Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women from various sectors.
BEIRUT: Unlike many Lebanese who are queuing up outside foreign embassies to escape the country’s daily economic and security problems, Rana Chemaitelly insists she is staying in her homeland.
“I have been offered a green card twice, but I refused,” the successful entrepreneur proudly told The Daily Star.
“I will seize any business opportunity offered to me outside Lebanon just to support myself when I am in crisis here,” she added. “But I will never leave Lebanon.”
A mechanical engineer by training, Chemaitelly started her first company – a digital imaging business – in 1997. At the time, she was a pioneer in the field and competition was almost nonexistent, but that didn’t last forever. Seven years later, the market became saturated and, unable to upgrade her business in order to keep up with rivals, she shut it down. Her three children, she admits, were also a major factor.
But not wanting to stay home entirely, Chemaitelly returned to the American University of Beirut for a master’s degree in management.
“Even with the master’s degree, however, I felt that I had more time to give,” she said.
“So I offered to volunteer at the university. Instead they assigned me as [a job as] an instructor.”
In her part-time job in AUB’s engineering department, Chemaitelly soon realized that the students had little practical appreciation of the subjects they were studying.
“I saw that the generation at AUB was not very exposed to the real life. Students were still in academy and theory,” she said. “So I started thinking of ways to tailor a better environment where they can step to the world with more tools and experience. This is how I started with The Little Engineer.”
TLE is an “edutainment” initiative providing students as young as 6 years old with hands-on experience in selected scientific topics. It enhances children’s awareness of new technologies and stimulates their creativity through summer workshops and after-school activities.
One of Chemaitelly’s main inspirations was her son: “When I was offered [the chance] to teach a course in robotics at AUB, I checked the online resources and ordered a robot at home to practice before teaching. My son was fascinated by it and offered to work with me.”
“He was addicted to video games, but the moment I got the robot at home, he forgot completely about Nintendo and focused on the robot instead,” she added. “It clicked for me that this is very inspiring for young minds, so I opened a small club within four months and traveled to the States to get more experience and to ship the goods here.”
Chemaitelly’s venture started out as a one-woman show, and as so often in stories of female entrepreneurship, many people told her that it would be hard to handle such a project all alone while keeping a balance between work and her family.
“In fact, a lot of people thought that I was making all this effort for the sake of money, which was not the case at all,” she said. “I come from a financially stable family so all I wanted was to make an achievement that would benefit society.”
Chemaitelly’s persistence paid off, garnering her seven awards in just five years.
For her initiative and business plan, she was recognized as one of the region’s most promising entrepreneurs by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010. She was awarded the Coup de Coeur Femme by Medventures for the Mediterranean in 2010 in addition to the U.S. Embassy selecting her to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program 2011. She was also selected by the Cartier Women Initiative to be the laureate for the MENA region in 2011, and in October 2012, she received the Green Mind Award in Education.
Chemaitelly has so far managed to expand her business to Libya and Qatar, and she is currently negotiating with potential franchisees in Britain, the Gulf, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia.
“It is a winning concept that is well received and known all around the world,” she said. “I was in London last month, and they told me I could do big business there.”
Chemaitelly’s advice to women is to focus on their education: “Life is not easy, and you don’t know how the wheel will turn on you.”
For her, a female entrepreneur should be passionate about what she is doing: “She has to persevere, and she has to be very determined.”
Chemaitelly believes that Lebanon has seen a boom in female entrepreneurship since 2010.
“Even if you go to banks today you notice that most of the managers there are women,” she said. “Women nowadays are relying more on their own resources to satisfy their needs.”
Yet she thinks Lebanese women still need to make more effort to fight for their rights. One of the most insulting injustices for women in the country, she says, is their inability to pass their Lebanese nationality on to their children.
She says she has plans to work on gender imbalance issues such as these and expects women to be able to achieve enormous amounts if they put their mind to it.
“We can work in a very strategic way to impose on the government whatever we want.”