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How women-led businesses across EBRD’s regions are thriving against the odds

By Cecilia Calatrava

The Bank celebrates the achievements of inspiring female entrepreneurs

The EBRD believes that equality of opportunity is a fundamental component of sustainable economic growth. That is why, in the week of International Women’s Day, the Bank is joining the global call to accelerate gender parity.

This year's #ChooseToChallenge theme seeks to spotlight inspiring women who have shown resilience, flexibility and strength in the face of unprecedented adversity, namely the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2021, more than ever before, the EBRD is proud to partner with many such female entrepreneurs who stand up to challenges surrounding their businesses for a lasting positive impact in the workplace, their communities and personal lives.

To date, the Bank has supported more than 90,000 women across 24 economies with financing and business advisory projects, training and mentoring as part of its Women in Business programme. Here are three inspiring examples:

Sustainable health solutions in Turkey

Scientist Asli Elif Tanugur Samanci devoted most of her life to studying bees. But when her 5-year old son developed a severe allergy for antibiotics, finding ways to strengthen his immune system became an absolute priority for her as a mother – and as a scientist.

“One morning I thought: honey has been used for wound healing since ancient times. What if I could combine all the antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, disinfectant and antiviral properties of bee’s by-products into one elixir that would fit my son’s needs?” explains Asli.

As it turns out, the theory worked.

“The news spread fast, and everybody wanted to know if the ‘urban legend’ was true. It started to become hard to meet the increasing demand,” she says.

Asli’s innovative idea was the inception of BEE’O, Turkey’s first producer of sustainable bee products. The company focuses on developing natural products while also contributing to the safe and sustainable development of the apiculture sector in Turkey.

“The second major spike in demand happened when the Covid-19 pandemic started, as people became more conscious of their health,” Asli says.

“We were faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, demand for our products multiplied; on the other hand, wanted to make sure we did everything we could to keep employees safe.”

“We decided to take very strong safety and hygene measures to allow some people to come in, but we also respected those who did not feel comfortable leaving their homes,” she adds.  

So far, the company has doubled its size: it now employs 95 people (out of which 65% are women) and exports its products to 14 different countries where they can be found at major retailers such as Amazon, Walmart or Carrefour.

BEE’O is one of 20,000 small and medium-sized enterprises supported by the EBRD’s Women in Business programme in Turkey, funded by the European Union (EU) and Turkey.

Digitalisation opportunities in Kosovo

Hana and Darsej could not be more different. While Hara spent her childhood with puzzles and art, Darsej enjoyed dissembling and ‘dissecting’ computers. But they both share a common passion: technology.

“While we were both working for different tech companies, we realised they were faced with the same dilemma: employers were struggling to find people who could think creatively, solve problems and have great programming skills, while at the same time, parents were always complaining that their kids are wasting too much time with their electronic gadgets,” explains Hana.

The idea of opening Digital School came as a win-win solution. With its motto “Improvise-Code-Overcome” the innovative school aims to equip kids and teens with the necessary skills to be problem solvers and succeed in today’s digital world.

“Some of our students have already started their own startup and today after two years they are already building products for their clients. And they are only 14!” Hana says.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly hit the world, Hana and Darsej started to experience major losses.

“We had to shut down all schools and we lost around 300 students in the course of one day. It was a horrible business shock, but instead of admitting defeat, we ramped up the entire team and worked from home around the clock to transform Digital School into an online learning solution,” she explains.

In about 40 days, they had set a national example with a fully developed online education platform, a brand new teaching methodology and a support team to help kids and parents at home with IT issues.

“We also wanted to equip and empower our students to make a real impact in society during this difficult times”, says Hana. “As a result, many of them are now working voluntarily to digitise their public schools: they have digitalised exams for several subjects such as math, biology and chemistry. They have also developed webpages for their schools and different NGO’s, bars and restaurants.

Their impressive response and unique business model has crossed borders from the Western Balkans to the European Union, the USA, Mexico, Honk Kong, Morocco, Tunisia or Colombia. Digital School has also collaborated with one of the biggest language teaching schools in the world, Berlitz, based in Germany, through which they will grow into their 500+ locations globally.

Via its Women in Business programme in Kosovo, supported by Luxembourg and Sweden, the EBRD helped Digital School become an international franchise and improve its quality management system.

Empowering craftswomen in Tunisia

Jewellery plays a role in enhancing one’s beauty. It also symbolizes wealth, power, and status. For people like Sonia Feki, jewellery is also a form of art for self and creative expression.  

Sonia’s journey is quite atypical. After years of working in the banking and real estate sectors in Tunisia, she decided to follow her dream and sell her art – jewellery and accessories made by here and inspired by traditional Tunisian crafts.

Given the initial hype for her products, she founded the brand Habiba.

“The name is a tribute to my mother,” explains Sonia. “She was a strong Tunisian woman who knew the value of tradition and inspired me to pass on her love for culture and heritage through my collections.”

Thanks to her avant-garde artistic direction, Sonia soon won the attention of the media and fashion industry, making her one of the first Tunisian brands to develop a franchise and to aim for global expansion.

“My first fashion show took place in New York at the United Nations, during the 60th Commission on the Status of Women. When it finished, the wife of then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Yoo Soon-taek, joined me backstage and told me: ‘You have great talent!’ At that moment I felt like nothing could stop me”, she says.

But, like many industries, the jewellery industry has also been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic owing to a long list of cancelled or postponed events, shows, exhibitions, and weddings.

“Because jewellery brands had to get creative during quarantine, I have spent more time thinking about what makes my potential buyers feel valued and important,” Sonia says.

With the EBRD and donor support from the EU, Sofia has taken the opportunity to develop a new brand identity and to introduce e-commerce to her business model, allowing her costumers to shop her crafts online.

Sofia’s brand is also playing a critical role in society by giving visibility to Tunisian know-how and promoting and protecting women’s rights.

“Craftswomen usually aren’t part of the formal economy. I’m fighting hard for women’s employment rights by giving them access to social security cover, paid holidays and flexibility to have a work-life balance,” she says.

“My mother inspiration has been the main driving force to help me overcome all the obstacles I’ve encountered along the.”

This week of International Women’s Day, the EBRD would like to once again salute all “women in business” and wish for their creative and entrepreneurial dreams to come alive!

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