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It is a great honour and privilege to stand before you this morning, on this occasion of the inaugural summit of the Female Founders Initiative, Middle East and Africa. This gathering is the culmination of years of gruelling hard-work and unwavering commitment. But more than all this, it is a gathering of people with a thirst for change.

There are facts about the world that are known to all of us and for which empirical evidence is abundant. These facts have been articulated eloquently and presented in various platforms, by individuals and institutions across the regional divide. These facts can be summarized in a simple statement: women are on the receiving end of a segmented labor market, a gendered economy and a heteronormative patriarchal society.

Many of us seated here have experienced the difficulties of this heteronormative patriarchal society where women are confronted with significant barriers to entry. In the Middle East and in Africa, these barriers to entry are fundamentally structural and are rooted in cultures and practices that seek to define women’s role as belonging only to the reproductive space. They undermine their capacity to fully develop in the productive space – a space that remains male dominated and exclusive. This injustice is chalked up to the idea that “It’s a man’s world”.

This idea is as archaic as it is regressive. It is an idea that is rooted in the perception that women lack the capacity to be central to the running of global and regional economies and the development of legislations. But we know, from existing evidence, that economies are more sustainable when women engineer them and that legislation is more progressive and representative when women are involved in its development.

Many examples of this fact exist. It is the work of Kenyan Dr Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, that revolutionized politics of ecology and environmental justice in the developing world. It is the work of Dr Lulu Gwangwa that set parameters for African women participating in the space of spatial and urban development, in a continent that is rapidly urbanizing. It is the work of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, made issues of human rights, gender representation and food security, a priority.

In the Middle East, a region that has historically been deemed patriarchal, that women are bucking many global trends, including that of female university students outnumbering their male counterparts. It is the work of Lubna Al Olayan, Raja Easa Al Gurg, Rania Mahmood Nashar, Renuka Jagtiani, Eaman Al Roudhan, Amal Bahwan, Mona Almoayye and Shaikha A Bahar, that is breaking the proverbial glass. These women are leading companies in oil and gas, heading government departments and pioneering innovations in fintech. We also have women like Clarah Manyeperah who is in our midst and hails from Zimbabwe who broke barriers and Co-founded and running a successful real estate company.

From these examples, we know that women in the Middle East and Africa can lead, and that when they do, they do so exceptionally. We know that when women are heading institutions, they do so with principles of justice, fairness and productivity at the centre. And therefore, there should be no doubt that women are capable of engineering change.

Despite this, women do not enjoy the same level of support, institutionally and otherwise, as their male counterparts. I know that as the founder and president of the Female Founders Initiative (Middle East and Africa), I speak for many other female founders when I state that our path is littered with a disproportionate amount of obstacles. These range from challenges accessing funding to barriers to entry into industries that are not traditionally receptive to women. We have had to navigate these, under difficult circumstances, to be here.

And now, having gotten a foot through the door, what is our primary responsibility, beyond running successful companies? This is a question that has always preoccupied me and which I believe should be the preoccupation of all of us gathered here. I want to hazard a proposition that our primary responsibility is to recreate ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to build a strong network that is anchored on solidarity, in which we aid one another in our development.

We have an obligation to support each other in this difficult but rewarding journey. This means that our companies and organisations should work together not in competition, but in partnership. A construction company owned by a woman in this room should source its building supplies from a warehouse managed by a woman in this room. The companies in this room should be sourcing their accounting and auditing services from an accountant and auditor in this room. A fleet company owned by a woman in this room should be purchasing its oil from an oil company run by woman in this room.

The principle in this is that when we run alone, we run fast. But when we run together, we run far. It is this principle that is going to sustain women entrepreneurs and innovators. It is this principle that is going to set parameters for women in Africa and the Middle East to control and manage commanding heights of economies, as well as sit at tables where critical decisions are made.

With these few words, I wish to welcome all of you to this historic occasion, and to express sincere gratitude for the work that you are doing in your respective fields, to empower other women. I wish to reiterate the sentiments of Indian intellectual, Arundhati Roy, who said: Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Thank you.

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