On the opening day of the HMN Accelerator retreat, the energy permeating Dubai’s light-flooded office room had been tangible from the very start: the conjunction of both depth of humility and fierce courage. Each of the women present had a story to tell, disclosed through a dignified bearing, the sunshine of a smile, or the sharpness of gaze. I have been fortunate to have had a candid conversation with them on the last day of the retreat, and here are their stories.
Meelie Pemberton has created Wing Woman Lebanon, a non-profit social enterprise providing long-term access to essential, reusable hygiene items such as diapers and period pads
Can you tell us about that moment when the idea for your SE first emerged?
I’m not sure I really had one, it all happened quite organically. It started with bringing together a group of women who were going a bit crazy during lockdown and wanted to get out of the house and simultaneously meeting a woman who taught sewing. And then I was really driven by the women saying that “this is fun, but we need to make money”. So, we tried to make handbags. We partnered with this amazing lingerie company in England called “Fruity Booty”. I don’t know if they realized how much they did for us by just getting us going. We made these handbags; they sold them for us and gave us all the profits which gave us money to then experiment a little bit more. And then having realized it wasn’t within my skillset, I decided that handbags weren’t really something that we could carry on doing to a higher standard.
I was just trying to think of something, especially given the financial crisis going on in Lebanon, that wasn’t a luxury item that we can make. Then the idea of period pads came up. I suggested it to the women and they absolutely hated it. They thought it was terrible! I tried to push the environmental aspects; no buy-in at all. Everyone realized the value of this when we saw how much money we could save. We started making them and experimenting with the design. We upgraded from needle and thread to some sewing machines that were donated to us. And then their friends started asking for them, so we started making more and taking them home. That was when we realized people did want this. And not that long ago, a friend had joined us and brought the idea of reusable diapers, which is why we have now progressed to doing that. And we’d love to do other products too and therefore employ more women. Yea, we started quite organically.
Why did you choose to apply to HerMeNow specifically?
Bit of a boring answer, I’m afraid. I just saw the advert on Instagram. What encouraged me to apply, even though I didn’t know much about the program, was how easy the application process was. If it had been really long, I’d probably have said “Don’t have time for that. Don’t know if it’ll be beneficial enough”. Basically, just saw it and applied for it, hence it has exceeded all expectations because there were very few (laughs) and because it’s been completely and utterly amazing.
What keeps you going everyday?
On a personal level? Pressure from my mum. Knowing that she would be killing me if I’d just sat around doing nothing. I can just hear my mum in the back of my head, "get off you’re a**e!"
But ultimately, I don’t know if using the word fear is the right thing, but we’ve taken on the responsibility to provide jobs for these women. And I see the value it has had in their lives. Some of them say that they’ve been able to put their kids into private school, which in itself is awesome. But a woman was saying what she’s really noticed is going from a government school / funded school is that she is now treated with respect. She goes to pick up her child and they treat her like a human being who cares for her child (like any school should). But in a paid-for system she wasn’t getting that respect. I think there is a huge responsibility to make sure that I am doing the best I can so these women keep their jobs and keep the standard of living that they have now rightfully earned, not that it is high enough, but to a level above of what they were before.
So, would you say a “Sense of responsibility”?
Sense of responsibility, definitely! To keep those jobs and those jobs are only going to stay there if I continue selling our products and developing the NGO.
And also, how beneficial our products can be! You know, people literally do not have access. We’ve heard women saying that they use disposable diapers for their babies, wash them, dry them, and use them again. A disposable diaper! (groans) Women for periods using leaves, newspapers, rags, anything. It’s three-fold - livelihoods for these women, reducing waste in the environment. When I’m lucky enough to go to the beach for the weekend, its covered in rubbish. So, there is such a direct impact on my life to have reduced waste in the environment, let alone climate change. And then actually people having access to decent, hygienic, safe products.
Can you tell us what brings you the most joy in being a social entrepreneur?
Ah, the people. Definitely the people. Also brings more stress, I suppose. But the women I work with are just inspiring. I guess keeping my life in perspective is a big part of it. If I ever want to complain about anything, I’m aware that everything is relative, but I just check myself to be like “Is it okay to complain about this?” Most of the time it’s not. I just think of what the women are enduring and how much strength they have. To keep going with all the struggles that they have. It’s so much inspiration, so much joy. What I’m always amazed about is given how challenging their circumstances is, how much joy they have. We have such a laugh together; they are so happy! And I know they’re not quite able to have that insight. The joy that they bring, the silliness they bring. I look at them and they are literally happy. There is enough joy in their life, there is enough hope now for them.
What legacy do you wish to leave in your community?
I always wonder about the word ‘legacy’; it doesn’t feel right. Why am I here to leave a legacy? I’m not. But if there’s anything I would love people to learn from my example, it would probably be - if you have resources, use them to help other people. I feel like I came into this life as incredibly lucky. I have a responsibility to do something with that. Pass that forward, don’t just make things better for you and your little family and your immediate circle. Share that; you have so much to offer! You may not have millions of dollars but you can do so much for other people. I’d love to see people doing that more. Being less selfish. Just giving for the sake of making other people’s lives better, making the world better.
What does "women’s empowerment" mean to you personally?
For me personally, it’s not giving a cr*p what other people think. For the women that I would like to empower or contribute to their empowerment, it’s the freedom to make decisions for yourself. I think economic independence is such a big part of this. Through that, you are able to fight for decisions that you really believe in. Which, when you are financially dependent, you don’t necessarily have the freedom to do. So just the ability to contribute to discussions and make decisions. The freedom to challenge societal norms - That’s probably a big part for my female empowerment is not giving a cr*p about the social pressures my family and friends put on me. But just doing what I want to do, because I want to do it. I guess that comes down to making decisions for myself.