Before Ben Ali Coup: Opening a Small Business Outside of Tunisia

Every Wednesday in February PITAPOLICY will review a political economy issue regarding a Maghreb country. In the first week Sarah Hassaine reflected on Algeria. The second week focused on Egypt. This week’s posting explores Tunisia’s business environment for women. As always, PITAPOLICY looks forward to receiving pieces on Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Sudan for the remainder of February. Please submit to pitapolicy@gmail.com

Tunisia is an ‘upper-middle’ income country with a small, diverse economy. Nonetheless, as seen with the surprising civilian coup of Tunisia’s ex-president Ben Ali, the Tunisian economy did not represent employment opportunities for Tunisians. As Rania Jaziri explains, “Many Tunisians, like my dad, emigrated from Tunisia to Europe to open a business because that was the “Plan B” for many Tunisian men.” However, what about the Tunisian women? According to World Bank data, Tunisian women make up about 28 percent of the participating labor force.

The World Bank Group’s financially focused arm, the International Finance Corporation, compiled the report Women, Business and the Law: “Removing Barriers to Economic Inclusion” measures to what extent women are able to participate in the formal economy in 141 countries. The reason for the Women, Business, and the Law 2012 report boils down to the 2010 observations from the World Economic Forum: although 93 percent of the gender gap in education has been eliminated, the gender gap in economic participation persists at 41 percent. The World Economic Forum designed the Global Gender Gap Index.

The level of participation and the barriers to economic inclusion are represented by ‘gender parity’. Although not all aspects of women’s freedom are covered by ‘gender parity’, the report uses the paradigm of formal legal and regulatory environment for women to manage their own businesses or find/maintain jobs. Women, Business, and the Law report factors in six indicators to assess ‘gender parity’ in the 141 economies. The six include: 1) Accessing institutions; 2) Using property; 3) Getting a job; 4) Providing incentives to work; 5) Building credit; and 6) Going to court. A more comprehensive explanation outlines the methodology of how the World Bank study captured each of the six indicators.

Out of the 141 countries reviewed, Tunisia was only 1 of 2 countries that improved ‘Gender Parity’ by reforming Tunisian women’s ‘access to institutions’. By ‘access to institutions’ Tunisian women can do the same, regardless of her marriage status:
• apply for a passport in the same way as a man
• travel outside the country in the same way as a man
• travel outside her home in the same way as a man
• get a job or pursue a trade/profession in the same way as a man
• sign a contract in the same way as a man
• register a business in the same way as a man
• confer citizenship on her children in the same way as a man
• open a bank account in the same way as a man.
Ironically an unmarried woman can choose where to live in the same way as a man, whereas a married Tunisian woman cannot. Yet, in 2010 Tunisia reformed its nationality law to allow women to pass on citizenship to their children in the same way as Tunisian men.

Small Business Experience of a Tunisian-German Woman
By: Mehrunisa Qayyum

PITAPOLICY had an opportunity to interview Rania Jaziri, a small business woman, whose parents emigrated from Tunisia to Germany. Rania reflects on the process of setting up her small business, Jordin’s Paradise Dance & Fitness Studio, in Washington, DC as we discuss the challenges for women setting up a comparable business in Tunisia.

Like many Tunisians, Rania’s parents represent the over 1 million Tunisians who left Tunisia for opportunities abroad. The Jaziris immigrated to Germany, which experience the largest influx of Tunisian migration compared to France and Italy–the traditional hubs of Tunisian immigrants. To put the 1 million in context: this represents about 10 percent of Tunisia’s total population. According to Tunisia’s Consulate data: Tunisians’ propensity to emigrate dramatically increased between 2001 and 2008 despite the liberalized reforms undertaken by ex-president: Zine Albedine Ben Ali.

Rania Jaziri smiles at her latest business challenge: her clients and staff have outgrown the space of Jordin’s Fitness. As Rania gets off the phone after receiving an invitation to coordinate a fitness workshop for a large company in DC, I see how her business plan has expanded beyond offering a couple of dance classes. She is a business owner who literally boosts the morale of her clients and staff while ensuring that they move their feet. Her regular attendees insist on hosting a post-class snack fest. One of the members operates a local bakery and shares cupcake pops and business cards as other attendees get their Body Mass Index measured. Other clients approach Rania to partner up in an upcoming event showcasing other small business women. Jordin’s Fitness has won “Best New Business in Shaw in 2010” and her clients voted JP as “Best Dance company”.
How does a fitness studio morph into a regular networking venue for attorneys, economists, writers, and new entrepreneurs who look up to Ms. Jaziri?

(MQ): What is Jordin’s Paradise and your business philosophy?

(RJ): Jordin’s Paradise is a dance and fitness studio in an up and coming neighborhood of Washington, DC. We offer classes in yoga, kickboxing, bellydance, pilates, and a variety of others based on our members interests because my philosophy is to enhance the mind, body & soul.

(MQ): As a German woman of Tunisian descent, what were your influences in establishing Jordin’s Paradise? Are any cultural influences of Tunisia?

(RJ): DC follows the trends by having a variety of yoga studios, kickboxing gyms, and dance studios. But they are all operate separately. A cosmopolitan woman in DC cannot find the one stop shop to address her needs for both physical and mental fitness. I have an instructor, who is a former marine, who teaches kickboxing for women to learn self-defense skills.

Also, I wanted to create a space where people can have fun, learn mind-easing techniques through my laughing yoga class, and meet others. Jordin’s Paradise Fitness members include many young professional women who network after a dance class, for instance.

With respect to my Tunisian heritage, belly dance represents one aspect. But this trendy tradition goes beyond Tunisia as the larger Middle Eastern culture. These are not just physical movements. It is the spirit in which women convene and feel safe in this public space of exploring other cultures.

(MQ:) What steps did you take to establish Jordin’s Paradise?

(RJ): In January 2009, I came up with the concept. I looked for a space in June and by October, I found a space to rent in the Shaw neighborhood.

I wrote my business plan with the help of my significant other. I hired an attorney to help me procure a lease for the studio, but my legal needs changed, so I retained a attorney, Paul Strauss, who had more experience and people skills. (Paul is the “shadow representative” of DC where he represents but does not vote.)
Jordin’s Paradise opened in January 2010.

(MQ): How many permits/license?

(RJ): I only needed a few permits: the general Business Administration license to operate the studio. As an instructor, I had been working on earning my various certifications in personal training and group exercise instruction. Getting certified in CPR and first-aid was not challenging–and actually is almost must for business women who employ staff.

The types of classes I offer reflect my experience as a German-Tunisian woman. I completed my university education in the Math & Sciences track, so knowledge of anatomy and biology was vital as I instruct in various yoga disciplines.

(MQ): How did you incorporate social media into your promotional and advertising strategy? To what extent was it useful?

(JP:) The easiest, cost-free tool with social media is to establish a Facebook page and a Twitter account–which I immediately did. It is useful once you have the substance put on paper and have testimonials from clients to tweet about your business and highlight on the Facebook page itself. For example, I designed Facebook event invites. JP events provide an opportunity to organize “Flash Mobs” where new faces discover us and sign up for a performance. Anyone can sign up for flash mob performance. If they like it, (which is a given), they inquire about JP’s class schedule. Voila: JP has enlisted new clients!

Initially, however, that was not enough for me. I researched opportunities on Groupons. For example, I approached Daily Deals and Social Living to negotiate a package of classes that internet users could enjoy. It required a little back and forth negotiation, but I am a businesswoman, so this was a great “mental exercise” in that we agreed upon set of classes with a price that afforded gains to both the advertisers and to the studio that paid off in the end. I built a membership following from that.

(MQ): How was your experience in accessing financial capital?

(RJ): Personally, I do not believe in starting from credit and operating towards debt. I know in American culture access to credit facilitates taking risks, which ultimately helps in opening a business. Perhaps this is because of my German background in focusing on what finances are in my hand. Or maybe this is partially reflective of my my Tunisian father’s business style. In both Germany and Tunisia, people frequently operate in a cash environment. Either way, I saved a lot from my earlier career as an au pair in DC. I did not spend what I did not have in my hand. The up side: I had great credit! However, there was a down side: excellent credit can be a roadblock. In my case, I did not have a credit history, which was the reason three banks turned me down for a business loan. In hindsight, it was probably good that three banks said no. I made sure that what I offered was what could be sustained–then built from there.

(MQ): You have frequently visited Tunisia–almost every year. Do you ever think of opening up a Jordin’s Paradise there considering that the World Bank ranks Tunisia the highest in terms ‘gender parity’ among MENA countries?

(RJ): I would love to carry on the concept of mind, body, and soul fitness to Tunisia. There will be challenges as a woman, as someone who teaches unconventional classes like pole-dancing, but belly dancing was once considered unconventional here in the US. There will be challenges just being an entrepreneur! Nonetheless, I have the risk taking mindset. Let’s see!

Rania’s handshake is the hug. She hands me a bag full of clear stones and insists I see myself in the clear stone. As I grab a “happy stone” from her mind easing bag, it says “You’re a Star”. As a new entrepreneur, I hope this applies to PITAPOLICY as it approaches its 9th month as a blog and 6th month as a Consulting business. Rania and I hope that in a few years, PITAPOLICY can re-interview her when Jordin’s Paradise has a studio in Tunisia.

Note: Follow Jordin’s Paradise @JordinsParadise.


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Filed under Analysis, Interests, PIDE (Policy, International Development & Economics)

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