By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- Sheikha Lubna, self-described computer geek and Cal State Chico grad, describes the sleepless nights, and piercing insecurities, as she rose from lonely female software designer to Dubai Port Authority modernizer to the United Arab Emirates' first woman cabinet minister. Fear, she counsels a rapt audience, is a powerful motivator: "It's what pushed me further."
The charismatic trade minister could be mistaken for a high-paid American motivational speaker. But the women hanging onto her every word are mostly from the Arab Middle East, where failure is a stigma -- and sharing your fear of it an alien language. That goes double for women here, whose entrepreneurship rates are the world's lowest.
Lubna, who spoke at the inaugural forum of the MENA Businesswomen's Network here in Dubai late last week, is part of a small cohort determined to advance women's rights by talking the language of business: Networking, accessing capital, mentoring, and even sharing personal setbacks with a room full of strangers. If they succeed, it will be a quiet economic evolution that takes place in the shadow of the region's stormy political revolutions, where it's unclear how women will fare.
"By shifting to the focus to economic issues, business women will be positioned to better push for reform," insists Alyse Nelson, president of Vital Voices, the Washington group that has spent the past five years helping build the MENA BWN, a network of 2,500 businesswomen that has spawned some 500 new enterprises.
In addition to Lubna (whose full name is Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi) , other leaders in the region are taking up the cause, most prominently the Jeep-driving, American-educated Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel of Saudia Arabia. Saudi Arabia prohibits women from driving; they must also work in segregated facilities, and were only recently granted the right to vote and run in municipal elections. More
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