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"A Day Full Of Inspiration": A Recap Of The Insights Shared At The Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards 2024 "We have the responsibility to reverse 2,000 years of a world that was created by men for men, and a workforce where women entered very late."

By Devina Divecha

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Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President, Market Development, EEMEA, Mastercard, delivering a keynote speech at the Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards 2024.

The third edition of the Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards was held on June 6, 2024, at the Bluewaters Forum by Banyan Tree in Dubai, UAE. As the first installment of the event that was held in-person, the Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards 2024 saw entrepreneurs, business leaders, and other stakeholders from all round the world converge to celebrate the work of female entrepreneurs.

The event, hosted by UAE-based broadcast journalist Sonal Rupani, kicked off with a speech from Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President, Market Development, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Ajmal, who declared that the day would be "full of inspiration." "One of the fundamental reasons why I believe it's important to have platforms like this is to hear the stories of other SMEs, and celebrate them," she said. "We need women to uplift women, and we need men to uplift women [too]."

Following her address, the first panel discussion, titled Breaking The Glass Ceiling: Women Leadership In SMEs, was moderated by Omoke Adebanjo, Senior Vice President, Merchant & Commerce, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, Mastercard. The speakers on the panel included Nezha Alaoui, CEO, Women Choice; Ola Doudin, co-founder of Bitoasis; and Aleksandra Agatowska, CEO of PZU Life (2020-2024), World Economic Forum Contributor, and co-founder of Luu Kids.

As part of the discussion, Doudin reflected on her journey into the world of financial technology and cryptocurrency, while highlighting the importance of passion and innovation in launching a business in a male-dominated industry. "For me, it was never about becoming an entrepreneur," she noted. "It was about what is it that I can build in a space that I'm passionate about." Meanwhile, Alaoui -who, with Women Choice (an international organization dedicated to empowering women through sustainable initiatives), aims to create one million jobs for women by 2030- emphasized the need for systemic change and collaboration to achieve gender equality. She pointed out that, globally, women are significantly underrepresented in business leadership.

The "Breaking The Glass Ceiling: Women Leadership In SMEs" panel. Source: Farooq Salik / BNC Publishing

"We just need to make sure that in this journey of women empowerment, there is no guilt about the buzz for women empowerment," Alaoui said. "We have the responsibility to reverse 2,000 years of a world that was created by men for men, and a workforce where women entered very late. This is an amazing time for supporting women and for this world of gender equality. It was a long journey but now we see more and more governments, institutions and corporations aligning. This is the time where we need to do the work together."

For her part, Adebanjo noted the fact that the world still doesn't do enough to support its female entrepreneurs. "It is said that only 7% of venture capital is invested in women-led businesses, which is ironical because it was found that when they give money to women, they make more out of that when it comes to output," she said. Agatowska followed this point by highlighting the unique leadership qualities women bring to the table, noting that they are known to adopt a human-centric approach with their teams. "Women have really great leadership styles– I believe that this type of leadership is timeless, and not only connected to trends," she declared.

The panelists also discussed the persistent issue of the glass ceiling. Agatowska, for instance, noted how facing gender bias in her work only motivated her to push harder for equality. She added, "I don't have to work to earn equality, it's my human right." Here, Doudin talked about the importance of resilience when it comes to confronting the glass ceiling, adding that women can either look at this limitation and let it hinder them, or acknowledge its existence and then choose to not let it be an impediment in their career trajectories.

Nezha Alaoui, CEO, Women Choice, and Tamara Pupic, Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East, served as jury members for the awards. Source: Farooq Salik / BNC Publishing

Commenting on the role of collaboration in the journey of women in the SME space, Doudin said that networks and communities played an important role, particularly in the tech sector. "Initiatives that encourage female tech entrepreneurs to engage and integrate more in networks and communities are crucial, because ultimately within those communities –which tend to be flat– you can find your co-founders, ideas, investors, customers," she noted.

Both Alaoui and Agatowska agreed with this sentiment, and stressed the need for support systems, both within and outside the workplace. "Collaboration is a crucial activity for entrepreneurs," Agatowska said. "Events like these, for example, are really important, because collaboration is also about supporting each other." The challenge of work-life balance -especially for female entrepreneurs- was also addressed during the conversation. "The reality is that it is hard creating something from scratch, and it's even harder if it's a company that you're getting off the ground where you want to make sure you're building the right products, being competitive and reaching your customers, while also hiring," Doudin said. "Creating businesses is not an easy task, it's hard work. It is very difficult to have work-life balance, especially in the first few years of the launching a company."

The second panel discussion at the Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards 2024 was titled Innovation And Creativity: Fueling Business Growth, and it was moderated by Beata Mońka, CEO, Art of Networking, and owner of Beata Mońka Business Consulting. The speakers discussing this topic included Alya Al Zarouni, COO at Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC); Mila Smart Semeshkina, founder and CEO, and founder and President, Women's Empowerment (WE) Council; and Mastercard's own Ajmal.

Related: For The Greater Good: Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President, Market Development, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Mastercard

The "Innovation And Creativity: Fueling Business Growth" panel. Source: Farooq Salik / BNC Publishing

When talking about tactics that can help grow a business, Al Zarouni emphasized the necessity of an open mindset to foster innovation. "Being part of DIFC's exponential growth has taught me to keep an open mindset, and to embrace change," she said. "This approach has made me more agile and better at managing my team." Here, Al Zarouni also highlighted the innate advantages a female perspective can bring to a business. "The beauty of being a woman is that we bring a different perspective to the table," she said. "We tend to be more collaborative, and we also tend to be more caring. As a mother of three young kids and a cat, I really value quality time with family, and value my team's time as well, all of which helps drive efficiency."

Semeshkina, for her part, noted how it was to build a platform for female leaders that led her to launch the WE Council's flagship event, WE Convention, a forum that allowed notable female entrepreneurs to share their successes. "The problem [I was trying to solve] was marketing, publicity, and a stage," Semeshkina explained. "So, I decided to build a stage for female leaders where these ladies can show up, and they can tell their stories. We need to hear these successful stories, and understand their paths to success." Here, Semeshkina noted that female leaders often have to work harder to be taken seriously. "If you are a female leader, you have to be the biggest professional and the biggest expert, because men will judge you twice over," she said. "You need to show your results, and show what you can do. For entrepreneurs, it's about the money: you are either earning, or your business is dying."

Ajmal agreed with this sentiment, saying, "Just based on my interaction with fintech startups and entrepreneurs, I would say that putting yourself out there doesn't come naturally to a lot of women, but you have to do it. The world is much easier now in terms of getting access to tools and technology. But you will have to put yourself out there. You have to establish your brand and what you stand for."And one of the ways to achieve this is by building the right community around you, Al Zarouni said. "Look for the right ecosystem that really puts you very close to innovation," she added. "Creating that network and that support system around you is very important, and always make sure you're out there. Share your success story. Let people know about what you're doing, because that's how you will get the money coming to you."

Fadi Ghandour, Chairman of Wamda Capital. Source: Farooq Salik / BNC Publishing

Following the panel discussions, the Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards 2024 featured a keynote address by Fadi Ghandour, Chairman of Wamda Capital and founder of Aramex. In his talk, he focused on the importance of understanding one's market and solving a problem, saying, "Entrepreneurship, struggle and perseverance go together." Ghandour then shared a poignant story of a Palestinian female entrepreneur in Rafah, Maysaa Qatati. Since the onset of the war in Gaza last year, Palestine has seen a humanitarian crisis unfolding across the country, and parents have had to deal with shortages of necessities for their children. Having noticed diapers as being one such item that parents were struggling to find for their children, Qatati launched a small-scale business in Rafah that sews diapers for babies and toddlers. "This is, for me, the most inspiring story of entrepreneurship from the ground up," Ghandour said. "She solved a problem; she understood her market. This is a woman in war, and she created jobs for seamstresses. She created income, it was spread around. It's [an example of] entrepreneurship as life."

Following his address, Ghandour also took questions from the audience. One question focused on dealing with finding investors, especially if financial returns were not immediately evident. To that, Ghandour said it was important to focus on future potential rather than past performance. "You have to have a punchline, and you need to attract investors that are also passionate about what you do," he said. "Investors are looking at the future. You need to tell them about the journey you are going to have together." Ghandour also addressed the practical aspects of entrepreneurship and advised the audience on the importance of having a well-thought-out plan and sufficient financial backup before taking the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship. "You need to have at least a year or two of savings in the bank," he said. "You must always have a Plan B." Another attendee asked a question about recognizing when to reinvent a business. "Don't get stuck on something that is not working because you believe in it," Ghandour replied. "Think about why, how you can pivot– and pivot quickly."

Related: Trailblazers: Meet The Winners Of The 2024 Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards

Devina Divecha

Writer, editor, emcee, and media consultant

Devina Divecha is an independent writer, editor, emcee and media consultant, specialising in the hospitality and F&B industry. With more than 10 years of experience under her belt, her work has appeared in a number of publications including Skift, SUPPER, HOTELSmag, Destinations of the World News, Spinneys Magazine, Entrepreneur Middle East, and more. She holds a BSc in Business from the London School of Economics and an MA in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield.

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