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Inspired by the lack of affordable, stylish, and comfortable workout clothes for women, Fatma Ben Soltane set out to provide a solution. In 2019, she founded Fierce – a sustainable sportswear and activewear brand – in Tunisia.

Fatma recounts how arduous the journey to success was for her.

The apparel entrepreneur said she faced many difficulties, especially in financing her small business due to the high cost and strict restrictions on imports, which often required making an advance payment before the goods were shipped. These difficulties were further exacerbated during the pandemic due to disruption across the global supply chains. 

“Entrepreneurship in Tunisia is devoted to men,” she says. But, as a woman entrepreneur, she had to “fight for her place in the industry.”

Although she successfully managed her startup from inception, Fatma soon realized that she needed to seek additional sources of capital to sustain and expand operations. But getting a loan to bridge the financial gap in her business seemed like an impossible mission. 

“A bank asked us for a $10,000 collateral for a $10,000 loan,” Fatma recounts. 

In Tunisia, and more broadly in the Maghreb region, funding and support for early-stage companies are scarce, particularly for women-led enterprises. Moreover, women entrepreneurs often face critical funding gaps because of a lack of access to appropriate networks and markets.

Fatma Ben Soltane founded Fierce in 2019/Photo credit: SEIF SOUSSI

For Fatma, some help came through an unusual channel. She recalls seeing a post online about Flat6Labs Tunisia, an IFC-funded accelerator program and early-stage venture capital fund supported by the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), which backs innovative and technology-driven startups. Fatma applied for the program, was invited to pitch her business at a Bootcamp and successfully obtained funding for her business.

The Flat6Labs accelerator strengthens the startup ecosystem by providing entrepreneurs with mentorship, seed funding, and support services, including a special focus on women-led ventures. Flat6Labs, co-led by female Chief Investment Officer Dina el-Shenoufy and CEO Ramez El-Serafy, is the largest accelerator and early-stage investment platform in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The program invests in 100 innovative and technology-driven startups annually. 

The accelerator has a comprehensive gender-led entrepreneurship strategy that targets three of the most pressing challenges for women-led SMEs: the lack of inclusive networks and business connections, insufficient targeted training and accelerator curriculum, as well as limited inclusion of women in the selection process. We-Fi and IFC’s support has helped increase the number of female mentors by 50 percent. Flat6Labs is committed to having at least 30 percent of its applicants be women while also catalyzing support from the VC ecosystem to help their businesses grow and scale. In addition to investments, Flat6Labs supports high-growth entrepreneurs like Fatma through various support services and networking opportunities with business mentors, investors, and corporates.

Photo credit: Fierce

“Without Flat6Labs, our growth would have been slower, and we would still be trying to establish ourselves,” Fatma confirms.   

She has ambitious plans for Fierce; she is expanding the collection and wants to become a market leader in Tunisia. Next is exporting to Europe and the Middle East. With the funding they received, Fierce can hire more employees, increase the number of orders, and generate more revenue to sustain the business.