The following is an excerpt from "Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference in the Arab World," by Nafeesa Syeed and Rahilla Zafar, published by and copyright Knowledge@Wharton, 2014.
After her first daughter’s birth, Sally Sabry received a nursing cover from her cousin in the United States. Sabry thought it was better than covering up with a shawl or using a bottle, as most Egyptian women did when feeding their infants in public. But the covers were uncommon, and the few who knew about them had to depend on someone bringing the apron-like wraps from abroad. Sabry, the new mother, approached her old friend Doaa Zaki with the question: Why not make a nursing cover in Egypt?
Since introducing breastfeeding covers to the Egyptian market in 2006, these friends turned business partners have sold thousands through stores and online with their Cairo-based company, Best Mums. They have expanded their product line to include nursing pillows, baby bedding, nappy wallets [diaper bags], and girls’ prayer sets. As they aim to bring to Egypt practical and affordable items that make mothering easier, they are keeping a keen eye on the design and caliber of their items. They’re proud of using all local material and elevating homegrown goods. “Here we have the idea that if it’s Egyptian, it’s the worst,” says Sabry, now 28. “When you buy, you try to search for anything imported, not Egyptian. Egyptian is the poorest. We tried to make a brand with high quality — and it’s Egyptian.”
This ties in with their hope of creating employment opportunities, the 27-year-old Zaki says, especially in a period of Egypt’s struggling economy. At the same time, they say they’re defying stereotypes of women who wear the niqab, as they choose to do, showing that rather than being mute, they are active in their pursuits and in their desire to impact their surroundings.
Neither Sabry nor Zaki intended to go into business. They met a decade ago during a religious lecture given by a sheikh. While most of the crowd was straight-faced, the two were giggling teenaged girls. From then, they became inseparable. Sabry later went to study architecture, and Zaki went into dentistry. Sabry married first and had two daughters; Zaki wedded after and now has two sons. When the idea of the nursing covers first emerged, Zaki, then in her final year at Ain Shams University, went to the teeming textile district around Al Azhar Street in old Cairo to collect material for their prototype. Working with a tailor, they made four nursing covers modeled after the one Sabry had gotten from overseas, and then sold those to friends in one sitting. They spent a lot of time (not to mention their own money) getting the end product right, visiting numerous shops to narrow down the appropriate fabric, and testing samples on themselves and their friends. “There were many mistakes at first,” Sabry says. “We learned the textile was very heavy; then we knew we should make it soft.” They opted for 100 percent cotton, which they say is better for babies. It also took them time to find tailors, and tried out many until they found the ones who could deliver the high standards they sought.
Meanwhile, Best Mums had to explain the utility of its product to prospective consumers and sellers. “It took time to be known,” Sabry says. The women created a logo and took out ads in magazines, went to baby fairs and bazaars and family sports clubs, and created a popular Facebook page. A relative of Sabry’s whose father owns the Love and Care chain of stores, initially took a dozen nursing covers for the shops. Sabry and Zaki spread the word first among friends, and soon the chain started asking for larger quantities to stock up on. The women also got help from a friend’s husband who sells breast pumps to stores; he took some of the nursing covers along with him to his clients. And when the women passed by shops selling baby supplies, they would approach the owners and pitch their product.
They now work with a factory that produces 500 covers every few months, which go out to about 10 shops in Cairo and Alexandria. They also have individual resellers in Suez and elsewhere in the country, and amass sales on their website. “I think the one who most encouraged us was Sally’s father,” Zaki says, noting they absorbed his advice at each interval, since he and Sabry’s uncle also own a business. “Then the second one was my husband, I have to say that,” Zaki says. “He helped me a lot, in every way, I think.” Her husband never told her she shouldn’t go to certain areas or neighborhoods for her work, instead assisting her in finding marketing resources and even helping her take the coverings to shops. (Sabry says that in the beginning, her husband didn’t want her to go the densely crowded Al Azhar area, but “later on, khalas, ‘It’s okay; no problem, go, go!’”)
Besides being a product, nursing covers seem to serve a higher purpose, too. Because they’re easy to use, women are more motivated to breastfeed, which Zaki says is better for children. As she and Sabry were developing the covers, they consulted more than one Islamic sheikh, concerned whether it would be permissible to use the covers in public spaces, since their colors tended to be bright. Religious leaders told them, in fact, that it was a good idea, because it reinforced the notion of modest covering, especially of the awra, or private areas of the body, which they believe must be concealed before other women as well as male relatives. The women’s covers are accessible, too, since they are priced from 70 EGP ($11.60), compared to at least US$30 bought from abroad.
For all that their business has grown, it’s still a hands-on undertaking for Sabry and Zaki. They continue to buy the textiles, transport the material to the tailors, and pick up the orders. Before the merchandise is ready for retail, the women individually pack each nursing cover. At her home, Sabry demonstrates how she rapidly folds the cardboard package, a task that she could now do blindfolded. Their families also help out. “We use everyone in the family,” Sabry says. Zaki describes the scene at her house: “Sometimes, when I make these boxes, I bring it out in my living room, and you can’t find anything to sit in.” Because she has continued with her dentistry practice, there are times when she must take orders to her clinic, if the covers have to be dropped somewhere nearby. The women hope at some point to be able to hire more staff to take on these roles.
The women are also eager to fulfill their goal of contributing to their country. “It’s a bigger idea to help Egypt,” Zaki says, likening their job to charity work that runs deeper than mere financial gain. Maybe it can be a way to prevent the many unemployed youth and men and women from sitting without work, she says. “After what happened in Egypt, I hope we can help our society.”
Though they’re the kind of friends who can finish each other’s sentences, the two women have distinct dispositions, which carry over into their roles in running their business. “Sally has a little bit more forward-dreaming,” Zaki says. With her arts and design background, the subtle yet discerning Sabry makes the call on the colors and patterns. The breastfeeding covers are season-themed in different sizes, under names like “Summer Garden” (with flashy green- and blue-petaled flowers) and “Dark Night” (with white lace against solid black). She takes pictures of the products, edits them in Photoshop (which she taught herself how to use), and posts them on the company website, for which she’s responsible. Sabry displays the notebooks she fills up whenever a new idea pops into her head.
If Sabry oversees the creative aspect of the operation, she says Zaki heads the management and money. When Sabry wanted to buy additional textiles or extra patterns, Zaki would put her foot down. “She used to say, ‘No, we can’t buy now, we don’t have money’... and she used to hide money from me,” Sabry recalls with a chuckle. Zaki, who is highly expressive and energetic, is responsible for the orders and inventory. She gets excited when orders come in, telling Sabry, “I have to make it now!” Promptness and deadlines are critical for her. As the covers come in from the factory, she counts them piece by piece. She recently juggled her second pregnancy with her Best Mums work as well as maintaining her daily clinic shift and completing her higher dental diploma. A former Egyptian fencing champion who competed internationally, Zaki says this has always been her nature. “I can’t sleep when I have a task, so I have to finish my task to get sleep.”
On her laptop, Sabry scrolls through myriad Facebook pages and websites of other women who have started small businesses here. “I think [for] women there’s nothing wrong if she works and she makes something,” Sabry says. Seeing Best Mums’ success, other women have told Sabry and Zaki that they, too, want to start an enterprise and have asked for their help, but both stress that a strong work ethic and serious commitment are needed to get running. They say that thanks to better education and other factors there has been a shift from the generation of their mothers, who were dedicated to raising their families but didn’t work outside the home. “I think our mothers, they didn’t have the idea that they would have their own business, but now many women are doing business,” Sabry says.It’s also created an economic boost for some women. In the beginning, Zaki says she saw Best Mums as a side project, and they didn’t think so much about the financial profit. But she’s been surprised as their business has flourished, and says the extra income ended up helping her family when her husband lost his job for six months and when they needed to buy a car.
Being business owners who happen to wear face veils in public, Sabry and Zaki say they are turning perceptions upside down. In Egypt, “they think you are from there,” Zaki says, gesturing to the distance, “not from here.” Stereotypical images of women in niqab have them shuttered at home or out on a camel, she says. The line of questioning that she faces usually goes like this (the questioner’s voice tinged with disbelief): Are you working? Are you a dentist? Are you driving? Even her family didn’t at first accept her donning the niqab. “So you know we have to prove that it’s not a hindrance,” she says. “We are helping mothers and working.” Zaki notes that Christians staff the main textile shop with which they partner. She says with all that’s happened in Egypt, including tensions along religious lines, this is a sign of positive relations between the faiths. She gets calls from the Christian shopkeeper informing her of new color arrivals, and he sometimes helps them make choices, and even gives them discounts. “These are good relations,” she says. “And we are not closed.”
The way people judge niqab wearers, it’s as though you don’t think, as though “you are very gahla, ignorant,” Sabry says. She notes in a decisive tone: “Even before wearing niqab, I wanted to work. I mean, it was in my mind, I wasn’t closed, that I have to get married and sit at home or anything. I mean I want to have a goal and make it, inshallah.” In her notebook, Sabry has detailed the three main objectives for the business in the new year, but with competitors now cropping up and copying their products and approach, she won’t reveal her plans for brand building. However, she says she hopes Best Mums will continue to spread to the corners of Egypt, and one day will be like Mothercare, the British retailer, with a large shop for kids. “I want to prove that we can make something, we can be something in this world and benefit other people,” she says.