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The women transforming the Middle East

These Middle Eastern entrepreneurs are changing the face of global innovation. And they are all women.

Middle Eastern businesswomen

Esraa Saleh is a petite, veiled, 23-year-old woman from a tiny, traditional rural village in Egypt. Not exactly unusual in Egypt, but a very different profile from how most of us might imagine an award-winning Middle Eastern entrepreneur.

But as the founder and managing director of tech company, Biopical, Esraa has developed a technology that purifies water and generates energy using algae, having come up through a series of local and regional initiatives, including the Governorate Economic and Social Revival (GESR) incubation programme of Misr El Kheir and Mercy Corps Egypt. It’s been an epic journey.

Women’s entrepreneurship is increasingly recognised as an important factor for economic growth and development in the Middle East – essential in a region with a young population and high unemployment – yet there remains a lack of understanding about what it takes to achieve global excellence and how to maintain it for women from the MENA region. Indeed, increases in women’s income not only means higher spending on family welfare – which is often critical for improvements in areas like nutrition and girls’ education – but it often leads to the employment of women in other families.

Dr Shima Barakat

Dr Shima Barakat

And while the vast majority of these women come from cities, a small but growing number come from more isolated regions. “Many are bound by mobility – by far the biggest barrier to running a business in the Middle East,” says Dr Shima Barakat, Head of Entrepreneurial Learning Programmes & Engagement at Cambridge Judge Business School. “But the fact that some women like Esraa are overcoming this – in her case, by getting a bus into the city at 6am – highlights the drive and energy these female entrepreneurs have. They are, without fail, so passionate.”

Regardless of whether they’re rural or urbanite, these female entrepreneurs are changing the face of businesses in the Middle East and beyond, says Dr Barakat. “Nadia and Hind Wassef have revolutionised the book store model in the Middle East with Diwan; Hend Riad and Mariam Hazem of Reform Studio turn waste plastic bags into upmarket design items while providing employment to skilled weavers and women from disadvantaged backgrounds and reviving the dying traditional art of weaving; and then there’s my personal favourite example – Manal Amin, the founder of Arabize, which provides Arabic content-related services such as, translation, digitisation and desktop publishing. I’m not exaggerating when I say she’s single-handedly changed the face of software globally.”

Imelda Dunlop, executive director of the Pearl Initiative, who has researched business in the Arab world, says her latest study, Women’s Careers in the GCC: The CEO Agenda, highlights that two of the key push factors for female entrepreneurship appear to be, first, that women face gender bias in the corporate environment (a whopping 80 per cent of female employees in the GCC believe that their gender puts them at an immediate disadvantage) and, second, that they often drop out of the corporate environment in their early to mid 30s, frequently because of lack of family support or because they are unable to juggle family and corporate life. “We don’t know exactly what the numbers are on women who drop out of businesses to start up their own endeavours, but we absolutely know that one of the things women are saying is, ‘We can do better working for ourselves’,” says Dunlop.

While her study is not focused specifically on entrepreneurship, the insights from the 600 women working across GCC provide an important context, says Dunlop. “There are actually more women than men graduating from higher education in these countries, yet there’s a dramatic tailing off of women in senior roles that’s mirrored in every single GCC country.”

Dr Barakat’s research, Women’s Innovation & Growth-oriented Entrepreneurship in Egypt, has focused on an Egypt that, she explains, is currently the hub of female entrepreneurship in the Middle East. “The potential for economic value creation by increasing women’s participation is great. While the main business players in the West are predominantly middle-aged, white men, in Egypt there is currently a feeling that it’s open to all and anything is possible.

“It all took off with the market failures in 2011, which created this position where people either couldn’t find work in big business or didn’t want to and entrepreneurship has since increasingly become seen as attractive. It was also a time when microfinance and enterprise support organisations took off and they tend to see women as a lower risk than men, many like the AUC venture lab, Endeavor, Tanmeyah Micro Enterprise Services and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative have an interest and focus on supporting women.

“In fact, one thing I’ve noticed about pre- and post-2011 women entrepreneurs is that the former talk about how they’ve been acutely conscious of their gender throughout the process, whereas the latter group say they feel their gender has been irrelevant – and it’s true that we see many more of them getting onto business incubators and winning competitions.”

“It’s no wonder so many women are deciding to go it alone,” concludes Dunlop, “although in many of these countries, it remains notoriously difficult for small businesses to access finance and, anecdotally, it seems to be even harder for women. Some people say the reason there aren’t enough women entrepreneurs in the Gulf region is that they don’t want it enough, but we found that is absolutely not true. It is certain – and this is true throughout the Middle East – that women are ambitious.”