Nathan Rauh-Bieri

How Does Economic Empowerment Happen? (Part 2): Tracking the progress of five female entrepreneurs as they take part in a fellowship and grow their businesses

Isabelle L. Mevs is the co-founder and CEO of Stars Industries S.A. (SISA), a food company that manufactures a wide variety of products particularly hot sauce using local Haitian ingredients.

“I went to university in Puerto Rico and came back to Haiti to work at my family business. In 2012 my cousin and I started our business by producing hot sauce. My husband loves hot sauce, but I was always buying imported products rather than local. So we started working on a Haitian brand of hot sauce.

“What attracted me to the (Vital Voices) program is that it is for women, it is growth-focused and it is a personalized approach. Being able to interact with (trainers) and ask any questions is an extraordinary opportunity. The networking in the program is also an opportunity to learn more and be part of a dynamic community.

“One of our main challenges is organizing suppliers. We use four very small farms, and when you need a large volume of supplies it is a challenge to gather what you need. Also, coming from a more privileged background, the farmers tend to see me as an outsider or someone trying to take advantage of them. It is a matter of going back to basics. Practically our entire first year, we lost a lot of time trying to develop trust and a business relationship. We pay higher for the merchandise because we believe empowering them will ensure an increase in supply.

“The agro sector is especially risky business – we have hurricanes and unpredictable weather in Haiti, which makes us vulnerable on the financing market. Banks are very cautious to take a risk in that sector, making financing expensive. Political instability is also a challenge. When there are political problems, access to certain regions of the country is very difficult, causing delays in the supplies from farmers. And I am a shy person, so networking has been a challenge for me personally.

“I have ambitious goals and dreams for our business. I am hoping that this program will help me gain the skills needed and be prepared to face the challenges and break the barriers. I am hoping to build a plan and a growth strategy for my business. Our goal is to produce for the mass market – that’s where the volume is. Currently, 95 percent of the pepper sauce market is imported products and only 5 percent is local products. My company has 2.5 percent of the total market (half of the market for local hot sauce). We want to gain 10-12 percent of the market in the next year.”


Lina Khalifeh is the founder of and trainer at SheFighter, the first self-defense studio in Jordan designed to empower women both physically and psychologically though self-defense training.

“SheFighter is a self-defense studio, for women only. I founded the center in 2012, and we have trained about 10,000 women all over Jordan.

“Our studio focuses on psychological workshops as well as physical training. We provide these workshops from time to time and we talk about different aspects of women’s experiences, like domestic violence or street harassment. We do discussion groups. We speak about different problems women face in Jordan. So it’s not just a self-defense studio, it’s like a community where everybody feels like they can share their story, they can become stronger and build confidence. It’s a place where they feel empowered.

“We are for-profit and at the same time we do things for the society, like a nonprofit. We are both. We try to get funding in order to support different projects, but we have our studio and it’s for-profit. Sometimes we get speakers to speak about topics related to women’s empowerment, as well as we speak at different events. Awareness plus training – that’s the most important thing to empower women in Jordan.

“Challenges never stop. I faced a lot of problems in registering my business. Another challenge is finding trainers to train. At the beginning I couldn’t do all the work by myself, so I had to hire trainers and nobody wanted to be involved in that kind of business. I kept positive all the time in order to succeed and continue in my journey. The mentality of women and men is still a challenge. The event coming up, I talked at it last year, and when I finished speaking, a bunch of men followed me and started threatening me (because of my efforts). That mentality. So, I’m going to face that again but I don’t care. They have to know that people are changing in this society. And I prefer to focus on all the people who support me in my business.

“I’ve heard that (Vital Voices) is really good about supporting women in business, as well as to share experiences with other participants, to connect to these other entrepreneurs, and help me develop my growth strategic plan and where to go next. I was looking for some help as well in finance and strategy and how to plan my franchise system.

“(From the program) I want to build more knowledge in business, because I consider myself new in the field of business. I want to know what to do when I’m in my growth plan. I’d say also, confidence in knowledge, especially in franchising. So (by the end of the fellowship), I’d say: A solid system in Jordan, a SheFighter building in Jordan, and then expanding to different countries with the same system. More clear awareness of where to go next. If I just understand how to franchise SheFighter, if I have a solid internal system, I can expand easily to different countries as well as different cities. I am looking in the future for 100 branches all over the world. I’m focusing on some regions, but if you ask me where I see it after six months, I’d say maybe we’ll get an opportunity to expand, because I’m mostly a really crazy risk-taker. That’s why I have an accountant – to stop me from doing crazy things.”


Claudia Esparza Patiño is the founder and general manager of Nanas & Amas, an employment agency in Lima, Peru, that connects families with trusted domestic workers; gives working mothers space to develop careers; promotes domestic work as a dignified job; and advocates for domestic workers’ rights.

“When I chose this kind of business, employment agencies here had a really bad reputation. Friends encouraged me to think about it, because it was not a ‘decent’ business. But I saw that as an opportunity. I wanted to do things different: Having people only with great recommendations, nannies with great backgrounds, exhaustively evaluated by psychologists. When we launched it, we received more than 100 applications asking for nannies in less than three days.

“It´s been six years, and now we are the most recognized employment agency in Lima. And I think this is not only because we are a serious business, but because we have something more important than our business itself: We are a team of women committed to improve other women’s opportunities.

“Here in Peru, 95 percent of domestic workers are female and, unfortunately, very discriminated (against). They are poor, they have no education, most of them didn’t finish high school, and many of them didn’t know how to read or write. I didn’t have the option to not do anything about it. Today we have a great platform to promote the respect of domestic workers’ rights. (But) we (still) have many societal challenges to change the way people treat and consider domestic workers, and the way domestic workers feel about themselves.

“So we decided to launch our corporate social responsibility project. Its name is Emprendedoras del Hogar (Female Home Entrepreneur). What we promote is not only the respect of domestic workers’ rights, but domestic work itself as a tool to build better life opportunities for women. How? If domestic workers work for maybe three years and in the same time they are allowed to study, make a career, in these three years, a woman changes her life opportunities for her and her family. We work with them so that they know that they are not meant to be domestic workers forever.

“If a business can improve a community, it’s great! Every business person has the opportunity to make little improvements, maybe big ones. I feel proud of that, and I want to encourage other businesspeople to start social improvements, too. We are preparing to copy this model of business-plus-NGO work in every Latin American country.

“(Vital Voices) shares many of the values we are promoting here – the power of women, that we should promote education for women. Being connected with them, I not only will improve myself and my business, but have a chance to make improvements here in my community. I really want to improve my leadership skills. It’s kind of a guided introspection, and it’s really great, because sometimes, when you are busy with your stuff, you don’t take the time to read your strengths and your weaknesses, too, and how you can improve them.”

“We are working to open Nanas & Amas in other Latin American countries. This year we are planning to open a third business here in Lima. At the end of the fellowship, we are opening our first office abroad – maybe Mexico, maybe Chile. At the end of next year, we should be in three more countries.”


The ExxonMobil Foundation is the primary philanthropic arm of Exxon Mobil Corporation in the United States, providing funding globally to improve basic education, promote women as catalysts for development, and combat malaria in developing countries.

Vital Voices Global Partnership invests in women leaders who improve the world. It partners with leaders from more than 140 countries who advance economic opportunity, increase political and public leadership, and seek to end violence against women.


Nathan Rauh-Bieri is program coordinator of education at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.


Education, Social Enterprise
skill development, social enterprise