This social enterprise helps women from Africa find vocational training and jobs in the UAE
Many of us draw inspiration from mostly our family and friends. Assia Ricco, too, found it in her mother.
“My mother is a child abuse survivor. She didn't start high school until her 20s. She went on to become a teacher and spent most of her life working with an NGO in southern Italy, which helped young girls in Africa and South America get access to education,” Assia tells YourStory Gulf Edition in a conversation.
Like her mother, today, Assia is making a difference in the world through her startup. The Dubai-based social enterprise helps women from developing countries improve their employability to land jobs in the hospitality, retail, and logistics industries.
Assia studied economy and tourism with a focus on sustainable tourism, which gave her a deeper understanding of how hospitality can support African communities’ economies.
She went on to work in the hospitality industry in the UK and other countries before she moved to Dubai in 2012. Here, she saw the challenges in recruiting and retaining employees, especially from Africa.
“Dubai-based hotels with branches in Africa wanted people from the continent with international work experience, and the branches in Dubai wanted people from Africa to give a larger cross-culture experience,” Assia explains.
On the other hand, she continued to work with women and children in various parts of the world. The combination of these experiences led her to find the connection between her work in the hospitality industry and her passion for empowering women.
The need to make this a full-time job
In 2016, Assia took a break from her job to travel to Africa and saw NGOs helping women to address issues of poor education and abuse.
She also saw a few opportunities for these women to gain skills and find work. Assia decided to create a 10-day hospitality training programme for women in the region and helped place one woman, Antoinette, in a hotel in Dubai.
The experience convinced Assia that she could develop a programme in Africa, where women could come to the UAE for a few years, gain skills and work experience, and then return home to become self-sufficient.
Evolvin' Women, founded in 2017, is part of the United Nations Global Compact and the UAE task force of Women's Empowerment Principles.
By 2018, Evolvin' Women had trained 20 women, and in the following year, it established partnerships with major hospitality groups in the UAE. At present, the network has grown to 200 partners.
Dealing with biases
Setting up Evolvin’ Women came with its unique challenges—first and foremost, convincing people to work out of the UAE.
“I have been here in Dubai for 10 years now, and I have been able to achieve more here than in any other part of the world. I also know that women will be extremely safe here. But the misconception that prevails needed to be changed,” says Assia.
Despite the challenge, Assia and her team trained over 1,000 women and expand into luxury retail. "We're giving unemployed women, who have had limited access to education, a chance to be independent," she says.
"We have over 20,000 training hours a year. We have online training. We have partners like PWC and Accenture. We're making a real difference in the lives of these women.”
Another challenge was dealing with client bias. Earlier, 20% of the trained women were taken in administrative or HR roles, and 80% were taken in housekeeping roles. Now, only 20% are taken into housekeeping roles.
“I have spoken of this openly. Instead of fighting a battle, I let the women start with the roles they got, and within six months, these women simply moved up the ladder. That is so much more powerful,” says Assia.
Evolvin’ Women has partnered with NGOs and schools on-ground across nine countries. Sometimes, the women working on the programme also refer girls to us.
“For me, the biggest achievement is seeing a woman, almost rejected by the community, become a role model for other women,” she says.
The company works with organisations that provide women with placements, and the CSR management fees help Evolvin’ Women prepare them before they come to the UAE, including the vetting process of the documents, interview skills, and all the steps leading to the meeting with an HR professional.
While a lot of the functions were paused during the pandemic, Evolvin’ Women moved several of its processes, including interviews, training, and vetting, online. It also opened a trading company called, Nia Trading, which focuses on helping coffee farmers.
Nia Trading contracts the farming needs and shares the profits with the coffee farmers. “We have our own label, and a part of the profits go back to the farmers from whom we trade coffee. The profits also go towards the investments made in projects and the farm budgets,” says Assia.
Assia's advice to women looking to make a difference in the world is to never give up on their dreams, even when faced with challenges.
"Believe in yourself and your abilities. Take that first step. Don’t wait for the right moment or time. Just take the plunge,” she says.
As for Evolvin’ Women’s plans for the future, the company aims to expand and reach more women in need. "We're constantly looking for new partnerships and opportunities to grow our training programmes," Assia says.
"Our goal is to reach as many women as possible and help them improve their employability and achieve their full potential,” she adds.
The organisation plans to expand its training programmes to other countries in the Middle East and Africa. It also aims to provide additional support services, including mentoring and networking opportunities, and expand into the luxury retail and aviation sector.
"We're committed to making a real difference in the lives of women, and we won't stop until we've reached our goal," Assia says, adding, "We're determined to help women succeed and build a better future for themselves and their families.”
Edited by Suman Singh