Recipient of the 2011 Fortune Global Women Leaders Award, sponsored by Goldman Sachs and presented at Fortune
’s Most Powerful Women Summit, Rasha Lotfy, owner and managing director of Afnan Company for Egyptian Heritage Products and Oriental Handicrafts, sees her business as a way of preserving culture.
“I am genuinely inspired by my love of Egyptian heritage and culture,” said Lotfy, who graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership (WEL) program at AUC almost two years ago. “I have a strong affinity with this land that I call home.”
Afnan, which Lofty founded in 2007, helps promote traditional handicrafts made by artisans in different Egyptian governorates, thereby helping them make business and generate income. Lotfy’s job has her regularly traveling to different governorates in Egypt, from Siwa in the east to Akhmim in Upper Egypt, meeting with traditional artisans and learning firsthand the skills of their crafts, many of which are on the verge of disappearing. “It was difficult at first because I needed to build rapport with these artisans, and the fact that I’m a woman sometimes made people skeptical,” Lotfy said.
At Afnan, Lotfy also manufactures new product lines combining modernity with traditional art emblems, such as Bedouin and Siwan motifs, to sell them in the local and international market. This includes everything from handbags, conference bags and precious stones to cotton scarves, cushions, book covers and home accessories. “In the products that we manufacture at Afnan, we usually maintain the traditional design, colors, motifs and embroidery, which is a way of preserving our country’s history and heritage,” said Lotfy, a mother of two.
At the beginning of the project, Lotfy was understaffed, operated on a low budget and rented production lines in factories to get the job done. However, after joining the 10,000 Women program, things changed for her. “10,000 Women helped me think in a systematic and analytical way,” she explained. “I am able to negotiate, make decisions and promote my work effectively. I now have a business plan with clearly defined goals, but I’m always ready for change and prepared to modify my plan and make new decisions as the need arises. That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from 10,000 Women –– creative management skills and thinking outside the box.”
After the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, Lotfy learned this lesson the hard way. With a plummeting economy, many businesses closed down. This was a major loss for Lotfy, who was beginning to build her client base. At the time, she had just returned from two conferences in the United States, Clinton Global Initiative and Fortune
’s Most Powerful Women Summit, where she met leading figures such as Nobel laureate Mohamed Yunus. “It was very inspiring,” she said. “I came back full of fresh ideas for growing my business and wasn’t going to let anything bring me down.”
As a recipient of the Fortune Global Women Leaders Award, Lotfy received a monetary prize that enabled her to expand her business and take positive steps toward achieving her dreams. She bought new machinery, equipment and raw materials for her small workshop; created her own logo and brand, now a registered trademark; and contracted a company to establish a website for Afnan and develop e-marketing initiatives to sell her products online. She also accepted her first assignment abroad, making bags for the same conference from which she received her award – Fortune
’s Most Powerful Women Summit. “I put all the negotiation skills I learned into practice, and was very happy and proud when I landed the deal,” she said.
In addition, Lotfy used this time when business was slow to look for new clients and, more importantly, create a business development plan that focuses on enhancing quality, improving operations and developing marketing strategies. “Business problems don’t end, and that doesn’t mean I have to close down my project,” she affirmed. “There are always alternatives. The important thing is learning how to turn crises into opportunities.”
With her business picking up, Lotfy is keen on doing much more, particularly in the area of social entrepreneurship. A weekly visitor to the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital, Lotfy engages in recreational games and contests with the children. She also trains them to make their own handicrafts and pottery, and displays these products in an exhibition to showcase their talent. “Fun and play are a major step for the treatment of these children,” said Lotfy, who provided the same assistance for Sudanese refugees in Egypt.
Lotfy is also working on the establishment of her own nongovernmental organization, Insan
(Human Being), which will focus on advancing human rights and welfare. “If we are to have a true renaissance, then we should invest in humans, not money and technology,” she said. “Humans are at the core of this universe, and once we stop classifying people according to religious, ethnic or racial affiliations, we will truly advance and move forward.”