Yasmine El-Mehairy has it all backwards. At least, that’s what people have told her.
Armed with a computer science degree from Ain Shams University in Cairo, she bagged a coveted post at IBM. Next she got a scholarship to obtain her master’s degree from the U.K., and then returned home to join a regional IT giant. She left that to become part of a small open-source startup that did work mostly for NGOs in the region. Finally, she embarked on launching Supermama.me, a startup of her own.
"In Egypt, I would say that most parents look up to their kids working in a big multinational company," she says. "So I broke the stereotype and said, ‘You know what? I’ve had it, I want to do something that is useful and I want to do something on my own.’"
As it happens, doing something on one’s own can literally turn out to be the case. El-Mehairy is acutely attuned to what she calls the lack of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Egypt, forcing her to seek out advisers and resources to develop the business. At 30, she is mightily determined and engaging, putting her all into an outlet that she hopes will become the go-to portal for mothers in Arab countries.
In some respects, pressures on mothers seem to be weighing more heavily nowadays than previous generations. El-Mehairy says responsibilities and dynamics have evolved, from the growing number of activities children are involved with, to more women working to support their families. "It’s just that globally, it’s becoming more competitive and more expensive to maintain your family," she says.
In 2010, El-Mehairy was searching for the right idea that would add value but also be profitable. She learned her sister-in-law was pregnant and that got her thinking — why wasn’t there any platform in the Arab world for mothers? There are plenty of sites and publications out of other countries, but nothing targeting the Arab context, covering pregnancy, household management and parenting.
She did research and held focus groups with friends and friends of friends. "We confirmed the needs and went for it," she says. On top of her day job, she labored 60 hours a week honing the business idea. Then in January 2011, El-Mehairy quit her last job to devote herself to the venture.
A Difficult Road
Her daily regimen now goes about like this: She’s up at 7 a.m. Makes tea. Then is at her computer fielding e-mails, rounding up articles from contributors and translators to make the site’s noon deadline. A couple hours spent publishing content. More e-mails. Followed by a few hours of Skype calls with investors, partners or mentors. Another hour or so of e-mails follows, then maybe a break. Then it’s back to doing financial statements and paperwork. More e-mails. She takes a few hours in the evening for herself. This carries on seven days a week, except for the one half-day she sets aside each week as her time off, to hit the gym or see friends. "It’s a long and difficult road," she says.
Even with the technical, business and management background El-Mehairy had gained over her years in the workforce, there was still a significant learning curve in starting her enterprise. "We were naïve in a number of things," she says.
She reached out to successful individuals in the region, including heads of companies, who helped her fill in the gaps. This also required finding the right team, which ended up with two other women, one with a marketing background and the other a web designer, each complementing the other’s skills set. They topped several startup and entrepreneurship competitions, taking them around Egypt, Lebanon and Denmark. It gave them a chance to pitch their business plan as well as to receive guidance, training and some funds.
The site went live in October 2011. "You’re never ready to launch," says El-Mehairy, sporting jeans and a wraparound headscarf blocked in shades of blue and grey. They could have kept mulling over trial users’ feedback, but at some point, she says, "You have to go for it." With some 75 million people having Internet access across Arab-speaking countries, there’s increasing market potential for initiatives such as theirs. And slanting to their favor, she says with the uprisings and transformations in the region, many people don’t trust traditional media as much, and instead are turning to online sources for their information.
SuperMama, in Arabic and English, includes sections on home, pregnancy and parenting under the overarching tagline, "Everything is under control." Besides articles, there are also discussion boards and time-management tools. It’s a space for gathering and sharing, giving it a community feel. El-Mehairy has drafted a squad of volunteers made up of doctors, bloggers, stay-at-home mothers and others who author articles and produce content. (Not surprisingly, she and her partners pitch in with the research and writing as well.) The material is verified with experts and trusted sources, she says, creating a line of reliability. "The number of volunteers exceeds every day, it grows, people are happy to join. They believe in the value of it. They see themselves being part of it," she says.
El-Mehairy says because such content does not exist within the Arab context, one of her major objectives is the "localization" of what’s out there, which may mean tailoring what’s available or creating new work that speaks to readers here. "We face this problem, like when content comes from the West," she says. "It might be translated, but it’s not localized." For instance, she says in Europe children are told to take vitamin C to boost their immunity in the winter. But the same advice is not applicable for someplace like Egypt, where the warmer climate naturally exposes kids to vitamin C.
In an effort not to exclude anyone, matters are kept non-political and non-religious. That’s not to say the site isn’t willing to take some risks. In the section entitled, "Me Time," El-Mehairy says she’s trying to introduce the concept that it’s OK for a mother to make time for herself amid her many responsibilities. It may not be a priority culturally, she says, but she wants mothers not to feel guilty, for example, if they go out with friends. Additionally, a somewhat controversial article on the site’s "Daddy Darling" page took a look at male contraception. It appeared readers were reluctant to address the article on the site, but El-Mehairy says she received e-mails saying the subject was too strong for the region.
Relying mostly on word of mouth and some online advertising, SuperMama has drawn visitors from Saudi, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Jordan. "Egypt is the launching pad, but we want to go regional," El-Mehairy says. Plans for the site include adding videos and partnering with other content sites. Beyond the virtual realm, El-Mehairy says they are organizing events to bridge the gap between offline and online, and aiming to enhance their exposure outside of Cairo into the rest of Egypt. As they expand, SuperMama has been in discussion with investors willing to get on board.
Aspiring ‘Super Momma’
El-Mehairy, who works from home, has expended her savings in building her company. She quips that her family is lazy at keeping track of the site, but she credits them with always supporting her in becoming the ambitious business owner that she is today. She didn’t have to look far for a role model; both for herself and for those she is seeking to help. "For me, my mom is the ‘super momma’ of all times," she says. "She’s a professor of medicine at a university and she took the difficult decision of not practicing medicine and just teaching, in order to give enough time for her family. And it was a very difficult decision for her." As a working woman, her mother is "a perfect cook, she’s the perfect hostess, she is the perfect housewife, she is just perfect. So she is the ‘super momma’ we all aspire to be."
As yet, the founder of SuperMama is not a mother nor is she married. Looming societal pressure and expectations, especially around marriage, can dent the resolve of even the most resolute achievers. El-Mehairy fends off skeptics who devalue her or her work because she hasn’t been married and hasn’t had children. She stays committed to the service she’s providing and gains strength from the encouraging feedback she receives. "You know, just take it off your mind and move on. Otherwise, it really gets depressing. Especially in the business wherein we’re empowering mothers. If I let marriage get to me really, I wouldn’t be able to provide the information, would I?" She has her nephew and many of her friends have had babies since her site launched. The content, of course, has deepened her knowledge of all things mothering, making her prepared for when the time does come.
In going against the professional grain, El-Mehairy describes herself not as fearless, but rather as bold. When it comes to being an entrepreneur, being bold encompasses doggedly pursuing mentorship to direct one to the next level. "Look for advice from someone who has done it before — there’s no shame in asking for advice," she says. "And there’s nothing wrong if somebody will say, ‘I’m too busy.’ Like you if you go and ask someone for something, be prepared to take a long road. And don’t let the ‘no’ discourage you." Flexibility is equally important. Initially, El-Mehairy, a technology-lover, was bent on creating a mobile application. "I was hung up on the IT… had I been stuck on that and not open to change and not to open market demand, where would I be now?" she says.
The startup experience shed light for El-Mehairy on the absence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Egypt. She and other young entrepreneurs are trying to cultivate such a network and she hopes to share the lessons she’s learned with the next lot. El-Mehairy considers herself lucky to have connected with willing, top-notch mentors. "Is this accessible to everyone else?" she says. "I have that access, I have that privilege, but others don’t, right?" That is what makes creating mechanisms to support entrepreneurs all the more essential. Other remaining challenges persist for startups, she says, including attracting the right talent, since as a small company they can’t offer the same guarantees and opportunities that more established outfits do.
If El-Mehairy is carving her path backwards, then she is doing so at full throttle. There’s no time to pause. "I think if I stop, I wouldn’t be able to pick up again," she says. She senses she’s headed in the right direction, but probably she’ll fall short of her personal standard of perfectionism. Despite the ups and downs, she advocates the uncertain entrepreneurial course. "I think you need to be aware of the dangers, but decide to go for it nevertheless." And with so much change unfolding at different levels in the region, she wonders if there might be shifts in traditional ways of thinking toward professions, careers and related opportunities.
In the signature field of her email, El-Mehairy plugs her ultimate aspiration: "*Soon to be* The #1 Website for Women in MENA!" Hers is an optimism that engenders the agitation to act. In a call once with one of her mentors, they talked budgets and money.
"After this date what do we do? There’s no money. What do we do?" he asked. "Do we wrap up and go, and like leave it?"
"It is not an option," El-Mehairy replied. "So regardless of what’s happening, we’re going to keep on trying until the last breath."