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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Beyond aid: how a UAE social enterprise is creating opportunities for women in developing countries

In some countries, families spend their money educating the first boy and not the girls, so Evolvin' Women is helping to create opportunities for them through placements at Dubai hotels

Assia Riccio is the founder of Evolvin’ Women, a UAE-based social enterprise that provides women from developing countries with work placements at hotels in Dubai. Courtesy Evolvin' Women
Assia Riccio is the founder of Evolvin’ Women, a UAE-based social enterprise that provides women from developing countries with work placements at hotels in Dubai. Courtesy Evolvin' Women

A UAE-based social enterprise is helping to promote equal job opportunities by providing women from developing countries with work placements in Dubai hotels.

The first woman to be part of the scheme in the Middle East was Ghanaian-national Antoinette Allah-Mensah, who is currently working at The Retreat Palm Dubai MGallery by Sofitel. It has been such a success that 20 more women from developing countries will be placed in hotels across Dubai by the end of 2018.

The scheme aims to help applicants hoping to break into the hospitality industry, but who have not had the opportunity due to personal, economic or cultural constraints.

Once they have successfully applied, they take part in a three-month pop-up academy brought to their home country, where they receive intensive training, before being placed in a leading hotel chain for a 12-month period.

The participants are selected by foundations, intergovernmental organisations and governments in developing countries that are addressing the needs and rights of women and their integration into the economy.

Since it started earlier this year, the Dubai-based programme has seen women successfully placed in the hotel industry in both the UAE and Ghana.

“The idea was to promote equality of opportunity, it was not about gender equality or women’s empowerment,” said Assia Riccio, founder of Evolvin’ Women.

“Initially it was not really about choosing women, it was about going to developing countries and seeing who needed more help. What we noticed was that it was common in some countries for families to spend their money on educating the first boy and not the girls.”

The decision to place the women in the hospitality industry was an easy one.

“It is an industry that gets a lot of attention from governments as hospitality and tourism is probably among the top three sources of income, especially in developing countries. I thought that creating talent pools for the hospitality industry would get governments interested in listening to me,” said Ms Riccio.

Dr Heather Jeffrey, a professor at Middlesex University in Dubai, is a keen supporter of the project and acts as mentor to Ms Allah-Mensah.

“Economic growth through the advancement of women will not be possible unless we provide women with opportunities and also empower them to take up those opportunities,” said Dr Jeffrey.

“Providing a quality education is not just about widening access and ensuring both boys and girls can go to school, it is about providing opportunities for lifelong learning, it is about challenging assumptions based on stereotypes and, while we do this in the classroom, we must also live it.”

One of the most common challenges for women in the workplace is getting up the career ladder, said Ms Riccio.

“There are more women than men in the hospitality industry; the issue is when you try to advance into senior roles,” said Ms Riccio.

Dr Jeffrey said research shows that women often find it harder than men to network, which is paramount to reaching leadership positions.

“This is in part due to our responsibilities outside of work, to how we have been socialised, and often to lower numbers of women in higher positions.”

One way in which those opportunities can be created is by a mentoring process.

“Mentors can widen networks for women, but they also become a role model, which can be very important for those who might not have seen female success from an employment perspective,” said Dr Jeffrey.

“A mentor can be a formal role within an organisation, which is a great way for companies to support women in the day to day, but they can also be, and often are, informal.”

Ms Allah-Mensah said the programme changed her life.

“I want to share the opportunity with other women. I want to tell them it is about helping women to empower themselves instead of waiting on others to do it for them,” she said.

“You can read all the books, and do all the researching in the world but you cannot beat experience. Being here makes me feel like I can do anything and I want to send that message to other women so they can make something of themselves too.”

Ms Allah-Mensah will complete a 12-month work placement in Dubai before returning to her home country to work full-time at a hotel.

The greater goal is to change the perceptions of men and women in the workplace.

“If you look at it historically, the man has always been the breadwinner,” says Ms Riccio.

“This is fine in itself, the problem is when the woman becomes the breadwinner, why does she not get the same treatment as the men? If I go into an organisation tomorrow and say, ‘My husband stays at home minding the children and I want to apply for a director role and I want the family package’, will I get it?”

Ms Riccio said there was a clear need for help to be offered towards developing nations beyond simply sending aid packages.

“Aid is meant to be a temporary fix but after a while people expect it and wait for others to donate money and send food. I did not like the perception that people have to wait for money to come from outside aid,” she said.

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While the project has so far focused on the hospitality and tourism industries, that could change soon.

“I have already been approached by women who have asked if the model can be replicated and potentially franchised in the legal and finance industries,” said Ms Riccio.

“We are looking at creating evolving community projects where women go back to their countries with the skills they have learned here and train others.”

With corporate social responsibility being a buzz-phrase in the hospitality industry at the moment, there has never been a better time for hotels to put their money where their mouths are, said Ms Riccio.

“I think it is important that companies realise they can do a lot to empower women outside their organisations,” she said.

“It is about using your business as a catalyst for female advancement.”

Another key stakeholder in the project is Dubai Businesswomen’s Council, which includes the social enterprise in its mentoring programme.

“We were appointed to erase the false stereotype that people in other countries and other regions had about women in this side of the world,” said manager Nadine Halabi.

“That’s why we are delighted to support Evolvin’ Women.”