Madiha Bee is the founder and CEO of Awakened Woman, a coaching and education platform for Arab women to step into greater service and leadership in their communities
"Women entrepreneurs in Mena" has a nice ring to it. The region, previously marred by negligible women’s participation in entrepreneurship, has witnessed a sea of change in recent years: Women-led ventures are on a visible rise, along with a documented increase in entrepreneurial motivations. Sidestepping deep-rooted barriers, women in the Middle East and North Africa are giving wings to their self-employment aspirations by leveraging digitisation, embracing governmental incentives, and channelling strengths and talents that come naturally to them. For someone who took the entrepreneurial plunge, I believe this juncture calls for an examination of untapped opportunities and existing challenges.
Nothing sums up untapped opportunities in Mena like OECD’s finding that barriers to women’s jobs and careers are costing the region an estimated $575 billion annually. Taking note of that fact, regional policymakers and intergovernmental organisations are undertaking initiatives aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs and eliminating the roadblocks. In the next growth cycle, such initiatives will play a pivotal role in reducing entrepreneurial disparities between men and women in Mena.
Women’s inherent advantages, such as high emotional intelligence, perseverance, and adaptability, combined with emerging digitisation-driven opportunities could usher in an era of increased value creation and associated economic boost. However, the achievable impact is dependent on a few external factors and the elimination of self-imposed barriers.
Bringing sectoral perspectives to the table
Thus far, barriers to women’s entrepreneurship have generated holistic measures. Their shortcomings are owed to the fact that each sector presents unique barriers, requiring specific actions. In fast-paced sectors like IT, women struggle for work-life balance; in male-dominated domains like real estate, workplace safety remains questionable. If women are to subvert the idea of “gendered occupations”, sectoral perspectives must be brought to the table and actionable solutions must be exchanged and incorporated.
Getting the finances in order
Women are naturally gifted at managing money and resources, as they have been doing this for thousands of years. So, from a venture capitalist’s standpoint, women-led businesses are a safer bet by default. Yet, unfathomably, among the total startup investments in Mena in the first nine months of 2022, women-led ventures accounted for a mere 2 per cent of the proceeds. Unsurprising, therefore, that about 66 per cent of women founders believe investors are less inclined to support their startups. This status quo calls for purpose-driven accelerators and incubators aimed at bridging the funding and support disparities. The fact that, in 2022, the average revenue for women-owned businesses rose 2 per cent globally in the face of unprecedented economic volatility is a sufficient reason.
Ascribing a personal definition to success
The yardstick of entrepreneurial success continues to be skewed towards men; it does not factor in women’s outsized efforts in addressing barriers to achieving the same goal. Fortunately, women are well-equipped to define success in their own ways and stay unperturbed by gender-biased rulesets. Such strengths can be reinforced and fostered through women-led entrepreneurial communities, which can also offer mentorship, access to funding, and a sense of community and camaraderie.
Developing digital dexterity
High internet penetration in Mena has undoubtedly ignited women’s entrepreneurial spirit. Studies, particularly ones commissioned in the pandemic context, suggest that increased digitisation has enabled women to sidestep gender-related barriers, explore online business models, reach new markets, and secure livelihoods while operating in the comfort of their homes. By further developing their digital dexterity, women entrepreneurs can access global funding channels, scale sustainably, hire talented females, and elevate their ecosystem into the mainstream. I can, through first-hand experiences of my online coaching, assert that technology is every woman entrepreneur’s unconditional ally and dream come true.