Part of the “Women To Watch” featured in the November issue of Inc. Arabia. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle East and North Africa region is home to millions of highly educated, driven and successful women who stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Here are some of those inventors, change agents, business leaders, educators, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors are no longer okay with the status quo.
YASMIN HELAL will be first to admit that she has had a very privileged life. She grew up in a middle-class family in one of Cairo’s best neighborhoods and attended a private school. At a young age, she took to basketball and eventually went professional.
Over the next 19 years, Helal would become one of Egypt’s most prominent female basketball players. Along her journey, she collected 38 medals, captained a club team for several years and played for the Egyptian National Team. On the other side, she also majored in engineering and worked in telecom with Alactel-Lucent, becoming one of their star young employees. Things were good, and life was a breeze.
One day, while stepping out for lunch, she was stopped by a man on the street who would change her life. The man didn’t want an autograph from the decorated athlete—he wanted $20 so that he could pay for his three daughters to go to school.
Not believing the man, taking him to be another street side scammer, she asked him to take her to the school to make sure that he was telling the truth.
He was and Helal was overcome with a surging sense of guilt.
“The money the man needed to send his children to school was equivalent to a fast food meal. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. So I offered to sponsor his kids,” she recollects. But that guilt was surging inside her, pushing her to do more than what she had. “More needed to be done.”
In 2011, along with two co-founders, Helal quit her high-paying engineering job to work full time on setting up Educate-Me, a non-profit organization designed to run fund-raising campaigns to help reinstate underprivileged children back to school.
“I couldn’t find any fulfillment doing my corporate job. But it wasn’t easy to abandon my career and my years of higher education to set up a non-profit organization. I was faced with a lot of skepticism. But I knew I had to do something.”
Starting up Educate-Me, Helal recognized that money was not the real challenge—it was the educational system she was sending the students back to that was failing.
“I realized that it’s not a matter of throwing money at people. It’s not a matter of sending students to buildings. It is a matter of quality,” she says. “The purpose of education is not about being able to read and write and receiving a certificate…it is for the individual to be able to put himself on the way to self-actualization, to help him realize what he is…what he is good at, to allow him to make choices that maximize his potential and that of others.”
Helal started shifting her focus from offering financial support to students to setting up a fully functioning supplemental education center that serves around 200 students annually. Nestled in Cairo’s low-income neighborhood of El Konayessa, Educate-Me’s center looks to provide innovative educational opportunities to the area’s underprivileged children.
“We are pushing students toward developing 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity and empathy through disciplines as wide-ranging as math, language and sports,” she explains.
In contrast to the public education system in Egypt that focuses on memorization and standardized tests, the program uses a learner-focused approach or “democratic learning”, where students are encouraged to decide what they want to learn and thus teaching them to be far more independent and resourceful.
In order to keep her social enterprise growing, Helal is working towards achieving financial stability. To that effect, the organization has already also started working with private school students on a paid basis, helping that stream subsidize the free services to marginalized communities.
“Helping 200 students a year is not enough but it is a step in the right direction. You have start somewhere,” says Helal. “We want to expand the program outside Cairo to help in other parts of the country and reach as many students as possible. But, going nationwide is the bare minimum vision. We truly hope that one day we will be able to take our model global.”
Photograph by Sabry Khaled