The New Middle East: Women at the Center of a Startup Ecosystem

By Christopher M. Schroeder, Guest Contributor , written on September 20, 2012

From The News Desk

Having spent much of last spring touring the remarkable and little-reported-on tech startup communities in the Middle East – from Cairo to Amman to Beirut to Dubai – I was excited to see that no one is rocking this scene more than the women entrepreneurs.

They are running platforms for Arabic translation out of Beirut, and eCommerce enterprises in Amman. Retailers who have achieved local success in traditional “bricks and mortar” boutiques have opened sites to reach audiences across the region, even the globe. Former athletes use technology to create products that enhance training routines, and mothers have created social platforms to access best-in-class education and advice. Veterans of Tahrir Square leverage their unique social network experiences to build crowd-sourced video story telling.

In this and subsequent posts over the next two weeks I will introduce some of these amazing stories – both surprising and familiar – and tell of a changing Middle East we in the States should note and of seek to engage.

Like many of my fellow westerners, I once had the more one-dimensional view that we often see on the news -- the Middle East as, at-best, a series of male-dominated societies, where in places like Saudi Arabia women cannot even legally drive. There can be no doubt that this narrative all too often exists in the rich and diverse Arab world, but something very different has also been well underway for years.    .

Alyse Nelson CEO of Vital Voices, Hilary Clinton's non-governmental organization which trains and invests in emerging women leaders around the world, sees the change in the Middle East as part of a global shift.

“We see women closing the gap with men in areas of economic development and girls' education,” she told me. “But the greatest unfinished businesses in the 21st century is that women still lag significantly in leadership, power and decision-making.”

She has found worldwide that women hold less than 20 percent of the seats in parliament and fewer of the C-level positions or board seats in larger corporations.

"The exciting thing however,” she notes, “is that the power dynamic has shifted dramatically in recent years with access to social networks and mobile devices. Agency -- real influence in making change -- is no longer just wielded from the corner office, but also from a Twitter account. Technology is changing everything, breaking down cultural barriers that once held women back and creating innovative opportunities to make positive change.”

In the midst of the very real uncertainty and instability in the region, their timing may be surprisingly good. The Middle East is in the throes of the same three-fold hurricane force wind at their backs that have empowered entrepreneurship in other emerging markets.

First, recent access to technology has offered an irreversible level of transparency, connectivity and inexpensive access to capital and markets unprecedented only five years ago. A new generation in the region, as elsewhere, has never known a world before information technology thus has a keen understanding of how others like them live and create opportunity for themselves. They assume easy access to inexpensive technological, social and collaborative tools to create businesses and affordably access once unreachable customers and markets.

Second, this generation is benefitting from regional and global capital more comfortable with political risk. Twenty years of experience in other emerging markets such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and elsewhere, themselves all but dismissed as economic engines less than a generation ago, offer interesting parallels. Nearly all were, and are, equally marred by political uncertainty, opaque governments, corruption and weak infrastructures. The precedent of significant investor returns and comfort in emerging markets across all sectors suggest sustainable economic opportunity could happen in the Middle East more rapidly.

Finally, changing market dynamics, growth and opportunity in the Middle East has been in motion well before the Arab Spring. As Middle East expert Vali Nasr has noted, the Arab world has over 320 million people, nearly twice the size of Brazil, with a GDP larger than Russia and India, and per capita GDP nearly twice China's. Disposable income has grown 50 percent over the past three years, to over $1 trillion in 2012. It’s a young market, with over 100 million people under the age of 15, who love their connectivity and mobile phones. Mobile penetration, in fact, will approach 100 percent in three years and social media penetration just hit 25 percent in 2011, growing 125 percent, year over year.

And women are playing a central role in all of it. As every study of women’s impact on global society demonstrates, most recently this summer’s  "World Bank 2012 Gender and Equality and Development Report", while gaps remain, women are having an ever increasing role in job creation, business creation and consumer economic activity across every industry. It is no surprise that with access to technology, they are hungrier than anyone to create businesses and help build stronger communities at home and around the region.

Ghada Howaidy, who runs institutional development at the American University of Cairo’s School of Business, told me that a large, informal entrepreneurial movement has been happening among young women in Egypt for over a decade. Many women may have come from another profession, but have decided to start businesses from home.

“Such businesses may start more traditionally -- food catering, home accessories, or jewelry,” she notes. “But it is no surprise that easy access to technology is not only driving those businesses but allowing women to create regional, even global businesses.”

Hala Fadel has witnessed the change’s velocity at the scale throughout the region. A Paris and Beirut-based global investor and founder of the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan-Arab Region, she created the Middle East MIT Business Plan Competition five years ago. In 2006, their first year, she expected 200 applications from around the Middle East, but received over 1,500. This year more than 4,500 teams of three people or more competed.

“That means over 13,000 potential entrepreneurs,” she told me, “teams that included women were almost 48 percent. How many Silicon Valley competitions can say that?”

So what are these women creating? We in the West tend to equate innovation with new technology, but for societies only recently tech-connected, innovation may take the form of deploying already established tech in new venues.

Jordanian Rama Kayyali Jardaneh and her Jordanian/Saudi partner LamiaTabbaa Bibi were stunned to find virtually no education videos for young kids in Arabic and launched Little Thinking Minds. New mother from Alexandria, Sara Galal, thought the Internet offered great ways for parents and kids to have fun and work on behaviors and rewards, and is about to launch in Sweety Heaven. Egyptian Yasmine el Mehairy has created the largest portal and social network for moms with SuperMama. Jordanian wedding and events planner Samar Shawareb has just launched the gorgeous Arabia Weddings.

Others are looking to broader opportunity across all sectors and demographics of the region. With hundreds of millions of Arabic speakers and less than 1 percent of all the content online in Arabic, many women see enormous opportunity. One of the hottest entrepreneurs in the region is May Habib, who was raised in a small farming village in Lebanon and rose to create the b2b Arabic translation service, Qordoba. She will shortly launch a new consumer service in translated books. Beirut-London commuter Rasha Khouri has launched the first English/Arabic luxury ecommerce site at Dia-Style.

Many Egyptians, coming out of their experiences with social networks during the Arab Spring uprisings, believe they see whole new ways for Arab speakers, and perhaps speakers of any language, to connect in new ways and tell stories. Google account specialist, Perihan Abou-Zeid has built crowd-sourcing and digital media tools for regional marketers in her Qabila TV. Egyptian daughter of a successful Egyptian/Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Yasmin Elayat, created with her partner Jigar Mehta, the first crowd-sourced documentary, funded through Kickstarter, 18 Days. Lebanese swimmer Hind Hobekia has global ambitions for her swim goggle that monitors heart-rates while training, Butterfleye.

Over the coming two weeks I want to profile these remarkable entrepreneurs, a small fraction of the thousands looking to start-up enterprises in the region. Their stories are as inspiring as they are instructive to those crazy enough to start a company anywhere, much more so in this important corner of the world.

[In case you missed them, here are parts 23, 4, 5, and 6 of this series.]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]