I have been the beneficiary of some remarkable lessons in this series. During a period of great unpredictability in the Middle East, it has been nothing short of awe-inspiring to visit Middle Eastern tech-based startups and meet the many remarkable women playing a central role in running them. The learning has continued in the extensive feedback I have received.
Some people have felt I have down-played significant challenges women still face in the region, while others suggested the very act of writing this series made too much of them. Reaction was unified, however, at how inspirational these entrepreneurs are. That these women are a tiny fraction of the whole is reminder enough that something big is happening in the region, and in growth markets around the world.
One consistent question I have heard offers a good theme to wrap this series. While the regional impact of these women are clearly important, I have been asked, did I see potential world-class innovation and global potential from these entrepreneurs?
“Innovation” is a tricky word. For so many of us in the West, it is used synonymously with the shiniest new technology. For so much of the emerging world, however, the very access to information technology for the first time at scale is a form of innovation in and of itself. As entrepreneurs innovate around such technologies for their local markets, and with the cost of distribution being extremely low, regional players quickly find themselves global marketers, and the step to a global offering becomes a relatively small one.
Any woman in this series could be considered a global “innovator.” Anywhere in the world Arabic is spoken, their ideas cater to Arabic needs. Platforms they are creating — to help balance of life, to open access to products and services through regional product ecommerce, to connect and crowd source through social networks — have global application and are available one click away for any language.
But, of course, some entrepreneurs start thinking globally from the start.
The winner of this year’s MIT Middle East business plan competition is a Lebanese mechanical engineering grad from the American University of Beirut (AUB), who also happened to be a fiercely competitive swimmer, Hind Hobeika. The daughter of academics, she once presumed she would become an executive in a larger global company like Proctor & Gamble. Instead, she created a business around a product that she herself needed and was, therefore, deeply passionate about.
As a member of the AUB swim team, she found it frustrating that she could only track her heart rate by counting manually at the end of the race. As early heart-rate monitors came to market, she found most presented drawbacks for swimmers.
“None of them,” she told me, “truly were adapted with the biomechanics of swimming. Heart rate watches and other external chest belts were cumbersome and all but impossible to check while training.” Then an idea hit her: What if she could create a small module that can be mounted onto any type of swimming goggles? The module could read the heart rate and display it in real-time on the lens of the swimmer through a color code: blue if in the fat burning zone, green if in the fitness zone and red if in the maximum performance zone. Her company, Butterfleye, was her answer.
Hind was invited to participate in a four-month “reality TV” competition out of Qatar, called “Stars of Science,” where she honed her proto-type, as well as her patience. “I was the only woman competitor among the five top contestants,” she recalled. “Even so, some of the men refused to speak to me on camera, as they didn’t want to be seen working and interacting with women.”
She proved them wrong. Butterfleye came in third, and has captured awards, recognition, and investors since then. One of the leading seed investors in the region, Berytech Fund, took her first round.
Ayah Bdeir, a top global interactive artist and engineer, who is active in the tech innovation eco system of the Middle East and a design mentor on Stars of Science, became a mentor. “Ayah provided me with a work space and moral support when I had no idea what to do next,” Hind noted. “She and my mother were the two most important people in my journey.”
“Clearly things were happening with tech entrepreneurs in the region,” Hind told me. “But it was also clear from the start that Butterfleye was going to be a global product. Swimming is popular in the Middle East, but the US, Australia, and Europe – they are the nations with the biggest number of swimmers, health aware people, and tech freaks!”
And so she has built a global team. “As we are developing a technological tool for athletes to seamlessly monitor their trainings, we work extensively with electronic components, micro controllers, but also with a lot of coding and Web interface,” said Hobeika. My team is based in London, France, the Netherlands and Dubai, so I spend 90 percent of my day on Skype!”
The company is finalizing design and will ship to sports manufacturers by the end of this year.
Jordanian media exec Fida Taher plans to use technology to introduce the world to the best in Middle Eastern cooking. Zaytouneh, founded in late 2011, aims to become the world’s largest library for short and illustrative cooking tutorials through multiple platforms, including websites and smartphone applications. Producing videos under three minutes showing step-by-step regional food preparation, she plans eventually to dub for every language in the world.
A television production major, Fida has long had passion for regional cooking. Her mother was an entrepreneur establishing a leading catering company in Jordan. “Most video recipe content on the Web is user generated and not very good quality – hard to follow,” Fida explained.
“We film in full HD, and our videos are of excellent quality. Since only the hands are showing, dubbing our videos in any language is a minor operation and cost. Even in the best recipe websites, mostly English-based, it is hard to find ‘good’ oriental recipes in text, and near impossible to find good ones in video.”
Starting as a woman entrepreneur brought with it clear three challenges, she recalled: “First, some men get intimidated by a strong woman. Second, others — and I will try to sound as proper as possible — think a business relationship with a woman should be a personal one. Finally, some men underestimate women in general, and believe that women are not capable of delivering good results.”
“Of course, being underestimated in not always a bad thing,” she continued. “I am proud to be a feminist and believe that we need to fight for equal rights on all levels, social, economic, and political.”
Aside from garnering top recognition in regional startup competitions, Zaytouneh has nearly 35,000 followers globally on Facebook and is well underway to create 120 video recipes per month. Having raised her angel round from the leading Jordanian incubator, Oasis500, she is exceeding revenue targets and in line for her Series A in 2013.
Salwa Katkhuda, the Investment Manager at Oasis500, is encouraged by what she sees daily across the spectrum of local, regional, and global potential for women-led startups in the Middle East. Having been an international financial analyst, a Jordanian investor, and founding franchisee for a global children’s fitness center, she brings a broad perspective.
“Women have had real challenges — male bias, life style balance, limited role models, and even limited access to basics like a proper transit system,” she told me. “But the Internet has transformed our opportunities. It has allowed for more flexible work options (freelance, remote, and home-based work). It requires low capital needs and allows women to more easily be their own bosses. All kinds of resources are literally at their fingertips for free or low cost.”
And it is still only the earliest days.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]