The recent legislation changes in Saudi Arabia bringing to women the freedom to drive and the programme for continued changes to empower women in the country are attracting a lot of media attention at the moment. Being in the news for having the freedom to drive is no bad thing, but in my view, more focus should be given to the many women in the region who have been claiming independence via entrepreneurship. It often surprises people to know the extent of interest from Arabic women in the startup scene. Arabnet recently quoted Al Mashah Capital as stating that one in four new startups in GCC is lead by a woman. Chris Schroeder in his book ‘Startup Rising’ claims that the figure is one third.
My experience of working with startups in MENA certainly supports these higher figures, which also reflect the high percentage of young women undertaking higher education courses in their home countries and overseas. Higher education, whether in the home country or abroad, is proving to be an accelerator in the process of generating ideas, a platform for exchanging solutions and for finding co-founders to help make the first steps a bit easier. In advising startups, I was struck by the dedication and motivation of women entrepreneurs who often were making their way in an environment which had many more obstacles for women than experienced by women in the west.
Whilst there is still a long way to go before the number of women owned and run businesses in the UK and USA, women here do not experience the practical challenges that many women across MENA face. There are still a number of legal and policy constraints facing women business owners, in addition to the emotional constraints facing a women whose family may have very different expectations. Cultural ‘norms’ in some areas still mean that women find it more difficult to gain access to finance or to engage in some of the many entrepreneurship programmes on offer. Despite all of these difficulties, I was privileged to work as a coach to a number of successful Arabic women and to hear their stories as I interviewed them for the radio programme ‘Women Entrepreneurship Weekly’ for Qatar Foundation Radio. In listening to the stories of the successful women entrepreneurs, there seemed to be some common threads:
The support of prominent male relation (father or brother)
Education, gaining a first degree and often a Masters Degree
Having a strong support network, friends and family who were there to help when times were difficult and to help with the practical aspects of finding a healthy work/life balance
It is encouraging to see more entrepreneurship programmes offering support to women only startups, and groups such as ‘Womena’ in Dubai, need to be emulated.
As woman entrepreneur in MENA, there are a number of practical actions you can take:
Research your entrepreneurial ecosystem to see what support is available, many countries have a representative from GEN (Global Entrepreneurship Network) and you can check out your local organisation on the website www.genglobal.org
Know your business, the competition, the trends, research and information gathering are key phases in the start of your business and to ensure ongoing development
Build your personal support network
Find coach or mentor who will be your “critical friend”.
Develop your plan of action, have a timeline with key milestones of what you want to achieve by when, and work with your coach to plan to achieve these
Self-care – I know, this can sound a bit trite, but it really won’t do your business any good if you don’t look after your health and wellbeing.
Entrepreneurship is never an easy path, I’ve also experienced the highs and lows of taking that particular route and would certainly advise a woman starting out to be sure to have as much support as she possibly can – but don’t be put off, go for it and be a role model for other women on the way!
Individuals and Organisations Seldom Succeed Alone