Dubai: The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women last month appointed UAE-based creative entrepreneur Pembe Al Mazrouei as chair of the Middle East Chapter of the foundation’s ‘100000 Women Campaign’.
Pembe founded a theatre company in 2001 and intends to use her experience and her love of the arts and fashion to inspire creative entrepreneurship among women in the region.
To build support for the foundation, Pembe is actively promoting the ‘100000 Women Campaign’ throughout the Middle East, meeting with prospective individual donors, sponsors and partners to draw in key income from the region. The campaign, which will enter its third and final year in 2022, aims to raise £10 million (around Dh48.7 million) to directly support 100,000 more women entrepreneurs to start, grow and sustain successful businesses through the foundation’s programmes.
In an exclusive interview, Pembe told Gulf News how she fought gender bias and how she intends to support the women entrepreneurs facing gender discrimination in the region.
“Despite a relatively privileged upbringing, I experienced gender bias and gender stereotyping myself when I decided to take not one, but two degrees…” said Pembe.
“I then ended up leaving my Turkish-Cypriot family network in London to set up a theatre company and travel across Europe with it, which was a big shock for my family.”
Her own experience taught her that global challenges usually throw up the fact that “the same issues are everywhere, right across cultures as well as countries and even continents”.
The Middle East chapter of the foundation is one of six regional campaign boards forming the global '100000 Women Campaign', a three-year campaign directly supporting 100,000 more women in low and middle-income countries to start and grow successful businesses.
‘We don’t make empty promises’
Speaking about her passion to promote the campaign, Pembe said: “One of the things I feel most passionately about – and take pride in – is that the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women gives aspiring business owners the confidence to believe that there is nothing to stop them from achieving their dream. And, crucially, by putting talented aspiring entrepreneurs into pairs with mentors who have an appropriate skill set through the Foundation’s Mentoring Women in Business programme, the foundation provides the tools with which to make these dreams a reality. We don’t make empty promises.”
Track record in the region
She said that there are many outstanding examples of the foundation’s track record in this region. “We have delivered on-the-ground and online programmes directly to women entrepreneurs in the UAE, Palestine and Lebanon over the last 10 years. The foundation has created an ecosystem of training, technology, mentoring and networking.”
The Nablus Women Entrepreneurs project in the northern West Bank of Palestine, for example, has supported craftswomen with viable sustainable businesses through product development expertise. “And our Jerusalem Women Entrepreneurs project enabled business expansions by Jewish and Arab women across the city,” she said.
However, Pembe said “the foundation acknowledges that we don’t have all the answers. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve done this interview. We know that we need partners on the ground and online. We’re always looking for allies. We can’t do this alone, and we want support from, and collaboration with other organisations”.
Expo 2020 Dubai event
With this purpose, she organised a presentation and seminar on behalf of the foundation at the Expo 2020 Dubai in November. “It was a privilege to work with such a remarkable venue. My colleague Dr Nighat Awan OBE is Asia Chair of the Global Campaign Board. Nighat and I gave speeches on behalf of the foundation and soon realised that we were talking to people from all over the world. ‘Diversity’ was the word that came to mind,” she recollected.
“When Nighat spoke, she told us with passion about reciprocity and generosity as businesses are set up, infrastructure put in place and markets explored.”
Pembe said the talk covered 40 years’ experience of working with women and empowering them.
“With me as a new chair of the '100000 Women Campaign' in the Middle East and the immediate prospect of numerous new entrepreneur mentees, we covered past, present and future and we ended with a world-class fashion show by the FAD Institute of Luxury Fashion and Style Dubai. My friend Laura Mancini, fashion designer and mentor of FAD Dubai, created a beautiful fashion show inspired by the Foundation’s message of empowering women and selected outfits with a strong local influence.”
In between the speeches, the founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Cherie Blair CBE QC (Order of the British Empire and Queen’s Counsel) addressed the audience virtually.
Testimony on gender stereotyping
Pembe continued: “We realised from people’s testimony that everybody has a personal story. An Emirati woman approached me towards the end of the session. She told me of her own experiences facing gender discrimination which smacked of mine but was many dimensions worse.”
Data gathered on behalf of the foundation from 221 women entrepreneurs in 42 low and middle-income countries this summer illustrated the gender stereotypes that prevail, she explained.
As many as 70 per cent of women entrepreneurs surveyed said that gender stereotypes have negatively affected their work as a business owner. More than six in ten of those surveyed (61 per cent) believe that gender stereotypes impact their business growth, and almost half (49 per cent) said that stereotypes affect profitability. Over half of the women entrepreneurs surveyed (56 per cent) said that social approval or disapproval of different careers played a role in their choice of career.
Pembe said: “I thought of my own atypical determination to form a theatre group and my family’s disapproval. One of the more commonly reported stereotypes was that almost half [49 per cent] of respondents reported that relatives or friends had told them to focus more on family.
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She added: “The ingrained gender bias in these statistics strike a chord with me as I think of the account I received from the Emirati delegate at the Expo. The plain truth is that you can experience prejudice from family and friends in any society.
“From our Expo event, I realised that there is real appetite for this commercially robust empowerment of women across the Middle East region … I will do anything I can to help the foundation empower women through supporting women entrepreneurs and leading the charge for women to be economically equal with men.”