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“This forum is about you!” 

This was the message we kept hearing at the Middle East and North Africa Businesswomen’s Network (MENA BWN) inaugural forum, which took place at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai, UAE, on April 12 and 13. This event was not only MENA BWN’s first forum, but also one of a kind for the region. The emphasis was on the participants and their potential – not the speakers or even the forum’s patron, H. E. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of Foreign Trade.

The Minister was refreshingly low on protocol and insisted that the event was “untraditional.” In her keynote address, she did not read a speech, but rather shared her story in a humble and funny way, calling herself a computer science “geek.” Commenting on the potential of businesswomen in the region, Al Qasimi said “This forum is a valuable platform for women from across the Middle East and North Africa region to enhance their skill sets and gain valuable mentoring from powerful women from around the region.”

Some 350 businesswomen convened from countries across the region: entrepreneurs, professionals, small-to-medium size-business owners, and leaders of family businesses, from Saudi Arabia, Libya and beyond. The MENA BWN’s 10 hubs also sent their delegations from Palestine, Bahrain, Lebanon, Algeria, Dubai, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and Tunisia. These were strong, successful women with a specific vision, backed by a drive to improve their lives and the lives of people around them. 

Panels, sessions and workshops featuring over 50 men and women speakers from around the world were offered, with key representatives from IBM, Dow Chemical and the World Bank. Here’s a clip of Vital Voices’ Board Chair Susan Davis speaking about the importance of aligning communication about the BWN: 

“Network, network, network,” said one of the first Post-Its on the comment board. And attendees certainly followed suit. The forum, from the placement of white sofas across the hallways to the open, fluid space, was designed to encouraged networking and informal conversation. Participants were not only exchanging business cards and ideas; they were actually exchanging support and assistance. You could hear the words “I can help you with that” everywhere you went. The women were happy to finally be able to meet each other at such a large-scale event, and were eager to get the most of out of those two days. Amal Almoayyed, a Bahraini woman and executive director at Ashrafs W.L.L., said, “I met 10 people this morning that I want to do business with.” New connections were created and existing connections were strengthened. 

The first day of the forum offered a wide array of sessions for participants to choose from. Two important sessions focused on mentorship and leadership – two concepts relatively new in the region, especially when it comes to women. The participants were eager to become mentors or mentees (12 participants were mentored that day), and to learn more about becoming leaders in their businesses and communities. Other tracks covered competitions, accessing capital, accessing markets, brand building, leveraging technology to increase efficiency, and using social media and Google tools to increase business exposure. An Emirates-Aspen partnership session focused on building an ecosystem to foster innovation and entrepreneurship.

The second day ended with a roundtable discussion among some of the region’s most prominent businesswomen, including several of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the Arab World, as featured by Arabian Business.

The forum concluded with the promise of two future initiatives for the MENA BWN. In her closing remarks, Afnan R. Al Zayani, president of MENA Businesswomen’s Network, said that the forum was an opportunity to mobilize the MENA BWN, key stakeholders and partners to produce a strong agenda of regional initiatives. She explained that the strategic focus of MENA BWN for 2012 will be mentoring and access to capital.

With mentoring programs already underway in the Egypt and Morocco hubs, the MENA BWN is planning to replicate those programs across the network to include the other hubs in the coming months. The network is seeking new partnerships, namely with Google, to leverage the Internet as a mentoring tool. The BWN will also continue to work with Vital Voices and seek its global expertise in mentoring. Al Zayani explained that because access to capital was another area of great interest during the forum, the MENA BWN, Vital Voices and IFC will be entering into a partnership to find out what the capital needs are for entrepreneurs, women business owners in small-to-medium enterprises and family businesses in the region. 

Al Zayani said that given the success of this forum, the MENA BWN is committed to organize another one in two years. With all 10 hubs asking to host the forum in their respective countries, the competition will be fierce!

To stay in touch with the MENA BWN, contact, visit their website and their Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.

Gihane Askar works with the Vital Voices’ Middle East and North Africa team and attended the forum in Dubai.