Palestinian woman serves up success with café chain

Huda El-Jack acts as a role model for female entrepreneurs looking to assume a greater role in the West Bank economy.

By FELICE FRIEDSON / THE MEDIA LINE
March 7, 2011 19:02
Huda El-Jack

Zman 311. (photo credit: Media Line)

 
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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.

“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.”

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“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 Palestinian/Hollywood atmosphere.

“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 businesswomen.

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 brokerage firm.

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.

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