A Middle East initiative aims to help women-led Arab businesses grow

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DUBAI: Women-led startups across the Middle East and North Africa are receiving a helping hand thanks to a new initiative to provide them with the advice, finance and mentorship they need to grow.

She Wins Arabia is a collaboration between the International Financial Corporation (IFC) from the World Bank and Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) to support incubators, accelerators and venture capital funds through capacity building and training.

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The initiative, which is part of IFC’s wider commitment to closing economic gaps between women and men in MENA, will work directly with regional women-led startups and businesses to support them in building their business plans and refining their pitches to potential investors.

“There are several challenges faced by male and female founders globally, which are all centered around access to capital, markets and talent,” said Miriam Kiwan, head of strategic partnerships at ADGM.

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She cited a lack of awareness in the MENA entrepreneurship ecosystem about gender-specific challenges faced by women-led startups.

“Perhaps the most challenging one is access to funding, which is due to limited access to financial services and bank loans, an extremely low level of female representation in the funding ecosystem, and the persistence of gender biases linked to female and minority founders,” she said.

Sofana Dahlan, CEO of an incubator for design-related startups. (AFP/Getty Images)
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A recent OECD report revealed that female company founders receive 23 percent less funding than male founders, despite achieving 35 percent higher returns on investment and generating an average of 12 percent higher revenues than male founders.

In a region where only 6 percent of private equity and venture capital funding is directed toward female-led enterprises, according to the IFC, initiatives such as She Wins Arabia can play an important role in empowering women entrepreneurs.

Moreover, many incubators and venture capital funds do not yet tailor their workspaces, products and services for women entrepreneurs. “We need to focus on developing regional programs to improve the number of female fund managers through mentorship, VC programs and angel investor programs,” Kiwan told Arab News.

“We must reduce unconscious bias and create an equal startup ecosystem through capacity building and engagement of various players across the ecosystem, including incubators, accelerators and investors.”

Kiwan says building the required capabilities and skills within women-led startups is crucial for facilitating their access to the market, through inclusive procurement policies and ensuring their success.

Miriam Kiwan (L), head of Strategic Partnerships at Abu Dhabi Global Market, and Sammar Essmat (R), gender lead for the Middle East, Central Asia and Turkey at IFC. (Supplied)

“As a tech ecosystem enabler with a focus on diversity, it is important for ADGM to support initiatives such as She Wins Arabia to advance gender parity across its ecosystem and improve gender-less investing in the region,” she said.

Supported by the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative and the government of the Netherlands, the project will be implemented in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, the UAE, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Yemen.

It will culminate in a competition to enable women-led startups access to support and finance across the region, and to network with funds, incubators and accelerators.

“Female founders play an important role in contributing to economic growth, wealth creation and job creation,” Kiwan said, pointing to a recent Boston Consulting Group report that claims supporting female entrepreneurs can raise global gross domestic product (GDP) by about 3 to 6 percent, and boost the global economy by $5 trillion.

More broadly, she said: “Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and they hold tremendous potential in impacting regional economic development, helping achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the coming decade and contributing to the Fourth Industrial Revolution in reshaping our social fabric.”

Echoing Kiwan’s opinion on empowering female entrepreneurs, Sammar Essmat, gender lead for the Middle East, Central Asia and Turkey at IFC, says women have huge potential to add to the region’s economies.

The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society, including the empowerment of women. (AFP/Getty Images)

“A 2015 (McKinsey) study found that MENA economies lose out on an estimated $2.7 trillion in additional GDP because of gender gaps. That’s the cost of a missed opportunity and, together with our partners, we are working to eliminate it,” she told Arab News.

As a leading tech hub, ADGM seeks to provide a progressive ecosystem that supports innovation and entrepreneurs regardless of their gender, with 30 percent of their tech startups in different sectors led by women.

“Closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship is an important part of leveraging this opportunity. In fact, the GDP of MENA countries is estimated to rise 30 to 40 percent if women are better integrated into the economy,” Essmat said.

Fortunately, the MENA entrepreneurship ecosystem has improved and is slowly becoming a leading hub for founders. In regional universities, girls vastly outperform their male peers. In the UAE alone, women account for about 70 percent of university graduates, although the figure drops after women reach mid-career due to organizational cultures and the gender pay gap, among other issues.

“Entrepreneurship offers women better opportunities and alternatives to employment, if some of these challenges are removed,” Kiwan said. “We have collaborated with key regional and international entities to advance our gender equality agenda and ensure equal opportunity for female entrepreneurs.”

In a region where only 6 percent of private equity and venture capital funding is directed toward female-led enterprises, according to the IFC, initiatives such as She Wins Arabia can play an important role in empowering women entrepreneurs. (Supplied)

The IFC’s approach to advancing gender equality in the region also focuses on increasing access to finance, skills and digital technologies for female entrepreneurs, creating more and better jobs for women, and working alongside the World Bank to remove legal barriers to women’s economic participation.

Many gradual reforms had been introduced in Saudi Arabia since it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2001. The announcement of the Vision 2030 reform plan in 2016 gave a further fillip to women’s empowerment.

Besides changes to laws and regulations governing their lives, Saudi women have been allowed to enter new fields such as commercial aviation, state security, economy, tourism and entertainment. Beyond Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the importance of gender equality — equitable or fair representation of men and women — is also being recognized in Arab countries whose leaders and governments have come to regard it as an economic and strategic imperative.

“Support and mentorship dedicated to women-led startups, those of which actually receive funding being a minority for the region, is an excellent initiative to help encourage more women to move into the entrepreneurial space,” said Dana Al-Jawder, CTO of MAGNiTT, a leading venture data platform for startups across the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and Turkey.

“The best catalyst for improved growth in this segment is further success stories from great leaders, like those such as Mona Ataya, founder and CEO of Mumzworld.com, and Nadine Mezher, co-founder of Sarwa, the first and fastest-growing investment platform and personal finance app for young professionals in the region.”


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