By Robert Strauss
Engy Fahmy was a woman in a hurry, rushing to get to the pinnacle during difficult economic times in her native Egypt.
“I graduated from university and started working in business, mostly in marketing, for several agencies,” Fahmy says. “I was going to make it to the top. At some point a few years out, I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. What I wanted to do was have a business.”
Fahmy began looking for the right opportunity last year. And she found it close to home. Instead of setting out on her own, Fahmy decided to help her father with his wrought iron design and manufacturing business in Cairo. “I thought he was losing opportunities in the marketplace,” says Fahmy. “I [thought] I could really help.”
Then she spotted an advertisement that, at least temporarily, put those plans on hold.
The ad described a new program, hosted by the American University in Cairo (AUC), targeting entrepreneurial women just like her. Backed by Goldman Sachs, the program was to be a five-week, multi-faceted seminar — with a curriculum created by Wharton. Though anxious to begin work with her father, Fahmy knew the program — and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s best business minds — was simply too good to pass up.
She applied and was among three dozen women out of more than 250 who were accepted.
“If I, as a woman, was going to take over some of the business’s functions from a wise man like my father, I needed to know how to do it from a practical manner, which is precisely what the program taught,” says Fahmy, who has since completed the program. “Women in the Middle East have never seen something like this before. And I am only hoping many, many others will have the opportunity like I did.”
As its name suggests, that’s precisely what 10,000 Women was created to accomplish.
Developed by Goldman Sachs after an internal research report showed investment in business education for women in developing nations, particularly women entrepreneurs, was a “critical and underutilized lever for economic growth,” the program has a stated goal of investing $100 million over five years into the education of aspiring businesswomen the world over. In announcing the program, Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein said the program would “expand the ranks of businesswomen, managers and entrepreneurs around the world.”
This is not a task Goldman plans to tackle alone, though. To puts its plan into action, the firm sought the assistance of some the world’s top business schools. Harvard Business School is working on the program in India. Columbia Business School’s efforts are focused in Kenya and Tanzania. And Wharton, which joined the initiative last year, is operating in the Middle East.
There, Wharton faculty have created a practical and inspiring curriculum designed to help women like Fahmy succeed in a culture that has not always been supportive.
“The status of women in the Middle East is not, say, like in Scandinavia,” said Mauro F. Guillen, the director of the Lauder Institute and Zandman Professor of International Management, who is helping to coordinate Wharton’s role in the 10,000 Women initiative. “This part of the world is not the most favorable to women entrepreneurs.”
A Culturally Competent Curriculum
Just ask Hend Zayed.
When Zayed was an undergraduate student, she apprenticed out to a jewelry-maker impressed by her silver jewelry designs. She learned a little about the business and, while working toward a Master’s degree in English language and literature at the university, started selling her own jewelry on the side — and began thinking about launching her own company.
Then she told her friends that she was applying for 10,000 Women.
They were less than encouraging. “They said, ‘Oh, it won’t be Egyptian-oriented. What will Americans know about things here?’” said Zayed, now 26.
According to Zayed, it turns out the Americans knew plenty. As one of the program’s recent graduates, Zayed can attest that the curriculum Wharton developed proved the professors understood not only the Middle East, but also the unique challenges facing women trying to work there. The curriculum was designed by Wharton faculty in collaboration with the Aresty Institute of Executive Education, while Knowledge@Wharton contributed classroom sessions, workshops and distance learning modules.
“The American University people were good with the hard-core stuff, like accounting and finance and human resources,” Zayed said. “But it was the Wharton staff who really delved into things I didn’t know or didn’t think about before.”
The Wharton curriculum, she says, focused on the importance of family in the region — and the Middle Eastern tradition in which women are responsible for nurturing both the immediate family and the extended one.
It’s a tradition that extends even to business relationships.
“I am a feminist, too, and the Wharton professors there showed me how to use that in our Egyptian markets,” Zayed said. “We talked about how we pass on what we learn to other women, which is far different from the business mindset of men here. Men tend to keep things for themselves. Women are made to share here, so in business, too, we will pass it down. We will form networks. We will all prosper that way.”
Monica McGrath, an adjunct assistant professor of management at Wharton and the academic director of the Cairo program, said focusing on women’s issues, not just business issues, in the context of Middle Eastern culture was a distinct goal behind Wharton’s partnership with the 10,000 Women initiative.
“What we know about women’s learning is this: Women like to use their voice, to express themselves in ways they don’t feel they can do in a mixed group,” says McGrath. “Women tend to build networks deep and not broad. Women have a tendency to have close networks. They tend to think they have to know someone really well, while men don’t — they might call someone they don’t know at all well and ask anything.
“In the Middle East especially, women form close-knit relationships, though not broad ones,” she says. “We knew we had to develop a program that would encourage these women to branch out, to look for mentors, to learn to ask for help out of their close group when they needed it.”
McGrath said that those at Wharton setting up the Cairo program wanted to make sure that the women participants also observed good examples of what they wanted to become.
“You do that through bringing in entrepreneurs who will explicitly say, ‘You need to do this. You need to do that.’ You don’t just do theory,” she said. “We knew we had to talk about social networks and mentors, how to access them, and how to be respectful of those networks and use them.”
Goldman Sachs’ point person in the 10,000 Women initiative, Dina Habib Powell, was born in Egypt, but moved to Texas at the age of four. She held various jobs at the Republican National Committee and the Bush White House before joining Goldman Sachs as managing director and global head of Corporate Engagement in 2007.
Due to her Egyptian background, she had a keen interest in what Wharton was developing for the Middle East.
“We knew these women were not going to come from privileged backgrounds, so they were really going to have to have both the basics and something more,” said Powell. “When we went to Dean [Thomas] Robertson, he immediately wanted to be part of this, and in the way we wanted. He said that a business school should be a force for good, and that is the way we see 10,000 Women.”
Accordingly, Wharton and AUC sought to bring in women of different but complementary backgrounds. Many in the March class were from Egypt, specifically the Cairo area, but several others were from Jordan and Palestine and one was from Iraq. Most were in their 20s and early 30s, without children, but some were in their 40s, trying their hand at business for the first time.
That diversity excited Fahmy.
“It is normal for a 25-year-old like me to have ambitions and start a business, but someone who is 50 and with grandchildren to want to do that, well, it was just inspiring,” said Fahmy. “What I told everyone in the first week was that I came here to learn how to do a good business plan, but what I discovered is that I would learn more from the women in the program — to see how they react to the problems the professors gave to us, to hear creative ideas, to have the positive vibes in the place. That makes you feel, ‘Yes, I can. Someone else is doing it. I can, too.’”
Guillen said it was no accident Fahmy and the others came away with that impression. The program Wharton created fed into it: Sessions and classes had titles like Entrepreneurial Mindset, Self-Branding, Negotiations, and Empowerment Exercises.
“Then, in the second week, we brought in faculty to teach strategy. In the fourth week, people from Wharton came back to teach communications skills and business planning. The final week we taught sessions on mentoring and how to access networks,” he said. “I don’t know if that was what the women expected, but we believe it was effective.”
That much became clear at the conclusion of the course, when the women gathered for what organizers called an “entrepreneurial souk.” After weeks of learning and training, the women were called upon to present their business ideas. It was, in essence, their first taste of what was to come out in the real world of business.
“They had to all come in and bring their product or service, presenting their business concept in a fair of sorts,” McGrath said. “It is only there, with the input of all the students, that they could see whether what they learned could apply to them. In essence, it is not just the business plan, but the business plan plus the confidence that the plan will work in light of the obvious obstacles of being a woman in the Middle East.”
Leaving Behind a Legacy
Wharton professors themselves will be coming to Cairo less and less with each succeeding Middle Eastern session. AUC faculty will be taking over, following the curriculum that Wharton has established, while Goldman will continue to finance the program and provide mentors for the women who take the courses.
“We wanted to leave behind a legacy in the heart of the Middle East of a higher quality business education for those who wouldn’t have been able to receive it in the past, and we knew Wharton could do that,” said Goldman Sachs’ Powell. “We feel 10,000 Women is a way to make a unique impact, whether it is in the developing part of the world, or even the developed part.
“In some places, and the Middle East is one, entrepreneurship is the primary way for women to be successful in business. They need to know finance and balance sheets and all that, but even more, they need to see those ephemeral things they need to do to be successful.”
Sometimes, that can be something as simple as learning to depend on a helping hand.
Fahmy said she knew there were more markets for her father’s wrought-iron pieces. In the 1990s, wealthy Egyptians and expatriates living around Cairo were moving out of fancy apartments and into high-end single-family homes. Decorative gates and doors and facades became more desirable.
But the task of reaching these customers seemed — at the time — insurmountable.
“The best thing about the faculty from Wharton was to basically tell us not to create our own fears — that that is an important part of doing business,” she said.
Family and friends, especially among the middle class in Egypt, she said, will tell a young woman just to go out and get a job — that things are fine as they are.
“What the Wharton staff said was to set short-term goals, ones I could achieve. If goals are too big, you will be frustrated. In the modern Middle East, we seem to want everything now, and I was probably like that going into this,” she said. “The assurance from 10,000 Women that I have mentors and other women to network with and reasonable goals to meet — that is something so many women in the Middle East can learn, which will eventually make a much better society.”
“What I heard most after the program was, ‘They gave us the confidence to realize we could do it’,” adds Maha El Shinnawy, director of the Women’s Entrepreneurship program at AUC. “With the [current] economic situation, out of necessity women have to be entrepreneurs here. But women here are often ill-prepared, psychologically, to be successful. They have never thought about how to seek funds, how to negotiate, how to network. This is why such a program is vital for us.”