Elsa Aoun, co-founder and CEO of Ounousa, was the first woman to agree to be interviewed for Who Run the World. She is the first woman to take a leap of faith with us, and gave ultimately gave us the confidence boost we needed to keep going. Back in July 2018, I was pretty anxious on whether starting a podcast production company was wise. Then we sat with Elsa. Here was this boss lady Lebanese woman, who not only successfully launched her own media startup, but she did so based out of Beirut, overcoming the challenges, redefining the rules, and expanding her business to new heights. Elsa made things seem possible. As you'll notice throughout her story, Elsa has a tendency of taking leaps of faith, and all have payed off.
Elsa co-founded Ounousa with her husband Wassim. Ounousa is an Arabic content platform targeted towards women in the Middle East. Today Ounousa has over seventeen million followers on Facebook alone. Not only that, Elsa, Wassim in collaboration with a couple friends to expanded their company. They introduced two new branches to their media group: Sohati a content website that focuses on health, and Loolia that produces video content in Arabic. Like all startups, it took Ounousa some time to get to where it is today, and a lot of it is thanks to Elsa’s unwavering leadership, her unshakable hustle, and her unflappable belief in herself and her team.
In 2006, Elsa and Wassim decided to launch Ounousa while they were still consultants working out of Paris. They took the ingenious decision to create a website in Arabic for women because it did not exist and because it would allow them to create content that would last the test of time. They were true pioneers in the Middle East’s startup universe.The entrepreneurial scene was in its very infant days during the mid to late aughts, and the ecosystem was populated by a few startups - nowhere near the landscape we have in the Middle East today. Another instance where Elsa took a leap of faith.
I like to think that Elsa’s entrepreneurial journey is very fitting for Lebanon and the region. As Marilyn mentioned in their conversation, as Lebanese we were not raised to see entrepreneurship as a viable path to success. Our parents have taught us to choose from a limited menu that is only made up of three to four careers (doctor, engineer, architect and lawyer). Elsa bypassed this mindset. As Elsa and Wassim pursued a career in finance and consulting, they started their media startup on the side. This allowed them to feed into both the desire to have stable and ambitious career, and the desire to go on a walk on the entrepreneurial road less travelled.
What I love about Ounousa’s story is that Elsa and Wassim made very smart and ingenious decisions all along the way. Wassim designed the website using a simple content management system, while Elsa put up posters in universities to get an Arabic writer on board. Elsa acted as editor and posted the articles on onousa.com. You know that expression: slow and steady wins the race, that was exactly Elsa and Wassim’s strategy. During those early day, they posted around five articles a month and used Facebook to slowly grow their audience.
Down the line, Elsa took another leap of faith: she left consulting. That’s when she took Ounousa to the next level. Fully focused on her business she was now able to kick things into high gear in terms of producing content, but also in expanding the business. She started off working at home, and then quickly transitioned into a co-working space. Down the line, Elsa and Wassim were approached by friends to launch two new media platforms: Sohati Health and Loulia’s Closet. Elsa was able to steer all three startups towards success. The couple approached investment funds in Lebanon that would inject enough capital in to help Elsa, Wassim and the rest of the team to make Ounousa, Sohati and Loolia into a regional media empire.
Elsa and Wassim learned how to approach investors, and pitch their company and their vision. They both learned how to talk numbers, and to properly sell their mission: of creating content in Arabic for women to empower women in the region (something we are totally on board for). In fact, Elsa was able to grow the company to the point where Wassim could leave his full time job and join her full time working on their various ventures.
Today, you can find Elsa working in the heart of Beirut, a full time entrepreneur paving the way for others like her to start their own entrepreneurial journey. She’s not done yet, she has dreams of widening the reach of Ounousa, Sohati and Loolia, and to start new projects. Just recently, Elsa and her team launched Loolia’s Closet, an e-commerce platform targeted to women in the Middle East. Elsa’s impact has been far reaching, and this is only the beginning.