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Despite many challenges, women entrepreneurs thrive in the Middle East

Sindhu Kashyap
3rd Apr 2018
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The shift from the oil economy towards a tech-driven world has led more women in the Middle East towards entrepreneurship. A study has revealed that close to 33 percent of women-run enterprises in UAE generate revenues higher than $100,000 as compared with 13 percent in the US. 

It was the first week of March and the middle of Startup Bahrain week. At the famous Formula One racetrack at Bahrain, startups and tech enthusiasts from across the MENA region (Middle East, North Africa) were braving the desert heat to listen to investors, mentors, and successful entrepreneurs.

The Middle East tends to bring to mind images of burkha-clad women, staying away from the crowd and restricted to their homes. However, the reality is surprisingly different. The makeshift tent, which had conference rooms, lounge areas, and exhibition centres, had a strong and fair representation of women entrepreneurs and technologists.

From manning stalls and selling their products/services to being a part of panel discussions and handling accelerators, women were an essential part of the Startup Bahrain Week. Pleasantly surprised, I decided to dig deeper. And surprise, surprise - across the Arab world, women get more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the US.

The progress of the region’s female entrepreneurs is at par with their counterparts in Western Europe and North America. A study revealed that close to 33 percent of women-run enterprises in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) generate revenues higher than $100,000, as compared with 13 percent in the US market.

Women entrepreneurs in the Middle East also have the needed experience - the average work experience in the UAE is six years; it’s 11 years in Lebanon. The MENA also has the highest number of women as sole owners - 40 percent are in Lebanon, while 60 percent are in Bahrain.

Source: Payfort InfographicImage credit: Anisha

Evidence of this was seen at the Bahrain Startup Week. Some of the women entrepreneurs present at Bahrain startup week were:

  1. Mona Ataya , Founder and CEO, Mumzworld 

“Being an entrepreneur isn’t an easy task. You need to work every single day and minute, and it isn’t for everyone,” said Mona Ataya, in a panel discussion at Startup Bahrain Week. She is the Founder and CEO of Mumzworld, the first all-around marketplace for mothers, babies, and children.

“I saw there was a big gap in this space in the Middle Eastern market. Women needed better quality products for babies and children, and that is when I conceptualised Mumzworld,” Mona said.

This is Mona’s second startup. She had earlier started Bayt, an online jobs search engine.

A woman entrepreneur conversing with investors at Startup Bahrain
  1. Nada Alawi, Founder and Creative Director, Annada Online

Bustling with energy and wearing a smile on her face, Nada Alawi at Startup Bahrain was spotted in one of her designer scarves. She’s the Founder of Annada Online, a company that custom makes and sells scarves, abayas, notebooks and other similar products.

“I simply loved the Hermes scarves. But the designs and art on them were Western. I wanted similar quality scarves that would showcase our culture and tradition. Our scarves, abayas and everything that we make has art designed by local artists,” Nada said.
  1. Lana Al-Attar, Founder, Google Developer Group Bahrain, and  Social Tech Entrepreneur, GudJuju

While there were several other women entrepreneurs pitching their products to investors, potential clients and accelerators, what caught my eye were the women manning the stalls. One who stood out was Lana Al-Attar, Founder, Google Developer Group Bahrain, and a social tech entrepreneur with GudJuju and Safa.

With the Google Developer Group, Lana helps teach people development, coding, and all development-related projects. GudJuju, which focuses on social or responsible tech, offers design, branding and development services. The focus, however, is CSR at no extra cost. This also led to the birth of Safa, an online marketplace where people can sell their products.

Sometimes you have to say no to the cupcake maker or the pickle maker; I don’t want to tell them you don’t have money to make more money for your business. So I set up this platform; you only get charged when you make a sale,” Lana said.
At Startup Bahrain Week

A push in a nascent tech and startup world 

According to a MarketsandMarkets report, the number of startups in the Middle East has grown by about 46.2 percent compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over the past three years.

“One of the biggest advantages of stepping up operations in Bahrain is the fact that it acts a gateway to several regions in the MENA (the Middle East and North America region) and Europe. Also, it gives you exposure and time to understand and set right the glitches,” an entrepreneur at Unbound Bahrain said.

Women too are moving ahead and taking advantage of this boom. A report by Al Masah Capital reported that over 25 percent new startups are being founded by women. Women in the GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) reportedly have assets worth $385 billion to manage through small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

“In Bahrain especially, there are several women who are highly qualified and educated. They are looking at different avenues to push, explore, and use this knowledge. Since there is a growing move from the oil economy towards a tech-driven world, women are looking keenly at entrepreneurship,” an investor at Unbound Bahrain said.

Starting up in the Middle East

The MENA region is home to several family-run offices and businesses. While any VC from the Valley or the West is yet to look that closely at the Middle East, startups like Souk and Careem have gained strong visibility. Apart from that, native fund houses and investors are looking keenly at these startups.

Lina Hussien, Head of Communications and Social Impact, Zubair SEC added that starting up a business in Oman is not necessarily gender limited; opportunities are there for men and women, but the journey could vary depending on the business domain that the entrepreneur or startup owner chooses to endeavor in. Zubair SEC, an incubator for small businesses in Oman, it houses close to 230 women-run businesses.

Explaining further, Lina said:

“Some challenges could arise in industries or businesses that have been perceived as male-dominant, where the woman needs to overcome certain perceptions to be able to move on with her business. Like the success story of one of Zubair SEC’s Direct Support Programme winners for year 2016. Aliya Al Nabhani, who started a poultry farm in Nizwa, Oman, has grown from having a humble domestic barn of 500 chickens per month. She had a 180 percent growth rate achieved through her four barns, in less than four years since she started her business.”

A recent report also suggested that women-owned business work as a catalyst that aids economic development and employment. It is believed that the regional GDP can be increased by over 47 percent in the next 10 years, creating impact worth $600 billion.

While any new startup can create jobs, women-owned firms would balance out the workforce, bringing in more women into the fold. However, there still are challenges; close to 70 percent of women-led enterprises were denied funding. This has changed in the past year with investors and traditional banks opening up to the idea of women-led businesses.

At Unbound Bahrain, Startup Bahrain Week

Funding galore

There also has been an increase in funding in 2016. Close to $1 billion was raised by startups in the Middle East, as opposed to $200 million the previous year.

Lina said: “I believe that financing and credit facilitation opportunities are equally available for men and women in Oman; financing options are available through most banks, as well as some public sector funds.”

Apart from this, global funds like Ivanka Trump’s The Women Entrepreneurship Fund, Cherie Blaire Foundation, and The Global Women’s Fund have over the past two years pushed their efforts towards investing in women-led businesses in the MENA region.

There also is UAE-based Womena, which sources startups for direct angel investment and also mentors and educates women entrepreneurs.

A young woman entrepreneur from UAE said most investors are now willing to talk to them. “They are more focused on the kind of products we are building and not our gender,” she said.

Though traditional institutes still consider women-run businesses to be riskier, but a few VCs are changing their outlook.

Walid Faza, Partner, Wamda Capital, said: “It is the time of women-run entrepreneurs. The previous generation of heavy industry and warfare was run by the men. Women are the leaders of technology, especially technology that needs to have a strong accountability related focus. It is the women who will govern and lead the tech world towards development and growth.”

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