On March 31, the Atlantic Council’s empowerME initiative hosted an event in partnership with the US Mission to Saudi Arabia, AmCham Saudi Arabia’s Women in Business Committee, and Quantum Leaps to mark the launch of their new joint program: IGNITING Women’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Saudi Arabia. This will bring US entrepreneurs, experts, and business leaders together with Saudi counterparts to build relationships, share knowledge, and develop partnership opportunities via hybrid workshops and networking sessions.
empowerME Director Amjad Ahmad moderated a conversation about the economic changes underway in Saudi Arabia that are allowing more women than ever before to engage in the economy. Featured speakers included Endeavor Saudi Arabia Managing Director Lateefa Alwaalan, Digital Cooperation Organization Acting Secretary General Deemah AlYahya, Quantum Leaps, Inc. Co-Founder & President Virginia Littlejohn, and the US Mission to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Chargé d’Affaires Martina Strong.
Below is a summary of the speakers’ key points.
Martina Strong, Chargé d’Affaires, US Mission to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
- Leading US private sector companies have already partnered successfully with Saudi women: Strong explained that “our companies view these partnerships as their own paths to success,” citing UPS’s Women Exporters Program with the General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises (Monshaat), ExxonMobil’s Global Women in Management Program with the King Khalid Foundation, Lockheed Martin’s investment in STEM education programs in Saudi Arabia, and the PepsiCo Foundation’s Tamakani accelerator with INJAZ Al-Arab as examples.
- Saudi women are driving progress in conjunction with Vision 2030: According to Strong, Saudi women “made sure that women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship, economic opportunity, and security were at the heart of the G20 discussions during Saudi Arabia’s presidency in 2020.” In fact, the idea for IGNITE was born out of the Women 20 (W20) Engagement Group.
- IGNITE is a platform for Saudi women to harness their entrepreneurial energy: Strong explained that the new program will offer a series of workshops and networking events with both virtual and in-person components over the next six months, culminating in an online Saudi women’s entrepreneurship summit during Global Entrepreneurship Week in November 2021. The primary goal is to enable “US business leaders and their Saudi counterparts to explore opportunities that Saudi entrepreneurs are generating every single day during this unprecedented period of sweeping changes and reforms in Saudi Arabia.”
Lateefa Alwaalan, Managing Director, Endeavor Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia has made great strides in supporting new startups: Alwaalan highlighted that Saudi Arabia recently jumped from forty-first to seventh place in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, thanks to the government and the private sector “working hand-in-hand to make the ecosystem for entrepreneurship more supportive.”
- Saudi women need encouragement to pursue more senior roles at startups: Alwaalan noted that her peers in the industry need support and mentorship “to find the courage” to fill C-Suite positions.
- Breaking barriers to networking remains critical: Drawing on lessons learned at the W20, Alwaalan stressed that greater access to business networks will enable women to join the community of venture capitalists and angel investors and then support more women-led ventures. Gender balance on teams is particularly important for tech companies so that the life-changing technology they design is truly inclusive and reflects the needs of both men and women.
Deemah AlYahya, Acting Secretary General, Digital Cooperation Organization
- Gaining employment in the digital innovation ecosystem is a persistent challenge for Saudi women: The WomenSpark founder reflected on her experience in the IT sector, explaining that Saudi women can pursue careers there more easily than two decades ago. Still, there are not enough jobs for women who have formal training in IT, which is a lost economic opportunity.
- More women can play a much larger role as job creators and investors: AlYahya’s experience taught her that “it’s not enough to educate a woman.” She highlighted two challenges: female entrepreneurs face issues raising funds, and women are often reluctant to become investors, despite owning 30-40 percent of the wealth in Saudi banks.
- Economic and social benefits from women’s workforce participation: AlYahya argued that more Saudi women should join the workforce to increase the GDP during the period of post-COVID-19 recovery, to contribute as the kingdom seeks to diversify its economy, and to assume leadership positions in the office and at home so that “both parents will raise a generation that is innovative by default.”
Virginia Littlejohn, US Delegation Co-Head, W20 and Co-Founder & President, Quantum Leaps, Inc.
- The government should change business and legal indicators in pursuit of 100 percent alignment: Littlejohn advised the Saudi government to revisit how vocational and university training prepares students for future employment, paying special attention to existing “dead zones” where well-educated youth cannot find jobs consistent with their training.
- International collaboration with business owners can accelerate Saudi women’s engagement: Littlejohn emphasized that STEM, e-commerce, and international trade are three areas in need of increased female participation. Partnerships between American experts and Saudi innovators can help accomplish this. For example, the International Trade Center will develop a major initiative to encourage women’s involvement in public procurement.
- More research is needed on the impact of female entrepreneurship on finance: Littlejohn agreed with a point Amjad Ahmad made that additional data on the return on investments according to gender can have an enormous impact on the ecosystem, especially because current data shows that women founders have better returns than their male counterparts.
A joint project of the Atlantic Council’s empowerME initiative, the US Mission to Saudi Arabia, the American Chamber of Commerce Saudi Arabia, and Quantum Leaps for US and Saudi entrepreneurs and business leaders
empowerME at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is shaping solutions to empower entrepreneurs, women, and youth and building coalitions of public and private partnerships to drive regional economic integration, prosperity, and job creation.