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MENA's Women In Business On What Empowerment Means To Them We ask seven MENA-based women entrepreneurs to explain how they are getting their voices heard in the ecosystem.

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For three years in a row, the UAE ranked first in the world for treating women with respect, as per a global social progress index developed by the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter. Indeed, the country has made significant progress towards parity between men and women, with one such initiative being the formation of the UAE Gender Balance Council in 2015 to enhance women's roles as key partners in building the country's future. Then, in 2016, the council adopted the UAE Gender Balance Program, with a mandate to review existing legislation, propose a new set of regulations related to gender balance, and oversee their implementation. Most recently, the council launched the Gender Balance Guide: Good Practices for UAE Organizations, a comprehensive set of guidelines and concrete actions for UAE organizations to adopt a gender-sensitive approach in their workplace.

The goal behind all of these efforts is to raise the UAE's ranking to one of the top 25 countries in the world for gender equality by 2021. In just a few years, the UAE aims to move up 99 spots in international rankings made by the World Economic Forum (WEF), as it is currently placed 124th out of 144 countries. The WEF's Global Gender Gap Report of 2016 revealed that the GCC nations are among the lowest ranked countries in the world, with Qatar being the highest ranked Gulf nation (119th), Kuwait (128th), Bahrain (131st), Oman (133rd), and Saudi Arabia (141st). Yet, the WEF's 2016 benchmarking exercise, which measures progress towards parity between men and women in four areas every year -educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political empowerment- showed that the region has closed over 95% of its educational attainment gender gap.

Traditionally, the MENA countries have been populated by women who value education highly. Not cut from the same cloth, the UAE has gone an extra mile by breeding a young and educated female population, which is also capable of embracing leadership positions. In enabling women, both local and expat, to exploit their economic power, the UAE has managed to attract ambitious females from around the globe who are driven to better their communities. As a result, the UAE Gender Balance Council today presents some interesting statistics- women constitute 46.6% of the UAE labor market, with 66% in the public sector, of whom 30% hold leadership roles. Furthermore, around 20% of representatives in the UAE Federal National Council are women, and eight of the country's ministers are women. Looking specifically at the private sector, the country has 23,000 registered businesswomen running investments worth around US$15 billion. On the list of achievements, which is by no means exhaustive, is also the fact that the UAE is the first country in the Arab region to introduce a mandatory female presence in corporate boardrooms, with a target of 20% by 2020 for listed companies.

Related: Get Your Facts Straight: Women In The MENA Workplace

A common thread connecting the seven women I interviewed to capture a snapshot of on-the-ground experiences of what empowerment means to women working in the MENA region today is that they all, although being of different origins and hailing from different continents, call the UAE home. Contrary to the generation of their equally educated mothers, they have opted to climb up the corporate ladder and later hop off the treadmill to form companies that are more aligned with their values, or embarked on an entrepreneurial journey from the outset. Lastly, they all point out to changes –not challenges– when talking about how today's women ensure their voices are heard. Ola Doudin, the founder of BitOasis, a Dubai-based fintech startup allowing Middle Eastern users to safely buy and store bitcoins online, explains that education has been a priority for women in her Jordanian family throughout the generations. "My mother and my aunts are all university educated," she says. "But, there was no sort of drive to realize your potential in terms of going out into the workplace, getting a job that aligns with your values and makes you wake up every morning eager to work. However, I think that is not related to women alone, but that the generation of my parents in general valued stability over creating new businesses that change the way people live."

Ola Doudin, founder, BitOasis
Source: BitOasis
Sonia Weymuller, Founding Partner of VentureSouq, a Dubai-based early-stage equity funding platform, also grew up among the examples of strong, educated, and principled womanhood. "My Indian grandmother was the first woman and first Muslim to head the student union at her university in Lucknow, India," Weymuller says. "She spent her lifetime fighting for women's rights, which transpired down the generations. My French grandmother was involved in the Resistance and ended up at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She is an extremely strong woman. However, when I look at my mum's generation, the idea of entrepreneurship was not the first thing to come to mind. Yet, it has nothing to do with gender, but the mentality. The Indian side of my family, who are closer to the Arab culture, thought I was crazy for wanting to leave my corporate job to do my own thing. So, I think it is more of a generational gap, than a gender issue."
Sonia Weymuller, Founding Partner, VentureSouq
Source: VentureSouq

Although not uniform, progress has been steady across the MENA region, and this includes the traditionally most conservative Saudi Arabia. Lama A. Younis, a Saudi children's rights activist and founder of Hissah Enrichment Center, a Dubai-based child abuse prevention and care center, explains that technological advancements have given rise to cultural differences among generations of Saudi women. "Saudi women have always been creative, but they have had to be creative behind closed doors," Younis says. "Now, there has been an explosion of creativity and they can showcase it to the world much more easily. My mother's world was smaller, unplugged, and the women of her era felt a greater pressure to assume more traditional roles, especially in a collectivist culture like ours. Their choice of lifestyle was limited and their lives were framed by stricter societal rules, values and morals. A greater proportion of women from my generation are university educated. We have the opportunity to study in the GCC or abroad. For many, living abroad, in a different culture, has broadened our perspectives, and it has opened our minds to exploring the many career, business, and life choices that are available to us. We are risk-takers. While having greater freedom is beneficial it is also confusing at times as it challenges our beliefs. However, the upside of this is that it makes us stronger in our faith and values."

Lama A. Younis, founder, Hissah Enrichment Center
Source: Hissah Enrichment Center

While Younis, the first female criminologist in the Middle East, decided to establish the Hissah Enrichment Centre only four months after obtaining her PhD in childhood studies in the UK, both Doudin and Weymuller gained business experience in corporations before venturing out on their own. As a testament to the innate leadership skills of women in the UAE, a report by Accenture states that they are more likely than their male classmates to aspire to senior leadership positions, (67% versus 62%, respectively); almost as likely to have a mentor, (69% compared to 70%); or choose an area of study that they believe offers high earning potential (42% versus 37%). According to Weymuller, joining the corporate world is a good starting point for enabling these skills to develop further. "Going into the corporate world is actually really important because you learn a lot about yourself," she says. "It's like an MBA. A solid corporate experience to back you up does give you a sort of credibility in entrepreneurship. People work in different ways, for some it is more important that you went to a good school and had an amazing experience work-wise, whereas others do not care whether you are a college drop out or not." Educated at Yale University and the London School of Economics, Weymuller started her career at Microsoft, which was followed by stints at Viacom and Turner Broadcasting. In 2013, she co-founded VentureSouq, which has grown from an informal investor group of friends to a network of over 650 people investing more than $6 million in 13 portfolio companies. "Sadly, there were no startups recruiting at universities at that time, only banking or consulting companies. I kind of fell into corporate work because while I was doing my master's in London, which is an expensive city for students, I wanted to make some money, so I took a contract job with Microsoft and joined their Strategy M&A team which reported directly to a CFO in Seattle. I was 22, and it was a sink or swim situation, but I learned a lot due to my amazing mentors who really sat by my side and walked me through everything. I liked what I was doing, although it was very numbers-driven, but it was important for me because it was a base that I needed in order to understand a lot of stuff later on. I realized that, ultimately, I am more a people person. While I cherished and appreciated the numbers-driven experience that I had, I didn't want to be stuck behind my laptop."

Related: The Role Of Gender Equality In Ensuring Economic Growth

BitOasis founder Doudin quit her job as an IT Associate at Ernst & Young London in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crash, moved back to Jordan where she worked on entrepreneurship initiatives with Fadi Ghandour, Executive Chairman of Wamda Group, before establishing her company in 2014. In hindsight, she says, joining a corporation seemed as the only option for an engineering graduate she once was. "I studied engineering at the University of Birmingham. A natural thing to do was to go to a career center, which was where I realized that, for an engineer, consulting jobs in technology were highly paid, and London was a great place to start your career, so I applied to all consulting firms. Entrepreneurship wasn't even a part of the career center. No one really thought about entrepreneurship being a viable career path. In a corporation, you learn a lot on the job as a graduate. During the first year, it was all new, and I was learning so much, but in the second year, once I learned all the basics, I felt I was just repeating everything, but with twice as much work. That is when I became aware that a corporate environment is very structured and, specifically in consulting, it doesn't encourage you to think outside of the box. While I was considering what to do next, the whole entrepreneurship wave started springing up in Europe and the Middle East, and then I decided that if I wanted to start my own business, it should definitely be in the Middle East, where my roots are."

Analyzing whether corporations promote policies that encourage higher achievement by women is a part of the mandate of the Pearl Initiative, a Sharjah-based organization fostering a corporate culture of accountability and transparency. Its two GCCfocused reports -Women's Careers in the GCC: The CEO Agenda (2015) and Women's Careers in the GCC - Four Good Practice Case Studies (2016)- revealed that even though three quarters of over 600 surveyed women, occupying managerial positions, felt that their families were supportive of their education and career, they were still hampered by traditional role models. As a result, the first report stated, around half of the women chose to opt out by taking career breaks, starting their own businesses, or becoming self-employed. "We see a lot of change in the region in that it is becoming more a common place for women to be working, and also to be working in different types of roles," says Carla Koffel, the Executive Director of The Pearl Initiative. "However, a lot of companies here are at the start of their journey and some of them haven't focused on the issues, such as flexible working or how to provide facilities for their employees' children, and so on, yet. There is no easy solution to this and each company needs to identify what is going to specifically work for that organization. It depends on what business they are in and the demographics of the people who are working in that organization, and then what is best suiting for both the workforce and the objectives of that organization. It also means that quite a bit of time needs to be invested into asking these questions so that something that is going to work can be applied. We have also found that it is important to, firstly, bring men into the conversation, and secondly, to look at middle managers who have such big impact on the career development of women. They often make decisions about promotions, they often make decisions that affect the policies that apply throughout the organization, so it has been seen to be very important." In addition, a failure to translate relevant policies into action leads to the same results- women leaving the workplace. A report conducted by Hopscotch. ae shows that women seeking to join the workforce feel the need for support in terms of flexibility (79%), competitive pay (58%), childcare (53%), maternity leave (49%) and mentorship and training (46%).

Carla Koffel, Executive Director, The Pearl Initiative
Source: The Pearl Initiative
One example of a woman seeking to strike a balance between her professional and personal demands is Jumana Al Darwish, founder of The Happy Box, a lifestyle brand, and The Happy Studio, a pop-up community space recently opened in Alserkal Avenue. The 35-year-old Jordanian had worked in the public and nonprofit sectors, including The Executive Office (TEO)-Dubai School of Government, The Executive Office (TEO)-Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF), and Dubai Cares, for 10 years before co-founding The Happy Box in 2014. "The price of success when I was working in the public sector was family," she says. "Though I worked for incredible entities that granted me flexible time, I was still very much away from my family and suffered greatly from guilt when I became a mother. Now, as an entrepreneur, I have more ownership over my schedule. However, I feel that as an entrepreneur I have neglected myself greatly. Entrepreneurship can be an incredibly lonely journey, and without the right support from family and friends, one can end up losing themselves in the process. I have to continuously remind myself that I am human and need time off to take care of me and that is okay."
Jumana Al Darwish, founder, The Happy Box
Source: The Happy Box
Sarah Jones, founder of Sprii, a curated online lifestyle hub for women launched in Dubai in 2014, started her career at Deloitte London which led to an international secondment in the Middle East just a few years later. "The main challenge of being a woman in the finance world is that you are expected to work extremely long hours and that is the norm," Jones says. "It is easy when you are 21 or 22, but if you do want to start a family, this might be a challenge. There were [a] few [women], just one or two, senior partners at Deloitte when I worked there. It is virtually impossible for most women [to succeed] in those companies because how can you lead a team of 20, who are all men and who are all happy to work till 2 a.m. every day, when you have a family as well? They tell you that you can, but it is just incredibly hard to gain the respect of your colleagues because you are not there [as much as they are]. That is the challenge that one faces, and has to accept in a big corporation like that. However, my biggest reason for wanting to leave and start my own thing was the company's inability to be agile. They can't move quickly. If a junior has got an idea or even if partners have got an idea, it has to go through 17 different levels of approval. I was buzzing with ideas every day. They don't want that from an assistant manager. They want people to come and do their day job, but I wanted to be able to think of and implement an idea on a daily basis."
Sarah Jones, founder, Sprii.com
Source: Sprii.com
A daughter of a Palestinian refugee, San Francisco-born Joy Ajlouny is now an internationally acclaimed e-commerce veteran. However, since her early twenties, Ajlouny has not shied away from jumping into the unstable waters of entrepreneurship headfirst. A risk-taker by nature, Ajlouny first opened a fashion store in New York, and later founded Bonfaire, a USbased e-commerce discovery platform for luxury footwear and accessories, which was acquired in 2013 by fashion e-commerce giant Moda Operandi, owned by LVMH and Condé Nast. Bringing her vast experience to the region, Ajlouny co-founded Fetchr, a GPS-tracked parcel delivery app, in Dubai in 2013. In her opinion, women entrepreneurs rarely face discrimination in the Middle East. "I find that being a woman entrepreneur in the Middle East to be an advantage actually," she says. "When negotiating, a man on the other side of the table is not going to confront you, or be as ego-driven as he would be with another man. However, it is about how you conduct yourself... The same applies to men. It works both ways; it's not just a woman thing. There is a way to conduct yourself to be taken seriously."

When asked whether eventually taking the entrepreneurial route has empowered them to reach their potential, Al Darwish, Weymuller, and Doudin all agree that the greatest burden that could be a deterrent to success of today's women entrepreneurs is, essentially, inside of them. "Personally, fear held me back for many years," says Al Darwish. "I was terrified of being in the frontline. I was always used to being a foot soldier, someone behind the scenes. That had an impact on my growth professionally. When I started my own enterprise, I was forced to be on the front line and hence had to overcome many of my personal barriers and fears to be able to position and grow my brand." Weymuller adds, "I think that there is a fear, which is more prevalent amongst women, of not knowing enough, that either it's not the right time [to start a business] because, for example, they need to work in a corporation a bit more before they make the switch, or because they are still a bit green and there is more to learn, and so on. Yet, you just need to take the jump because you are never going to know everything." Likewise, Doudin opines that the lack of self-doubt is what evidently differentiates male entrepreneurs from their female counterparts. "Men pitch as if they did it already," she says. "It is either confidence that projects trust in the other person or some do it arrogantly, but either way, it works. There is a certain way of presenting yourself, your body language, the words and the tone that you use, that men have perfected a lot more than women."
Joy Ajlouny, co-founder, Fetchr
Source: Fetchr
Pitching to investors is something Ajlouny knows well. She is among the 1% of female entrepreneurs worldwide that have raised larger funding amounts from most prestigious international venture capital firms. Furthermore, she has done it more than once- in addition to successfully exiting Bonfaire, she closed a funding round for Fetchr, raising over $11 million in Series A. Ajlouny hopes that the success she has seen -and the work that she has done to get it- will encourage more women in the region to take advantage of the opportunities accorded to them, and not turn a blind eye to them. "When I travel, I often see women from the Middle East having a photo of a wedding dress on their cell phone, and then when I congratulate them on getting married, they often answer: "No, not yet, but this will be my wedding dress,'" Ajlouny explains. "So, they are not getting married, and might not even have a boyfriend at all, but they have a photo of their future wedding dress on their cell phones. Arab women traditionally get education, but just to find a better husband. They don't get education to actually use the learning. Yet, Arab women have just as much the brains and the passion to go after what they believe in. Again, it is not just an Arab thing. You are considered a success story worldwide if you find a husband and have children. I think that it is really important as women that we accomplish things for ourselves. You get your self-esteem and your happiness from the goals that you have set and accomplished in your life. It is good to have a husband and children too, but you still need something for yourself. Therefore, my message to women is that they can do both. You can have both, but don't lose yourself; don't lose the essence of who you are."

Related: The Recap: Achieving Women Forum 2017

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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