From Cuba to South Korea, the ‘Girls on the Road’ survey businesswomen worldwide

From Cuba to South Korea, the ‘Girls on the Road’ survey businesswomen worldwide

Two Brazilian filmmakers making a documentary on women entrepreneurs now put Israel and the Arab world under the lens

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Fernanda Moura and Taciana Mello in Jerusalem, August 29, 2017. (Courtesy/Rick Rachman)
Fernanda Moura and Taciana Mello in Jerusalem, August 29, 2017. (Courtesy/Rick Rachman)

Two Brazilian entrepreneurs and filmmakers, Taciana Mello and Fernanda Moura, have spent the last 13 months interviewing women entrepreneurs worldwide for an upcoming documentary film. For “The Founders Project,” they have spoken to businesswomen on five continents, from Cuba to South Korea. This week, they touched down in Israel.

“Israel, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, they have always been on our list since the beginning of the project,” Mello said. “It’s a very diverse ecosystem, and we want to see how this translates in the entrepreneurial field and the participation of women.”

After visiting Lebanon, Jordan and 18 other countries, the duo, who go by the moniker “The Girls on the Road,” outlined their findings and hopes for the project for a group of local women at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem on Tuesday night.

The women were invited to the Tower of David to support the museum’s innovation lab, which will be opening soon. Local entrepreneurs attended the meeting, hoping that the documentary could help inspire a younger generation of women in Jerusalem to enter the business world

“Jerusalem is a big city but it’s also very small. The tech community is small, we all know each other,” said Jerusalem City Council member Fleur Hassan-Nahum.

“Stories are how we get ideas,” she said. “You’re opening an amazing door.”

Internationally, women entrepreneurs setting up businesses face obstacles related to sexism, especially when it comes to acquiring funding and networking, they said. They face cultural barriers, such as expectations that they will take care of children, especially in more conservative societies like Japan. Countries that provide infrastructure for women, like accessible daycare, have a lower barrier for entrepreneurship.

The presence of female role models in the business world is also crucial, they said. Providing these role models by telling women’s stories is one of the main goals of their project.

“You cannot be what you don’t see,” Mello said.

The effort to level the playing field is also critical for the global economy, Mello said, citing a study by the McKinsey Global Institute that found that “$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality.”

Across cultures, women have to prove themselves as entrepreneurs more than men usually do, they said. Potential funders, when approached by a man, usually think about what kind of entrepreneur the individual could be, but when approached by a woman, they think about whether or not the woman can be an entrepreneur at all, Mello said. They noted that they struggled to find funding for their own documentary.

Mello and Moura will be interviewing secular and ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli and Palestinian women over the next couple of weeks in Jerusalem and central Israel. The environment is an especially diverse one for the project, they said, with ultra-modern Tel Avivians and more traditional Jerusalemites both involved in entrepreneurship.

“We have been to countries that are very uniform, homogeneous, like Japan, China,” Mello said. “The Jewish, the Palestinians, so many immigrants here, we really have the expectation that this will translate into a very vibrant and innovative ecosystem and we also want to see what women are doing and contributing to this environment.”

Taciana Mello and Fernanda Moura, the “Girls on the Road,” in Seoul, South Korea. (Courtesy)

Israeli women’s service in the military is a unique facet of the high tech scene that the two women are interested in. It could be especially important in giving Israeli women an opportunity to network before they enter the professional world. Networking comes more naturally to men in most cultures, Mello said, and can be a significant barrier to women.

“They will have lots of connections because they were in the military. The network they’re going to be with through these two years will be very fundamental when they’re developing their business,” Moura said.

The women will also interview female entrepreneurs in Gaza via Skype while they are in Israel. The interviews, set up by the Gaza-based incubator Gaza Sky Geeks, will include women who have developed apps and own small businesses, like bakeries. Entrepreneurship does not necessarily involve high tech, the women stressed, and can include culinary, medical and cultural businesses.

Arab entrepreneurs are exploiting a lack of Arabic language content in different fields to open businesses.

“For lots of platforms, there’s a lack of content in the Arabic language, so they are filling this gap and building lots of businesses that we can see in English and French and other languages but not in Arabic,” Mello said.

Many of the Arab women they have met are highly educated and driven despite their conservative cultures. Prior to visiting Israel, the duo spent time in Amman and Beirut.

“Of course they know, especially in Jordan, they recognize that they still have more of a conservative society, that women still have to struggle with some basic things, but what we see is an attitude and an effort to change these values,” Moura said.

Presenting girls from more traditional societies with positive role models in the business world is especially important, she said.

Countries that are more favorable to female entrepreneurs have a better infrastructure to support them, like in Norway, where new parents receive 30 weeks of leave after having a child. The time can be divided between the mother and the father, allaying employers’ concerns about losing female employees for too long during maternity leave.

Cultural differences also play a major role. Traditional societies can inhibit entrepreneurship for women by prescribing them certain roles, like in Japan, where women they interviewed often considered themselves bad mothers for devoting so much time to their business, Mello said. Cuba, surprisingly, is a favorable environment for women, they said, because there is relatively balanced participation for men and women in the workplace.

In Cuba, “they grew up knowing they could be as much as men could be so they have this attitude that’s essential for entrepreneurship,” Mello said.

After filming in Israel, Moura and Mello will visit Africa and India. They plan to release the documentary in March or April, and screen the finished film in the cities they visited. Eventually, they plan to release the film on streaming platforms for audiences worldwide and in the future do a web series on the first steps of opening a business and finding funding.

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