut off plastic coke bottle paint container and an area to paint. They work hard with their teacher for three days and the completed mural is wonderful. The kids are proud of their wall and everyone who goes by notices the change and smiles at the elephant washing himself on the face of the nursery school.

Maybe being part of the team that transformed a white wall to a beautiful picture will begin to strengthen the changemaker muscle within these children. Maybe in art class they will have the experience of beginning with a blank white sheet of paper and ending with something bright and wonderful. Then they will get a taste of that heady creative power that effects change.

Just as Ashoka encourages finding innovative solutions to common problems, I am convinced we need to be just as innovative in finding new ways to give the future changemakers of the world the experience of creating change.

I watched art serve as an empowerment trigger. I would be interested to hear your ideas and suggestions for ways to help disadvantaged children understand their power to make things happen.

By Judy Miller