Boyden: Reaping The Rewards - MENA Region's Female Entrepreneurs

Based on the experiences of 12 women from around the world, the MENA region’s startup community is impressively gender neutral. In its effort to balance representation of the genders, the ecosystem has become welcoming and nurturing toward females. To the women with business ideas, it appears that the MENA is the place to be, and the time is now to turn that idea into a company.

This article was written by Amelia Gundersen-Herman.
It originally appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East

"When we talk about women in business in the Middle East, particularly in Dubai, I always feel being a woman is more advantageous than disadvantageous.” Those are the words of Sara Mohammadi, the founder of Tehran-based Eventbox, and they convey the majority perspective of the female entrepreneurs with whom I spoke through the course of the STEP Conference in Dubai in 2016. These 12 women represent 11 companies and range in age from 25 to 39, and the nationalities include American, British, Egyptian, Emirati, Filipino, Iranian, Lebanese, Mauritian, Pakistani, and Palestinian citizens. Their companies have been founded as recently as February 2016 and as far back as 2012, with all but one of the companies having operations in the UAE. They also operate in Egypt, Iran, KSA, Palestine, and the whole of MENA; some even provide services outside of the MENA to Greece and the U.K.

Though the ground on which they stand on may not be completely equal yet, all of the women agreed that increases in equality were visible and happening rapidly. A perfect example of that is Nida Sumar, founder of the Dubai-based Keza. She said that three years ago angel investors told her, “You’re a sweet girl, but to do business, you need to have sharp teeth; you just leave the business to us.” Fast forward to now, and she’s having long meetings with angel investors and VCs who are giving her great advice on how to move forward with her enterprise. One angel has already invested in her company.

The majority of the women felt they hadn’t faced female specific barriers in founding and operating their companies. However, Samantha Hamilton-Rushforth, founder of the Dubai-based BEEM, said there are times when she struggles to be taken seriously because she is female. Hamilton-Rushforth explains one of these instances as follows: “Men will come up to me and say, ‘What do you do?’ I’ll start explaining what BEEM is, and they’ll cut over me halfway through a sentence to say, ‘You know what you should do?’ If they would let me finish I could explain what it is we do, and then I’d be more than happy to listen to their advice. I’d love advice, I’d love to know their opinion, but [they] don’t even let me finish my pitch.

Kristine Lasam, founder of the Dubai-based Pink Entropy, agrees with Hamilton- Rushforth. “I think we still have a long way to go,” she says. “That’s the reality we must acknowledge, because it is in the acknowledgement that we can start making changes- really start making things that will lead to genuine long-term change.” But Lasam admits that there are also advantages to being a female entrepreneur in MENA: “I think women who say they’ve never gotten away with good things because they’re female are either blind or lying,” she says. “It opens doors.”

Initiatives to support women in business in Dubai are aplenty. Dubai Business Women Council, for instance, held a year-long program for aspiring female entrepreneurs, and Yamna Naveed Khan, founder of the Dubai-based PerksPlus, was one of the participants. Given the existence of such programs, Khan believes the region is welcoming female entrepreneurs- however, she notes an issue in terms of their perception in the ecosystem. “People associate women entrepreneurs with beauty, healthcare, education,” Khan explains. “[My company] is a very B2B business, so it is different from what the normal or stereotypical [companies that] women entrepreneurs start.

Nabbesh founder Loulou Khazen Baz is another entrepreneur who participated in a training program only offered to women. In her case, it was a two-week executive leadership training program in the U.S. run by the State Department and Goldman Sachs, and it was only open to MENA women. Baz also agrees with the sentiment that it’s good to be a female entrepreneur in the Middle East. “I think being a woman opens a lot of doors,” she says, explaining that since there are more men in the startup ecosystem, especially on the investor side, having a woman’s view can thus be refreshing and, well, nice.

I asked Butheina Kazim, founder of Cinema Akil, if she has experienced any disadvantages or advantages as a female entrepreneur in the MENA. “No, absolutely not,” she replies. “I never actually am conscious of that. I’ve grown up in a way that has never made me aware, wary, or conscious of the fact that I am a woman. I have woman can do anything that a man can do. I don’t like to frame the conversation about development or the ability to achieve around the fact that I am a woman.” But Kazim also notes the importance of conversations on women in business. “Obviously I think it’s important, sometimes,” she explains. “The great Zaha Hadid, who just passed away, said that she never really liked being a prefix by being a woman architect, but sometimes, she recognized the importance of having a larger conversation around it- just when it helps people be able to break their barriers in whatever barriers they may have… Any kind of challenge that we, or I, can have a role in inspiring or supporting, then that is always a great thing, and that is something I will try to do what I can to support.

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