By Nafeesa Syeed
WeNews guest author
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Yasmine El-Mehairy left a high-profile job to create a website to help mothers in Arab countries, says Nafeesa Syeed in this excerpt from the book "Arab Women Rising." Little did she realize she'd have to carve out her own path.
Credit: Courtesy of Yasmine El-Mehairy
(WOMENSENEWS)--Yasmine El-Mehairy has it all backward. At least, that's what people have told her.
Armed with a computer science degree from Ain Shams University in Cairo, she bagged a coveted post at IBM. Next she got a scholarship to obtain her master's degree in the United Kingdom, and then returned home to join a regional IT giant. She left that to become part of a small open-source start-up that did work mostly for nongovernmental organizations in the region. Finally, she embarked on starting SuperMama.me, a start-up of her own.
"In Egypt, I would say that most parents look up to their kids working in a big multinational company," she says. "So I was breaking the stereotype and saying, 'You know what? I've had it. I want to do something that is useful, and I want to do something on my own.'"
As it happens, to do something on one's own can literally turn out to be the case. El-Mehairy is acutely attuned to what she calls the lack of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Egypt, which has forced her to seek out advisers and resources to develop her business. At 30, she is mightily determined, and engaged, putting her all into an outlet that she hopes will become the go-to portal for mothers in Arab countries.
Around mid-2010, El-Mehairy was searching for the right idea that would "add value" but also be profitable. She learned that her sister-in-law was pregnant, and this got her thinking: Why wasn't there any platform in the Arab world for mothers? In some respects, pressures on moms seem to be weighing more heavily nowadays than for previous generations. El-Mehairy says the responsibilities and dynamics have evolved, whether it is the growing number of activities children are involved with to more women working to support their families. "It's just that, globally, it's becoming more competitive and more expensive to maintain your family," she says.
There were plenty of sites and publications out of other countries covering pregnancy, household management and parenting, but nothing targeting the Arab context. She did research and held focus groups with friends and friends of friends.
"We confirmed the needs and went for it," she says. On top of her day job, she labored 60 hours a week honing the business idea. Then, in January 2011, El-Mehairy quit her job to devote herself full time to the venture.
SuperMama, in Arabic, now includes sections on the home, pregnancy and parenting under the overarching tagline "Everything is under control." Besides articles, there are discussion boards and time-management tools. It's a space for gathering and sharing, which gives it a community feel. El-Mehairy has drafted a squad of volunteers made up of doctors, bloggers, stay-at-home mothers and others--all of whom author produce content. (Not surprisingly, she and her partners pitch in with the research and writing as well.) The material is verified by experts and other trusted sources, she says, creating reliability.
The site went live in October 2011. How did she know it was time? "You're never ready to launch," says El-Mehairy, sporting jeans and a wraparound headscarf blocked in shades of blue and gray. She says they could have kept mulling over trial users' feedback, but at some point, "you have to go for it."
With some 75 million Internet users across the Arabic-speaking belt, there's increasing market potential for initiatives such as hers. And with the uprisings and transformations in the region, she says, many people don't trust traditional media as much, and are instead turning to online sources for their information.
El-Mehairy says because such content does not exist within the Arab context, one of her major objectives is the "localization" of what's out there, which may mean tailoring what's available or creating new work that speaks to readers in the Arab world. "We face this problem, like when content comes from the West," she says. "It might be translated, but it's not localized." For instance, in Europe, children are told to take vitamin D to boost their immunity in the winter. But the same advice is not applicable to a place such as Egypt, where the warmer climate naturally exposes kids to vitamin D.
In an effort not to exclude anyone, she keeps things nonpolitical and nonreligious. That's not to say the site isn't willing to take some risks. In the section entitled, "Me Time," El-Mehairy says she's trying to introduce the concept that it's okay for a mother to make time for herself, because she, too, is important, amid her many responsibilities. It may not be a priority culturally, she says, but she wants mothers not to feel guilty, for example, if they go out with friends. Additionally, a somewhat controversial article on the site's "Daddy Darling" page took a look at male contraception. Readers appeared reluctant to comment directly on the site, but El-Mehairy says she received emails saying the subject was too strong for the region.
"It's a long and difficult road," says El-Mehairy, who has expended her savings building her company. She quips that her family is lazy at keeping track of the site, but she credits them with always supporting her in being a strong person. This is reflected in the ambitious business owner she is today.
She didn't have to look far for a role model, either for herself or for those she seeks to help. "For me, my mom is the supermama of all times," she says. "She's a professor of medicine at a university, and she took the difficult decision of not practicing medicine and just teaching, in order to give enough time for her family." As a working woman, El-Mehairy's mother is "a perfect cook, she's the perfect hostess, she is the perfect housewife--she is just perfect. So she is the supermama we all aspire to be."
As yet, the founder of SuperMama is not a mother; nor is she married. Looming societal pressures and expectations, especially around marriage, can dent the resolve of even the most resolute achievers. El-Mehairy fends off skeptics who devalue her or her work because she hasn't become a wife or given birth so far.
"It was difficult at first," she says. But she stays committed to the service she's providing and gains strength from the encouraging feedback she receives. "You know, just take it off your mind and move on. Otherwise, it really gets depressing. I mean, especially in the business wherein we're empowering mothers. If I let marriage get to me, really, I wouldn't be able to provide the information, would I?"
Excerpted from "Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World," by Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar, published by and copyright Knowledge@Wharton, 2014.
Nafeesa Syeed is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Washington. She has reported from across the United States, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. She's working on her next book about Arab women in political parties. Follow her on Twitter @NafeesaSyeed. Rahilla Zafar is currently based in New York City working on a book project about women in Saudi Arabia. She began contributing to Knowledge@Wharton in 2007 while based in Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @Rahilla.
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