Equal Opportunity (For Outsized Returns)
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It will be some time yet before the term “entrepreneur” is not preceded by a gender qualifier when referring to a self-made woman. According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent report, at current rates, it will take 108 years for the overall global gender gap to close. But when it comes to entrepreneurship, some nations are bridging that chasm quicker than others as technology removes business and social impediments– and in a region you might not expect: the Middle East. The region’s enthusiastic embrace of the tech sector as its nations race to diversify their economies has been a strong driver of women into business. As a young industry that is new to the Arab world, technology does not share the male-dominated hallmarks of more traditional fields. Thanks to lower entry and funding barriers, anyone can be a tech entrepreneur. Gender is irrelevant to tech startups, and the field’s flexible nature allows Arab women to realize professional dreams from within their homes.
Today, Middle Eastern countries boast a higher per capita ratio of women in tech than their Western counterparts. Indeed, 35% of the region’s tech entrepreneurs are women, and women own 49% of all commercial registrations. Some 18% of startups in Bahrain are founded by women, beating internationally-recognized hubs such as Silicon Valley (16%) and London (15%), according to the 2019 Global Startup Ecosystem Report (GSER), the world’s most comprehensive and widely read research on entrepreneurship. The report named the Kingdom one of the world’s top 10 startup environments. Regional peers such as the UAE (15%) are following close behind.
Perhaps this impressive performance is not so surprising after all. Women have long been key decision-makers across the GCC, with several notable role models in the public and private sectors. Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE have a history of female ministers, and at policy level, too, female leaders are helping shape strategy. This is most notable in Bahrain, where our own Women in Fintech initiative is helping drive the country’s fintech approach by widening the path to career opportunities in finance and technology both locally and globally, while fostering diversity and inclusion in business, education, entrepreneurship, and innovation.
Initiatives like Women in Fintech are bolstered across the region by infrastructural changes and investment incentives aimed at fostering the right conditions for entrepreneurs –and women in particular– to flourish. Increasingly, startup programs are targeting ventures aimed at women and supporting gender diversity in tech. The US$100 million Bahraini Women Development Portfolio Fund is designed to support female entrepreneurs in the early phases of their businesses with financial support, training, and advice through initiatives such as its Riyadat Incubator Center. Elsewhere, Dubai’s Womentum early-stage accelerator aims to boost the pipeline of women entrepreneurs in the regional ecosystem, while enabling women’s business networks.
At the end of the day, investing in women makes sense. Supporting female entrepreneurs has a significant knock-on impact on society: women-owned businesses have been proven to be 1.7 times more productive than male-owned companies, and generate double the return for every dollar of funding. However, getting a business up and running is hard enough having to worry about high costs and jumping through bureaucratic hoops. For women standing up to social norms, that process is often infinitely more difficult. By stepping back and playing the role of enabler, while allowing entrepreneurs to concentrate on what they do best, governments can unlock value across the entire economy– for everyone.