Sana is the founder & CEO of Womenpreneur Initiative, a Brussels-based organisation that was founded in 2016 and aims to promote women in entrepreneurship in Belgium and the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) region through mentorship sessions, leadership programmes, digital skills education and networking opportunities.
UNITEE: What was the process that led you to create Womenpreneur?
S. Afouaiz: The inspiration came from my work with international organisations which gave me the chance to travel to many different countries and explore the complex realities of women living in different places and cultures. This is when I tried to find the right mechanism and framework to properly support women. I was already very much involved in policymaking and realised that in some cultures, gender policies are not very strong or can even be absent. I thought to myself then that the first step should be economic empowerment, i.e. making sure that women are financially and economically independent so that they can explore their freedoms and emancipation more easily on different levels. This is why I created Womenpreneur.
It actually requires a lot of time to see a legal framework with a gender lens be put in place and at times, I was frustrated with the work of the international community, the complexity and bureaucracy around policymaking and the lack of understanding of local needs. I wanted to be free in my work and not limited to any agenda or mechanism when creating a space where we can listen to women and offer them the best possible support.
UNITEE: Women are still underrepresented in entrepreneurial activities compared to men (in 2020, around 10% of women in the workforce in the EU were self-employed, compared to 17% of the male population). What prevents women from starting a business?
S. Afouaiz: There are different obstacles that stop women from creating a business. Generally speaking, women tend to look for security and are often educated in a way that teaches them to be careful and avoid risks. I feel like we don’t really teach women how to be bold enough in business or to take risks, and they can be limited by an environment where the priority is to meet the needs of their families or personal needs. When we look at the number of female business owners, we can also see that women are more likely to open small or medium-sized businesses. So I think it is a mindset that limits women, due to education and culture, not only in Europe but worldwide.
“I feel like we don’t teach women enough how to be bold enough in business or to take risks” – Sana Afouaiz
Secondly, depending on the European country, I think the administrative process including the taxes present another obstacle for women. And thirdly, I see a problem in women’s lack of access to financial services and products. A lot of women depend on the three F’s – Friends, Family and Fools – to get the necessary funds to set up a business. This is often because they feel that the banks and financial institutions don’t offer diverse enough financial services that reflect their profiles and needs. Women often also don’t have access to the world of venture capital and investment, where we can men being more dominant and receiving more investment. All of this adds up to a certain role that women play in society. Today, including in Europe, women are still told to play certain traditional roles which can limit their access to starting a business in a certain sector.
UNITEE: What kind of policies could help us enhance gender equality in entrepreneurship and support migrant women?
S. Afouaiz: I would start with the recognition of degrees. I’m going to phrase this in general terms, but while many migrant women that come to Europe bring with them certain skills and knowledge, their expertise is often not recognised by European countries. Take Belgium, for example: the country is divided into three regions and while you could maybe have your degree approved, for instance, in the Flemish region, it could then be refused in the Brussels region. And when your qualifications are not recognised, you cannot work in your profession. So this can make it very difficult for some migrant women who come with talents but don’t have permission to work.
Secondly, I believe that it’s very important to look into the social and cultural barriers that women face. For instance, having a system of paternity leave is really important as it allows both men and women to have an equal amount of months of parental leave and responsibilities. This kind of policy could also allow for a cultural shift.
Thirdly, a lot of migrant women in Europe work in the informal economy because of issues with taxation, complex administrative processes or because they don’t have the necessary information. It could be an idea, for example, to create a database or platform where they can easily get access to information on how to establish a business and where they can find encouragement, financial support and mentoring. This could be very helpful in particular for migrant women with entrepreneurial aspirations who come to Europe with a lot of talent, but also with a lot of insecurity.
“Our biggest success is when women realise the power they have over their lives and their environment.” – Sana Afouaiz
UNITEE: Your organisation is extremely active and has various initiatives running at the moment. What has been Womenpreneur’s biggest success?
S. Afouaiz: We have implemented over 40 projects so far – it is a lot. I would, however, not place our success on one certain project. Our biggest success is when women realise the power they have over their lives and their environment. The moment they realise that an obstacle could be an opportunity and every time we see the spark in women when they realise the power in them – for us, this is a success.
UNITEE: Supporting migrant women in pursuing an entrepreneurial career is a crucial step to boost their integration and inclusion process. What are the other essential steps to increase migrant women’s political participation and active citizenship?
S. Afouaiz: When it comes to political participation and active citizenship, it depends to some extent on the legal framework of the country, such as voting rights for migrants. When it comes to their civic engagement, it is worth looking at the example of Singapore, a country that integrates migrants very well into its economy and that is now one of the most innovative countries in the world. I think when you appreciate newcomers and create a place of opportunities and a home for them, they are more likely to feel at ease and will see this as a place that offers them what they cannot find elsewhere. Creating a sense of belonging could give migrant women entrepreneurs, but also migrants in general, a great boost for their inclusion process.