By Muhammad Riaz Usman Khaleej Times, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Assia Riccio, founder of "Evolvin' Women", harbors a passion to empower women to achieve their maximum career potential, including those who do not have the access or means to open avenues for professional advancement.
Riccio is the former learning and development manager at Jumeirah Restaurant Group in Dubai, a division with a portfolio of 42 restaurants, where she developed the L&D strategy for over 1,000 employees.
The idea of Evolvin' Women struck Assia when she won the Olive Barnett Award in 2011. The international honor is annually awarded to an outstanding person under 30 in any sector of the hospitality, leisure or travel industry in the UK. "That was a life-changing moment for me -- it opened so many doors and I met people I had never thought I would meet," Assia recalls.
She decided to hone her skills and excel in her professional education. "I completed an internship in London and received a grant that I invested in a leadership certificate at the Ecole Hotelier de Lausanne in Switzerland and in a revenue and financial management certificate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I was subsequently awarded an additional scholarship to further my studies in leadership," she explains.
"While at Cornell, I met Wilma, a fellow student and hospitality professional from Ghana. We discussed the opportunities this award brought and she explained to me how much of a difference this type of initiative would make in developing countries like Ghana, where women and young girls don't have access to quality education, mentoring, coaching and employment opportunities. I think that conversation sowed the seed for Evolvin' Women," she continues.
Evolvin' Women is a social enterprise that enhances the employability of women from developing countries through the provision of necessary resources, networks, education and employment opportunities that would not be otherwise available to them.
"In developing countries, while education is provided, access to career advice, mentoring and coaching support and international job opportunities are generally missing, which result in the marginalization of women in that country and reduces their contribution to the economic growth," Assia elaborates.
"At Evolvin' Women, we have developed a social enterprise business model that creates a sustainable development cycle by which women can receive career advice and access to free online education tailored to their development needs. This provides them the opportunity to apply for internships and gain international experience and then take the knowledge, skills and experience back to their home countries where they enhance the local talent pool and thereby become a contributor to their family, community and national economic growth," she continues.
Evolvin' Women started with a non-profit project in Ghana this year that provided skills training to 13 young women in the capital, Accra.
"As part of this project, we secured several opportunities for the participants, including a one-year internship in Dubai, which starts in November this year," she says.
In order to finance this project, Assia had to come up with a plan.
"I decided to look at the hotels, catering and tourism sector worldwide, where there is an average female participation of 55.5 percent at the global level. Women are employed in a wide variety of roles, including as cleaners and kitchen staff, front-line customer service workers and senior management. Within the industry, women make up nearly 70 percent of the workforce, however paradoxically, there is a marked under-representation of women in senior positions, with women holding less than 40 percent of all managerial positions, less than 20 percent of general management roles and between five to eight percent of board positions.
"Despite dominating the hospitality industry by numbers and the apparent 'diversity advantage' this brings, women continue to be under-represented in senior positions and general management roles. When it comes to women in leadership roles, the sector falls short of other industries that don't demonstrate the same advantage. Not only does this mean that businesses are missing out on the enormous potential of this group of women, it also means women are stagnating in their careers when they could, with the right training, coaching, mentoring and network support, be realizing their potential," Assia says.
"Understanding this challenge, I saw an opportunity to help women in developed countries advance professionally and reduce the gender gap and by doing so, finance our work in developing countries. In August 2017, we launched an online platform that connects women in developed countries with a professional network of peers, mentors and coaching service providers. For every person in the developed world who subscribes to the services provided on the platform, one woman or girl in a developing country is provided with free access to the online education resources, career advice and the opportunity for international work experience," she describes.
"I soon realized that women were choosing to buy services from us so they could support a woman with limited access to professional advancement and training. Coaching and education providers, on the other hand, were keen to join us to advance corporate social responsibility activities for their company.
"This changes how disadvantaged women in developing countries gain access to education, mentoring and career opportunities," she says.
Assia believes when there is a genuine cause, one you believe and invest time and energy in, one that drives you to achieve something greater than simply financial gain, you will find overwhelming support. "I have been very fortunate to have had the support from an incredible husband, several mentors, C3, a UAE-based accelerator programme that helps social entrepreneurs and the Dubai Business Women Council [DBWC] that has provided me with the support and network to promote Evolvin' Women," she says.
"I believe that people have an innate desire to do good and when your business has a noble cause, you will quickly discover support from individuals, businesses and organizations which helps us make an even greater impact," Assia says.
Assia says any enterprise with a humanitarian goal and a social impact inspires her. "My dream was to support the United Nations and the goal of 'Achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls' -- the fifth of the 17 goals included in the Agenda for UN Sustainable Development to be achieved by 2030," she says.
Evolvin' Women has recently joined the UN Global Compact UAE and the UN women task force for women's empowerment initiatives in the Middle East.