Leading through the Pandemic

Zoë Dean-Smith, Vice President, Economic Empowerment & Entrepreneurship

The evening event of November 10, 2019 in Paris, France was not unlike any other Global Ambassadors Program welcome dinner. It’s a casual affair, designed intentionally to offset inevitable jitters, where mentees and mentors meet for the first time, nervous about kicking off an intense week of work together on business challenges and strategies for growth.

GAP Paris 2019

I stood side by side with my friend and Bank of America counterpart Pam Seagle to introduce myself and run through the week’s agenda for the latest cohort of exceptional women business owners and entrepreneurs representing a range of nationalities and industries. One-on-one mentoring sessions, check. Communications and marketing trainings, check. Workshops on honing business strategy and financial management, check, check, check. This was our 20th trip and the GAP machine was well-oiled—the curriculum world-class, ever-evolving since 2012 to meet participants’ changing needs.

Never in my worst nightmare could I have imagined standing before these fierce, powerful women, hungry to learn and grow, to say:

Here’s a business challenge: In approximately four months, your country will begin to lock down. Your supply chains will break. Production will freeze. Markets will dry up and your business will cease to do business as you now know it.

For GAP Paris, we didn’t plan for a workshop on surviving a global health pandemic and its attendant economic implosion. We also didn’t plan—in the case of Lebanon—for a workshop on surviving a pandemic and an explosion that would decimate a huge area of Beirut, plunging the country into even deeper despair, wiping out what some estimates say could be 25 percent of the GDP.

Women throughout the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network have suffered in every possible way. The department I lead, Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship, has its own share of bad news, as evidenced by recent survey results indicating that 94 percent of businesses owned by women in the Vital Voices Econ network have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Sixty nine percent say the impact has been “severe” or “critical.” There’s no way around it—for our alumnae and the communities they support, recovery will take months, if not years.

While the future may be uncertain, Vital Voices’ commitment to its network remains steadfast. Faced with a full 2020 calendar of in-person program cancellations and postponements, my team quickly transitioned to a virtual environment. New channels of communication opened, creating actual lifelines for women who could connect to peers around the world to commiserate as well as to collaborate, sharing stories of loss and offering advice, counsel and connections.

These regular Zoom calls and webinars with past program participants are a lifeline to me as well. They offer glimmers of hope in spite of the shock and heartbreak they describe. They are master classes in resilience, and I’m always amazed at how Vital Voices women leaders dig deep into their driving force and move forward.

I’d like you to meet three GAP mentees whose resilience in bouncing back can perhaps lead the way for others, no matter the circumstance or geography. These women represent the hospitality and tourism industries—particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Everyone’s journey is unique, and we will share more from all of our Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship programs in the coming weeks.

Ciara Crossan (GAP Dublin) is founder of WeddingDates, an award-winning company that matches engaged couples to hotels, event venues and suppliers through an online booking platform. Business tanked almost overnight, and any hope for recovery in 2020 quickly faded. It forced Ciara to rethink her approach to 2021 and beyond, and she leveraged downtime to her advantage – creating a new business plan as the basis for a post grad certification, which could in turn lead to new investment and expansion once the economy bounces back.

“I’m definitely feeling positive but with a huge dose of reality. My industry is going through a really tough time and there’s no glossing over it. I have to be realistic as well as optimistic.”

Aline Kamakian (GAP London) spent more than 20 years building a collection of Armenian restaurants in Lebanon and the Gulf, Mayrig and Batchig. Having adapted to the new normal of COVID-19 restrictions as best she could, the unthinkable happened on August 4 in Beirut: a massive chemical explosion near the port devastated much of the city, including Aline’s flagship restaurant and office. Injured herself, Aline’s first instinct was to support her wounded team members on site and manage the chaos. She then somehow found a way to create a refuge at her other intact restaurant and join forces with José Andrés and World Central Kitchen to provide thousands of meals for survivors of the blast. Aline also dedicated space on the second floor of the restaurant to provide shelter for displaced families. Check out Aline’s GoFundMe campaign here.

“People have told me ‘Khalas (meaning, “enough”), it’s time to give up,’ but I can’t turn my back. When you are leader or entrepreneur you don’t have the luxury of giving up. The best therapy is to give. I know we can make it.”

2020 was to have been the Season of African Cultures in France, a year-long public awareness campaign announced by President Macron that could have shined a spotlight on Jacqueline NGO MPII’s (GAP Paris) business, Little Africa. It is a sustainable and inclusive enterprise whose mission is to promote the art and culture of Africa and its diaspora. A gateway to African entrepreneurship in Paris—it showcases design, cuisine, art, history and more. With tourism all but dried up due to the pandemic, the future of Little Africa was bleak. But Jacqueline capitalized on a lease of commercial space owned by the city in Goutte d’Or, a neighborhood comprised of many North African and sub-Saharan residents. There, she will build on her dream to create a multidisciplinary space dedicated to educational tourism, retail and events that uplift local and international Afro-artists and creatives. Learn more about the project and Jacqueline’s Indiegogo campaign here.

“We are living through something no one could have predicted. It’s okay not to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s important to be realistic but also important to accept that things may not go the way you planned. This is the moment to try everything that we can.”

There are countless more stories of impact and resilience to share, here with the Global Ambassadors Program and across the spectrum of Vital Voices Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship programs. We continue to welcome new cohorts of participants virtually, and look forward to doing so in person—as soon as we can do so safely.

Stay in the know here, on vitalvoices.org, and by subscribing to the VV Econ newsletter.

Go deeper with more stories from the GAP network, hosted by two-time Global Ambassador Norah Casey and featuring three mentees (including Jacqueline above) who’ve survived and thrived during the pandemic.

Photography: David Hume Kennerly

Pictured at top: GAP Dublin 2018 mentees, Ciara Crossan is front and center