Antoinette Allah-Mensah is thrilled. Thanks to the unstinting support and mentoring of an initiative called Evolvin’ Women, the 27-year-old woman from western Ghana secured a 12-month internship with the Retreat Palm Dubai MGallery by Sofitel.

‘I entered a competition organised by Evolvin’ Women and won the prize which was an internship for a year in Dubai. The exposure and experience that I get here is going to be immensely useful to me,’ says the mother of a four-year-old boy.

With the help of Evolvin’ Women, Antoinette has been able to gain hands-on knowledge of working in a 5-star hotel
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Although Antoinette studied psychology and theatre arts, she was keen to pursue events management. ‘That sort of explains why I’m doing F&B,’ she says, heaping praise on Evolvin’ Women for helping her take one more step closer to realising her dream. ‘Evolvin’ Women has given me exposure and experience that I probably would have had to pay for.’

Assia Riccio, the woman behind Evolvin’ Women, smiles with pride to hear that Antoinette is benefiting from an initiative she founded two years ago. By the end of this year, 20 more women from developing countries could be placed in hotels across Dubai.

A platform that helps women in developing countries acquire resources such as training, network building and recruitment opportunities with expert mentoring that would otherwise not be available to them, the initiative extends 
a CSR arm to companies to become catalysts for development by recruiting the women it has trained.

In simple terms, Evolvin’ Women acts as a bridge between hospitality partners and women from developing countries who lack access to quality education and employment opportunities due to various reasons. At the platform’s Pop Up Academy, women are mentored by educational partners and trained to secure international entry-level employment. They then return to a job in their home country where they become a contributor to their family and the community.

‘The idea for creating Evolvin’ Women was the result of a conversation I had with Wilma, a peer at Cornell University,’ says Assia, who is passionate about the hospitality industry having attended catering school since the age of 14 and, later, winning an international award in the sector while working in a hotel in the UK.

‘We were discussing how the money that I received from an education grant helped me gain better skills and knowledge of the industry and she pointed out how better opportunities would really benefit women back in Ghana mainly because that’s where I had my first contact,’ she says.

The seed of the idea planted in her mind, Assia got thinking.

‘I was looking for ways in which the business can be made sustainable while not depending on sponsorships. After looking at recruitment models and training tools and after working a few years in various fields to understand how the models work and operate, in 2016 I created Evolvin’ Women.’

Assia did a lot of groundwork before setting up the initiative.

She initially took a hard look at the private and public sector in the region. ‘I was looking at the stakeholders who were really aligned to what I wanted to do. For example, Dubai’s Business Women Council and the Chamber of Commerce are very much aligned to women’s movement. I was already part of the council so for me it was all about explaining my vision to the people who were managing the council and seeing what kind of support they could provide. I wasn’t scared to ask for help because I had nothing to lose.’

The result was a pop-up academy – ‘which is the 15-month programme we offer.’

The selected candidates undergo an intensive three-month training programme at Evolvin’ Women’s pop-up academy in their home country before they are placed in a leading hotel chain in Dubai for a period of one year.

The selection process is strict and participants are selected by foundations, intergovernmental organisations and governments of developing nations that are promoting the rights of women.

‘Because we can set up the pop-up academy anywhere, we are flexible to go to any place where there is lack of education or of quality education.’ Evolvin’ Women was one of the first microenterprises in the region to sign up to the United Nations Global Compact, UAE, she says.

Initially, challenges were aplenty and Assia felt like giving up almost every single day.

‘When you start, there is always a good reason to give up: the pressure, stress, deadlines, the scores of doors that shut,’ she admits. ‘But over time you go from getting 20 no’s a day, to 15 no’s ... and thus start building the resilience and confidence in what you’re doing. Eventually it comes to a point where giving up is no longer an option.’

To be chosen as a mentee by Evolvin’ Women, a candidate needs to have a passport, speak the English language, be above 18 years of age, and passionate about service, hospitality and tourism in general. Part of the selection process includes an online interview, a face to face interview before the 5-day training session where the final selection takes place.

‘We work closely with foundations because they know the women who would need this kind of programme the most. If I look at a CV and can tell that the candidate is unlikely to be finalised for a job right away, that’s the kind of woman who really needs the platform.’

Assia’s plan is to create a domino effect. ‘They can use their training here and return to their countries to train women there, and start microenterprises in rural areas. Some may set up their own events management company or catering business, which also boosts the region’s tourism.’ The idea is to work with established entrepreneurs in developing countries to help them access other markets.

Assia’s team does quarterly reviews of the mentees. ‘We also follow them after the programme for about 12 months and 
we provide mentoring to them over the online platform.’

Assia believes that companies need to relook at their HR models. ‘Look at your recruitment procedure and see if you can embed CSR in that. Instead of recruiting from normal recruitment agencies, they could use alternative ways of recruitment,’ she says.

Although Assia’s project has been focussing on the hospitality and tourism industries, she is considering expanding it to include the legal and finance sectors as well.

While Evolvin’ Women has already helped over 20 women from Ghana and Armenia develop skills, secure a job in hospitality or continue their studies in tourism, it is now busy training another group of 17 women who are due to arrive in Dubai in October. ‘Women who attend the programme, complete an average of 20 hours of mentoring, over 150 hours of online training and over 200 hours of face to face training. On their return home, the skills they learned and the experience they have gained enable them to apply for jobs that pay double the salary they were able to receive prior to the programme. As a result of this they are in a much stronger position to support their families.’

Thanks to the initiative, a pool of skilled women is being created that will bring back to their countries knowledge and international experience in top class hotels in the UAE that will improve the service provided by the local hospitality industry.

‘Furthermore, we are implementing Evolvin’ Communities projects to help them invest the skills learned in training unemployed women in rural areas who are unable to join the programme due to their limited English. These projects aim at facilitating small activities for tourists such us farm tours that generate new income and improve the village economic situation,’ says Assia.

Aware of the power of social media in boosting businesses, she is hoping for more funds to help her expand the initiative’s social media presence.

‘We have a software developer that works on our website, two associates who help us with the selection process, and one who helps us with contacts. I know what an impactful tool social media can be, but right now we invest the money on tickets for Ghana or Kenya and I know that we would need a better budget [for social media expansion] in the future.’

With a firm pulse on the youth and the future, the initiative has associated with American University of Sharjah when a group
of students did a project on Evolvin’ Women. ‘It’s a way for us to give them food for thought and ideas about the social impact they could have.’

Antoinette, the mentee, is pleased with the way Evolvin’ Women has helped her in her chosen field. ‘It’s about the connections 
I’ve made with people within the short time I’ve been here for my internship. I’m looking to make more contacts back home through Evolvin’ Women. I have mentors outside of work whom I meet from time to time, and I tell them what I’m doing and what I want to do when I go back home. That’s one big life changing environment. It’s a lifelong process because the real deal will start back home. Evolvin’ Women has given me exposure and experience but it doesn’t end here with the team.

‘Aside from being with the hotel, I also do courses online,’ says Antoinette, who is looking for course training in marketing as well. ‘The idea is to understand how both departments – hospitality and marketing – work together because I require all of it to run events back home. That’s one of the major aspirations I have for when I go back home. Another thing would be to train other women.’

And that is exactly what drives the head of Evolvin’ Women to expand her initiative.

Assia says that what keeps her motivated to persevere is ‘the women who we have trained so far and what we hear from them. When one of them says ‘I can conquer the world now’, I think that’s what really keeps me going. The fact that there are more women saying now, ‘I can conquer the world’.

Her dream for Evolvin’ Women is ‘to be the talent sourcing platform in the hospitality industry in the UAE, for businesses that want to embed social responsibility and give back. 
The focal point has been Ghana but we are now looking at Kenya, Cameroon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Armenia as well so there is the potential to set up anywhere and run it anywhere from Dubai.’