Angela Solomon is a former British diplomat of Lebanese descent turned entrepreneur designing the next wave of childcare business in the Middle East and North Africa. On a cancelled night out with a friend, newly a mother, she jumped on the opportunity to solve the problem of the availability of on-demand childcare.
An entrepreneur having co-founded two restaurants, Solomon is using her business sense to allow more women to transition to the workplace while enabling other ones to find jobs as caregivers. In 2015, she co-founded Jaleesa, an on-demand childcare business in Lebanon offering ad hoc and monthly childcare services.
In a region that values education, the cultural shift in perceiving childcare as an education investment is slowly appearing. It enables children to learn and grow as well as women to have peace of mind to focus at work.
Solomon spoke in one of Beirut’s millennial cafes, saying childcare is a healthy choice for children, mothers and society alike.
Enabling women back in the workplace is a responsibility for all to build the next generation and more inclusive societies in the region. Overcoming “mother’s guilt” and providing a baseline for trusted childcare are steps to build such a future.
“Why do we need more Arab mothers in the workplace?”
Angela Solomon (AS): “In the MENA region, women in the workforce is a huge missed opportunity, considering that they are highly educated but not always able to actualise their education into a professional career.
“Mind you, gender equality in the workplace is a global issue. Numerous studies show that when women work, families are lifted out of poverty. Working women invest more in education and nutrition. After all, we need children to see their mothers happy at work and fulfilling themselves.
“Last, when women work, they become influential across economic sectors. That is how we build a fair society in which all voices are heard and equally empowered.”
“What are their specific needs?”
AS: “Not all parts of the region are used to the idea of childcare because we still have wonderful mothers doing fantastic work at home and sometimes with domestic help. For many families, it remains a challenging idea.
“We must build trust with the family: mothers but also fathers and grandparents who are involved in childcare. Leaving your child with a babysitter or a nanny is an opportunity for parents to learn from a new person, particularly from a nanny who comes from the same region. For a babysitter, their only job is to take care of a child.
“At Jaleesa, we train caregivers to understand how the brain develops, particularly in the early years when the child develops their brain faculties and emotions. The need for childcare is the premise for giving children a better start in life.”
“Who should be involved in helping women transitioning back to the workplace?”
AS: “When a woman takes time out of her position after child labour, it is not a smooth holiday. It is one of the most emotionally and physically changing times of a woman’s life.
“When women transition back in the workplace, they come back as a different person with more understanding of a human being. Their work is more impact-driven, productive and they are more assertive. Women come back as a different person: more impact-driven, more assertive, more productive.
“In the region, there is not a strong state provision for pre- and post-natal care. The health sector, the immediate family surroundings but also the workplace should be involved by offering breastfeeding rooms, more flexible hours if needed but also a trusted childcare plan that becomes a support system for working mums.
“For women in this region, asking for more is a difficult conversation to have. We can break this model by having more women in leadership.”
“How can we make childcare more affordable for all?
AS: “This is the key to solving the problem. First, we need to have a living wage for everyone across the economy so families can afford to have childcare and make a living wage at the end of the month.
“Second, we can offer flexibility. With the rise of on-demand services, we can pay for what we need. If you only need 3 hours a day, you can have 3 hours a day instead of a full-time babysitter.
“Third, we should look at childcare, not as a cost but as an investment for the children. Investing in early childhood education pays eighteen times in the future. If you want to save the cost of childcare, solutions include nanny sharing, on-demand services, package childcare offers.
“There will come the point where affordability will come to partnerships with employers and governments. Studies show that millennials are leaving their jobs for a job with a better package, including childcare.”
“What does a trusted child caregiver look like?
AS: “I have spoken to hundreds of mothers and asked them that same question. All gave a different perspective but some characteristics are non-negotiable. A nanny must be responsible, have excellent judgment, reliable, competent and nurturing, which means they have to love children.
“At Jaleesa, we assess those qualities. They are some things you can learn by getting to know the caregiver as a person but some training is strongly required, such as the basics in child development and first aid.
“Communication is critical to trust. A caregiver needs to listen to the parent and act on what has been requested and in the way that was required. A caregiver should be able to listen to feedback.
“As a first-time mother, I know that my nanny is a fantastic caregiver if my child runs to the door while clapping his hands when the caregiver rings at the door.”