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Sun 11 Feb 2007 12:00 PM

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Driving Forsa

Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid, CEO of a new US$272m investment fund for women, tell us what it means for local entrepreneurs.

"I want to provide women with opportunities to invest in this economic boom," smiles Forsa CEO Shamsa Noor Ali Rashid, as she reclines behind a neatly organised desk in her spacious light-flooded office, overlooking a typically-bustling Sheikh Zayed Road.

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 opportunities. Now, with Forsa, a fund created by and dedicated to women, she is certainly proud to say they do.

"The Forsa idea started with Dubai World. We started thinking 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 scaleable. "From an entrepreneurial angle, we will only invest in companies that we believe are scaleable 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 really 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, not only in the region, but 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.

To Rashid nothing stands in the way of achievement and nothing is impossible.

"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 says. "I think most things are doable 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. She is looking for excitement, 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, 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 stubbornly fixed on the opinion that gender is not an issue. She rationalises that people in any given business are defined by what they bring to the table. "It's really the money that talks, the profits that define businesses, not the genders," she says.

The access is growing by the day in this part of the world, proposes Rashid. And with the increasing growth in the UAE population and with women constituting 50% of the UAE national population, it is more than reasonable to push women to participate in arising business opportunities. Failing to do so, Rashid believes, is "not justifying the manpower, brain power and intellectual capacity that exists among the nationals of these countries". Today, Rashid sees women of the region as able to take on challenges depending on their skill, capability, commitment and passion to drive their careers and businesses. She hopes that with Forsa they will be able to do that, however, Rashid remains a firm believer in owning your own destiny.

"I don't believe in anybody else giving you anything. It's your world, your life, it's not a dress rehearsal, take it seriously. You have to figure out what you want and how you want to get it.

"I am sorry if I don't give a popular answer stating that we're being discriminated against. I am not saying by any means that the world is equal but at the same time the limits are in your mind and in your capacity," she says.

Forsa is currently in the process of forming its board, which will soon be announced, and putting its "systems" in place. This will be finalised in a couple of months, predicts Rashid, after which the company will start approaching entrepreneurs with investment ideas.

"We have the commitment of Dubai World to provide us with exclusive opportunities. Dubai World is a conglomerate with many different companies and is constantly giving women prospects in which to invest," says Rashid.

Forsa is also strategically partnered with Nakheel, one of the region's leading property companies, and Istithmar, a leading UAE-based global investment house.

While Nakheel will "extend its real estate expertise to women investors and entrepreneurs", Istithmar will focus on creating financial offerings and opportunities for women.

Although Forsa is a fund dedicated to women, Rashid sees both men and women excited by the concept. Men will indirectly be able to participate in the fund through their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.

"In the end I think today's mindset of men in the country is very different and they want to participate, they want their women to be involved - and they want to be proud of their wives and daughters as accomplished businesswomen, as they are accomplished investors themselves," emphasises Rashid.

On the UAE and the opportunities it offers, Rashid is very confident in the UAE leadership and is pleased with the numerous opportunities and open doors in the region that allows people to take on leading roles in all facets of their lives whether social, economic, government or private. "The business mindset in the country is extremely positive, the economic boom is right in front of us so let's go in and leverage the opportunity and take off," she says.

Comparing working abroad to the UAE, Rashid sees the differences mainly in the maturity of US and UK economies and the predictability of their economical cycles. GCC countries, however, have the characteristics of growing economies, which have less predictable cycles, bigger opportunities, and more room for people to propose innovative ideas that can make a difference. Forsa, Rashid believes, is one of those ideas.

"Forsa is a very innovative concept in this part of the world. It's a concept that allows women investors to invest big time into a fund, allows entrepreneurs to go out and develop their entrepreneurial skills, and allows women to develop professional leadership," Rashid confidently explains.

In order for women to be effective CEOs, Rashid is insistent that they get the proper education and MBAs from professional schools as well as be trained perfectly in financial analysis, marketing and all aspects of business.

"In order for you to provide the right leadership in any corporation you must be well-rounded in general management, to have people skills, understand financials, marketing, project-positioning and networking. All of these are prerequisites for female business leadership," according to Rashid. She hopes that through the Forsa Foundation, a not-for-profit training entity, this will be achievable in the near future.

"Ever since I was in college and started my professional life, I always saw myself as being successful and able to run companies," she says. "If you have the vision of who you are and where you want to be in 10 years time then you will get there. It's internally driven."

The three most vital elements to be successful in any career, in Rashid's opinion, are skill, desire and motivation. In order to achieve in your life, she believes one must have all three. "I think every businessman and businesswoman knows that intuitively we drive our businesses with our vision, focus and commitment and a very objective result mindset. If you can do that you can achieve anything," she says.

Currently busy finalising Forsa's infrastructure and recruiting the best management team to run the fund, Rashid is optimistic, expecting the first fund to be launched in the next few months, accompanied by a roadshow. Rashid invites women investors to look into Forsa as a unique opportunity that guarantees success. "I hope that a lot of women investors will look into it and want to be partners with us in launching this fund," she says.

And looking forward to three years from now? Rashid smiles again. "I'll enjoy being very proud of Forsa for what it has accomplished."

Female CEOs of the future

Forsa Foundation was founded by Forsa but is separate from the fund and its investors. The foundation, a not-for-profit entity, has one main aim: “To try and work on trading and building the leadership pipeline of businesswomen leaders of tomorrow,” Rashid explains.

The programme of courses at the Forsa Foundation will be announced very soon, according to Rashid. So far, the foundation has aligned itself with two leading business schools, INSEAD in Europe and Wharton School of Business in the US.

The body has also gained the commitment of 12 local and international corporations that support its goal to nurture and grow female leadership. The foundation will recruit and select talented, ambitious young women and enroll them in its systematic leadership development programme.

“It’s a foundation that was set up by Forsa to encourage corporate citizens of the region to come in and put their money where their mouth is. If they are women-promoting companies then they are contributing to that foundation to allow it to build long-term strategic programmes for female leadership,” says Rashid.

She hopes, with the foundation, to raise female leaders through partnerships with regional and international corporations.

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 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 firlds of marketing, operations, business development, IT development and strategic planning.

“We are not sitting here waiting for women to line up and tell us they have a coffee shop or spa idea”
“Some are driven by power... I would say I am driven by the challenge more than anything else”
“Forsa is a very innovative concept in this part of the world. It’s a concept that allows women investors to invest big time into a fund, and allows entrepreneurs to go out and develop skills”

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Chris 12 years ago

Brillant idea!! i am an arab lady and work in construction industry.Women leading! this is kind of revolution againt common wrong concepts in the arabian gulf and the ME.  Ms Shamsa Rashid proves again that Women plan and lead and enjoy success.   Ladies, Forsa has prepared the ground, having the ball and developped skills, what you need is to target with strategy, shoot with confidence and score with sucess.

Umara Shamim 12 years ago

i am an expat business women. who is single handedly managing an IT company. I would like to know if FORSA is open for non UAE NATIONALS. In anycase its a great platform for a lot of women out there like myself, and a door to achieve their dreams.

Katejm 11 years ago

Excellent article on the role of women in business in Saudi Arabia. I am taking a Technical Writing class at our local community college and the article provided me with some very good information needed for an ethics project dealing with a fictional Saudi Arabian petroleum company. Happy to have found you in doing my research. Thank You! Katejm