The Rise of Arab Women in Tech Startups | EverydayMe Arabia

The Rise of Arab Women in Tech Startups | EverydayMe Arabia

When womena® started in 2014, the MENA tech startup ecosystem was nascent, with few angel investors and even fewer women playing the role of investors or startup founders.

As a young and first time investor, womena® co-founder Elissa Freiha had begun attending startup and investment events with the intention to enter the space. Quickly, she noticed that she was often the only woman in the room and that these events tended to be intimidating and male-dominated spaces that were not welcoming to new or less-experienced investors. Additionally, funding deals were being done primarily in informal settings, amongst groups of investors that were predominantly male and interacted in closed-off spaces.  


At the same time, statistics were telling a story that diverse companies and investors are vital for a healthy and profitable ecosystem. Next to figures like women-run business with at least 9% higher revenues than businesses overall (BNP Paribus Report), the MENA region exudes an incredible precedence of female talent. Women in the UAE are achieving higher levels of education than their male counterparts, and Arab countries have a higher percentage of female graduates in STEM subjects next to their counterparts in the US and Europe.  


To top it off, one of three startups in the Arab world is founded or led by women, which is a much higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. To the region’s advantage, with tech innovation relatively new in the young, Arab entrepreneurial ecosystem, females are breaking barriers next to men in these new frontiers (WIL Economic Forum, November 2018). This shifts global perceptions beyond female empowerment in the MENA region and towards global leadership from the region itself. Armed with this insight, womena® launched with a specific goal to bring more women into the region’s tech and entrepreneurship space. Initially, we started with a top-down approach: inspiring women to become angel investors in tech companies — aiming to redirect women-controlled capital (almost 22% of the GGC private capital is owned by women) into funding for startups. We hypothesized that if more women would invest, then more women entrepreneurs would be funded. Three years later, womena® had hit the 40 member investor mark and invested over $700,000 into Middle Eastern startups, of which 35% had a female founder.  


At the same time, a global movement was growing in the West as the #Metoo movement hit Hollywood and Silicon Valley, showcasing the disadvantages that female founders faced, both in building their businesses as well as fundraising. The time had come to ride the wave as womena® pinpointed an expansive and creative opportunity to launch our media production arm, starting with short-format social media content that shares the current generation’s role models. The best way to change stereotypes is to highlight change-makers; therefore, as women leaders in the Middle East, we decided to take control of our story and authentically communicate it in a way that the new generation relates to and consumes content. With only 39% of leaders representing women in mainstream media, it was “about time the world understood what Arab women were capable of” (Amy Mowafi, womena® interview).  


Through ambitious and visionary goals, we’ve shaped womena®’s growing media platform around targeted metrics. Most recently, our audience reach has increased by 741% in month-over-month growth, with a +1776% jump in video views, +909.6% spike in social media impressions, and a +418% leap in content engagement. These high growth rates are fostered by synergistic leadership across womena®’s departmental agendas that collectively support our digital marketing arm currently showcasing womena®’s first show, the Womentum Series — a disruptive docu-series that follows the journey of 9 of the Middle East’s top women-led startups as they experience the highs and lows of entrepreneurship in a womena® program that challenges them and their business. With $100,000 at stake, will they have what it takes? 


Leading into the Womentum Series, womena®’s data revealed that the majority of female-led companies in the region are early stage and falling through the pipeline before reaching their first Seed funding. With years of experience empowering and educating female investors and entrepreneurs, it was time womena® put our years of knowledge and pipeline to the test by launching the first female-led tech accelerator in the region: Womentum. As female entrepreneurs ourselves, we know how to get deals done, accommodate our entrepreneur’s needs, and execute effectively for early-stage startups to hit milestones. Going global with exposure to Europe’s innovative hub, womena® launched the signature four-month accelerator program in 2018 with a two-week Berlin bootcamp followed by a remote execution phase where startups receive virtual mentorship as they work on market validation in their home countries and gear up to the final two-week Dubai bootcamp. In Dubai, startups get investment-ready for an exclusive Demo Day that brings key players together in the regional ecosystem.  


Womentum’s first cohort ran with great success; not only did our graduates of the first Womentum Accelerator cycle give the program a Net Promoter Score of 97.5% when surveyed about the impact it had on their startups and their personal growth, but founders reported a more than 50% change in their business models as a result of the womentum program, a 79% improvement in financial models, and a 58% increase in users and customers alongside an average increase in media exposure as high as 220%  — we are a media company, after all. Leveraging womena®'s media platform, more than 230 pieces of creative content were produced about the founders, their startups and the Womentum program, with a total reach of over 5 million. For more female-led tech startups ready to launch and scale in the market, the second Womentum cohort is now open for applications. A key factor to womena®’s success has been the networks of supporters and mentors that enable us to succeed. Wanting to provide the same resources for female entrepreneurs, we launched the womena® Bossladies Network, proactively building upon the growing networks of women entrepreneurs around us that are eager to support other women across the ecosystem as mentors, investors, and talent. Backed by high growth, engagement, and turnout rates in its early days, the womena® Bossladies Network supports, connects and promotes female leadership in the creative economy through members access to virtual programming over our Slack channel, ecosystem opportunities in womena®’s pipeline, and in-person opportunities that encourage holistic personal and professional growth as people, founders, and leaders. 


Whether these women are experiencing their successes for the first time or hitting their first milestones, there is power in community. Today’s generation is setting these pillars and networks into place between women — tools men have established between themselves for generations. Consequently, an essential tip we most encourage amongst emerging female founders is to tap into their community resources, build a network of support with people you trust, and give back as much as you can while you reach new milestones. Tapping into the wisdom, advice and skillsets of women who have gone before you and nurtured success are supporters who can connect fresh founders to valuable insights, opportunities, and capital that often only come through referrals, particularly in the Middle East. Alongside our curated and free Entrepreneur Resources Guide for the larger community, womena® is proud to foster the region’s largest and exclusive growing network of female tech entrepreneurs, talent, and investors in the MENA region.  


Moreso, when considering the region we are in, global stigma tends to project a stereotype that women in the Middle East are repressed, oppressed, or suppressed, when in reality Arab women are the “architects of society...they literally create the homes and the humans who inhabit them; they are strong, they rule the world” (Elissa Freiha). Like a secret mafia, the fearless, confident, and passionate women of womena® come together to stir the pot, diversify their assets, and help the next generation of female leaders, business owners, and changemakers be even more successful than the last. We are on a holistic journey, and it is no coincidence that the fourth sector is female. 

As Sophie Smith, Founder & CEO of Nabta Health — an innovative tech platform built by women, for women — and a womena® Bosslady in the UAE shares, “the fourth and final reality [of women] is perhaps the most important: realities change, and they change because we change them.”  


Written by:  Mary Stuart Wannamaker, womena® Community Manager 
Co-edited by:  Elissa Freiha, womena® Founder & Managing Director Christina Andreassen, Managing Director of Womentum at womena®


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