In the opening of the second edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s 2016 Achieving Women Forum, Maya Hojeij, Editor in Chief and Presenter of Dubai TV’s Mal daily business news show, shared that while female participation in the MENA workforce has experienced a steady increase in recent years, there is still much work that needs to be done. The current unemployment rate for working-age women in the MENA is over 40%, which is much higher than Europe and North America. According to the McKinsey Global Institute’s Power of Parity report, published in September 2015, if women’s participation in the MENA workforce were to equal the participation of their male counterparts, the regional GDP could increase annually by 47% or US$600 billion. While the financial benefit of incorporating women in the workforce has mobilized some Arab nations to take strides to increase their participation across various sectors and industries, the fact remains that this process isn’t the sole responsibility of the government.
Regardless of gender, as a community of professionals, we need to work together to create ecosystems of success, instead of successful ecosystems. While these two phrases might seem synonymous on the surface, they are vastly different in principle. In my opinion, a successful ecosystem is a superficial label, because it only focuses on the output of a corporate or entrepreneurial community. It’s a label that overlooks the mechanics of an ecosystem and the inherent privileges and obstacles that different individuals and businesses face on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, success is not always a function of a person’s effort, and that’s why we must focus on promoting ecosystems of success. Not only does this ecosystem look at the output of the corporate and entrepreneurial communities respectively, it also focuses on understanding and improving the mechanics of said communities in an iterative process. Any entrepreneur will tell you that success is not a destination- it’s a journey. It’s time that we, as Arab communities, work collectively towards empowering more females to join these ecosystems in bigger numbers. In the meantime, each one of us can start improving our own lives and business by implementing some of the following ideas.
1. Adopt authenticity as a core value
As a professional, the most important thing you need to know is how to establish long-lasting relationships with people. Whether you’re trying to build a team, pitch an investor or onboard a customer, you have to know how to gain people’s trust and authenticity plays a key role in this process. So, how can you incorporate authenticity as a core value of your reputation and business? Be known as a person who establishes honest and transparent relationships that are mutually beneficial. Always look for ways to leverage your business and contacts to empower others and, in time, your good reputation will attract the kind of people who will return the favor. On the other hand, if you’re looking to create a positive reputation for your startup, you should know what your unique selling point is, and how to communicate it in a creative way to your intended audience. Now, this would seem fairly obvious. But believe me, I’ve seen people look “obvious” straight in the face and walk right past it.
Let’s be honest, there’s nothing more irritating than hearing an entrepreneur desperately say whatever it takes “to sell” their idea. Not only is this a sign of sloppy marketing, it’s also a sign of poor market research. Those two things that will inevitably harm your business’ long-term credibility, if they aren’t revamped as soon as possible. In fact, when asked to leave the forum’s female entrepreneurs with one piece of advice, Mona Ataya, CEO of Mumzworld, urged the audience “to do [their] research and be prepared,” because “people remember the last thing you’ve done, not the first thing.” So, entrepreneurs, before you start marketing your digital or physical business, make sure you understand what your customers want. Once you can identify that, align your value proposition with these needs and create marketing strategies that address these pain points. At the end of the day, good businesses focus on adding value, but “authentically good” businesses put their customers at the center of everything they do, which means that they provide value in the best way.
2. Hack the psychology of leadership
“You can’t be a leader and act like a junior.” This quote from H.E. Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr, Director General, Smart Dubai Office, succinctly summarizes the internal struggle that many women face when they occupy leadership positions. Leadership isn’t just a title; it’s a state of mind, and if you don’t think you’re a capable leader, why should people follow you? If you want to unlock your full potential, you have to understand what is holding you back. Are you trying to be a leader just so you can outdo a colleague? Do you think that people don’t take you as seriously because you’re a woman? If you’ve fallen prey to the competitive nature of the former trap, or the deceptive nature of the latter, then you need to take a step back and start integrating new positive thinking habits and physical hacks into your day-to-day routine to undo some of this negative “self-speak.”
3. Make risk-taking part of your modus operandi
According to research conducted at Harvard Business School, “simply holding one’s body in expansive, ‘high-power’ poses for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance in the animal and human worlds) and lower levels of cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone that can, over time, cause impaired immune functioning, hypertension, and memory loss).” As you can see, even incorporating simple hacks like this can make you feel more confident as a person and a leader. However, you can’t be a good leader until you believe in yourself. As the 2016 Achieving Women Forum keynote speaker Huda Al Lawati said, “If you’re not willing to take a risk on yourself, why should anyone else?” So, take the time to think about how you can improve the way you think about yourself and your leadership skills, so you can be the kind of leader that people want to follow and take a leap for.
4. Combine the powers of offline and online networking
Whenever I connect with interesting entrepreneurs or corporate executives on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn, I’m almost always more likely to take the private communication to WhatsApp or email, instead of a phone call or Skype session. Thankfully, I’m not the only one. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2014, more than two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 prefer to send and receive text messages. While various social networks are allowing busy professionals to connect with more people online, the convenience of online networking has caused many to neglect offline networking. This is especially true for self-professed introverts like Sirine Fadoul, the Incubation Manager at DTEC Tech Startup Incubator in Dubai Silicon Oasis who urged the female entrepreneurs in the crowd “to join a physical community” to meet more people. Not only does face-to-face communication force entrepreneurs to hone their pitching skills, it also gives them a chance to improve their overall communication capabilities and their ability to read body language.
5. Remember to take digital relationships into the real world
According to Zeina Sleiman, the Associate Director of Institutional Relations and Alumni Affairs at INSEAD, in order for the networking experience to be truly effective, it is necessary for a “digital relationship” to translate into a physical meeting or a professional relationship in the real world. Having said that, not all relationships require the same amount of effort. If you’re a busy entrepreneur, you should try to be selective about the kinds of professional networks that you cultivate, because you want to invest in relationships that are both long-term and mutually beneficial. Ultimately, when it comes to networking, you want to make sure that you can combine the power of “online and offline connectivity.” And if you forget everything I’ve just said, just remember these three essential things about networking: do your research, be active in networking circles, and be a person people trust.
6. Raise money that empowers your startup
Arab entrepreneurs frequently say that a lack of funding is one of the biggest problems facing entrepreneurs in the MENA region. However, Tena Pick, co-founder and CEO of The Sustainability Platform, argues “many startups raise money too soon, and then they realize that they don’t have internal bandwidth to deal with it.” Is there really such a thing as raising money too soon? Yes, there is. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs use the fundraising process as a form of concept validation. The idea being that somehow investment makes a startup worthy, or at least worthy of attention. But there are three problems with this mindset. Firstly, it can make entrepreneurs overlook more innovative ways (i.e. cheap or free methods) of getting things done, especially in the early stages of a startup. It can also push them to give up equity too early, when they could pursue other funding opportunities that are less risky or more “stage-appropriate.” Lastly, it could push them to accept investments with reckless terms, which will hurt their business in the long run. As you can see, the focus of the funding debate is slowly shifting from the amount of money that an entrepreneur should raise to the quality of the money.
7. Not all money is smart money
Quality money is also known as “smart money,” which Heather Henyon, founder and Managing Partner, Balthazar Capital, defines as “money that comes with support, connections and backing.” However, it’s not always easy to find “smart money” in the MENA region, which means that Arab entrepreneurs have to be even more vigilant about who they take investments from. Having an investor is like having a partner, and if you don’t have the right chemistry, it can be a difficult and trying relationship. So, if you’re an entrepreneur and you feel that your company is ready to manage an investor relationship and an influx of capital, you need to check two things before you receive a check. Firstly, you need to look at an investor’s track record to see what kind of investments they’ve made in the past and what they offered to the startups that they’ve invested in. Secondly, you should explore a potential investor’s network to see if they have networks that you can leverage as your business continues to grow. Ultimately, if we’re going to promote a sustainable and healthy ecosystem in the region, we need to encourage more entrepreneurs to pursue “smart money” and teach more investors what “smart money” looks like for every industry.
8. Establish support networks with different ranks and industries
Although we’d all love to believe that the fight for equal opportunities for women in the workforce is over, unfortunately this is not the case- especially in the corporate world. According to an analysis conducted by CNN Money, “only 14.2% of the top leadership positions in S&P500 companies are held by women.” Actually, if we narrow in on the position of CEO, there are only 24 female CEOs out of 500 companies. As Sophie Le Ray, co-founder and CEO of Naseba, highlighted during the forum, “businesses fail, whether they have women or not.” So, if the problem isn’t a woman’s capabilities, what is it? Our problem is our lacking commitment towards establishing “cultures of empowerment” at all stages in the workforce. In the case of our male counterparts, this culture is infamously called the “boys’ club.” In this “club” men don’t only spend time smoking cigars, shisha and engaging in idle talk, they also build relationships, negotiate deals and share professional advice. This is what we lack as a community of female professionals: a girls’ club that permeates all levels of the professional world.
9. Curate connections for career growth and development
The workforce isn’t a level playing field, so it is our responsibility as female professionals, regardless of our rank or industry, to start “building pipelines” that allow more female talent to reach senior positions, or any opportunity for that matter. And the best thing is that you don’t have to wait for the HR department in your company to implement a gender diversification initiative to make a change. You can start your own by hosting regular meetings with other women in your company (or industry) where you can work together on grooming a pool of female professionals, who are ready to take on the challenges of senior leadership, or any opportunity that comes their way. Don’t know many women in your company? No problem. Stefanie Fernandez, Head of Search and Staffing, Talent Solutions, for LinkedIn MENA, suggests creating a good LinkedIn profile and curating a strong network of connections that you can add value to and eventually connect with “offline”- maybe at your company or industry’s new girls’ club? When it’s all said and done, we all have a responsibility to help build this “pipeline” for all female professionals in our communities, because even though we might not benefit from it today, who’s to say that we won’t sometime in the future?
10. Produce data and knowledge that sheds light on our ecosystem
If you were to ask any entrepreneur where the most successful startup ecosystem is, they would probably say Silicon Valley. But what makes Silicon Valley attractive to entrepreneurs? It is the availability of both finance and data, which are both necessary in the process of driving innovation and changing cultures of consumption. While various organizations in the UAE’s public and private sector are diligently working on building a knowledge economy (whose main commodity is data) there are still many data gaps that need to be filled. According to Ema Linaker, Head of Digital at Edelman MEA, the best way that you can bridge these gaps is by “listening to what people are saying in your industry,” and generating valuable content and information streams that empower the different stakeholders in the MENA region’s startup ecosystem. So, where can you go to collect data about the region? Or better yet, where can you go to learn how to compile this data? You can always go to The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, The International Labor Organization etc., but these will inevitably give you a more occidental view of this region.
If you’re interested in data that was produced by the region for the region, you can check out the Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation and UNDP’s Knowledge4All initiative, which seeks to establish a digital reference hub for people looking for data and knowledge- related topics in the Arab world. You can also check out the Arab Development Portal, which was recently launched by UNDP in collaboration with other organizations. This portal, which is available in Arabic and English, is a comprehensive, one-stop shop knowledge resource that aims to improve the scope and quality of development knowledge in the Arab World. There are also local startups like PayFort, which produce the annual State of Payments reports, and MAGNiTT, a platform that allows different stakeholders in the MENA startup ecosystem to be visible and learn about each other. Both of these startups, and many more, are providing valuable information that both existing and aspiring entrepreneurs can use to bolster their knowledge of the region. Knowledge is power, so whether you decide to publish an annual report based on your startup’s data, or if you aggregate existing information in a new way, making your content available is adding value to the community’s collective knowledge and resource base.
11. Avoid labeling actions and outcomes as failures
Most dictionaries define failure as a lack of success, which, in my opinion, is completely false. For me, failure is the inability to learn or pivot when the plans in your head diverge from the “reality on the ground.” Unfortunately, there is no place for entrepreneurs in the startup world, who view life as a dichotomy of failure and success. Especially in the MENA region, where they will constantly be faced with well-meaning naysayers in their private lives or outright critiques in their public lives. As Joy Ajlouny, co-founder of Fetchr, said to the forum’s audience, “You have to be the kind of person who doesn’t care, you have to develop the no-shame gene.” The fact of the matter is that “failure” is really a matter of opinion, because sometimes your failure might be the stepping-stone to another woman’s success. By “failing” publicly, not only are female entrepreneurs encouraging other female entrepreneurs and professionals to pioneer new attempts to “remove” glass ceilings (because shattering anything is a bad idea), they are also allowing women to re-imagine what success could mean to them.
Any entrepreneur will tell you that success doesn’t come without its hard-learned lessons, and if you’re the kind of entrepreneur who’s unwilling to learn them, then you’re definitely going to struggle. Agile thinking is a key part of success in any entrepreneurial or professional setting. So, if you’ve hired “affordable” talent, but you didn’t get the results that you hoped for, spend more money (or give equity) to get top-tier team members. If you’ve spent money on marketing on a social media platform and it didn’t work, stop. If you’ve made a mistake with a customer or investor, own it. These are not failures; they are teachable moments that make the entrepreneurial process an iterative one. By owning these moments, you can choose how to brand your “failures,” before anyone else does. Not only will “re-branding your snafus” get you in the habit of pivoting your business strategies to promote continued success, it will also make you more willing to share these lessons with other entrepreneurs in the industry. At the end of the day, knowledge is power. So, the more knowledge that our female pioneers can impart on others, the more effective that our female MENA talent pool will become in the future.