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The average American entrepreneur would probably look at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and think, "I'm definitely not starting a business there."

Not in a country with daunting red tape and restrictions on foreign businesses. Not when Saudi women are barred from attending university, traveling, or marrying without the permission of a father, husband, brother, or son. Certainly not after October, when Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered by Saudi assassins with government ties.

Jennifer Vaughan Maanavi and Tanya Becker aren't average American entrepreneurs. The 47-year-old co-founders of Physique 57, a New York City-based workout chain that caters to wealthy women, decided four years ago to open an outpost in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital. They haven't looked back.

"I'm not political," Maanavi told Inc. editor-at-large Maria Aspan, who traveled to Riyadh for the studio's recent launch party. "Whatever is happening with them politically, it must remain separate from our mission to help empower women." Of course, that's easier said than done. As Aspan writes: "Can any company today really separate its mission from its politics?"

Maanavi and Becker face a serious challenge: How do you build a business--and one with a women's empowerment mantra--in a country known for its restrictions on women? Up until recently, female-only gyms weren't really even legal in Saudi Arabia. You'll have to read the full, fascinating story to find out.

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Published on: Feb 20, 2019