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Tunisia: Hotbed of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Spirit for Women

By Erin Kelley

Amani Labidi is inventing an online market for Tunisian women handicrafters; her platform integrates education on home décor and fashion trends in the US and EU so that the artisans can innovate with specific markets in mind. Fatma M'Selmi is making plans to replicate the STEMconnector.org Million Women Mentors program. Olfa Alfaoui and Kawther Hattab are planning a network to support leadership development and connections among young professionals working on women’s empowerment in Tunisia. Imen Rebai is launching a fashion and accessories line that will provide employment to Tunisian women. How do I know about these projects in Tunisia even though I work in Washington, DC? Through the help of the Professional Fellows Program.

In October of 2014, the NWBC hosted a Tunisian fellow through the Professional Fellows Program sponsored by the Department of State and run by Virginia-based nonprofit, Hands along the Nile Development Services (HANDS). During the Tunisian fellow’s residency in the US, she had the opportunity to learn more about the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem in the United States as well as project management and strategic planning skills.

As a part of the reverse exchange, I was invited to tour the organizations of all the Tunisian fellows, learn about the Tunisian entrepreneurship ecosystem, and help fellows develop grant proposals for their projects. An exciting and interesting opportunity (as you can see it is a fascinating set of projects), our itinerary included visits with local NGOs, proposal workshops, and cultural activities. This was also my first visit to Tunisia!

As the purpose of the program—and my work—is to understand and improve the business climate for women entrepreneurs, I was eager to learn more about the status of women in Tunisia. It turns out Tunisian women have a uniquely long history of independence, tracing back to the legacy of Queen Dido who established Carthage. Habib Bourguiba - the first president of Tunisia after independence from France -  enacted a Personal Status Code which codified gender equality in various aspects of life, including abolishing polygamy, establishing a minimum age of marriage and consent from both parties prior to marriage, among other provisions. Shortly thereafter, Tunisian women won the right to vote and run for office. Equal pay was also put into law. The code has seen changes over the years—strengthening some rights for women, including inheritance, property ownership, and child custody—and Tunisian women talk with pride about their rights, particularly in comparison to other countries in the region and the world.

While I had some prior understanding of Tunisia from my studies in graduate school, I had not been to the region since the Arab Spring or starting with the NWBC, where I have developed my skill in analysis of entrepreneurship ecosystems. Being in Tunisia after the revolution was fascinating. Tunisia is one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East and North African region, and as such holds unique entrepreneurial opportunities for women.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Tunisia and the state of its infrastructure to support women’s economic agency. As a systems thinker, I’m always intellectually curious about how all components of an entrepreneurship ecosystem support the aspirations of women with dreams of entrepreneurship. On a personal and emotional level, it was inspiring to learn more in depth about what the fellows are doing and the entrepreneurial leaps of faith they are taking. I’m humbled by their courage and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to help them make their ideas more of a reality. I’m also excited to see how the projects go. There are so many innovative ideas that I’m sure will have a cascade effect on women’s entrepreneurship in Tunisia.

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