In 2001, Nayrouz Talaat figured it was time she learned to drive. The Cairo-based journalist was, after all, 20 at the time. But as she explored driving schools, she found only male instructors — something that didn’t make her feel particularly safe or comfortable.
She asked her uncle to teach her to drive instead, and realized that her experience wasn’t unique. Many Egyptian women rely on relatives to teach them to drive because the alternative is to be alone with an unfamiliar male instructor and at risk of sexual harassment. It got her thinking: Why should Egyptian women rely on men at all?
Fifteen years later, she decided to finally do something about it. In 2016 she opened her own driving school, Direxiona, a startup employing female driving instructors teaching female students exclusively. Women can sign up online or visit the company’s Facebook page and be matched with a local instructor. Students and teachers are paired up based on age and social class to keep both parties comfortable. “We seek to empower women on the road,” Talaat says. “Women in Egypt prefer to learn with other women for security reasons, but it’s tough to find professional female drivers, who quickly and unfairly get stereotyped as bad drivers.”
Talaat started recruiting female instructors on Facebook and Instagram, and offered training for women with more than five years of driving experience and an interest in becoming an instructor. In addition to on-the-road lessons, Talaat and her team offer training sessions and classes on car maintenance and road safety.
It didn’t take long for Direxiona to catch on. It currently operates in 12 neighborhoods across Cairo and has even started attracting Saudi women, who sign up for lessons while visiting the country on vacation. Talaat now employs 50 female instructors and serves at least 100 students each month; she expects to triple the size of the company by the end of 2019. In the past year, Direxiona has competed in startup competitions and summits in Egypt and parts of Europe, picking up mentors for Talaat and her team.
As the company grows and gains more recognition, local conservative men have been condemning it or questioning its legitimacy. In response, Talaat says, all she can do is keep working and prove them wrong. More and more women are signing up for lessons — and to her surprise, some men are asking for lessons, too. They’re usually the fathers or fiancés of past clients, but Talaat won’t budge from her vision. Her company is for women only, she says, and she’s now focused on raising capital to expand to more cities, increase services and build an automated booking system that utilizes artificial intelligence to produce better driver-student matches.
“At Direxiona, we know very well that it is hard to maintain the success of a women-only startup in a conservative, male-dominated society like Egypt,” Talaat says. “But we are adamant about completing our mission to empower women here — both in the region and on the road.”
This story first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Entrepreneur