Female entrepreneurs in the MENA region have shed the cloak of invisibility and embraced networking as an important tool for growing their businesses.
A growing number of networking groups have launched across the UAE, Gulf and wider Middle East, bringing together some of the most talented, ambitious, and business savvy businesswomen in the area, helping them to broaden their circles of experience, influence and interaction, and boosting female entrepreneurship as a whole.
On top of this, women have also been setting up more and more technology companies, entering what has previously been viewed as a male-dominated sector.
Combining this burst of activity in technology, and networking, Global Thinkers Forum (GTF), Google MENA and Oasis500 recently teamed up to, for the first time, focus on aspiring female tech entrepreneurs and help them break out of some of the remaining stereotypes.
Google MENA’s office in Dubai Internet City was almost bursting at the seams earlier this year as it played host to entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and media representatives eager to support eight young women who pitched their business proposals to a selected crowd of investors.
StartUp was also there to watch their five-minute presentations, listen to the investors’ questions and feedback, and take the opportunity to craft a more detailed picture of today’s Arabic female entrepreneur.
Since moving to the Gulf in 2006, Elizabeth Filippouli, founder and CEO of GTF, has embarked on a journey to explore, understand and break some of the stereotypes about Arab women in the West.
She says: “The stereotypes are that women in the Arab world are restricted in many ways. I used to attend many similar events, which didn’t target women in particular, but interestingly the majority of CEOs, who were pitching their ideas, were women. So my experience from living in the Gulf is that women are very much empowered.”
With a group of forward-thinkers and change-makers, she launched GTF in 2012 in Jordan with a commitment to actively help young or aspiring entrepreneurs realise their dream by providing them with knowledge on how to transform their idea from a vague concept to a real venture.
One such entrepreneur is Riham Mahafzah, founder and CEO of Gallery AlSharq, who was one of the eight pitchers at the event.
Her motivation, she says, is to present a more realistic image of an Arab female in business.
“I wanted to grab everybody’s attention about the reality of having different perspectives between the East and the West,” she says. “It is for us, the Arabs, to show to the world our real identity.”
Founded in 2011, Gallery AlSharq is an online provider of exclusive oriental and Middle Eastern stock photography images and digital content. Her start-up has already built its reputation as the winner of the MENA 100 Business Plan Competition and the MIT Entreprise Forum Arab Startup second runner-up in 2012-2013, which provided her with the opportunity to be advised by start-up mentors from Silicon Valley.
“Our mission is to show that there is always another side of any story, and that, for example, a veiled woman can shine, work hard and pay back to her community,” she adds.
Another young businesswoman at the event was Randa Jazaeri, COO of Zaytouneh, which aims to be MENA’s largest video recipe website, catering for the 85 percent of Arab women who usually cook at least five times a week.
She explains that branching out on their own hasn’t always been easy for women in the region.
“One of the female entrepreneurs that was actually the inspiration behind our business – our first chef, and one of our advisors til this day – is the mother of our founder and CEO, Fida Taher.
“She started her catering business in Jordan when not so many women were even thinking about it, and I think that was very courageous of her.
“I do believe that a decade or two ago there were women who had good ideas, but they faced so many barriers which prevented them from taking the necessary actions to turn their dreams into reality.”
Those women led the way for the new generation of female entrepreneurs to shatter glass ceilings, although certain cultural norms and local traditions still prove to be restricting.
Jazaeri adds: “We have definitely had some issues because we are women – for example, when we were dealing with a potential client from Saudi Arabia, he refused to talk to a woman over the phone, so we had to find a facilitator for our communication.
“We need more of these events that present to the public how successful women are in starting up businesses. There will always be some barriers for women in business, although they have been decreasing, especially in the Middle East.”
When questioned about the percentage of women willing to invest, Jazaeri explains that a few female investors are currently considering whether to invest in their business, but that to date all of their investors have been men.
“It’s impressive that now there are women investors – they are actually exploring opportunities to start investing,” she adds.
According to the BCG Global Wealth Report 2013, private wealth in the MENA region grew by 9.1 percent to reach $4.8tr in 2012, and is predicted to grow to an estimated $6.5tr by the end of 2017.
And while the prevailing traditional family values in the region often mean men are dominant when it comes to making financial decisions, a growing part of this private wealth is being held and controlled by women who have become increasingly interested in supporting start-ups.
Filippouli agrees that women in the GCC are outnumbered by men when it comes to investing, which might be a new way for women in the region to empower each other.
“I definitely think that there is a space there – to welcome Arab women into the investment community and see more of them as angel investors or venture capitalists,” she adds.
She points to the success of a handful of women who have been key in the support of young women through special grants and award programmes: Raja Al Gurg, president of the Dubai Business Women’s Council, and H.H. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, to name but two.
Although the regional entrepreneurial landscape has changed significantly over the years, there is still room for improvement. Google MENA has been active on that front by pointing out that there is a market and a demand for female entrepreneurs to start their businesses using the internet.
According to Google’s research, three percent of all tech companies are led by women and seven percent of venture capital goes to female founded companies, which have proven to be more capital efficient, providing 35 percent higher return on investment.
“We want female entrepreneurs here to understand the advantages of being online and give them an opportunity to meet potential investors. We are also very happy with the ideas presented today because all of them are creating online content in Arabic,” says Maha Abouelenein, head of global communications and public affairs at Google MENA.
Native Arabic speakers have embraced the internet at an incredibly fast rate in recent years, rising from 27.2 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2013, according to a recently published report on the top 30 online languages by Common Sense Advisory, a global market research provider.
However, only three percent of online content is in Arabic.
“If you want the internet to be relevant for users in the Middle East, its content needs to be in Arabic,” Abouelenein adds.
The current lack of high-quality Arabic online content represents a great opportunity for female tech entrepreneurs in the region, according to Common Sense Advisory.
Its report estimates that the share of the total economic opportunity, measured as the relative spending power of online Arab population within the global marketplace in 2013, stands at an encouraging 19.3 percent.
Abouelenein adds that Google MENA’s aim is to create a dialogue between all relevant stakeholders, and then jointly grow the ecosystem to support female tech entrepreneurs.
Stephanie Holden, head of MBC Ventures, MBC’s venture capital investment arm, agrees the entrepreneurship space in the region is still at a very early stage and requires a lot of nurturing.
She says: “At present, one of the challenges is the lack of funding beyond series A – all of these companies get the initial funding, but it is very difficult for them to sustain those funds, which should help them reach the level at which they can become profitable.
“Another challenge is their ability to scale. Lastly, the size of payments in any of the small regional markets and the actual possibility to get paid are also important issues.”
The constant encouragement of an entrepreneurial culture by providing straightforward advice, theme-focused training and networking events, has been a cornerstone of successful business communities like Silicon Valley.
Having spent a month in Silicon Valley, Mahafzah says she returned to Jordan with a new business vision: “I planned to focus on the region only, but more than one person there told me, ‘It’s bigger than you expect’. It was eye-opening advice that my market is actually global – they changed my perspective of my own business.”
For all these reasons, the start-up owners, investors and all other attendees of the event were unanimously in praise of the new initiative which will start to reveal a new, promising picture of female entrepreneurship in the region – a more complete image than has ever existed.
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