Jordan ranks among the lowest countries in the world on the World Economic Forum’s measurement of women’s economic empowerment. This lack of economic empowerment tends to correspond to decreased political empowerment, with reduced levels of activities such as voting.
Although women represent over half of university graduates in Jordan, they constitute a paltry 16 percent of the workforce. More than 26 percent of Jordanian women with bachelor’s degrees remain unemployed, compared to just 9.1 percent of male graduates. However, women are finding ways to overcome barriers to their economic participation by starting their own businesses. The Jordan Times reported in February that 38% of all Jordanian entrepreneurs are women, exceeding the international average of women’s participation in the field.
Lina Hundaileh epitomizes this entrepreneurial spirit. After the German company where she worked closed down their Jordan office, Lina decided to create her own job by opening a chocolate factory. She was not deterred by her lack of experience in running a business or making chocolate. It did not faze her when others laughed at her plan. She was determined to succeed and did not view failure as an option. And she loved chocolate.
Lina set about calling the embassies of several European countries to see if they could recommend any chocolate companies that might be interested in a joint venture. She wrote letters to every chocolate company she could find, until a Cyprus company responded. Lina impressed them with her business pitch and obvious determination, and they agreed to move forward with a deal. In need of $350,000 to make the deal work, she contacted friends and took out loans until she raised the required capital. Production at the Philadelphia Chocolate Factory started in 1992.
Along the way, Lina experienced fierce competition from well-established chocolate multinationals. She had to overcome the perception of many Jordanians that locally-produced chocolates were inferior to imported ones. But she did not back down from the struggle, and her chocolate plant grew to produce 2.5 tons and 40 varieties of chocolate per day. After the success of her first factory, Lina opened up a new chocolate factory, a franchise of a U.S. chocolate company, and a gummy bear factory. She also runs a consulting company that helps women and youth start businesses.
Lina has taken her own personal drive to succeed and applied it to improving the overall environment for women’s economic participation in Jordan. One way she does so is through her work with the Young Entrepreneurs’ Association (YEA), a long-time CIPE partner.
As YEA’s chair, Lina advocates to change Jordanian laws and shift cultural perceptions in ways that will promote an entrepreneurial culture and make starting businesses less challenging.
For instance, an International Finance Corporation (IFC) survey found that Jordanian women business owners ranked “balancing work and family” as their most challenging issue. To address this issue, Lina played an important role in the YEA initiative “Small Office, Home Office (SOHO),” which effectively advocated for changing municipal laws to allow women to work from home and receive a business license without signing a rent contract. Thanks to this initiative, more Jordanian women are able to start businesses.
YEA also advocates for legislative and regulatory reform on a number of issues of concern to all small- and medium-sized business owners, both men and women. For instance, YEA’s Small and Medium Business Agenda (SMBA) identifies policy recommendations that will improve the business environment for entrepreneurs and SMEs in six priority areas: access to finance; exports; education and training; innovation; government procurement; and taxation, customs, and duties.
Jordan has come along way, but there is more work to be done to reverse the negative trend of women’s economic marginalization. Business leaders like Lina show how women can empower themselves and others to become active participants in the Jordanian economy and society at large.
Peako Jenkins is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.