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Fri 5 Jun 2015 09:30 AM

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Putting Saudi women first: Glowork's Khalid Alkhudair

Khalid Alkhudair gave up everything to create what at the time was considered unthinkable – a recruitment company for Saudi women. Four years on, the founder of Glowork is hoping to tap a hugely lucrative market to build a $1bn company

Putting Saudi women first: Glowork's Khalid Alkhudair

Everyone thought I was insane,” says Khalid Alkhudair. “It was really difficult. Nobody liked the idea.”

Four years ago, the 28-year-old Alkhudair left a comfortable job at auditor KPMG and set up Glowork, a company that focuses on solving female unemployment in Saudi Arabia. By his own estimates, Glowork has now helped over 26,000 women find direct jobs in the kingdom, while a far greater number have benefited from access to the firm’s advice and career fairs.

In the process, Glowork has gone from three employees to 63 and is building on its extensive database to create a giant that aims to tap into a hugely lucrative market. From e-commerce to apps, and from gyms to rapid regional expansion, the ambitious founder says his firm could soon be worth over a billion dollars.

From a wider perspective, Glowork has been at the heart of quiet yet seismic shift in the Arab world’s largest economy, which has been slow to recognise the vital contribution that women can make to the workforce. There are now eight times as many working Saudi women – 490,000 in total – than there were four years ago.

The official unemployment rate among Saudi nationals, according to the Central Department for Statistics and Information, is 11.7 percent. For women, however, the figure is much higher, at 32.5 percent, as of the end of last year. That is a slight decline on the 34 percent figure for 2013, and reflects efforts by the government to encourage more private firms to employ more women.

That push is being helped by Glowork, which has been trying to open up new sectors in which Saudi women can work. In 2010, Alkhudair advised a client to hire 11 women to work as cashiers at Panda supermarkets in Jeddah. That decision resulted in a backlash from conservatives, including prominent cleric Yusuf Al Ahmad, who called for a boycott against the stores, which decided to reassign the women.

“People weren’t very happy about that,” Alkhudair says, with considerable understatement. “At that time, it was the first time that women had worked in a public space outside hospitals.”

Only a few years later, the idea of women working as cashiers in stores is far more widely accepted. But the Panda episode caused Alkhudair to rethink his approach. Glowork instead focused on creating virtual offices, allowing women to work from home – a particular benefit in rural areas. That approach won recognition from the government, which asked the company for advice on legislation related to women working in the retail sector.

The subsequent publication of the law, which required that only women could work in lingerie shops, left Glowork as the go-to company for female recruitment, with the Ministry of Labour allowing the firm access to the data of all unemployed women in the kingdom.

Further steps have been taken since then, such as mandatory maternity leave in the private sector and regulations requiring onsite nurseries for firms that employ 50 women or more.

That data provided by the Ministry of Labour is proving pivotal to Glowork’s fortunes. Unemployment benefits, which are paid via the Hafiz programme, are currently costing the government about $10.6bn a year, paid out to a database of around 2.2 million people. Of those, roughly 1.4 million are women – and they are all on Glowork’s watch list.

“The average compensation per placement is about SR3,000 [$800] – so if you do the maths, that’s around a billion-dollar market,” Alkhudair says. “And I’m the only one focusing on that market.”

It’s also a market that is growing at a rapid rate. The Saudi population hit the 30 million mark last year, and has doubled in less than three decades. More than half the population is under the age of 25, and the unemployment rate for those below that age is estimated at 30 percent. There are roughly 200,000 Saudi students enrolled at colleges overseas, and 150,000 graduate each year at home in the kingdom. Of even greater relevance to Glowork is that fact that of the 800,000 Saudi graduates over the last five years, 500,000 were female.

Since its launch, Glowork has been steadily diversifying its revenue streams away from just recruitment. The company charges a fee for placements, and also takes a fee from the government if the new hire is from the Hafiz programme.

Then there’s the career fairs side of the business, which Alkhudair says will bring in $3m in revenues this year, and $5m in 2016. Over 60,000 women attended Glowork’s three events in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam this year, and the founder says roughly 2,000 were hired directly onsite. The growth has been substantial. Two years ago, just 49 companies turned up: this year over 270 prospective employers paid to attend. Those firms included global powerhouses such as McKinsey, Accenture, General Electric and ExxonMobil, as well as big-name local family firms like Zamil Group.

But perhaps Glowork’s biggest potential source of revenue is likely to be rolled out in just a few months’ time.

“We’re launching an innovative new app – I would call it a social recruitment platform,” Alkhudair says. “There’s a social side to it, so women can chat to one another, and a geomapping system enabling you to see how far companies are from your house.

“Then there’s the professional side, where employers can search for candidates based on different search criteria as well as the right target market for them.

“So if I’m a company like Zara, and I want to hire women, I can also advertise a new line of products directly to, say, single women in Riyadh who are 24 years old. This will allow us to expand into other countries – that’s the whole idea and aim.”

Also tied into the new app will be a new car-sharing service called Glocar, which will be dedicated specifically to Saudi women. That will compete existing players like Uber and the UAE’s Careem, both of which have already set up shop in several Saudi cities. Alkhudair says he is hoping to have that up and running by the end of the year.

The company is also hoping to use the app and its revamped website to tap into the Saudi e-commerce market, which is worth an estimated $13.3bn annually, according to Dubai-based PixHeart. Alkhudair cites recent research conducted by Aramex, which showed that 90 percent of the products bought in the kingdom were for women, but bought by men’s credit cards.

“The e-commerce platform in the kingdom has huge potential but it’s dead because there are no proper payment gateways and no proper structure,” he says. “How do I set up an online platform? What sort of regulations and approvals do I need? There’s nothing that’s really clear.

 “At the same time banks aren’t doing enough to educate people about the safety of using credit cards. I can tell you that people in rural areas – which is a high percentage of the population – they love to buy things online but they are worried about it.”

Lastly, Glowork is also hoping to invest heavily in Glowfit, a chain of fitness centres dedicated to women. It may come as a surprise to learn that there is only one gym in Saudi Arabia purely for women (as opposed to the many spas with gyms onsite), so again, it seems that there should be plenty of room for growth.

“Our first gym opened just recently, in March,” Alkhudair says. “We went back and forth to get it up and running – it was very difficult and challenging. There’s spinning, Zumba, pilates and yoga, and only one other gym does that – and it’s owned by a member of the royal family so that’s the only reason it was operating.

“We’re testing the waters. The idea is that we use it as a flagship and then we do want to open many more, even in different countries.”

Two years ago, Riyadh-based SAS Holding bought a 51 percent stake in Glowork for $16m, a sum that Alkhudair says has been critical to the growth of the firm so far.

However, he says there is no urgent need for further financing unless the gyms plan is successful and more sites are needed.  

For the near future, Alkhudair has his eyes set on expansion outside Saudi Arabia. Glowork has already teamed up with Silatech in Doha to launch psychometric tests for university students, in a bid to help them decide which courses they are best suited for. If all goes well with the development of the website and app, the founder says he hopes to have an operation up and running in Qatar by the end of the year.

“We are hoping to look at Doha first,” he says. “It’s a small market – we want to make sure that we get our guidelines for expansion done properly first. The way we will do that is through universities, colleges and the government.”

Further down the line, Alkhudair says Oman and Dubai are also potential target areas. In the longer term, he is not shy about his ambitions for the company, which he says will boast a workforce of 140 by the middle of next year. In addition, the firm will also be working closely with the Saudi government to set up training centres – what he terms “a KidZania for adults” – along the lines of the UK’s social welfare system.

He also says he wants to give back to a government that has been exceptionally supportive of his plans.

“Continuously, on a day-to-day basis, my ideas are boiling,” he says. “I really want Glowork to be the Virgin of the Middle East – an empire based on women balancing work and life. We want it to be a billion-dollar company – we truly believe we can do that. We now have a database of around 2-2.5 million women. We haven’t even started monetising this database and companies would kill right now to get access to data on women.”

But while the prognosis for Glowork looks strong, the founder says that much more needs to be done, on a governmental, practical and social level, if Saudi Arabia is to reach its goals of integrating more women into the workplace.

“A lot depends on whether they graduate from a private or public university – if it’s public, they are more closed-minded,” he says.

“They’re living their parents’ lives. The problem with Saudi Arabia is that for both men and women, they are still living their parents’ lives.”