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Women-only businesses thrive in Beirut

A Lebanese woman taxi driver stands by her car outside the office of 'Banet Taxi' (Girls Taxi) in Mtaileb, northeast of Beirut.

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Kai Ryssdal: For women in the Middle East, finding a place in business has never been the easiest thing. In Lebanon, though, entrepreneurial women have had the official support of the government. Laws that were passed in the early 1990s, after the civil war ended, designed to improve their professional prospects. In the nearly 20 years since, Lebanese women have been catching up slowly. The most recent development is an industry by women for women. Don Duncan reports from Beirut.


DON DUNCAN: There's a revolution in the streets of Beirut, and it's hot pink!

Banet Taxi is a new cab service for women. Its name in Arabic means "Girl Taxi" and all 12 of its cars are painted pink.

NAWAL FAKHRI: I can offer my clients a feminine atmosphere in which to travel. You can see from the drivers -- clean, elegant, professional.

That's owner Nawal Fakhri. Her office is abuzz with drivers -- all women in white shirts, with pink ties and pink flowers in their hair. If you're a guy, they won't stop for you unless you're traveling with a woman. Since launching in March, these "Pink Ladies" have been turning heads all over Beirut.

RANDA BDEIR: I felt it was a very nice idea.

Randa Bdeir is one of Banet Taxi's customers. She's also an executive at Lebanon's largest bank, Bank Audi, and was responsible for the launch of Lebanon's first women-only credit card. Bdeir has noticed similar ventures popping up all over the country, like women-only gyms, and even women plumbers.

Bdeir: Women are an essential part of the society and the economy, especially for spending. What matters for us in the credit-card business is spending.

So Bdeir launched "Shine Card," a credit card with a special feature for the Lebanese lady. One side of the card is a mirror.

Bdeir: The women can put on her lipstick by looking at herself in the card and after finishing, handing this card to the waiter at the restaurant to pay for the bill.

The mirror card is now one of the most profitable cards in Bank Audi's portfolio.

The American University of Beirut is home to Lebanon's top business school, and these days more than half of its students are women. Dean of the school, George Najjar, says he sees many of them coming up with business ideas to provide goods or services specifically for women.

George Najjar: You see that in terms of the issues raised in classrooms, in terms of the research projects pursued. We are moving very fast towards a world of equality where women are given their due. And this is nobody's favor, they have earned it.

Taxi owner Nawal Fakhri is poised to collect her dues this summer. Lebanon is expected to bring in a lot of tourists. And 30 percent of them come from conservative Gulf states, where women are forbidden to travel with any man other than male relatives. Those female tourists are prime candidates for Fakhri's pink taxis.

Fakhri: I'm not building my business on tourism. Lebanon is just too unstable to depend on it. But the women who come here from the Gulf, they're certainly a bonus for me.

Fakhri says her fleet will double by the end of summer. And she expects to recoup her initial $200,000 investment by the end of this year. Not bad for what started as a flash of pink.

In Beirut, I'm Don Duncan for Marketplace.

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"Pink thinking" - or marketing very visibly to women - is a sure sign that the culture is beginning to let businesses really serve women (and not just as lip service). The U.S. was at this stage about ten years ago, where the first brands out of the gate to want to market to women put "for women" or used pink packaging. It serves a purpose - announcing that formerly very male-dominated realms (like Taxis) are committing to the women's market. The instances/businesses mentioned in this segment seem to indicate that more brands will now have to get on the bandwagon, because women can choose to have much better experiences with the businesses they patronize. The next big story for the Middle East will be when taxis don't have to be pink to get women's business - but all taxi services will be trained to serve women "transparently." (without the pink)

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