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Thu 1 Mar 2007 12:00 AM

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Closing the gap

The number of affluent women in the Middle East is rising sharply, but are there enough places for them to find financial advice and investment opportunities? Last month saw the launch of two new services which hope to tap into the billions of dollars in assets held by women across the region. Tamara Walid reports.

Women in the UAE have serious investment power with many holding fortunes of well over US$1m in assets. There are 4100 businesswomen in Dubai, 3000 in Abu Dhabi and over 2500 in Sharjah and their numbers are rising by over 10% a year. Yet despite these impressive figures many of these assets have remained untapped, due to the absence of any dedicated women-only funds — specialising in advising females on investment decisions.

All that is about to change however, with the setting up of Forsa — an ‘exclusive’ US$270m fund launched by Dubai World that will only be open to female investors in the UAE.

The female investment scene is also set to be revolutionised by the arrival of Nicola Horlick — dubbed the ‘superwoman’ of the UK’s fund management world — who is to set up a wealth management service aimed exclusively at the region’s most well-off women.

The service, called ‘Bramdiva’, is set to launch in Dubai this year, and — upon its expansion across the GCC — aims to attract up to US$1.5bn in regional wealth within the next four years.

“I think everyone agrees that there is a need in this region to have a female-focused [wealth service],” Horlick says.

Forsa — which will form partnerships with Dubai World companies including DP World, Istithmar and Limitless — will also be aimed at encouraging female entrepreneurs to explore new business opportunities.

“I want to provide women with opportunities to invest in this economic boom,” says Forsa CEO Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid. After over 25 years of working abroad in the US and UK, gaining considerable experience at Procter & Gamble as well as establishing and then selling her own IT company, Rashid is convinced the time has come to “give back” to her country, especially to women.

Obtaining an MBA degree from the University of Chicago and being one of the first Emirati women to study abroad, Rashid is a firm believer in making your own way through life, however, she also affirms that women in the region do not always have access to enough opportunities. Now, with Forsa, a fund created by and dedicated to women, she is proud to say they do. “The Forsa idea started with Dubai World. We started thinking about how we could form a company that allows women who have a lot of money sitting on the side to have the opportunity to invest in some of the more lucrative projects in the region,” explains Rashid.

Launched on January 15, Forsa is aiming to create a US$272m fund that will invest in various sectors including real estate, education, retail, health and technology. Even before the fund’s launch, Forsa has managed to attain over US$27.2m of firm commitments towards its target.

Although the fund will focus on start-up businesses for women entrepreneurs, it will only target large-scale projects with high returns on investment, as opposed to one-of-a-kind small businesses.

“We are a fund, not a charity,” stresses Rashid, asserting that the focus will mainly be on providing women investors putting their money into the fund with the “best returns”.

“We are truly a fund just like any other that is well-managed, and that has a professional depth that allows you to evaluate business in the right way, with the right parameters of return and business growth,” Rashid says.

She adds that the only way to return money to investors in any fund is by determining the exit strategy — whether through an IPO, sale to a larger company or a joint venture agreement. Forsa will look to invest in opportunities with a three to seven-year exit strategy. These exits, Rashid says, are only possible when businesses are scalable. “From an entrepreneurial angle, we will only invest in companies that we believe are scalable and those that we think are going to become extremely large and extremely successful.”

She adds Forsa will not wait for opportunities, but instead seek them out. Rashid explains: “We are not sitting here waiting for women to line up and tell us they have a coffee shop, boutique or spa idea. These ideas in themselves are great, and we encourage women to go and develop their entrepreneurial skills, but the fund does not have the management scalability to address those small businesses.”

Forsa’s main aim will be to identify those large-scale businesses, present them to investors and entrepreneurs who in turn might be interested in taking them on, and running them with their own equity.

“We’re not saying we will fund every business that comes our way,” she says.

Rashid is convinced Forsa is the only “platform” of its kind in the region offering a set of benefits in one bundle. “It’s a fund so it provides women investors with the opportunity to invest but it also gives entrepreneurs the chance to come back and put their money in the businesses to reap the benefits of its growth,” she says.

Although Rashid acknowledges there are a number of women-focused funds in Europe and the US, she believes they do not compare to Forsa’s “unique approach and unified platform”. As such, she sees it as the first fund of its kind in the world.

Forsa will start by looking at women in the UAE, GCC, and the MENA region but Rashid says there’s much more to the idea. “The vision is to make it a world-renowned company,” she says.

This will be attainable, she explains, through a strong management team and experienced personnel.

Rashid herself has over 25 years of experience in the US and UK. In 1995, Rashid, along with her husband and another business partner, founded iManage, an IT company in Silicon Valley in the US with an initial investment of US$25,000.

The technology software company went public in 1999 and was then traded on NASDAQ. Once it became successful, Rashid decided to sell it to a large US company for a then-record US$200m and headed back home to the UAE.

“It was one of the best rides of my life and if there’s one thing I wouldn’t mind doing with Forsa once again, it’s what I did with iManage,” she says.

“People are driven by different things. Some are driven by power, others by money, I would say I am driven by the challenge more than anything else,” she quickly adds.

“I think most things are do-able but they take commitment, a vision, focus and a very objective mindset towards the delivery of results.”

At the moment, Forsa is that challenge. Rashid does not need to work. But she is looking for excitement, and she has an idea she is passionate about, and an opportunity unlike any other on a global scale.

“Forsa is going to be an amazing company five years down the road. When we look back I think Forsa will be a power, and a company that we, as a nation, will be proud of having created,” she says proudly.

Rashid, however, is convinced such a company is long overdue. “When you really look at the amazing amount of wealth, smart people, and intellectual capacity of women from this region, I think we have undersold to them.” Rashid believes there is a lot of room in the regional market for such opportunities to be open to women. She explains that although a great number of women have, either by inheritance or self-created wealth, huge amounts of money, most of the time they do not participate in the numerous existing investment opportunities. “Usually they are neither aware nor have access to invest in these projects,” she says. Through Forsa, women with investment capacity can pour their millions into the fund as investors. This in turn gives the fund the buying power to go into bigger projects and invest in them.

This prospect would certainly not otherwise be accessible to these women, believes Rashid.

Nevertheless, Rashid believes business in the GCC and the Middle East is rapidly changing. There might be a lack of access for women, but even that particular trend is steadily shifting.

“The mindset of the country, the GCC and the world is changing. The world is very much becoming a global stage and in the business world what matters is what you bring to the table. It matters not whether you’re a woman or a man,” she clarifies.

Rashid is of course soon about to get some competition — Nicola Horlick has embarked on a two-week “fact-finding” tour of the region covering the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait to consult with potential partners.

Her Bramdiva service will offer advice on investment opportunities, as well as a number of other services appropriate to the country of operation.

The extent of services offered will depend very much on demand and local sensitivities. In Saudi Arabia – where Bramdiva is set to launch after Dubai — the service could focus solely on investment advice.

“There aren’t any female investment advisers [in Saudi],” says Horlick, making the point that this makes it difficult for lone females to approach advisers. However, while welcoming the launch of Forsa as “opening up the market”, Horlick says that Bramdiva will be more of a “mix and match” service that will allow women to diversify their investments.

“No woman is going to put their entire wealth in that one fund [Forsa],” she says. “Our aim is to manage a woman’s total wealth,” she says.

And between the two of them, Forsa and Bramdiva are likely to do just that, providing women in the Middle East with plenty of opportunities to grow their expanding fortunes even further.

The Gulf's leading female CEOs

HE Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi

UAE Minister Of Economy Al Qasimi made history in the UAE in 2004 as the first woman to be given a cabinet position. Previously she was chief executive of Tejari, one of the leading electronic business-to-business marketplaces in the Middle East, when it was launched in 2000.

Before heading Tejari, Al Qasimi held a senior managerial position at Dubai Ports World Authority for over seven years. Recently, along with author Zeinab Karake Shalhoub, she published “The Diffusion of e-Commerce in Developing Economies: A Resource-based Approach”, a book about electronic commerce in developing countries.

Nahed Taher

CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank (Saudi Arabia)

Dr Nahed Mohammed Taher is the founder and CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and was the first woman in the Gulf to hold such a high position in a bank. After being senior economist (and the sole female working among 4000 male employees) at National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia for three years, Taher decided to head into investment banking, founding Gulf One in 2005.

Establishing the company and filling the role of CEO hasn’t been easy. “Of course it has been difficult but it is really great to have this huge support and acceptance from the market in building a unique bank in terms of vision and a sophisticated business line,” the chief executive says.

Salma Hareb

CEO of Jafza (UAE)

In July of 2005 the Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (Jafza) was the first free zone in the Middle East and North Africa region to appoint a woman chief executive. From being the chief planning officer at Jafza, handling the development of its long-term plans, Salma Ali Saif Bin Hareb was promoted to CEO in a logistics industry sorely lacking in female presence. Her appointment drew both local and international attention. Hareb was educated in the UAE and United Kingdom and has vast experience in the fields of marketing, operations, business development, IT development and strategic planning.

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