Women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to advance, despite a difficult year for women entrepreneurs in the region and globally.
According to World Bank-led research, due to the COVID-19 crisis, women-owned small- and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) are about six percentage points more likely to go out of business than male-owned businesses. In MENA, even before COVID-19, the 2019/2020 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor shows that while there were few economies, such as Saudi Arabia where female entrepreneurship rates are high due to recent government policy changes, the national context and local conditions of most other countries place them at the lower end of the scale. The report states that the largest gender gap in established business ownership is found in MENA, at more than 40%.
Within this reality, three inspiring Arab entrepreneurs from different parts of the region share success strategies and offer initiatives to support the future generation of women entrepreneurs in transitioning societies.
Nour M. Al Hassan is one of the youngest YPO women members, and Founder and CEO of Tarjama, a leading language solutions company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A Jordanian lawyer by education, she moved from Jordan to the UAE in 2011 after recognizing an opportunity to start a translation and copywriting company. The company grew organically until 2019, when Al Hassan secured funding from a private family office in Saudi Arabia.
“From the start, being a woman was not an issue for me. I was too busy working hard to deliver and build the business to notice if being a woman was a hindrance,” says Al Hassan. “I was definitely lucky, with parents who supported me when I set off on my own, and the opportunity coming at the right time. But I also worked hard to build a profitable business and filling the gap in localizing content.”
Capitalizing on the opportunity the market offers has also been a driver for YPO member, serial entrepreneur and iconic media celebrity in the Arab world, Muna AbuSulayman. For the past decade, AbuSulayman has focused her energy on social impact investments in various sectors, including artificial intelligence (AI) for education as well as media projects for awareness and charity effectiveness.
“I have always been an entrepreneur at heart, passionate about addressing unmet needs that no one else is filling,” she says. In the past year, while continuing to support startups she has co-founded, AbuSulayman has partnered with other World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders to develop a new app — CovidPass — using blockchain technology to create customized solutions to help revive global travel.
“All the companies and initiatives I have co-founded focus on implementing innovative programs to solve problematic issues. Especially in a country like Saudi Arabia, where there is strong government support, women can capitalize on the opportunities the market offers and convert them to interesting businesses propositions that solve unmet needs,” says AbuSulayman, who was part of the Saudi Government think tank for G20 2020 preparation and continues to advise various foundations on youth, media and female empowerment.
AlHassan credits a large part of her success to hard work, grit and resilience. She says, “Building a business is difficult, whether you are a male or female. With COVID-19, the difficulties are even greater. There is lot of uncertainty, creating personal and financial economic stress, and this is affecting all entrepreneurs, men and women alike.”
Lebanon-based YPO member and Founder and Managing Director of Kristie’s Lab Christina Khater is no stranger to crisis management. Thirteen years ago, at age 23, she set up her events management company from home and built it into a regional leader in events planning with offices in Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar, earning various global and regional recognitions along the way.
Hiring women is not charity. It is about legitimacy and equality. ”
— Christina Khater, Founder & Managing Director of Kristie’s Lab share
Yet the award-winning founder is currently facing multiple crises at the same time. “Our sector has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 on top of the instability of the country (Lebanon), including the banking situation. It has been challenging on all levels. Like other companies, we had to accelerate our digital transformation and find creative solutions for consumer engagement while dealing with currency devaluation and paying suppliers,” says Khater. In December 2020, the company launched the first digital motor show with the Mercedes Benz, and her efforts are helping stabilize the business.
Khater adds, “As an SME operating in this environment, you have to remain resilient. Of course, you cannot be in denial. But once you accept the situation, you learn to take some tough decisive action and adapt, whether a man or a woman.”
Intentionally helping other women
All three entrepreneurs are committed to growing their businesses while following an inclusive growth strategy to advance the economic empowerment of other women. As AbuSulayman puts it, “Helping other women is the Arab way.” AbuSulayman has also been a champion of diversity globally as member of the Board Of Advisers at Chime for Change — a global campaign founded by Gucci in 2013 to strengthen the voices speaking out for gender equality — and more recently as a member of the Global Equity Board at Gucci.
For Al Hassan, recruiting a mostly female team was partly due to the attraction of remote work. “Originally, it was difficult to convince customers of the idea of a female team working from home. There was always the fear that maybe they were not getting professional people. But that was the story in the early days.”
As Al Hassan started adding services from translation to building AI solutions for languages, she was able to build credibility while continuing to grow a team of 160, more than 60% female. “I also made a conscious effort to always hire women as we see a lot of benefits with increased productivity. That is where the talent is.”
She adds that this strategy has paid off personally as well. “When a woman from my team tells me how her income helps cover school tuition, or supports her husband during COVID-19, it is extremely rewarding.”
Similarly, for Khater, women represent more than 77% of her events company team, based on their talent and merit. In addition, in 2013, she created her own foundation, Unconditional, supporting women leading early-stage startups.” I wanted to provide tools to empower them with all necessary business skills, so they can live unconditionally. Hiring women is not charity. It is about legitimacy and equality.”
Breaking taboos and stereotypes
AbuSulayman, the first woman in Saudi Arabia to host her own television talk show, has witnessed rapid social change in terms of cultural taboos and constraints surrounding women in business world in the past 10 years. “With rising living expenses, two income households is becoming the norm. Men accept this is a part of living a comfortable life. “
However, she adds that some challenges remain insurmountable, particularly as an Arab Muslim woman working in global organizations. “I found being a woman is a double-edged sword. Particularly in international boards, people think it is exotic to have an Arab Muslim woman, so you get picked,” says AbuSulayman. “My advice for any woman facing a similar situation is take it. Sit at the table. But do your homework.”
I made a conscious effort to always hire women as we see a lot of benefits with increased productivity. That is where the talent is. ”
— Nour M. Al Hassan, Founder & CEO of Tarjama share
She adds that the biggest obstacle has been less about being Arab and more about wearing the hijab. “A lot of people (in the West) are not able to deal with someone wearing the hijab. It sometimes feels unsurmountable when they see me. But I am proud of my values and identity, and don’t try to change to fit in. And that has worked for me.”
What can be done better?
Here are some of the initiatives mentioned by the three leaders to help promote more women entrepreneurs and counter the challenges, including the latest virus impact, facing women-owned businesses across the region:
- More diversity training for leaders. AbuSulayman cites the importance of instilling confidence and entrepreneurial characteristics in women through leadership diversity training. “We need more diversity training for business leaders to expand the potential of the team because minorities in general tend not to speak out,” she says. Believing in one’s self and having confidence are also seen by Khater and Al Hassan as essential indicators of one’s readiness for entrepreneurship.
- Rethink the western model. AbuSulayman adds that for many women in the region, career begins in their 30s when kids are older. “Married women with children are penalized for that. Age is not working for them.” By opening digital and remote working opportunities for older women or those working from home, as Al Hassan did, women may be able to play a bigger role in different sectors.
- Provide more access to finance. Whatever the cultural context, to be successful, there was general agreement that entrepreneurs must rely on a wide range of stakeholders, including investors. Particularly in lower-income economies, there is greater need to back women entrepreneurs who do not have strong family connections or access to funding. “My experience shows how women can thrive and flourish when given the chance, benefiting entire communities,” says Al Hassan.
- Establish scholarships for executive education for professional women. Executive education is lacking in the region, says AbuSulayman, with companies not willing to invest in this training. Khater recognized this gap and, through her foundation, helps young business women gain some of the softer skills like negotiations as well as new digital skills to take them to the next level.
- Provide more peer-to-peer networking and mentoring opportunities. All three women unequivocally mentioned the power of peer-to-peer global networks like YPO, with both male and female peers to help mentor and encourage. “I rely heavily on male mentors and global peer networks. They provide me fresh perspectives,” says Al Hassan.
AbuSulayman, who has been keeping her finger on the pulse of the state of entrepreneurship of Arab women for nearly two decades, concludes, “I am very optimistic about the future. We have come a long way, and I see a paradigm shift with more purpose-driven women entrepreneurs starting businesses not only for profit but to make a difference to the world — on their own terms.”