BEIRUT: Suhaila Itani is not a typical housewife. She is independent, makes her own money and aims to open her own business one day. Just a year ago, the stay-at-home mother of five had little appetite for such things – but then she made a choice that changed her life. “A friend of mine told me about this work where I could use my cooking skills,” Itani told The Daily Star. “Without hesitation, I said ‘yes’ and that ‘yes’ changed my whole life.”
Itani is one of 13 women who are working with Women to Women Success, a recently founded non-governmental organization that helps homemakers with cooking skills find jobs that suit their lifestyle, offering what some participants described as the “opportunity of a lifetime.”
The idea is to enable ordinary homemakers to cook healthy food in the comfort of their own kitchen, but with the aim of catering for corporate events and big social gatherings. The NGO does the work of finding the clients, whether companies, banks or other institutions.
The NGO’s certified trainers, mostly volunteers, give the homemakers quality training on culinary techniques, food safety, etiquette, communication skills, marketing and human resources.
“We teach them ways to improve their cooking, how to make healthy meals, master food presentation, choose the right ingredients, understand cost management, communicate with clients, and how to promote and sell their products,” said Maud Jabbour, the co-founder of Women to Women Success.
Registered just months ago in April, the NGO found the 13 participants by advertising on TV and radio and via word of mouth.
“We look for women who are unable to leave their homes because of family issues ... or perhaps she has to take care of her sick parents but is in desperate need of money,” Jabbour said as she and Itani jotted down meal ideas for a menu at Deymeh, a delivery and takeout place in Beirut that she is cooking for during the week.
“When women above 40 try to go out into the workplace, they will be faced with many obstacles, among them society’s view of them. This [program] offers them a way for them to work.”
The NGO strives to promote the belief that women of any age can be productive members of their society, according to Lama Diab, the NGO’s other co-founder.
“We want to prove that women can be the breadwinners of the home by generating jobs for them. That way we are actually contributing to the social and economic development of the country as a whole,” said Diab, 28.
“A woman can work independently and raise her family at the same time. She does not have to sacrifice one to maintain the other.”
Jabbour and Diab say many women, such as young mothers, prefer to work at night after putting their children to sleep.
Research suggests that stay-at-home mothers work at least 90 hours per week, as they clean, cook and manage children and household – all for free.
Fitting in a job, if the woman can even find one, can be incredibly difficult, yet the increasingly deteriorating economic situation and consequences for poorer families often necessitate it.
With Women to Women Success, mothers can make a decent income while maintaining their personal and family commitments.
The financial side of things is still being worked out. Aside from a $11,000 USAID grant, Diab and Jabbour are looking for other means of monetary support.
A corporate buffet for 100 people, for example, requires three cooks who are usually chosen based on their proximity to the client’s location. The NGO takes 20 percent of the proceeds to fund its operations.
Diab and Jabbour – who came up with the idea while at a social entrepreneurship workshop together – work relentlessly to keep the project afloat, and they are currently seeking to expand into other fields, such as knitting.
“We see how we changed their lives and how happy and self-sufficient they,” Jabbour said.
Once a shy, quiet woman, Itani agreed that the project has transformed her life, allowing her to have a wide network of people and “a strong personality.”
With a sparkle in her eyes, Itani said her children looked at her differently now that “they see how I am calculating expenses and revenues, how I use Google to look for new recipes and the mere fact that I succeeded.”
“We had financial problems at home, and I personally helped with that,” she said as she scrolled through pictures of her latest culinary creations on her phone. “We overcame so many crises.”
Although she speaks enthusiastically about her career, telling stories of the time when she spoke at cooking seminars and was awarded a computer, Itani recognizes that she was lucky to have the full support of her family.
“Even if the environment at her house is not supportive, a woman should try to convince her family and show them that she can work and succeed,” she said.
“Ambition has no age limit.”