Intersectional Impact: Dana Co-Founder And CEO Zada Haj Is Tackling The MENA's Needs For Sustainability And Gender Inclusion With Her Enterprise
Haj believes that creating a more robust agrifood sector with purpose-led infrastructure and appropriate financial backing will decidedly strengthen gender inclusion, as one in four entrepreneurs in the agrifood sector is female.
At the intersection of two globally pressing issues is where you will find Abu Dhabi-based venture builder and investment platform Dana putting in the hard yards to address both. Founded in 2021 by three women -Zada Haj, Shirley Shahar, and Katie Wachsberger- Dana's primary aim is to support women-led tech startups in sectors such as agritech, water solutions, food security, waste management, and renewable energy, all of which are collectively referred to as " desert tech."
The firm does this through offering opportunities for regional business connections, innovation mentorship, and funding through its investment arm, Dana Limited Partnership. "We envision a Middle East where the pressing issues of climate change and food security are addressed collaboratively, which unfortunately seems a little hard to imagine today," says Haj, who is the co-founder and CEO of Dana. "In fact, we imagine a region in which these sectors will be among the most profitable, while remaining impact-driven. It is evident to us that women entrepreneurs and innovators are the leaders to affect this change. So, we need to put aside our differences to protect the environment and our way of life."
Among the many sectors Dana caters to, there is one in particular that offers great impetus for business growth: agritech, or agrifood. In the past few years, in what has been referred to as an "agritech boom," methods such as hydroponic and vertical farming have proven to be especially advantageous to the dry and arid lands of the Middle East. When I ask Haj how the sector could also be pivotal in fostering greater gender inclusivity, the co-founder has quite an interesting response. "Let me answer this question with an Arabic quote," she says. "Roughly it translates to: 'The mother is a school; when you prepare her, you prepare a full nation to be of good breed. The mother is a garden; if watered well, it flourishes for the benefit of all.' Over the years, we have seen higher numbers of female founders in the agrifood sector, partly due to this sector's impact-oriented nature. Women in the MENA region also have a deep historic and cultural connection with agriculture. When I was growing up, I always tended to our agricultural land together with my mother. It was our job at home."
While her personal references may be an important part of Haj's vision, there are also plenty of hard facts that back her statements about the agritech sector. "Creating a more robust agrifood sector with purpose-led infrastructure and appropriate financial backing will decidedly strengthen gender inclusion, as one in four entrepreneurs in the agrifood sector is female," she points out. "Compare this to the meager rate in other areas of tech, like fintech and software development, where the ratio is only 1:7."
But Haj also adds that while such statistics may paint a rosy picture, they don't necessarily reflect the many challenges female tech entrepreneurs continue to face in the Middle East. "Only 6% of MENA venture capital was invested in women this past year," Haj reveals. "So, obviously, capital is vital for female-led startups to get off the ground and through the 'valley of death.' And this does not even start to account for the social and cultural hurdles many women face throughout the region when building their own businesses."
Of course, Haj isn't unfamiliar with the challenges of running a business as a female founder. In addition, at Dana, she also has to manage the intricacies of running a business with two very different co-founders. "Diversity is a huge advantage, and it is also a massive challenge," Haj adds. "Our leading team of three speaks different mother tongues, and have different educational, professional, and personal backgrounds. This means we learn a lot from each other, but it also means we approach tasks very differently. The challenge is learning to communicate effectively and patiently bring these perspectives together in synergy, and I believe nobody does this better than women. Our story is one of resilience in diversity!"
Katie Wachsberger, Zada Haj, and Shirley Shahar, founding team, Dana. Source: Dana
At this point, it becomes quite apparent that Haj's personal journey with Dana has shaped a lot of her business ideals, and as such, I ask her if there have been any lessons on leadership that she's picked up in her time at the enterprise. "The ability to work under pressure -whether physical, mental, or emotional- is extremely important in leadership, because things will never be easy and relaxed when you have the responsibility of collective successes and other peoples' livelihood on your shoulders," she replies. "In moments of pressure, it is crucial to exercise perspective, to find balance, and to gain a wider view of the issue before any decision making. Also, I believe that, at the end of the day, companies, corporations, and governments are all made up of people. So, if you can find a way to genuinely connect and inspire them to share your vision, nothing can stand in your way."
Under Haj's leadership, Dana has recently added yet another feather to its cap- a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed with Masdar City, a hub for technology innovation as well as research and development located in the UAE capital. Through this MoU, Dana will build its first beta site in Masdar City, in a bid to test the feasibility of early-stage agritech projects that can be developed and piloted in Abu Dhabi. With construction already underway, the site is scheduled to open towards the end of 2022, and its layout is set to offer various agriculture-focused infrastructure that caters to the particular needs of farmers from Abu Dhabi and the wider Middle East, including a greenhouse, shade house, and open field areas for pilots. "Our MoU with Masdar City will help us extend our reach to more promising female founders and innovators in the UAE and beyond," Haj says. "By creating a testing facility for desert tech solutions, together with our venture builder's hands-on engagement with startups and our corporate design partners, we ensure women-led startups have everything they need to operate successfully, and also offer them attractive investment opportunities.
Having realized this agreement with Masdar City, Haj and her crew at Dana believe it could open doors to more investment-related milestones. "For Dana, this beta site is not only a small ecosystem by itself as well as a platform-enabling technology hub, but also a significant step in our due diligence process for investment opportunities in the sector," Haj reveals. "After going through our detailed proof of concept process, valuation for these early-stage startups tends to increase significantly, opening doors for investment opportunities internationally. In the fourth quarter of 2022, the Dana Limited Partnership will begin deploying capital in the top startups from our Venture Builder, which will be a group selected based on their success at our beta sites. We are all set to become one of few women-led funds in the region, setting the example for other initiatives to invest in female leadership."
As Haj now prepares for a new phase in her enterprise's journey, she remains mindful that the impact Dana hopes to achieve, with regards to both diversity and sustainability, is ultimately a collective effort. "At Dana, our success is based on that of our startups," she says. "Every win is not just about my own success, but about getting one step closer to a vision of true female leadership, and more women role models in our region's business community. I am inspired endlessly by our founders and the work they do to bring groundbreaking solutions to the market, and I wish for their inspiration to now be passed on."