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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Portrait of a Nation: Dubai social enterprise founder helps women avoid life endured by her mother

As a child, Assia Riccio was taught that helping people should be a way of life

Assia Riccio is founder of Evolvin' Women, a company that trains and finds hospitality jobs for women from developing countries. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Assia Riccio is founder of Evolvin' Women, a company that trains and finds hospitality jobs for women from developing countries. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The founder of a social enterprise that provides on-the-job training in Dubai hotels to women with few prospects started the programme to fulfil her mother’s dream of stopping others experiencing the treatment that she received early in her life.

Assia Riccio, 34, founded Evolvin’ Women to help women from developing countries gain valuable work experience before they are granted a placement in a leading hotel for a year.

Since it launched in 2016, the scheme has transformed the lives of dozens of women who faced difficulties in their home countries of Ghana, Namibia Rwanda and South Africa.

The inspiration behind the programme was Ms Riccio’s mother, Tina Tramontano.

In a story reminiscent of a fairy tale, Ms Tramontano’s stepmother would force her to stay home from school to tend to their house after her birth mother died of cancer when she was nine years old.

It was that suffering that the Italian, now 66, endured in her childhood that spurred her into action. She chose to dedicate her life to helping others and raised her three children to rethink the word charity, seeing helping people as mandatory, rather than an option.

“She actually hates the word charity and thinks it should be deleted from the dictionary,” Ms Riccio says.

“For my mother, it is a way of life. She believes it is only natural to help others, so why is it called charity?”

Ms Tramontano would go on to work closely with an organisation in Italy that supported underprivileged children in Brazil. Although she never had the opportunity to establish her own charity, her drive to help others lit a fire in her daughter to launch her own programme that could make a difference on a larger scale.

But her mother’s influence did not stop there. When Ms Riccio speaks of her mother, her eyes light up, and although she is thousands of kilometres away in Naples, Ms Tramontano is present in every decision her daughter makes.

“I have so many stories about my mom,” Ms Riccio says. “She always told us that if you have a glass of water, whether it is half-full or half-empty, you can always find a drop for someone who is thirsty.”

Even the bedtime stories her mother would read to her were out of the ordinary, telling tales where the protagonists were the children she had helped through her charitable work.

“It was always a child in Brazil who, despite the challenges, made it in the end. She made these children our heroes,” Ms Riccio say.

“When people ask me how I got involved in Evolvin’ Women, I say: ‘It was not a decision I made, it was just the way my mother raised me.’

“To help others and think of others not out of pity or because they are poor or they need help but because this is the normal thing to do.

“I do not do what I do because I think these women are poor, absolutely not, but simply, why not? Why wouldn’t I do it?

“Why would I even question this?” she asks.

Ms Riccio moved to the UAE from the UK with her husband in 2012 in search of warmer weather.

A year later, she launched Evolvin’ Women, and the first thing her mother told her was that she was continuing her legacy, but also cautioned her not to let success go to her head.

“She keeps saying ‘you are not doing anything extraordinary. Don’t do it because you are expecting anything in return or for anyone to thank you. You are doing it because this is the way that we live life and this the way I raised you’.”

In a few months, Ms Riccio will have helped to train up to 50 women from developing countries in the hospitality sector in the UAE.

“This is a basic human right,” she says. “It should be normal that everyone has food, that everyone has an education, that everyone has shelter. It is the extraordinary influence of my mother.”

*This article has been amended since initial publication because the headline referred to Evolvin' Women as a charity when it is, in fact, a social enterprise.

Updated: January 27, 2019 02:38 PM

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