Turning The Tide: How Going Digital Is Enabling The Success Of Female Entrepreneurs In The UAE (And Beyond)

Shifting businesses online has become much easier than it was just a few years ago– and that's especially good for women and communities who have historically had fewer opportunities to succeed.

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After having her first baby, Sarah Seklani was looking for a way to keep working while looking after her daughter. Inspiration struck at a friend’s baby shower. Sarah ordered a candy cart from England– and the other guests loved it. So, she started her own business -Laila’s Candy Cart, named after her daughter- catering events in Dubai with tailored candy boxes.  

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all her events were cancelled, and orders dried up. Overnight, Sarah had to completely rethink her business. With stockpiles of candy in her home, she focused all her attention online to try and sell it. She sold gift hampers, activity boxes, and other products through her website, and used personalized ads on Instagram to reach potential customers. What started out as a necessity soon became a huge success. Her web traffic surged, and sales soared. As a result, she’s gone from working alone in her home, to opening her first office and hiring five employees.  

Sarah’s creativity and resilience helped her triumph in the face of adversity, but not every business has survived the pandemic. The last year and a half has been hard on small businesses across the Middle East and beyond. When Facebook surveyed businesses in the United Arab Emirates towards the end of last year, nearly one in five was closed, and more than half of those still open said sales were down.  

Our latest global State of Small Business survey, carried out in July and August across 30 countries and territories, painted a very similar picture. 18% of small businesses said they were currently closed, an improvement on 24% in February. However, of those still operating, more reported reduced employment this time round, rising from 30% in February to 36% in July.  

And the COVID-19 crisis has been especially hard for businesses run by women. Our surveys have consistently found that female-owned businesses are more likely to have closed than male-owned ones, more likely to have seen sales drop, and significantly more likely to be concentrated in the sectors most affected by restrictions on business.  

Related: Why Your Mental Health Is Key To Your Survival In A Family Business

But there are signs of hope. For Sarah, shifting her business online started out as a necessity, but turned it into a big success. Even before the pandemic, more and more people were spending their time and money online, and businesses were increasingly going digital to reach them. What had been a gradual trend accelerated dramatically last year when having a digital storefront, taking online orders, and reaching customers remotely became essential for businesses everywhere.  

The good news is all these things are much easier than they were just a few years ago– and that’s especially good for women and communities who have historically had fewer opportunities to succeed. Here are three things every business can do to achieve success online: 

1. Establish your digital presence For many, this is the biggest leap. Yes, setting up a website can be complicated and expensive. But, in just a few clicks, anyone can set up a Facebook Page or an Instagram Business Profile for free. There are even free tools available to make it easy to take orders and sell online. 

2. Learn the basics of digital advertising Some small business owners think advertising is something only big companies can afford– and that used to be true. But with personalized ads, you can reach people you think will be interested in your products for just a few dollars. Learning the basics is easy– you can quickly learn how to create effective ads, identify audiences to show them to, and measure your results. 

3. Know where to get help There is support out there if you need it. Businesses can find user-friendly resources and trainings at Facebook’s Middle East and North Africa Small And Medium Business Training Hub, and there’s more support available at our Business Resource Hub

After a period filled with hardship and heartbreak for so many, I believe there are many reasons to be optimistic. The ongoing digital transformation can be good for businesses in the United Arab Emirates and beyond, especially for women and others that have often had barriers placed in their way.  

In 2021, you don’t need anyone’s permission to turn a good idea into a successful business.   

Related: What Entrepreneurs Need To Know About Opening A Restaurant In Dubai

Sheryl Sandberg

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Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, overseeing the firm’s business operations. She also serves on Facebook’s board of directors.  

Prior to Facebook, Sheryl was vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, chief of staff for the United States Treasury Department under President Clinton, a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and an economist with the World Bank. Sheryl received a BA summa cum laude from Harvard University, and an MBA with highest distinction from Harvard Business School. 

Sheryl is the co-author of Option B: Facing AdversityBuilding Resilience, and Finding Joy with Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant. She is also the author of the bestsellers Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and Lean In for Graduates. She is the founder of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to build a more equal and resilient world through two key initiatives, LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org. Sheryl serves on the boards of Facebook, Women for Women International, ONE, and SurveyMonkey. 

Sheryl lives in Menlo Park, California, with her fiancé and their five children.