Leaning In, Cairo Style
Despite the Western stereotype of Middle Eastern women as marginalized and oppressed, over a third of startups in the Middle East are run by women—a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. Technology is democratizing problem-solving across the entire demographic and economic spectrum of women in the Middle East. According to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), both mobile and computer usage in women-run businesses are about the same as men, approaching 90 percent, and over two-thirds regularly access the Internet.
Access and outcomes are found in pretty surprising quarters. Ruth Messinger, a legend in the international development community who works with more than 200 grassroots social change projects around the globe, explained to me, “Give a woman a cellphone and the capacity to recharge and watch them build a kiosk so people will pay them to make a call. Allow women access to an anonymous cellphone number where they can report abuse, have their stories anonymously vetted, justice can be offered. I know one entrepreneur in India who built this service, and they see themselves not only as protecting human rights, but offering a form of journalism to a community that has no newspapers. Others in Africa and the Middle East are offering similar services to combat corruption.”
Stories like these are unsurprising to Ghada Howaidy in Cairo, who runs institutional development at the American University of Cairo’s School of Business. She explained to me that a large, informal, less tech entrepreneurial movement has been happening among young women in Egypt for over a decade. Many women may have come from other professions, but for other reasons—passion for an idea, lifestyle, raising kids—decide 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, maybe even global, online-only businesses.”
Over a third of the startups in the Middle East are run by women—a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley.
The breadth of women-founded tech startups in the Arab world is stunning and inspirational, but also instructive as a window into the opportunities emerging in the region. I examined four other common groupings: offering services in Arabic; helping other families achieve work/life balance; leveraging experiences from the Arab Spring to create collaborative crowdsharing platforms; and developing scalable women-focused retail and e-commerce platforms.
A piece of every one of these remarkable women’s stories is embodied in Randa Ayoubi. Her multiplatform on- and offline content production house is one of the most respected in the world. But Amman-founded Rubicon Group Holding is in its eighteenth year. With over 500 employees spread across Amman, Dubai, Manila, and California, her privately-held company is rumored to be valued at in the hundreds of millions. She has partnerships with global media players like MGM, Sony, and Turner Broadcasting. They have created content and computer-generated imagery for television, online, and in areas as diverse as entertainment,education, and training, and soon the billion-dollar Red Sea Astrarium theme park planned to be opened in 2014.
Everything this new generation has experienced and expressed she lived, though she smiles, “in 1994 there were almost no entrepreneurs, no VCs or even much culture to start your own business. The idea of digital was foreign to most people.” She looked out her office window and grew quiet and asked me to look at all the cars parked in the parking lot and driving on the bustling Amman streets. “I know you are thinking “big deal,” but you have to understand that most of the kids you are talking to today never thought having a car and all this was possible. The men and women you meet, possibility is the determining factor, not politics. They see success, they see those cars or others creating their own ideas, and its empowerment to know they can do the same. What they see now is that they can drive their own futures.”
She believes she had it easier than many women despite all the challenges of being alone not only as a woman but as an entrepreneur. She lived in a more cosmopolitan center where women did go from university to the workforce, and her family was very supportive especially as she began to raise a young family. But she is aware that the Middle East is at a turning point. “It has nothing to do with the law,” she tells me, “nothing to do with religion. It is about broad-based cultural perceptions about what women can do here. Nothing will change that but education and experience.”
I told her the thing I hear most often about what will make things move fast in the Middle East was “success will breed success.” Did she agree? “ Of course,” Randa said, “If every year there are 10, 15, 20 examples on any of our concerns, society will change. But I think the entrepreneurs need to also set their own expectations about themselves. In the market they should not worry about limits, they will persevere. But I’m often asked how I handle work-life balance, and I always say you can’t, it is a myth.” She pauses, noting that women are making real choices now in the region about whether to work, stay at home, or do some of both. “But when we learn and accept that we can’t be super human beings, but are open with our expectations—today or this week I travel, tomorrow or the next week I am at kids’ school activities, there is a balance.”
Salwa Katkhuda, the investment manager at one of the leading startup incubators in Jordan, Oasis500, agrees. She 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, lifestyle 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.”
Randa, however, wrapped my inquiry succinctly: “This isn’t about men. Bad behavior is bad behavior and we should call out bad behavior. But we should acknowledge that we are different, we have different emotions, experiences, even paces.” She agrees with something almost every founder said to me in some form: “These differences and how we balance them are why we are such good and impactful entrepreneurs.”