Business is Thriving, and Women Are Too

By Maha Abouelenein
20 November 2018
Illustration: Aistė Stancikaitė
Female entrepreneurs are succeeding across the Middle East – even if there are still hurdles to overcome

I often get asked what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in the Middle East, as a woman. I shrug at the question because I am not sure what people are referring to – the woman-running-a-business aspect, or the entrepreneur part. I don’t think twice about it. Do people ask men what’s it like being a male entrepreneur? I don’t think so.

I work with some of the biggest companies in the world, helping them with everything from communications strategies and crisis management to business development and executive coaching.

I started my journey in Cairo in 2004. Yes, 2004. Back then, female entrepreneurs were so scarce, I remember only knowing of one woman in leadership – she worked at an ad agency. I didn’t know I wanted to run my own business, I just knew I wanted to be in charge of my career and work on projects and assignments that fulfilled me. And having my own business allowed me to do that.

Culturally, things back then were different too. Your family wanted you to work for a prestigious company because that meant stability and security – it marked your place in society. I was very lucky: I had the support of my family. My father, the dean of a business school, always encouraged me to get out there and get practical experience – even fail. As an entrepreneur, I wore all the hats from the start: head of business development, marketing, HR, accounting. All of them.

Today, the game has changed, and female entrepreneurs in the Middle East are rising strong. Now, building your own start-up is approved by society, encouraged and valued. A strong sense of Made in MENA is gaining momentum – the region is being embraced and celebrated. There has never been a better time to start a business and thrive as an entrepreneur in the Middle East.

Like I said, people always ask me what it’s like to run a business as a female entrepreneur in the Middle East. Here’s the real answer: it’s brilliant.
The landscape has changed so much that now I’m in good company. Inspiring female founders are cropping up everywhere. Female entrepreneurs aren’t only making it in the Middle East, they are making it big. I’m excited when I see companies like Mumzworld secure the largest ever VC funding round for a female-led e-commerce company in the Middle East. Or when Amira Rashad hung up her corporate boots at tech giant Facebook to start her own business BulkWhiz, the online Costco of the Middle East.

Look at the numbers being reported around the region. Udacity is an online education platform where people can take courses to learn a variety of skills for jobs of the future. Its highest number of graduates are females from Saudi – they dominate 55 per cent of its coding courses. I interviewed a candidate who told me she could do social media, editorial writing, and coding. That was a first for me: communicators who code!

The success stories continue to grow every day across the region, but today’s female entrepreneurs still have a ways to go. There is a dire need for more support in terms of funding. There needs to be a robust ecosystem to help women build businesses they believe in. The numbers are clear: there is an insane funding gap – last year, globally, female founders received just two per cent of venture capital dollars, even though research suggests that female-led companies outperform male-led companies, three to one. We need to enable more access to workshops in everything from how to build business plans, to how to pitch investors.

Culturally, we still need to encourage more women to just start – start with a side hustle, or even find a co-founder who shares the same passion. We need to encourage more women to shrug off the doubts or fears and build their vision. Women work hard and have the grit to drive change in their industries. Especially women in MENA.

If we create the right mindset and build vigorous support systems, we can usher in the next era of successful and empowered businesswomen. And the next time someone asks a female entrepreneur that famous question, “What do you do?” she will say, “Whatever it takes.”

Maha Abouelenein is the founder of communications firm Organizational Consultants and the former head of communications for Google in the Middle East and North Africa.

From the November 2018 issue of GQ Middle East