On one of my last days in Tunisia, I met Leila Ben-Gacem, an important figure of Tunis medina because of her strong engagement for Tunisia’s youth and artists. Leila worked for a long time as an engineer before she discovered her passion to preserve Tunisia’s cultural heritage and rich patrimony. She converts historical spaces into spaces for youth and cultural exchange allowing young Tunisians to connect with their heritage and to improve their sense of belonging.
We met at Dar Ben Gacem in the heart of the medina. It’s a place built in the 14th century that testifies to Tunisia’s great architectural history. Leila bought it in 2006 from a family that used to live there for over 300 years. She transformed it into an international guesthouse, working with a social business concept. Profit is invested in local community projects for Tunis medina and its inhabitants.
Discover Leila's Story
Part 1 Each person in unique – Leila’s story as a social entrepreneur improving the life of Tunisian youth and artists
Leila worked for over 10 years as a biomedical engineer in a multinational biotech company. One day she decided that there are more beautiful things in life even if she loved her field. Nevertheless, she tells me “I love business adventure more and I love it, even more, when it has more than a financial impact. That’s really what keeps me going. I love business adventures that have multi-impact like preserving heritage, creating jobs, impacting communities, improving the inclusion of youth and having a successful business. I think it’s priceless,” she smiles.
To underline her approach, she tells me story of Dar El-Harka, the international guesthouse and meeting place for the youth of Tunis medina. “It was on sale and when I walked in, I felt it can tell a beautiful story about Tunisia. Today, we get people from all over the world staying here. I love the fact that people are coming from everywhere and live here in a Tunisian surrounding and feel at home. I think that’s magic! They are integrated into the community and become friends with the staff. It just creates so much harmony and understanding between cultures, it’s beyond the profitable business, it’s a social experience.
Where the magic happens
“The guesthouse is covering expenses and I try to save as much as possible to use our profits to inject them in the community. One of them is “Dar el Harka”, a cultural house and a coworking space where the youth of the medina can come to learn and share. It’s a space where they can study and revise for exams. It’s also a space for artisans – the medina is full of artists and artisans -, where they can come and teach young people. I think that is the most beautiful thing, this exchange that happens. Magic happens when young graphic designers and artisans meet”.
Leila adds that she just launched the coworking space “Dar El Harka” and tries to make it financially stable. “We offer services that generate income so as to create more projects for the medina at a low cost. The idea came because there is a growing number of youth initiatives in the medina that needed a space to interact and grow their impact. One of them is called “Journal de la Medina”. All the writers are volunteers that want to express themselves through people they see every day in the medina. They want to transform Mr. Nobody into someone special and improve their own sense of belonging. “Dar El Harka” is also the meeting place for our association “Collective Creative” and “Doolesha”. The latter is a collective of people, mostly students, that try to share their passion for the medina by organizing innovative urban tours for tourists.
Tunisian administration and banking systems slow down entrepreneurs
Asking about which difficulties Leila met in her career and projects, she admits that she doesn’t like to talk about negative things. “Of course there’s plenty of challenges – the Tunisian administration is a hard one. It’s slow, the processes are not up to date and it’s not empathetic to startups and entrepreneurs.” Then she shrugs with resignation “we have to live that”. She also mentions other limitations in doing business in Tunisia like the bank system which is very destructive – “you always need to go around it and find creative solutions, especially when you work in tourism.”
I am surprised by my own success
She laughs when she answers my question about surprises. “I think it’s not just me. I think that every entrepreneur is so obsessed with his or her idea and wants it to happen. The whole world is saying that it’s a stupid idea but one day it happens and you’re the person who is most surprised. I did this big investment during the revolution. First, my family and my friends were like ‘you’re investing in a tourism project in a country in transition and the medina is dirty, people don’t like to come here’. Now, four years later, we are in TripAdvisor as the best place to stay for the third consecutive year.”
To be the winner do things selflessly
I wanted to know what’s her philosophy of life to keep on going and fighting. “I have a lot, but my main philosophy is not to do anything for oneself. If you do things selflessly, with zero egoism, you end up to be the winner. I am very selfless in what I do and somehow it opens doors. When people feel and understand your empathy, they all want to be part of it.” Leila then reveals to me her biggest lesson she got from life: “The more you open up, the more you give away, the more people will come with you to make you do more together.”
With all her experience of life and entrepreneurship, I am curious what Leila would recommend other people that want to become an entrepreneur. Her answer is short but great: “Be patient, it’s not easy.”
I have ambitious plans for the future
Leila will soon turn 50 years and her plans for the future are ambitious even for me. “I would like to write a book, I want to start running and I want to increase my impact. I wish I can be more efficient with the funds that I generate with my business. I want to create more solutions for the community in harmony with the city.”
Part 2 How is it to live in… ? – Leila’s vision on Tunisia
When Leila shares with me her vision of life in Tunisia, I have the impression she is very positive and optimistic. “We have 5000 years of history. We are a developed country, maybe not in technology, but as humans. We are open to cultures, we are to a certain degree gender-blind, place blind and culture blind. Putting that together with the new freedom of expression and our amazing youth will change the face of Tunisia totally. Our youth is so connected and so positive. They have much more the “I can do” spirit and not all the social and cultural limitations that we grew up with.”
“Democracy is new. It’s quite a mess but it’s improving with time. At the start of the revolution, we watched politicians on TV yelling at each other. Now they are still disagreeing but they wait and listen to each other, so that’s why I’m saying it’s in the right direction.”
Part 3 What’s the Mediterranean for you? – Leila’s message for the Mediterranean
What’s the Mediterranean for you?
“For me, the Mediterranean gives me a sense of belonging like roots, but also diversity. It also saddens me because it’s like cemetery today. But it also gives me hope because there are a lot of strong intentions to create common projects between the Mediterranean cities these days.”
Leila’s message for the Mediterranean
“The more empathetic we are with each other, the less of a cemetery it will be.”
Part 4 Enjoy Tunisia like a local – Leila’s insider travel tips for Tunisia
Places to go
“Make friends with Tunisians. There is a lot to see but I think when you connect with people that are the real experience.”
“I don’t want to choose one because it’s about your experience, what you feel when you walk through a city or see artistic performances.”
Part 5 Discover new books, films, and music groups – Leila’s cultural recommendations
“The Kite Runner” even though it made me cry a lot. Another book I like is about a lady from Iran who after the revolution left for Greece. I don’t remember the title but basically, she was saying that the privilege for her was to have a peaceful life.”
“Arabic music makes me happy.”
“There is a TED Talk on education by Ken Robinson that I’ve watched over 20 times on youtube. It’s about communities and families, about using empathy and simply be human to people that make anything successful in life.”
“There was also a movie about the time when Christophe Colomb discovered America that impacted me a lot. He took an indigenous family to Spain. In a courtroom, they were trying to decide if they are human or not. It shocked me so much that I can’t forget it.”