The Women Leading Lebanon’s Startups

Beirut is rapidly shaping up as a crucial player in the region’s startup scene. Venture spoke to four Lebanese female entrepreneurs who have made major headway in Lebanon, the region, and even the world with their startups and creations.    

By Dina Al Wakeel

The Lebanese economy is mired in problems. Growth and consumer and investor confidence continue to be held back by regional instability and a long-standing local political impasse.

Still, the Lebanese are a resilient bunch, with an abundance of potential and innovation. A positive development for all Lebanese startups has been a recent Central Bank decision to unlock $400 million for startup investments. This move, coupled with a serious attempt to create a tech hub in Beirut, will boost Lebanese startups’ competitive edge.

Here, Venture features four diverse Lebanese entrepreneurs, all of whom are women, for creating a successful business in a strenuous environment, for acting as a boon to the local, and in some cases even regional and global, economy, and the arduous task they still have ahead to maintain their success.

Today we feature Chantal Abou Jaoude, the Cofounder and Managing Partner at EDGE and EDGE Middle East.

As part of a mechanical engineering course at the American University of Beirut, Chantal Abou Jaoude spent a summer in Germany interning with Maschinenbau Haldenwang, a major manufacturer of automobile servicing equipment.

Before returning home, Abou Jaoude negotiated with Maschinenbau Haldenwang’s sales manager to allow her to distribute the company’s products in Lebanon. “So at the age of 21, with one tough year left to complete at university, zero capital, and a very challenging and specialized industry to discover, I started my own company with the support of my brother, who remains my indispensible partner,” she said.

Abou Jaoude’s company provides customized and standard solutions for vehicle service and repair facilities, private workshops, repair centers for organizations with fleets, and governmental vehicle inspection centers.

The company has evolved from selling a specific line of products from one sole manufacturer to providing comprehensive solutions for vehicle workshops and inspection centers. Edge Middle East represents more than 12 European and US manufacturers in Lebanon and Iraq.

For Abou Jaoude, the opportunity to enter into the Iraqi market was so irresistible that couldn’t be passed up. “Despite the instability, alarming security conditions, and corruption, I could only see Iraq as a too-tempting-to-ignore blue ocean,” she said. “Market penetration was indeed tricky, but it was made easier by partnering up with a trustworthy Iraqi friend and coordinating with a dependable head technician who were willing to jump in.”

According to Abou Jaoude, who now visits Iraq every 6 to 8 weeks, one major achievement was introducing the periodic technical inspection, especially to the rural areas of Kurdistan, through the development of high-end inspection centers.

Today, her customers in Iraq include official service centers such as Mercedes Benz and Bridgestone, government-certified vehicle inspection centers, especially in Kurdistan, as well as organizations with fleets like North Oil Company, North Gas Company, and the American Embassy.

But Abou Jaoude makes double the effort to gain her customers’ respect in an industry that’s largely dominated by men. If the primary contact with customers is by e-mail, she said, then they always assume that she is a man, addressing her as ‘Mr. Chantal.’ Then when the first meeting takes place, the clients are usually shocked to see that she’s a woman.

Besides the common challenges faced by most entrepreneurs in the region, including the political, economic, and security instability, the high level of corruption dominating business practices in both the public and private sectors pose a particular challenge for Abou Jaoude.

The underdeveloped automotive industry also presents its own challenges. “There is little awareness on road transport safety and the vast majority is focused on a car’s esthetics while neglecting safety and functionality,” she said. “There are also no standards set for service centers and workshops, which render upgrading or investing in quality equipment and solutions more of a relaxed choice rather than a professional obligation.”

Yet, despite the drastic security and economic situation, the company’s annual sales have witnessed a three-fold increase since they first started in Iraq in 2010.

Abou Jaoude hopes to expand her work into other markets in the region and in Central Africa, as well as expanding the scope of her work to include more activities. To do so, she might consider external funding, something she has so far managed to steer away from, particularly in light of the new drive in Lebanon to support SMEs.

For Abou Jaoude, work has helped trigger her creativity and hone her skills. “It has shaped up the biggest part of the person I am today and I perfectly agree with the founder of BestBuzz that ‘entrepreneurship is not a part-time job and it is not even a full-time job, it’s a lifestyle’.”