RAMALLAH -- When Huda El-Jack speaks, it’s with more than an American accent. She exudes an American entrepreneurial drive that she has brought to the Palestinian Authority and, in her own energetic way, she’s paving a path for Palestinian women to assume a greater role in the economy.
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“There's definitely a glass ceiling like in the rest of the world,” El-Jack says over a cup of rich coffee served up in her Zman coffee shop in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “First of all, women here are expected to be traditional wives, overall. She still has to cook. You don't have the support system of daycare centers like you have in the US.”
“When I take a look at the environment, there are so many obstacles, overwhelming sometimes. What has kept Palestinians going is inner dynamism. Palestinian women are known for having this inner dynamism,” El-Jack said.
Warm and cozy, red roses on each table, and photos of Arab silver screen
celebrities adorning the walls, the Zman coffee shop is a trendy and
popular meeting place in the bustling city of Ramallah. Housed in a
modern stone building, it serves its own premium brand in a chic
“We respect diversity. We thrive by diversity. You’ll see some people
here with a bottle of wine that’s open and you’ll see some people who
are very conservative,” said El-Jack.
Married to a Palestinian and of part-Palestinian decent herself, El-Jack
was born in Sudan and brought up in the US. She studied computer
science and worked in information technology for big US companies.
Setting up home in the West Bank with her husband and two children in
2003, El-Jack enrolled in the Kellogg program, a masters in business
administration course run jointly by Israel’s Tel Aviv University and
Northwestern of the US.
Upon graduation and now in her forties, she opted to become an entrepreneur.
El-Jack partnered with two prominent Palestinian businessmen to open
Zman in December 2008. Since then, she has opened a second shop, making
it not only the first coffee chain in the West Bank, but the first
business chain of any kind owned by a woman. It’s become a model for
business opportunities where Palestinian women can make their mark.
Doha Wadi, the executive director of the Businesswomen’s Forum, said
El-Jack was remarkable for her style and dynamism of her enterprise.
This is a change for conservative Palestinian society. According to
Wadi, only 2.4% of registered Palestinian businesses are owned by women.
Currently, there are some 60 members of the Palestinian Businesswomen’s
Forum and their number is growing.
“People can look at Huda and at her style that is different,” Wadi told
The Media Line. “They see the young people she has brought into
business. It is what sets her off and differentiates her from the
others. She’s opened two branches, which hasn’t been done before.”
There is also a huge dichotomy in the Palestinian areas where women in
Ramallah, the economic hub of the West Bank, speak about mergers and
acquisitions, and outlying villages where women with barely a grammar
school education have no access to the Internet. Only about 10% of women
in the Palestinian territories participate in the labor force and that
is mostly in education. Unemployment for women is between 30% and 40%
and even worse among highly educated women.
On the whole, women are socially and culturally allowed to go to school
and colleges, but in order to be better wives. It is much more
culturally difficult to go into business, let alone becoming a business
leader, which is why El-Jack is such an inspiration for her fellow
According to El-Jack, Palestinian businesswomen own advertising,
printing shops and marketing firms. There are several women who also own
restaurants, work in the telecommunications and pharmaceutical
industries and at least one who is the general manager of a stock
El-Jack said the tumultuous period of the second intifada when Israeli
security action against terrorism cracked down hard on the Palestinian
society and economy in an ironic way help open opportunities for women.
“Looking at women's role in micro-businesses, you'll see they are
growing even faster because men, typically, are used to working at
companies. Palestinians are entrepreneurs, but there are only so many
entrepreneurs you can have. Most of them worked in Israel. When that
shut down, it was very difficult for the men to find work so the women
started doing things like opening a little concession stand, or baking,
or doing catering. Women had to adapt more and they didn't feel like
they had barriers on what they could do that were home-based
businesses,” she said.
“Women in hospitality was unheard of before Zman,” El-Jack said. “Half
of our management is women. We want women. We will train them, young
girls. Most of them are university students and this is a part-time job
for them. We want to grow them in management.”
Asked where she got her ideas, El-Jack didn’t have to look far.
“Israeli coffee chains have been able to hold off international brands
from flooding their market. What they did is that they took the idea of a
coffee shop and they localized it. We did the same thing,” she said.
“Somebody asked me, 'Is this inspired by Starbucks?' It's inspired by
all of them but really by the neighbors, the Israeli coffee shops really
helped me how to figure out how to localize it.”
Just two years into business, Zman employs some 35 people and El-Jack
estimated the value of her company at $1.5 million. Now, she is
negotiating to extend her Zman franchise to Jerusalem.
“In Jerusalem, we have the same goal—to bring people together. And we're
going to position it in a way where you'll have Israelis, Palestinians,
tourists, internationals, everybody coming in,” she said, adding they
also had ambitions to take it to other countries.
“We’ve been approached to open in Haifa, Nazareth and even Tel Aviv,” she added, naming a few Israeli cities.
The name of her chain is Zman, Arabic for time. And it seems her timing was right.