Libana - Transforming gender stereotypes

By Antoine Maalouf - Senior Communication Officer | Photos Credit: UNDP Lebanon/ Rana Sweidan

July 12, 2023

“So now, you, a woman, have come to understand the world of waste management?!”
“No one will take you seriously.”
“You will not make it.”
These are just some of the remarks that Libana heard when she set out to launch her recycling startup amid one of the most challenging times in Lebanon.
It was in July 2020 that she rented a warehouse located less than 3km from the port of Beirut that was ‎to become the Recyco Recycling facility in Karantina. At the time, the world was combatting the ‎COVID-19 pandemic, the Lebanese economy began spiraling into recession, and one of the largest non-‎nuclear explosions of all time was ticking at the heart of the capital.‎
Libana had just become a first-time mother and was determined to start her own business. ‎‎“What I am doing is for Kasey,” she said with a serene smile as she ushered us through packaged ‎stacks of plastic and cardboard at Recyco. “I want my daughter to see that everything is possible with ‎determination and a positive outlook on life,” she went on to say, “and that rejection and obstacles ‎are only a part of our journey to success.”‎

Competing to Win

Libana Geagea, the young entrepreneur, participated in UNDP’s Business Innovation Training and Competition, funded by Germany through KfW Development Bank. The project’s goal was to support the stabilization and growth of businesses affected by COVID-19 and the economic crisis in Lebanon.
Having successfully accomplished the training phase of the project, Libana qualified to pitch her business development plan for a chance to win financial support. She understood that this grant would help expand her startup operations and take her business to the next level. Competing with 38 other participants, her focus and determination were obvious as she presented her ‎business plan, and she won one of 17 awards (25,000 USD each offered to businesses with growth ‎potential).‎
“I really wanted to win that grant, yet during the last days of preparation I felt that it was too much pressure and I almost quit,” she exclaimed as we arrived at her office. “The support of my husband and family was pivotal to boost my morale and keep me on track,” she added.

‎“On pitching day, I felt peaceful and confident,” Libana expressed. “My five-minute presentation ‎seemed to pass in the blink of an eye and it was ‎the most extraordinary experience of my life. Win or ‎lose, I realized that I had undergone a remarkable transformation, and now I possess an extraordinary ‎tale to share about ‎my beginnings and the process of developing a business plan and giving a speech."‎

Against all Odds

‎“We had just signed the rent agreement and started revamping the facility when, in an instant, the ‎whole place was destroyed by the impact of the Beirut port explosion of 2020,” Libana described, as ‎she offered us coffee. “But thanks to an understanding and supportive landlord, we were able to ‎rebuild the place and begin our operations shortly after.”

The explosion represented one of the many obstacles that Libana encountered during her journey as ‎a young entrepreneur in Lebanon, especially as a woman striving to establish herself in a male-dominated sector. “The challenges and criticisms I faced primarily came from individuals within the ‎industry,” she noted, “those close to me attempted to undermine my motivation, not only as a woman but also ‎because I aspired to achieve success."
‎"In the early stages, I encountered resistance, discrimination, and even instances of unwelcome ‎advances and harassment – on multiple occasions!" she revealed. However, those very individuals who once harassed me have transformed into my loyal customers and, dare I say, even friends, all due to my persistence, professionalism, and positive attitude."
After overcoming initial challenges, Libana drew upon her previous employment experience in a renowned solid waste management company to establish and operate Recyco. Yet despite her experience and tireless efforts working at full capacity, she was barely breaking even. “I recognized the necessity of acquiring my own equipment to scale up the business,” she expressed, “but I needed financial assistance, and I found myself trapped in the daily operational tasks.”

Transformative Support

"When I initially became part of the UNDP project, I had uncertainties and hesitations due to the time and commitment it demanded," Libana admitted. "However, it didn't take long for me to comprehend the true worth of the training I was receiving."
The project, implemented in partnership with BIAT, provided support to more than 350 entities, ‎of which 135 were women-led. ‎Startups, small businesses, cooperatives, and farmers received capacity-building and cash grants to address their unique requirements, such as acquiring tools, equipment and raw materials, undertaking rehabilitation ‎work, or covering staffing costs.‎

“Beyond the financial support, the skills we acquired through the training were pivotal for the expansion of our businesses," stated Libana. "Marketing had always been my greatest weakness, but after completing the training, I grasped the true power of effective communication. Now, I possess the knowledge to promote Recyco with precision and to approach any meeting with confidence, securing deals swiftly and effortlessly."

“The grant was the cherry on top! It truly liberated me and placed me on track for expansion,” she emphasized while gesturing towards the newly acquired equipment at the facility. "With the ability to purchase my own high-capacity balers, I was able to diversify my buyer base and, as a result, elevate my profits by establishing fair prices for the sorted recyclables."
Micro, Small, and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs) are crucial contributors to the Lebanese economy, playing a vital role in job creation, with approximately 90% of all businesses in the country falling under this category. Supporting Libana towards the continuous expansion and sustainability of her business created a direct and tangible impact on long-term employment opportunities. "Currently, we are a team of 23 individuals at Recyco," she proudly stated. "Just a month ago, we were 16, and I hope that by the end of 2023, our team will grow to 30."

Self-made and Motivated

"I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth," Libana shared with determination, “but I persisted against all odds and worked hard to arrive to where I am today.” It was evident that her journey to success was marked with relentless effort and commitment, and we were able to capture a glimpse of that dedication when our paths crossed during the different stages of the project.

"UNDP has been a driving force of support in my life, pushing me beyond my limits," she acknowledged, ‎recognizing the project’s influence on her personal and professional growth. “I have learned the ‎power of words and how they translate thought into impactful expression. ‎Now, I even employ these skills with my daughter," she added with a warm smile, emphasizing the ‎importance of communication as a means to influence individuals and navigate challenges.‎
"Throughout my journey," Libana expressed, "I have always prioritized maintaining a harmonious balance between my professional and personal lives." Her ability to realize her potential in the workplace was matched by her commitment to living life to the fullest alongside her family. This unwavering dedication to both her career and her loved ones served as a guiding principle, ensuring that she flourished in different aspects of her life. 
"If there is one message I would like to convey to women, it is to unleash the talent and inner beauty that resides within you, and to never let negativity hinder you from reaching your full potential," Libana passionately stated. "Discover your inner strength and transform challenges into opportunities that drive you forward."

Shifting Perceptions

When Libana set out to prove to her daughter that everything is possible with determination and positivity, little did she know that her story will resonate with many women beyond the walls of her home. By establishing a successful business model in solid waste management, she challenged stereotypes and became a model of a young Lebanese entrepreneur investing in her country’s potential.
As we made our way out of Recyco, my eyes were drawn to the bustling staff and the towering heaps ‎of recyclables and I realized that throughout our conversation, Libana did not dwell on the challenges ‎she faced as a woman or as a young entrepreneur striving for success in a country grappling with ‎unprecedented crises. Her belief in herself and her abilities, combined with her unwavering positivity and forward-thinking mindset had been the driving ‎forces behind her journey. At that moment, I could not help but reflect on the significance of supporting ‎individuals like her; positive innovators who can breathe hope into a community burdened by ‎hardships.‎

Within the walls of that recycling facility, Libana had created an exemplary business model in a ‎male-dominated industry and established herself as a resilient entrepreneur determined to thrive. It is ‎through individuals like Libana, empowered and breaking through gender stereotypes, that we can ‎challenge and transform preconceived notions.‎
I waved goodbye as we drove away, and in my mind lingered notions that she had emphasized as being instrumental to her success: “Know your true worth and aim high... and be grateful… be kind.”