This interview was with Yomna El-Sheridy, who is the head of the Special Food Industry International and the president of the Business Women Association in Egypt. She started out as a pharmacist, which led her to travel abroad and work for multinational company. There, she was interested in the economical side of production and was assigned tasks accordingly. During her time in the United States, Yomna was one of the first women to hold the position of developing pharmaceutical products for the Middle East. She was also posted in Greece, where she lived for four years, and later came back to the Middle East. Gaining experience along the way, Yomna became very knowledgeable and interested in the business side of her field – the pharmaceutical industry. She states, “I gained a lot of experience in how to launch a product, how to brand it, what kind of efforts are needed to start business.” After her return to Egypt, Yomna decided to start her own business instead of getting a regular job in a company. Furthermore, because of being a mother, she was interested in the health of newborns and children, so she launched Gerber in Egypt and started importing baby food, which became her first business that lasted twelve years.
Sadly, she had to let go of this first business due to a series of unfortunate events that took place at the time. In the year 2000 was the first devaluation of the Egyptian pound, and accordingly prices sky rocketed and people looked elsewhere for the baby food. About this time, she said, “I slept and woke up; my business was gone, and it was a big loss.” Yomna decided to start over and not succumb to defeat. After some research, Yomna decided to switch her technique and instead of importing, she started exporting. Although she had no background in agriculture, she managed to acquire the knowledge needed and gain the skills required to start a new project exporting frozen strawberries. However, this was not the only business Yomna started from scratch, but rather the first from many. Although the frozen strawberry business proved fruitful, Yomna wanted to start something that had more demand. “I believe in demand, demand is the deciding factor on what kind of business one should start,” she explains. Accordingly, she started a new initiative, where she learned the olive business from planting to exportation. Although Egyptian olives were not well known, Yomna’s foresight allowed her to see the potential of what they could become. Consequently, with a little persistence and patience, she was able to make a name for them, to the extent that she would later be able to export them to twenty different countries.
The successful life that Yomna has led did not come easily, but rather it required a lot of hard work, farsightedness, and ambition to be able become the businesswoman and leader she is today. Yomna spoke at length about her journey, the challenges with which she was faced, and what she had to overcome and learn to achieve her growing dream. One of the major challenges that she mentioned is the fact that what people learn in school is different than what they encounter in real life. On this point, she states, “there is no school that will make you a businesswoman/businessman, you have to teach yourself through trial and error, which is a huge hurdle on its own.” She also talked about how a strong assertive character is essential for any woman who wants to succeed. When asked about any struggle she faced as a woman in her daily life, she instead elaborated on the crucial need for a strong character and ambition. She said, “if any girl has ambition and a goal, she will be able to get what she wants without hiding behind the fact of being a woman. She can really be more assertive.”
As a woman leader, Yomna also elaborated on gender inequality at the different stages of her life. Although she did not mention any particular situation where she was faced with gender bias, there were times when Yomna felt that life was harsher on a woman than on a man, such as the period of childbearing. She says, “the childbearing age, when a woman has to be a mom and responsible for a family, limits her ambition to a certain extent. It occurs at the same exact time for a man to travel, follow his ambitions, and achieve all that he wants.” Despite the fact that Yomna was affected by this personally, she was able to navigate around it by adapting to the situation and find the means to succeed at last. Being a role model to her family is also very important to Yomna, just like her family supported her as child with no limitations, she would like to raise her kids and grandkids with the same demeanor.
Giving back to society is very essential to Yomna. In 1999, she stablished the Businesswomen of Egypt 21 to be able to motivate and support other women leaders, something which was lacking in Egyptian society at the time. Additionally, there were other programs and initiatives by the Businesswomen of Egypt. One example is Women for Success, which is a program started seven years ago to be able to better the image of women and give them the confidence they need to succeed, which was something that the political Islam wave was trying to diminish. They also started the BWE website to promote female products and to attract and ease the path for other women leaders.
During the time of the Coronavirus, all of Yomna’s skills were tested and she had to confront multiple challenges on many fronts. Her business suffered a huge decrease in exporting, and her association meetings were limited to Zoom instead of in person. Nonetheless, with perseverance and belief in her message, she has been able to hold through these hard times, and both her business and association remained open every day. In everything, she says, “It’s all about having the right attitude.”