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Female entrepreneurs make their mark across the Middle East

January 27, 2014 at 11:21 am

Starting a business in Egypt is never an easy feat, but poses a unique set of challenges and advantages for Egyptian women in particular, who are increasingly leaping into entrepreneurial ventures.

Yasmine El-Mehairy, the co-founder of Arabic-language parenting website Supermama, explains that the newness of “entrepreneurialism” in Egypt allows women in Egypt a significant edge, but there is still an everyday battle against cultural stereotypes.

“It’s as basic as… getting a plumber to work in the office without him staring at you or saying inappropriate comments and things like that,” El-Mehairy said, adding that these are aspects of running a business that infuriate her.

She described how difficult it is to get “workers to do anything, even just buying your laptops, without the guy asking: ‘Oh you don’t have a man coming to buy those laptops?’ It’s not because you’re a woman entrepreneur, it’s because you’re a woman full stop.”

Then there is the pressure and judgmental comments coming from extended family and friends of friends about why El-Mehairy is still single: “Of course there is the social look of, ‘Ah she’s an entrepreneur, of course that explains why she’s not married at 30, that’s it’.”

Startup investment and news website Wamda organised “Wamda for Women” roundtables this year in Cairo, Doha, Riyadh and Amman, and the exchanges show that El-Mehairy’s experiences are not unique to Egypt.

The main takeaways from each session were that women suffer from negative stereotypes and have to fight to be seen and treated as equals. In Saudi Arabia, women have the extra challenges of not being allowed to drive, making it difficult to get to meetings, and segregated offices, making it difficult for small companies to hire mixed-gender staff.

But El-Mehairy was positive about what she called the startup ecosystem in Egypt, because women are taken more seriously as entrepreneurs than they are in the west, which allows them to get on with making their idea into a fully fledged business quicker.

El-Mehairy and her co-founder Zeinab Samir spent three months in Copenhagen in 2012 at the Startupbootcamp business accelerator. From that vantage point she noted that there are various startup environments different than she was used to in Egypt.

“In the incubator [a centre that provides resources, space and an environment for startups and entrepreneurs to grow their businesses] that we were in there were only four women: me and Zainab, Yasmin Elayat who introduced us, and another woman, while there were around 20-something gentlemen. I think we were ten teams altogether, and three teams had women in them; the rest were all men.”

These numbers reflect the general statistics: women make up about a third of the entrepreneurs in Jordan’s influential Oasis500 incubator and are estimated to be about 15 per cent of the entrepreneurs in Egypt.

Furthermore, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s recently released report on women’s entrepreneurialism in 2012, in the US only ten per cent of the total adult female population was involved in entrepreneurial activity, five per cent in startup powerhouse Israel and five per cent in “developed” Europe.

El-Mehairy explained that western societies were trailing because in the Middle East young women are channelled into prestigious university courses on the back of excellent high school grades. These courses are usually in the sciences and in engineering, rather than the arts and social sciences areas that women in the west tended to gravitate towards.

Her experiences in Denmark also suggest that it was probably easier to find funding in Egypt for her two-year-old startup than in Europe, despite local investors’ inexperience of the sector and consequent hesitancy. She stressed that it was still not easy, and definitely not easier for a woman than for a man, to access crucial financing, however she was not as disadvantaged as women are in the west due to the entrenched stereotypes of what an entrepreneur should look like.

“If you’re looking for venture capital or angel investment or so forth, (Europe) is a male dominated environment.” However investing in startups is not big in Egypt, she said, therefore that bias towards male founders was not yet apparent.

Cairo Angels founder Hossam Allam said his group of around 50 investors, some experienced in early stage business investment and some not, had been approached by plenty of mixed teams for funding.

In “about half the deals we’ve done, women are in the CEO position or in the management team,” he said, adding that potential gender-based conflicts between a female leader and male employees or co-founders were not something his investors ever had to think about.

“We don’t have to take into account what kind of team conflicts could arise with the women. We never take that even into account because it’s just not an issue that we have to deal with in any way, in any shape or form.”

At venture capital investor Sawari Ventures, managing director Hany Sonbaty said gender made no difference to him at all because they invested on the basis of, “Can you do it? And can you make money?”

“We’re here to make money, we’re not here to feel good about ourselves,” he remarked.

Yet although these examples appear to break the stereotype of a country renowned for the daily harassment and abuse of women, female entrepreneurs in Egypt and throughout the Middle East still face huge obstacles that their male counterparts do not encounter.

Organisations such as Roudha in Qatar, the region-wide ‘Wamda for Women’ and AMIDEAST Arab Women’s Entrepreneurship Program have all sprung up to assist budding female entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, competitions to promote female entrepreneurship, such as the Women in Tech Business Plan Competition in Jordan and the Lebanese incubator Berytech’s Women Entrepreneur Competition, are counterparts to major regional business competitions such as Google’s Ebda2 and the MIT Arab Competition, for which organisers of both say the gender mix is about even.

The need for support networks and women-focused startup competitions is apparent in the statistics: women make up half of university attendees in the MENA region but are only 21 per cent of the workforce, controlling 22 per cent of its wealth, according to World Bank data.

However, education, greater support for businesswomen, and the creation of a slightly more level playing field thanks to the novelty of entrepreneurialism are all allowing women like El-Mehairy to succeed in Egypt and across the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.