Women in business: Overview of female entrepreneurship in the Middle East

Like a boss

The Middle East has a population of 436 million, 49.6% of which are females, and a massive 91.5% of these females in the region are educated. In my humble opinion, these stats highlight the potential that lies within the development of female entrepreneurship and women in business in MENA. Thanks to the rapid adoption and fostering of digital and technological innovations, the entrepreneurial bug is fast becoming an epidemic in the region.

An infographic titled “Female Entrepreneurship in the Middle East”, notes that the progress of the region’s female entrepreneurs are on par with their counterparts in Western Europe and North America. The study finds that 33% of women-run enterprises in the UAE generate revenue in excess of US$100,000- compared to just 13% in the developed US market.

This article highlights the opportunities and challenges that women in business face in MENA, and we provide a list of entities that support females in their entrepreneurial journey.

Opportunities for Women in Business

If you are a woman thinking about starting a business, it is important to know that someone has your back, and that you are making the right decision based on the opportunities and advantages available to you.

women in business laptop flowers notebook

Investment Opportunities

The latest report by event organiser Arabnet, in partnership with Dubai SME, analysed start-ups across the MENA region in 2018 and found that 14% of the deals were with start-ups founded by women. This number of course needs to increase, but at a baseline more than one in ten start-ups with investment are led by women – and more females should fill this space.

Experts are positive that as the pace of change escalates in the region it will encourage more females to apply for investments rounds and accelerator programs.

We’ve seen a number of investments in female led startups like Eventtus; an online event management platform founded by two women. The startup recently raised US$2 Million from Algebra Ventures and 500 Startups, which marks that as one of the biggest investments done by Algebra Ventures in the Middle East to date. Impressive, right?

There had also been an emergence in entities that invest in female led businesses only like Mindshift. In 2018 Mindshift Capital, a technology fund focused on women launched in the Middle East. It invests in women-led early-stage tech businesses at the post-seed. Mindshift brings a hands-on approach of global operating experiences and cross-border investing.

Related: What is a startup ecosystem? The terms you need to know 

Entrepreneurial skills

Oprah Winfrey says:

On my own I will just create, and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, I’ll create something else. I don’t have any limitations on what I think I could do or be.

Women in business tend to acquire entrepreneurial skills in their journey of setting up their own business. These skills include the refusal to accept the status quo, in themselves or their business and the willingness to go outside their comfort zone, professionally and personally. This manifests in unending development and improvement.

It’s not just skills, it’s also the valuable experience that they gain over the years. A study states that the region’s women entrepreneurs possess “extensive experience” ranging from an average of 6 years in the UAE, to almost 11 years in Lebanon.

The fusion of skills and experience results in potential success, and there are countless success stories of Middle Eastern women in business, you can check a list of top female entrepreneurs in the region here e.

Female focused entities

There are several entities that support women in business in the region like:

Cherie Blair Foundation for women:

They help release the potential in women entrepreneurs, through supporting women and girls start and grow their own successful businesses. The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women launched a project in 2012 to support women in business to grow their micro and small businesses in Palestine and Lebanon.

The two-year project supported a total of 80 women entrepreneurs so far, offering a combination of skills-based training, coaching and intensive business incubation.

Womentum:

A four-month acceleration program in the UAE that focuses on women-led tech startups from across the MENA region. If you’re a female with an early stage startup that fulfills their criteria, you can simply fill in the application form and submit a short pitch video and you have a great chance to be chosen for their program.

Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC):

The program is called “She Program”, it primarily targets women in business whose product is tech related. The “She Program” trains women entrepreneurs on startup methodologies and concepts for a year to help them develop a business plan and validate their business idea.

Women Entrepreneurs Network :

The idea was developed by USAID’s SEED with the urge to support aspiring and established women entrepreneurs in Egypt and increase their access to entrepreneurial services. The WEN provides women entrepreneurs with knowledge, mentorship, networking with players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and other services to allow them to scale their businesses, increase their revenues and do business efficiently.

Challenges facing female entrepreneurs

women in business like a boss mug

Typically, the barriers that prevent women from running their own businesses range from a lack of access to funding, limited access to information and communication technology (ICT), market information and finance and a lack of confidence in being able to balance work and home responsibilities. Let’s explore some of these challenges in detail:

Work–life balance

This issue is pervasive worldwide, not only in the MENA region. It is particularly important in the region because women play a huge role in maintaining the household. Also, there are very few provisions currently in place for flexible employment. Moreover, the western model of working from nine to five, doesn’t align with mothers of three or four kids.

That’s why women have started setting up their small businesses from the comfort of their homes. That way they can easily maintain their chores while making their way in the business world.

Related: 10 tips for launching a successful home business 

Building a support network

Having a robust support network is essential for entrepreneurial success.

According to Inc., 48% of female founders report that a lack of available advisers and mentors limits their professional growth.

Knowing where to find the right support network isn’t always easy. A few good places to start is women-focused groups on social media, events and meetups. Once you find your network of supporters, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and mentorship.

You can check the following article that lists career networking tips that will help you grow a network of supporters.

Family support

There is no doubt that encouragement from families is integral for success. This support can be in the form of your parents lending you money to start your small business, your husband accommodating to the long working hours or your family’s understanding of the business trips that you regularly go on.

The effects of that support aren’t to be undermined as we’ve witnessed the rise of women in business with the support of their families. One of the most famous females led businesses in the region is the brand “Okhtein”, which translates to “sisters”. It’s a luxury design accessory brand led by two Egyptian sisters that specializes in bags and belts. The brand gained international momentum and celebrities from all around the world started wearing their products like Beyoncé, Gigi Hadid and Queen Rania.

While there might be many more challenges to women in business, the opportunities emerging in the region will support their journey and push them to take charge. You can also check our blog for success stories of female entrepreneurs in the region to inspire you to follow your own dreams.

Image by: Andrew Neel via Unsplash.

Selina Bieber
Based in Istanbul, Selina is part of the GoDaddy EMEA team managing the Turkey and MENA regions to help grow the GoDaddy brand and business. With a background in marketing communications, Selina is passionate about small businesses, the entrepreneurial eco-system and leveraging digital technologies to get ahead of the game. Prior to joining GoDaddy, Selina led the PR activities of Facebook, VeriSign and Euler Hermes in Turkey, and was based in Amsterdam to head up regional media relations across Europe for a natural gas project. Selina is a self-professed foodie and travel addict.