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Trailblazers: Meet The Winners Of The 2024 Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards 15 women who run small- and medium-sized enterprises headquartered or with offices in Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa were awarded at this year's edition.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

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 recognized and lauded the achievements of women who run small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) headquartered or with offices in Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa, across 15 different award categories. Following a rigorous vetting process by the Entrepreneur Middle East team, as well as a judging committee chaired by Mastercard and industry experts, the final list of winners was as follows:

The Visionary: Hanane Benkhalouk, founder, Tawazoun (UAE)

Source: Tawazoun

As the founder of Tawazoun, a UAE-based social enterprise offering comprehensive solutions in wellbeing and sustainability, Hanane Benkhalouk is on a mission to help individuals and organizations redefine the meaning of productivity and success. "We advocate for balancing profit with well-being, authority with empathy, efficiency with sustainability, and individual achievement with community welfare," she explains. "By promoting holistic well-being and human-centric values, we aim to shift the focus towards sustainable growth and enhance the quality of life within communities. This is why we refer to our solution as the ecosystem of balance." That said, Benkhalouk also hopes that Tawazoun will impact communities as well. "We ensure that our solutions incorporate cultural context rather than importing global concepts," she says. "This is reflected in our Arabic name for balance. By creating safe spaces for dialogue, we aim to put a smile on our communities, employees, customers, and society at large. Our work is from the community to the community, driving impactful change and building a generation that values balance and holistic well-being. We believe that business practices can and should drive social change, addressing business and societal challenges in a unified, non-fragmented manner."

The Health Custodian: Chelsea Hornby, founder, Elle International (South Africa)

Source: Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

Having founded Elle International, a South Africa-based public benefit organization, Chelsea Hornby has touched the lives of over 50,000 girls and women by providing them education on menstrual health, and by championing sustainable menstrual health solutions. "Elle is now positioned to advance health equity at a regional level in Africa through state-of-the-art technology," Hornby adds. "Our holistic and integrated approach addresses key deficiencies in women's health, from pre-menstrual stage education, to access to safe period care products and medical professionals. By leveraging data and technology, we are driving meaningful change and providing women with the tools they need to lead healthy and empowering lives." Now, as her company expands its reach and influence, Hornby is able to witness firsthand the transformation taking place among the women her enterprise serves. "They are no longer just recipients of aid; they are becoming agents of change in their own lives and communities," she explains. "There have been girls hesitant to engage with our programs at first, unsure of their own worth and potential. But as they participate in our workshops and receive access to vital health resources and information, I see the fire ignite within them, as they begin speaking up in meetings, sharing their ideas, and advocating for themselves and others."

The F&B Leader: Laura Kaziukoniene, founder and CEO, Super Garden (Lithuania)

Source: Super Garden

Laura Kaziukoniene, founder and CEO of Super Garden, a Lithuania-based provider of freeze-dried sweets, has had big goals for her business from the outset. Today, her company not only exports its products to more than 40 countries around the world, but it also develops meals for astronauts. "The European Space Agency trusts us to develop meals for astronauts, and we are now starting to work with the military," Kaziukoniene explains. "In just eight years, Super Garden has become a global leader in freeze-dried innovations suitable for children's and astronauts' daily lives." Now, it's easy to see why Super Garden has been able to attain such success when you consider BITES, the innovative snacks that it has created that also pack a significant amount of nutritional value. "For instance, a whole carrot can fit into a one-centimeter cube, and so can 10 strawberries," she explains. "Our carefully selected ingredients provide the right mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, perfectly balancing the daily diet without any food waste. These snacks could even be printed by a 3D printer. We aim to revolutionize snacking habits, making them healthier and more interactive!" Finally, when asked for her advice for women wishing to become entrepreneurs like her, Kaziukoniene replies, "I want to encourage women not to be afraid to start their own businesses at a mature age, and follow their dreams!"

The Fashion and Beauty Leader: Leda Di Marti, CEO, Maelle Group LLC (UAE)

Source: Maelle Group LLC

In 2015, Leda Di Marti founded the Maelle Group LLC in Milan with the vision of creating a platform to help European brands expand into new markets. In 2021, she relocated the headquarters of the Maelle Group to Dubai, driven by the opportunities and vibrant business environment in the region. Today, the company has offices in Milan, New York City, and Dubai, which ensures its global presence. Di Marti has since gone on to also launch Fashion Explained, a company dedicated to supporting young designers as well as those looking to relaunch their careers in this domain. Maelle Group is currently planning to host a grand pitch competition at Milan Fashion Week in 2026, which shall allow designers to present their sustainable projects to potential investors. "I hope my work will contribute to the growth and success of small to medium-sized fashion brands, particularly those with revenues between EUR40 million and EUR170 million," Di Marti says. "We are passionate about making a difference in these businesses, helping them to grow and thrive. Furthermore, we believe in the importance of creating a circular fashion industry. The future of fashion depends on our ability to innovate sustainably and responsibly. Through our efforts, we aim to support brands that not only excel creatively, but also embrace sustainability and ethical practices. By doing so, we hope to foster an industry that values creativity, supports human development through the arts, and is committed to a sustainable future."

The Leader of Tomorrow: Reem Musabbah, co-founder, Unipreneur Inc, and Head of Community Engagement and Membership, Women in AI UAE Technology (UAE)

Source: Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

To date, Reem Musabbah has established and managed a tech solutions house, Esaal Solutions, co-founded Retech, a tech firm specializing in providing creative digital and technological solutions for startups and enterprises, and co-founded Unipreneur Inc., a UAE-based engagement and development platform that aims to nurture youth aspiring to be responsible entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, innovators, and future leaders. Musabbah is certainly keeping busy, but all of the work that she does is ultimately furthering her mission to empower the next generation of leaders and innovators in the UAE- as an example, Unipreneur Inc. has, so far, collaborated with over 35 school and university incubators, impacting 2,000+ young entrepreneurs, and successfully organized 100+ youth events and engagements. "By providing youth with the tools, knowledge, and networks they need to succeed, I hope to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship that drives economic growth and societal progress," Musabbah says. "My vision is to see our young entrepreneurs leading successful ventures, contributing to the global innovation landscape, and inspiring others to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. Ultimately, I hope to see a more connected, innovative, and inclusive community where everyone has the opportunity to make a difference."

The Innovator: Farah Zafar, co-founder and CEO, Lyvely (UAE)

Source: Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

While she already had a rather demanding role as the Managing Director and Chief Legal Officer of Phoenix Group, an Abu Dhabi-based cryptocurrency mining and blockchain company, Farah Zafar decided in 2020 to be a co-founder of the social networking and content monetization platform, Lyvely, after noticing a paradigm shift in people's mindsets about how they earned their livelihoods. "I risked my corporate career, and I undertook the journey of creating the UAE's first sociafi platform, Lyvely," she recalls. "Thankfully, I was raised in a family with entrepreneurial DNA, as I watched my father tirelessly work three jobs to be able to become a business owner, which, like my own entrepreneurial journey, was a process of sheer resilience and persistence. With that spirit embodied in my current journey, we have now created an award-winning platform where anyone in the world can monetize their digital presence." Zafar's aim with Lyvely is to empower 100 million people to improve the quality of their lives by getting paid for doing what they love, and pursuing a more purpose-based career. "We are here to help people think more entrepreneurial, empower them with financial education, and provide them with a suite of tools and a community via our Lyvely platform, which helps them take control of their digital presence and financial freedom," Zafar explains. "While we plan to connect the world to monetization opportunities through our digital platform, we also have a vision to expand Lyvely beyond the internet and into communities and cities around the world that suffer from poverty, lack of resources, or limited access to opportunities, and then lead them to financial gain."

The Retailer: Pamela Lilburne Opie, founder and CEO, Linen Obsession Textile Trading Llc (UAE)

Source: Pamela Lilburne Opie/Linen Obsession

In founding UAE-based Linen Obsession Textile Trading, Pamela Lilburne Opie aimed to bring European, Australian, and British brands in categories like bedding, furniture, and home decor to the GCC region, but she also had a behind-the scenes goal for the enterprise- which was for it to be a supportive, ethical, and socially responsible corporate environment. Proof of this can be seen in Lilburne Opie's refusal to let go of any of her staff during the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. "Although I respect that every business has to manage its own unique set of circumstances, and I do not judge anybody else, I do not consider it a possibility to lay off staff in the bad times, whilst taking advantage of them in the good times," she says. "If my staff were to not stay employed by my company during the COVID-19 crisis, how would they find any other work, and who would feed their families both here and back home?" Her thought process then has been carried forward to how she goes about leadership at her company today, which sees her continue to take into consideration the overall well-being of her employees. "We aim to maintain policies that give career development, freedom, autonomy and flexibility, as long as the company needs are met at the same time," Lilburne Opie says. "Profit is important to support the business and everyone in it (including my family); however, profit is not the only goal. Creating win-win outcomes with everyone is a crucial aim– suppliers, customers, and team members should all be able to benefit from their interaction with my company. Loyalty, honesty, and ethics are key qualities that we value."

The Creative Leader: Fay Wong, Director and Partner, BID LLC (UAE)

As Partner and Director at BID LLC, a UAE-based architectural model-making and 3D visualization studio, Fay Wong has made her presence felt in what remains a male-dominated field in the MENA region. With her business having completed over 6,000 projects, serving clients across 12 countries, and establishing a presence in four locations, Wong says that she now aims to further push the boundaries of architectural design and visualization, but also to make an impact by empowering women and people in need of opportunities. "As a woman who has navigated the challenges of a male-dominated field, I want my success to serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for other women," she says. "It's crucial for young women entering into any industry to see that there are no limitations on women's ability and strength. I also hope to build a stronger platform to provide more job opportunities and exposure. It is my calling and blessing to do more, and contribute more."

The Professional Services Leader: Yuliia Fedosiuk, CEO, UAPAY (Ukraine)

Source: Yuliia Fedosiuk/UAPAY

When she launched UAPAY, Yuliia Fedosiuk aimed to transform the payment systems market in Ukraine by offering reliable and innovative solutions, and now, with one of its newest offerings, friendo. cash, her goal is even bigger- to develop a tool that can truly unite people. "I am confident it will have a profound impact on the fintech industry and communities worldwide," Fedosiuk says. "friendo.cash is more than a financial platform; it's a unique community-driven financial ecosystem where every interaction strengthens your social and financial bonds. The platform transforms the financial experience into a social network, where your finances become an integral part of a larger, supportive community." Fedosiuk goes on to explain that friendo.cash is a platform that supports various payment methods, including cryptocurrencies, and it thus offers a reliable alternative that can adapt to the needs of different user groups. "Ultimately, we want to create a supportive financial ecosystem where everyone, regardless of their starting point, can achieve financial stability and growth," she says. "My vision is for friendo.cash to bridge the gap between traditional financial systems and the future of digital finance, fostering a more inclusive, connected, and prosperous world."

The Media Leader: Jacqueline Lawrence, Highlands FM Radio (Tanzania)

Source: Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

Jacqueline Lawrence founded Highlands FM Radio in Southern Tanzania with the aim for it to be an outlet that allowed people in the region to use their voices to get better public services, as well as to access timely and accurate information to assist with their day-to-day lives. In line with that, her radio station has been running programs that enable the public to question the government and raise their concerns; plus, Highlands FM Radio is also known for disseminating knowledge on a wide variety of topical themes, which run the gamut from healthcare to agriculture. Lawrence's work over more than a decade has been so impactful that it has since inspired other media houses to follow suit. "In Tanzania, 91% of the population get access to information via radio, and almost all radios in the country used to solely focus on entertainment information," Lawrence shares. "Our radio programs are diverse, and they enable our audience to get in touch directly with any organization of their desire. We hope to ensure equal rural and urban development and poverty reduction from 50% to at least 15% in Tanzania, through transparency, accountability, and working together with organizations to fight the development setbacks, region by region. Our vision is to have a Highlands FM Africa, a media house challenging development setbacks region-wide."

Momrepreneur Of The Year: Farah Ahmed, founder and CEO, The Baby Garage (Egypt)

Source: Farah Ahmed/The Baby Garage

Farah Ahmed, founder and CEO of The Baby Garage, an Egyptian online platform that connects buyers and sellers of children's products or services, has a clear mission for her enterprise- to advance women's empowerment, and to foster inclusive economic growth, while promoting sustainable consumption and production practices. "The Baby Garage is more than an online trade model with fintech solutions, or another web-based marketplace," Ahmed says. "The Baby Garage is a force for innovation and change that creates a lasting impact. At the core of our mission is a deep commitment to social impact, particularly in empowering women throughout their motherhood journey. We recognize the multifaceted needs of mothers, extending our support to encompass both their career aspirations and their children's essential needs." Having built The Baby Garage out of an online social community that connected over one million mothers across various platforms, Ahmed sees the platform as a transformative online marketplace that empowers mothers to save, earn, and circulate items, while also safeguarding their kids' futures. "Leveraging our network of professional sellers, including retailers and manufacturers, we champion the growth of home-based women-led businesses by providing essential resources, such as supply, e-commerce logistics, marketing services, and online sales channels," she says. "This inclusive approach serves as a gateway for home-based careers, enabling women to establish their own online storefronts, and thrive in the ever-evolving e-commerce landscape."

Home-Based Business Of The Year: Alicia English, Executive Director, The Olive Exchange (South Africa)

Source: Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

In August 2021, Alicia English published a children's book called I Miss Daddy, which she co-wrote with her now 10-year-old son Matthew, in memory of her late husband Noel English, who had passed away in January that year. "I had quit my job as magazine editor in April that year to be with my three sons, who were only 17, six, and two years old, when their dad died," she explains. "We have since used the book as a platform to create awareness about child grief in Cape Town, and donated close to 2,000 books to under-resourced schools in Cape Town." Not long after, English's research in the field led her to a realization that 81% of Grade 4 learners and 56% Grade 6 learners in South Africa struggle with reading comprehension (according to Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2021), and it is with an aim to overturn this stat that she founded The Olive Exchange, a Cape Town-based publishing house that publishes affordable children's books. "Most parents cannot afford to buy their children story books," she explains. "If they have to choose between a bread and a book, they will buy the bread- I would too. As such, I want to flood our schools in under-resourced communities with affordable children's books, and get our children to fall in love with reading once more. " Another of her goals is make the publishing landscape in South Africa more diverse. "We still have too few women of color in executive positions in this industry," English says. "We need to transform our industry. It is not enough to fill operational/editorial positions with competent people of color. We need inclusion and equal representation at the executive level too."

The Social Impact Leader: İpek Kıraç of Suna'nın Kızları (Turkey)

Source: Suna'nın Kızları

It was in honor of her late mother Suna Kıraç, who dreamt of a modern Türkiye where girls were empowered, that İpek Kıraç founded Suna'nın Kızları, or Suna's Daughters, a multi-stakeholder initiative aimed at creating scalable models that build capacity, drive investment, and strengthen systems for girls. "As pioneers of the collective impact approach in Türkiye, our goal is to learn together, to mobilize, and to amplify the impact of civil society, youth, governments, and the private sector in a coordinated, synergistic effort," Kıraç explains. Having identified Southeast Türkiye as the most disadvantaged region for girls based on the high rates of school dropout, gender-based violence, and early and forced child marriages, Kıraç and her team thus set out to bring about change. "We began by creating a nurturing ecosystem for girls and boys, especially in cities like Şanlıurfa, where challenges were the hardest," she shares. "We narrowed down our efforts to this geography, which also has historic and demographic ties to the Middle East." Today, the success of the Suna's Daughters initiative lies in its ability to turn its goals into action, and realizing tangible results that are strengthening and activating its diverse partners, local communities, and the girls they serve. "As I mentioned in my speech at the United Nations General Assembly meeting last year, I believe that the decisions we make by centering the needs of girls have the power to change the world," Kıraç says. "I am thankful to all my partners who have been supporting us in maintaining our efforts."

The Educator: Jessy Radwan, founder and CEO, Carerha (Egypt)

Source: Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East

At 23, Jessy Radwan found herself having to choose between her career advancement and her parental duties, because finding flexible employment in Egypt was essentially non-existent at the time. Her struggle in this regard eventually led her to launch HireSuperMama, a Facebook group that aimed to help mothers find flexible jobs- and the platform did exactly that for over 50,000 women. Radwan thus came to realize that there was a pressing need to support women in their pursuit of meaningful careers while accommodating their personal commitments, and that led to the launch of her female-focused edtech platform, Carerha. Some of the company's achievements to date include launching more than 90 masterclasses, 50 courses, 30 female-focused programs, as well as launching the career coaching service for over 5,000 women. Plus, Carerha staged the Carerha Summit in 2022 and 2023, with over 8,000 attendees. "I am deeply committed to empowering women to achieve genuine work-life balance, enabling them to thrive both professionally and personally on their own terms," Radwan says. "By fostering economic empowerment, my goal is to help women unlock their fullest potential and embrace the best versions of themselves. This transformation is not just about career success; it's about granting women the freedom to make life choices that truly reflect their values and aspirations, liberating them from the need to settle for anything less than what they deserve. Through my work, I aspire to create a ripple effect that not only uplifts individual women, but also reshapes our community by advocating for equality and justice in every sphere of life."

Lifetime Achievement Award: Dr. Smita Francis, founder and Chair, Namibia Women in Engineering Association (Namibia)

Source: Namibia Women in Engineering Association

"I wanted to ensure that women get equal opportunities to excel in engineering, and receive the education and support they need to succeed." That's how Dr. Smita Francis describes her intention behind founding the Namibia Women in Engineering Association (NAMWIE), a platform that fosters growth, learning, and collaboration among female engineers in Namibia. Today, NAMWIE boasts of 183 members who are female engineers and technicians from diverse fields in the industry, as well as a student association with 73 members. "I hope to inspire more young women to pursue careers in engineering, thereby diversifying the field and driving innovation, but in the community, my goal is to promote the importance of quality education and gender equality," Dr. Francis says. "Through educational programs, workshops, and competitions, I hope to instill a sense of empowerment and confidence in young girls, encouraging them to dream big, and achieve their full potential. By fostering an inclusive environment, we can create a more equitable society where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from technological advancements."

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

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