Female Entrepreneurship in MENA
The region’s start-up scene is gradually breaking with tradition, giving female entrepreneurs the opportunity to realize their business ideas.
In recent years, the rate of women entrepreneurs has been growing steadily in the region and some of them have emerged as inspiring success stories.
Coming from Silicon Valley – a sophisticated ecosystem for entrepreneurs – Ajlouny refuses to be pigeonholed. “I see myself as just an entrepreneur, it really doesn’t matter if I a man or a woman,” she said.
But some women entrepreneurs believe gender bias is a real concern in the MENA region, which could hinder their path to success. Such issues, however, are being addressed, as the local environment becomes more favorable to persevering start-ups, no matter the gender of their founders.
Mai Medhat, co-founder and CEO of Eventtus, an events platform and networking app, sees a disconnect between the education sector and the job market in the region, especially for women.
“I am a software engineer by qualification and approximately 50% of students who opt for computer science are women, but it doesn’t translate to employment for all of them. We want to break that [glass] ceiling for women by having about 70% to 80% of management roles in our company [held by women],” she said.
Khalid Alkhudair agrees with Medhat. His company, Glowork, focuses on solving female unemployment in Saudi Arabia.
He launched Glowork in 2011, prompted by personal reasons. After graduating from a foreign university, Alkhudair initially found it difficult to find employment when he returned to the kingdom. He had to use what he calls ‘Vitamin W’ (wastaa, Arabic for clout) to get his foot in the door, he said in jest.
When his sister graduated from university, she encountered the same problem, and so Glowork was born.
“Many women have remained unemployed in the kingdom because of the huge gap between the education sector and the labor market. The communications barrier between men and women only compounded this problem, but we began engaging with companies to find out the reasons why women were not hired,” explained Alkhudair.
“Our efforts paid off when a supermarket eventually hired a female employee. There was a huge backlash, but it ignited a mood. We started working with government departments to change legislation and enact laws to create jobs for women. We also succeeded in getting a quota in place for women in the retail sector.”
The rest is now history. Today, the company, which has a database of 2.2 million users, helps around 28 women get hired on a daily basis. Alkhudair attributes his company’s success to its timely launch – when the issue of women education and employment were gaining fervor in Saudi Arabia.
Women entrepreneurs are also feeling the added pressure of establishing themselves as role models for aspiring female entrepreneurs in the region.
“I do feel the pressure to set myself up as a role model to other women, but I’d like to tell them to stop [being afraid] and then spending more time worrying. As an entrepreneur, I have doors slammed on me – rejection is part of [the game]. You have to have a thick skin because everyone is going to tell you, you will fail,” said Fetchr’s Ajlouny.
Medhat of Eventtus added that embracing failure is part of the entrepreneurial journey, but it shouldn’t stop women entrepreneurs from trying out new things every day.
Glowork’s Alkhudair, who advocates the cause of women, echoes the same sentiment. He believes women feel more compelled to prove themselves. As a result, they take more risks than their male counterparts.
“We need more role models that come out and shine, and failure should be embedded in the curriculums to overcome this problem,” he said.
On fundraising, Medhat believes many women find it very difficult to raise money.
“It’s all about traction, building a team and seeing how you can grow and multiply – that’s what investors should be looking at,” she said. Her company recently raised USD 2 million and Medhat said from the onset, entrepreneurs must be selective about the investment money they receive.
Ajlouny sees fundraising as something new to the MENA region.
“The ecosystem is fairly new here. We have investors who are knowledgeable and then there are those who are still learning. We tried to get the best of both worlds – investors from Silicon Valley [and from the region]. When you grow as a company, you [will be] in a position where you don’t need to chase investors. Rather, you can ask them what value they are bringing to the table.
“Investors love to hear that you have a solution, so pitch that way. Be passionate about solving a problem, how you are going to scale it and lastly, ways you are going to make money,” she said.
Alkhudair believes money is available in the market. However, to change investor mindset, start-ups must learn to convince investors – whether VCs, governments or banks – about their company’s value proposition.
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