In times of crisis, true leaders emerge. The NGOs and social entrepreneurs in Lebanon, a number of them women, are living proof of this. In Beirut, during the continual aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion, which burned through the capital on August 4, causing at least 200 deaths, 6,500 injuries, $15 billion USD in property damage, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless, entrepreneurs and activists hit the ground when support from the government was nowhere to be found.
Michelle Mouracade, the country director for Lebanon of Alfanar, the first venture philanthropy organization in the Middle East that supports social enterprises over the long-term with funding, training, management support and access to networks and markets, says she’s constantly impressed by the nimbleness and sharp thinking of both the nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs of Lebanon.
“Despite what we’re all going through, despite the trauma, despite how difficult it is, the entrepreneurs and NGOs are incredibly resilient,” says Michelle. “It’s like they keep going as if nothing happened, and they find new ways to pivot their missions to support more people. Decision making is so fast and so smart and so agile and flexible and adaptable, and women are doing it with so much compassion.”
When Unlikely Entrepreneurs Rise In Unlikely Places
Based on what Michelle has seen among the social entrepreneurs that Alfanar supports and considering there are more than 7,000 NGOs in Lebanon, the highest percentage per capita in the world, she thinks Lebanon is poised to be one of the leading countries in the world in social entrepreneurship.
“All of these NGOs have the potential to become social enterprises if they get the support, and this is Alfanar’s mission—to transform them into social enterprises, so they can be sustainable and investment ready,” sats Michelle.
Eighty-three precent of the social enterprises Alfanar supports are led by women, and most of them have a primary focus on women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. In Lebanon, 90% of women use their income on their families and communities
“They have the responsibilities and stress levels of CEOs in the private sector without any of the financial rewards or recognition, and yet they dedicate their lives to their missions and do it with so much empathy,” shares Michelle of the women social entrepreneurs in Alfanar’s Lebanon network.
One of the social entrepreneurs that has been supported by Alfanar is Mariam Chaar, a generational refugee from the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon. She founded the catering service and food truck, Soufra, which has a weekly stand at a farmers market. Mariam started Soufra, which means ‘table of plenty’, in 2013 to create jobs for members of her community. She was featured in the book, 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World, and in 2017 she starred in the documentary, Soufra, by Thomas Morgan and executive produced by Susan Sarandon.
Another entrepreneur that Alfanar has supported is Zeina Saab, founder of The Nawaya Network, which has changed the lives of nearly 5,000 young people across Lebanon by training them on how to use their talents and skills to generate income. Zeina also launched SE Factory, the first coding bootcamp and employment service agency to have a 90% employment rate for more than 150 Lebanese graduates, who are working for more than 80 companies in Lebanon and overseas.
“Marianne Bitar Karam is another impressive social entrepreneur whose achievements would’ve put her in Fortune entrepreneur lists if she were in the private sector,” opines Michelle.
Marianne launched DOT (Digital Opportunity Trust) in Lebanon to groom young people into becoming innovators and leaders, creating and applying digital solutions to have a positive impact in their communities. The organization has afforded opportunities for 1 million people across Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Indigenous Canada.
DOT Lebanon started its first project with $25,000 and no office. Ten years later, Marianne is running both DOT Lebanon and the B.O.T (Bridge. Outsource. Transform) social enterprise, which provides high quality digital services executed by skilled freelancers from marginalized communities in Lebanon. She’s managing 30 employees and 40 trainers in total with a budget of $2.5 million between both organizations.
There are many other women entrepreneurs defying the odds in Lebanon, and I’ll be writing about more of them here. As I look at the lack of political leadership in many parts of the world, the entrepreneurs of Lebanon continue to be a guiding light.
As Michelle affirms, “Despite the psychological trauma that the people of Lebanon are going through (due to the country’s financial crisis and the Beirut blast), our social entrepreneurs are marking true leadership. They just keep going.”