When Susan Sarandon visited refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos at Christmas 2015, she asked each one three questions: Hold old are you? Where are you from? What is your job?

Architect, teacher, lawyer, they said, and spoke to her about wanting to go back to work.

Her new venture, a documentary film called Soufra, which she executive-produced through Rebelhouse Group and Pilgrim Media, looks at the value of how work and entrepreneurship empowers people. It’s also designed to help Americans see refugees as people instead of a concept. “This is about seeing refugees as individuals, as people,” Sarandon said in an interview with CNBC. “This is about believing they can have a dream.”

The number of women entrepreneurs is exploding around the world — and the issue is beginning to draw attention from celebrities, investors and others. The universality of the cause makes for strange bedfellows. Last week Ivanka Trump was in India giving a speech on women entrepreneurs at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, while Soufra was set to show again in New York City. Producers, including Kathleen Glynn, who also produced Bowling for Columbine, hope it will make the shortlist for a documentary Oscar. Sarandon is a longtime activist for women in politics and liberal causes.

The film follows Mariam Shaar, who was born into an environment seemingly designed to snuff out hope: a Palestinian refugee camp called Burj el-Barajneh in Beirut, Lebanon.

Soufra tells how Shaar struggles to buy a food truck to employ a half dozen other women in her community, including refugees from Iraq and Syria. Soufra means feast in Arabic.

“I hope the film encourages people to understand the breadth of what we are trying to achieve,” Shaar said in an interview. “Dignified employment for women, high-quality education and better, more productive lives.”

Helping women rise up

Over the past year, 163 million women were starting businesses across 74 economies worldwide, reflecting a 10 percent increase in entrepreneurial activity between 2014 and 2016, according to Babson College’s Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Meanwhile, more investors are paying attention to women’s entrepreneurship. The amount of money flowing to investment through a so-called gender lens has grown to $2.2 billion, up from $561 million a year ago, according to Veris Wealth Partners LLC.

Increasingly, impact investors and activists see women entrepreneurs in emerging markets as a vehicle for financial returns and as one of the most powerful levers for economic development and social change. Rebelhouse Group calls itself an impact entertainment company and raises money for the subjects of its films.

Susan Sarandon holding a baby at a refuge camp in Greece.
Source: Tyson Sadler | RYOT News

“More and more we (at Rebelhouse Group) are leaning toward social entrepreneurship for the impact so that our results last beyond the initial push of charitable enthusiasm for our films. In this case, the appeal of Shaar and her story came first,” said director Tom Morgan by email. “But we could see pretty early on that this was also a story of an intrepid entrepreneur that went far beyond geography, gender or social status.”

As Soufra shows, Shaar founded a catering company in the refugee camp, which has a population density of 50,000 per square kilometer and where people live with dangerous makeshift electricity running in hamstrung wires above narrow streets, in cinder block rooms even without kitchens, doing their cooking on makeshift stoves. Fires are common.

In Lebanon, as in other Middle Eastern countries that have absorbed millions of refugees over decades of crises in the region, it is difficult and sometimes illegal to find work. As a result, “there is no melting with the outside world, so the (refugees) stay,” Shaar says in the film, explaining how the lack of access to any kind of career that could enable starting a family eventually kills even young people’s hope.

Shaar had the luck to cross paths with Alfanar, which calls itself “venture philanthropy.” It invests in women entrepreneurs in the Middle East. It has so far invested $325,000 in Shaar’s ventures and plans to invest another $200,000 to make them self-sustaining. Soufra cost under $750,000 to make, not including in-kind donations. Pilgrim Media provided finishing funds.

“This is about believing they [refugees] can have a dream.”

Susan Sarandon, actress and activist

“We have seen time and again that women entrepreneurs exhibit the grit needed to see their ventures through, and they direct revenue generated to improving their families and communities quite consistently,” said Myrna Atalla, executive director.

The foundation was set up in 2004 by a former Goldman Sachs managing director, Tarek Ben Halim, who died in 2009 of brain cancer. It’s currently chaired by Lubna Olayan, one of the Middle East’s most powerful women and one of Saudi Arabia’s billionaire Olayan family.

Alfanar tipped off Rebelhouse’s Morgan, that they were working win an unusually persistent and telegenic entrepreneur with a compelling story. For instance, AlShaar had left high school after only two years but then ensured that her five younger sisters graduated university. “People tell me not to worry,” she said in the film. “I worry about everything.”

Shaar’s catering business succeeds, but provides only seasonal income for women in the camp, so she decides to buy a food truck, getting an investment from Alfanar.

The film shows her winding her way through Lebanon’s Byzantine regulatory system, only to be put off time and again. She heads to a truck showroom to buy the vehicle anyway, but a salesman refuses to sell her one. “Where is your paper?” he asks.

Businesses cannot be registered without a physical address, but land within the refugee camp cannot be registered. To get a food truck, Shaar eventually rehabs a whole new kitchen outside the camp. “I thought we’d have the world’s shortest film,” said Morgan. “It is so far-fetched and yet so inspiring.”

Against all odds

Many entrepreneurs in the United States have little concept of what a woman faces trying to start a business in a place like Lebanon. Automobile entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin attended a screening in New York and said afterward he was moved. When the Lebanese legal system threw up another obstacle, he muttered under his breath, “Son of a … they won’t even let the people come up by their fingertips.”

Women entrepreneurs in emerging markets face higher, and sometimes impenetrable, obstacles, says Donna Kelley, Ph.D., entrepreneurship professor at Babson College. She said investments and programs such as Alfanar’s help, but in a limited way. “Obstacles themselves need to be dismantled. This, of course, is the hard part — for example, changing the finance system to eliminate gender bias is much more difficult than helping women improve their finance pitches and strategies.”

Yet the film ends on a few hopeful notes. Having helped Shaar through the legal system, her lawyer notes that now others will know which process will work. Shaar’s food truck and catering, which is profitable, employs a half-dozen women steadily; profits are likely to grow by more than 25 percent this year over last, to nearly $75,000, said Atalla.

Shaar, meanwhile, is adding another venture to her list: With funding from Alfanar, she is building a preschool and has just started accepting applications for teacher training. “A person is developed and structured, their personality and future, from childhood,” she said. “If we can work with parents and work with our community, we can begin to fix many of the issues.”

—By Elizabeth MacBride, special to CNBC.com

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.