In this interview, Mariana Maher—co-owner of a coworking space—talks about both her professional and personal life. She also answers gender-related questions regarding women’s work in Egyptian society, and about the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on her business.
Marianna graduated from the Faculty of Law but did not work in the field. She instead worked in marketing and sales, then human resources (HR). Her brother, Mina, started the project First Step, a coworking space particularly focused on serving children and young adults. They currently operate two branches in Giza.
Mariana started her career in sales early on, when she was eighteen years old, while studying for her degree. She says that she particularly enjoys working with people face-to-face, hence her choice of career path. She asserts that her family, especially her father, were always supportive of her work at such a young age, despite their anxiety over her, an anxiety she respects but does not succumb to. She states that she has always felt that she was independent and should not wait for financial support from her family even though they never withheld it. She also says that she has always felt different from more traditional girls, as she does not devote much time to her looks but is more inclined towards work.
Regarding her work in sales, Mariana states that sales managers usually prefer employing girls, and that this is a kind of exploitation, and that they do not care enough about the products they are promoting. They teach girls how to smile and how to act, not giving them ample information to digest about the products themselves and how to sell them to everybody, not to a select group of people. She says that some women resort to this job when in financial need, not out of enjoyment. Mariana states that her father was her first teacher in sales, as he was also a salesperson, but when she started to work, she was shocked to see how sales managers ask women to deal with customers, as in teaching them to deal with customers in vague ways, like saying to deal with them “nicely,” which is a given. Why, then, are they overly emphasizing it? She also asserts that most sales managers are men who do not support girls’ promotions into sales managers like them and prefer them to stay in the same positions. Mariana has no objection to employing girls as salespeople but says they must also be supported and promoted to become sales managers as well.
As for the beginning of her project with her brother Mina, Mariana says he had always loved all things related to children and childhood, so he bought a store in Haram and turned it into a coworking space, where children and young adults come to study. She decided to help him in his project, until they started looking for a bigger place. That is when she had to quit her stable job and free herself for that project. She describes her decision as “difficult,” and asserts that she is used to taking her decisions by herself, without waiting for her family’s approval and thanks her family for giving her this space to make decisions independently. What encouraged her to quit her job was closely encountering young people aged 17–25 years old and getting the impression that they are different. The founders follow a “Help Yourself” model of operating their business, where customers make their own food and drinks and clean up after themselves. Mariana is considering taking her project to Cairo, and really likes the “Help Yourself” concept. She also said that she previously owned a small sewing project but did not pursue it further due to health reasons. She believes that money is not the deciding factor when it comes to business, but perseverance. Business owners may find themselves working double the hours because they must be fully aware of all aspects of their work, says Mariana.
Mariana believes that there is a difference between men and women at work. She says that when women are properly trained, they excel. But men, in her personal experience, need some sort of “strong push” to give their best. She also states that men have a problem with the idea that their manager is a woman. In a related vein to gender too, she said some companies ask women about their marital status explicitly during interviews, which shook her a lot, until she started her own business. Then, she noticed that some women who get engaged or start relationships who work with her begin to neglect the duties of their jobs. She wishes she could confront them with this fact, and wonders if they think their lives are going to waste.
When asked about problems women entrepreneurs face, Mariana said the fact that many people in Egyptian society do not believe women can have their own business is an impediment to their development. Technicians, for instance, would rather deal with a man. Mariana, however, believes that women themselves are the only ones able to assert their authority. Her advice to women in general is for them to see themselves as fully capable human beings, and that they are no less than men in any way. She also says women need not worry excessively about the steps they take and to take responsibility for each step, while making sure her time is properly managed between work and domestic duties. When asked about her dreams, she said she hopes to be able to help anybody realize their own dream and said she would not consider herself an entrepreneur before that happens.
As for the novel coronavirus pandemic, Mariana said it was a difficult period for her, as she loves people, and particularly enjoys working closely with others. Therefore, it was an overall negative experience for her, but she noticed that people quickly adapted to the new normal and children started to return to the coworking space, with new rules she asserts they learned quickly.