Entrepreneurship and marriage don’t mix in Tunisia
“I don’t plan to get married anytime soon,” teased Mohamed Ben Abdellah, 28, founder of ceramics startup El Houch.
He was only half-joking. Many young entrepreneurs in Tunisia are either divorced or unmarried, and don’t plan to tie the knot in the early stages of their business. It’s a trend that has formed out of a conflict between the social norms of what marriage should be, and the lifestyle of a tech entrepreneur.
For men the demands to provide stability and a steady income weigh heavy.
Women are confronted with balancing business with family obligations, the taboo of earning more than their husband, and the ‘power’ that goes with owning a business, unbalancing the traditional family pattern of a Muslim society.
Wamda met with ten entrepreneurs from across Tunisia who described a daunting battle between the expectations of their family and the needs of their business, and a rising view that perhaps marriage wasn’t - or isn’t - for them.
Compatibility in business and in marriage
Olfa Khalil, a business coach who has worked with several young entrepreneurs, said some Tunisian founders were delaying marriage as they waited for the ‘one’.
“Most marriages with the spouse being an entrepreneur work when the other one is either supporting the project or taking part in it,” she said.
Power couples who started their business together include the Lyoum fashion brand founders in Tunis, and Zaid Hamdi, a 33 year old entrepreneur from Gafsa.
“I am just starting my business in mobile green car-washing in Gafsa and she is also starting her business with a kindergarden. We plan to get married soon, making the two work is not an issue for us,” he said.
But he admitted he was older than the average marriageable man, in part because he’d waited for someone who would accept his position as an entrepreneur.
Pressures of providing
Living together without being married is forbidden by law in Tunisia, so marriage is a logical relationship step at a young age.
Karim Bahi, 36, had a steady job in a bank when he got married at 24, and the pressure of a late career change to launch a consulting firm called Eye’s Coach wreaked havoc on his relationships with his wife and relatives.
“Nobody understood why I was giving up on my career as a banker, her parents, my parents. The word I always used to hear was ‘dicey’. It is dicey to do this and that, basically any change was dicey,” Bahi said.
Bahi’s other issue was the pressure of maintaining the same living standards as when he had a regular income.
“I wanted to prove to everyone I could do it and still provide for my wife and my two children, and it was too much. The first year of building a startup should be entirely focused on the startup and not money issues or even earning money at all,” he said.
Wedding or business
For some entrepreneurs getting married is a choice between spending money on a wedding, or launching a business.
A wedding can last seven days and nights in Tunisia, or it can be done in a day at the city hall or at the mosque. It can cost families between 10,000-100,000 dinars (US$5,000-50,000) and people often take out loans to fund the party that need to be paid back over years.
“I spent eight months launching my business and then I got engaged to my fiancée with whom I have been for four years. We discussed a lot and we decided to do a small wedding and invest more in the project. Some girls can be understanding as well as their families,” said Haythem Beji, 31.
“We are aware of the economical crisis and we know it is going to be hard,” said Beji, who earns 800 dinars per month (US$350) from Mod’art deco, his business. This is just above the living wage that NGOs such as FTDES (Forum of economic and social rights) say is required for life in Tunisia.
Business coach Khalil said Beji was a figure of change in his generation, as families began to realise that their children could no longer rely on a secure government job after the extravagant wedding.
“The government has been very clear on the fact that they could not hire civil servants anymore, so young people [are starting] to realize they can not [depend on] steady [government] jobs anymore, and their parents are realizing that as well,” she said.
Ahmed Hamza, 30, a husband and father of two, had only 10,000 dinars (US$4,300) to spend on the wedding and to furnish the marital home, a budget constraint he actually turned into his second startup, Happing.
“We went all over the country to find cheaper things but still according to our taste, and we discovered so many beautiful things through handicraft. I [created a platform] that connects young newlyweds to craftspeople in Tunisia without having to spend a lot on new things in big stores,” he said.
It was difficult launching a second startup with two children in tow, but he remains pragmatic.
“I am [down financially] as an entrepreneur … but I know it will turn out eventually. It is a cycle and when you are an entrepreneur you know that you have to go through hard times, even without a family to take care of.”
The marriage trap
As an entrepreneur told the New York Times, “being married to an entrepreneur is just different from being married to someone who has a profession and who is paid every week. Every week.”
A business woman who is also a politician, and who preferred to remain anonymous, told Wamda that the traditional pattern of “yes you can work but you have to be there for the kids and everything else” was still very rooted in Tunisian society.
“My ex-husband is a faculty teacher and I was an entrepreneur so we came from different worlds. I made it work at first because my office was just near my house, so I was always going back and forth for the children, making dinner and so on. But when I chose to also get involved in politics, it was the end of it and we finally got a divorce.”
A recent report on women entrepreneurs in Tunisia found they had a much higher failure rate than men. Business coach Khalil said although society had come to accept women in the workforce, they were still expected to manage the home as well.
“There is also the rooted idea that she should be married between 25 and 30 years old otherwise something is wrong,” she said.
Walid Sultan Midani, the founder of successful video game startup Digitalmania, said many entrepreneurs he knows divorced because of the demanding new schedule that came with founding a business.
“Weeknight work, no vacation, no sleep,” he said. “But … when the entrepreneur who [made] all these sacrifices succeeds, that is also a pride and he is seen differently by people.”
“In my opinion, if you can manage to stand the pressure, the conservative prejudices, the family issues, all along the way, it means that you will able to also [convince] the outside world.”
He often had to convince his own employees that working in a startup was not something bad, even if their parents wanted them to work for a large established firm.
As the summer wedding season approaches, it may well be that Tunisia’s entrepreneurship flurry begins to disrupt the institution of marriage in more ways than just digital platforms and vendor websites.
Feature image via Pexels