Marwa Abou Leila, Photopia

An arts enthusiast who’s passionate about photography, Marwa Abou Leila is the Founder and Managing Director of Photopia, a Cairo based photography hub aiming to capture talents and support Egyptian emerging and professional photographers through affordable workshops, talks and events. Photopia was founded in 2012, one year after the Egyptian revolution. Prior to starting her own business, Marwa worked in Corporate Banking for 15 years.

“I was working in a bank, I had a very good title and salary, but I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. The revolution was a huge change that showed us that we can do whatever we set our minds to, it gave us hope. A lot of people decided to change their lives after the revolution and I was one of them.”

Marwa stated

Photopia is a neutral ground for all photographers; it is not associated with certain photographers in the industry, it hosts and serves all. The venue is open 6 days a week and is completely dedicated to photography, teaching all types of photography and showing photographers how to turn their passion into business, which can be a source of income for them.

Marwa’s background in finance helped her set up this photography hub and professionally run the business. She manages the day to day activities, plans, curates, and brings the best photography instructors in the market.

We feature both rising photographers that have strong portfolios but not yet known by many, to the most famous Egyptian photographers in the industry.”

Marwa added

Marwa Abou Leila speaks to ‘Women to Watch’ about challenges, accomplishments, the meaning of life and more…

Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times.

Seeing my business grow and being acknowledged for the work we do. Also knowing that Photopia is making a difference in photographer’s lives. A photographer commuting from Aswan to Cairo in a 12 hours train ride just to attend a one-day workshop and go back, stories like this is what really matters, this is what keeps me going.

What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?

Sometimes the lack of education, training, and financial independence hinders women’s growth in some areas of the world. Also, not knowing what they are good at and not being able to spot their talent can keep them from pursuing something bigger in life.

Also, lack of support from their husbands stops some women from pursuing their dreams, which I believe shouldn’t be the case. When I started talking about my idea of starting Photopia, my husband wasn’t a strong believer in the project; he thought I was bluffing and that I won’t be quitting my job and changing my career. But once I did, he became supportive seeing that I was serious about it.

On the other hand, some women want to be mothers and take care of their families, which is totally fine and noble if this is what they want, and this is what makes them happy and fulfilled.

Tell us one of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?

Photopia for sure. I had a very well paid and promising career in banking, but I never felt fulfilled. At Photopia, I still don’t make enough money to support myself, but it makes me very happy. It means so much to me because I feel I’m making a difference in people’s lives through a service that wasn’t offered before in Egypt.

The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?

In my professional life, I always have a fear of not making enough money to survive and sustain the business and I worry about competition. I don’t let my fears hold me back; I usually slow down and let it be for a couple of days but then I decide to step out of this anxious zone and get back to work. I change my mindset and focus on what is important; making plans and moving forward with the business.

What do you believe will be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?

Women are smart, more tolerant and empathetic. Having more women would add an emotional and humanitarian factor to the materialistic world we live in, it would change the harsh way of capitalism. Big corporation have already started to see the benefits of having more women in their teams. In NGOs women are doing a brilliant job due to their sensitive and empathetic nature.

Tell us what your greatest personal challenge is, and how you’ve achieved success in spite of it.

Sometimes I only focus on the outcome and overlook small things that might affect the business. I can also be too dynamic which can be annoying for my team and my husband; I want everything to be fast and I’m always in a hurry. This of course keeps Photopia dynamic but luckily for my team I’m not always around; it gives them some sort of a breather.

What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?

Just let women be; they don’t have to necessarily support them but just let them follow their dreams and do whatever they want to do. Having a balance between men and women in the workforce is good depending on the qualifications needed. It doesn’t have to be a 50:50 ratio, it depends on the needs of the company and what they are looking for.

If you could go back 10 years and change events or fix mistakes in the past, or skip 10 years into the future and see how your life looks like, which one would you choose?

I wouldn’t go back and change anything; the banking experience helped me build an institutional arts venue. As for knowing what the future holds for me, I wouldn’t want to know that because it will take the fun out of living. I’d rather create my own future and hope it turns out as I want it to be. The fun is in working and having the aspiration and anticipation that adds excitement to life.

If for example, I knew I’ll be famous after 10 years, I will become lazy and just wait for it to happen and if I knew I’ll be failure, I’ll be depressed for the next ten years, before it even happens. So I’d prefer to live in the present and focus on my goals.

What the meaning of life to you?

Making a difference in someone’s life or in the world. Regardless if it’s through raising a child or building a project that would touch so many lives. Life is about being happy and having the freedom to choose what makes you happy. If you’re happy with what you’re doing and pursuing what you want, then that’s just enough.

What advice would you give to women around the world?

Find your talent, find what you love… Find your edge and what makes you special. Whether you want to be a full-time mother or a successful business woman, just follow your heart’s desire and don’t let anyone stop you, don’t let your fears and the barriers you put for yourself hold you back. Don’t victimize yourself. Be the hero of your own story and never the victim!

Written by Yasmeen Smadi

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