March 10, 2023
Women on a mission: MENA female entrepreneurs are making waves in the region
In many ways, life is slowly improving for working women and female entrepreneurs in the Arab world. There is a trend towards the liberalization of laws, business regulations, and societies in many countries. This has created unprecedented opportunities for women to—if not shatter—crack the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) hefty glass ceiling.
Women entrepreneurs have emerged as a force to be reckoned with in many Arab economies, breaking stereotypes and paving the way for future generations. For example, entrepreneur Mona Ataya, founder and CEO of United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Mumzworld, started a business addressing the market void of insufficient support for mothers seeking guidance and assistance in making purchasing decisions. Sarah Beydoun is another such figure. She is the founder and CEO of Sarah’s Bag, which empowers women in Lebanon by providing them with work and preserving their cultural heritage.
Nevertheless, despite this progress, women-owned businesses remain in the minority in the region. Less than 5 percent of businesses are women-led in MENA compared to a global average of up to 26 percent.
Raising capital can be an uphill battle for women in the region. The majority of women entrepreneurs in MENA do not seek a formal source of financing and rely on their savings or family support. Those who do seek investment face unique challenges. According to a report by Wamda and TiE Dubai, a staggering 66 percent of women founders in MENA believe that investors are less inclined to invest in start-ups led by women. Their concern is borne out by the fact that less than $50 million was invested in female-only start-ups in the first nine months of 2022, accounting for about 2 percent of total start-up investment in the region during that period.
To overcome this challenge, venture capital firms should be more diversified and the number of women with decision-making power should increase. Specialized training on how to pitch and approach funders is another form of support that could be helpful to women entrepreneurs in the region.
Networking is another obstacle female entrepreneurs in MENA face, as they are often shut out of male-dominated business environments. Building a strong network helps create the social capital that fuels collaboration and access to funding, and provides a support system for entrepreneurs on their journeys. According to one study published in Cross Cultural & Strategic Management conducted in Turkey and in four MENA countries—Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Egypt—networking was identified as the primary factor that helped women entrepreneurs overcome obstacles, such as access to capital or discovering new market opportunities.
Finding supportive and inclusive networks isn’t easy in the region, but some programs like the Atlantic Council’s WIn Fellowship and groups such as the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB) are creating support systems for women entrepreneurs to connect with other founders, find mentors, and grow their businesses.
Another challenge for female entrepreneurs in MENA is that women are still expected to focus on raising families rather than pursue taxing careers, which contributes to the region having the lowest female labor force participation rate (24.6 percent) in the world at half the global average.
Changing social pressures and expectations is a slow process, which is why it’s so important to continue to highlight accomplished women entrepreneurs and other successful women from the region. Events like International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month are helpful platforms for women entrepreneurs and business leaders to celebrate their achievements and share their stories. However, civil society and other organizations should strive to highlight such stories all year round so young women and girls have strong role models.
However, increasing women entrepreneurship and business leadership in MENA isn’t simply a matter of gender equality, but a key to accelerating the region’s economic and social progress. It is also good for private companies. Research has repeatedly shown that companies with more women simply do better. In a study of 1,069 leading firms across thirty-five countries, researchers concluded that gender diversity leads to increased company productivity in terms of market value and revenue.
To mark and celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the incredible women entrepreneur trailblazers in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the many challenges, these women are changing the business landscape. But the public and private sector must be proactive to truly create opportunities. Governments around the region need to create policies that both foster employment opportunities for women and provide more support for female entrepreneurship. In addition, private-sector companies should help create more welcoming business environments for women, which would be a win-win for them as well. It’s time to tap into the full power of women in business and take concrete action to support their success.
Lynn Monzer is the associate director with the Atlantic Council’s empowerME initiative at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
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