Not another cupcake shop: Bahrain's women entrepreneurs debate what local startups need

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If there’s one place in the Arab world one can go to understand the complex relationship between women, government, and entrepreneurship in the Gulf right now, it’s Bahrain.

“Women run this country,” Hasan Haider of angel investor network Tenmou told me when I was last there for our Mix n’ Mentor Manama event this May. As he asserted his own support for women and women-led businesses, Haider pointed to part of what sets the smallest Gulf country apart from the rest: women are visibly prominent as business leaders and entrepreneurs.

The reality is, of course, never simple. But nowhere were the issue's complexities more on display than at the 2nd Annual Leading Women in Business Forum this Monday in Manama.

As five of Bahrain’s prominent entrepreneurs and startup supporters took the mini-stage, women in the crowd challenged, chided, and cheered them. Bahraini women may seem warm, but they're a tough crowd.

"Too many abayas, salons, and cupcake shops"

Too often in this region, women’s events can turn into droning, cushy, cheerleading events that overemphasize the need for women to join the workforce and underexplore the actual challenges they face when starting businesses.

This panel, held in the elegant back room at the Capital Club, with stunning views of the Manama harbor, was anything but sleepy. When moderator Eman Bu Rashid, the CEO of Keynote Consultants, offered up dainty questions about the nature of investment to Hala Suleiman, Tamkeen’s Head of Marketing, women in the crowd managed to both cheer and groan simultaneously about the government organization.

People are saying that Tamkeen offers handouts to too many businesses, many of which close down a year later, one man lamented. His comment, “there are too many salons and too many abaya shops,” gained a loud round of applause from the crowd. "And cupcake shops!" a woman added.

Where another government entity could have been dismissive, Suleiman embraced the comments. Tamkeen, which offers investment and soft skill training to Bahraini-led startups, has served 98,000 Bahrainis with over 100 programs, she said. But it’s dedicated to monitoring progress, iterating its programs, and improving product-market fit, she assured the crowd. In other words (mine, not hers), it's not looking to create a lazy, government-dependent ecosystem.

It’s also easy to criticize the one government entity in the room. Yet Tamkeen’s impact is evident: 55% of its trainees are women, many small startups - including women-led art space and design collective +973 - would not have launched without its support. None of the critics in the room suggested that it curtail its goal to reach 150,000 enterprises; what they were actually calling for was simply more innovation and more rigor. 

Evolving Bahraini culture

The three entrepreneurs who followed Suleiman were hardly the founders of yet another salon.

Founder Narees Qamber consistently receives accolades for her popular baked goods at Jena Bakery (“I love that place,” Wamda contributor Leena Al Olaimy sighed) and the old-world setting she’s designed at Saffron Café, which sits above an old date processing factory in Al Muharraq souq downtown (one reviewer called it the “best local breakfast in Bahrain”).

A partnership with the Ministry of Culture has helped Qamber expand quickly, opening three more outlets this year. Although well-supported by her family, husband, and government, launching the company hasn't been a bed of roses. “When you become an entrepreneur, you grow an eye in the back of your head,” she joked about her round-the-clock approach.

Where Qamber was bubbly and effusive, a sterner Bayan Al Barak Kanoo, the Iraqi founder of art space Al Riwaq, urged Bahrainis to break out of their shells. “Coming from Iraq made me want to push the boundaries and try something new,” she explained. “Bahrainis are very kind and very warm, but they never express themselves. I thought that the [best] way to express [yourself would be] through art.” Kanoo has become known for hosting edgy gallery shows that can’t help but offer political commentary. 

Reem BuQais, all of 24 years old, seemed a good role model for the youngest generation of potential entrepreneurs. having studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and then returned to Bahrain to win a local competition and launch her career as a fashion designer, BuQais, who's half-Bahraini, half-Latin seemed to represent a demographic on the rise: women who have spent time abroad and returned to build in Bahrain.

When asked for advice by a aspiring Indian-Bahraini designer even younger than herself, BuQais urged young entrepreneurs to invest in their education, instead of simply thinking they have innate talent. 

Doris Martin, a half-Bahraini, half African-American force to be reckoned with, as the Assistant HR Director at Ernst & Young MENA, rounded out the discussion. To succeed, she said, “we must have the three D’s: discipline, desire, and dedication.”

What does it really mean to have a mentor?

After moderator Bu Rashid tossed out a few softball questions about support and mentorship, most women on the panel agreed (as is standard at these events) that yes, every young entrepreneur should find and cultivate a mentor.

But what does that really mean, in practice?

And what, asked Shahnaz Pakravan, the Capital Club’s General Manager, emcee, and force behind the event, are women doing to support each other, instead of simply looking to find a mentor?

We tag-teamed as we asked the panelists to clarify: what do women really need when it comes to mentorship? What role does peer-to-peer mentorship play? Often at Wamda’s Mix n’ Mentor events, the connections between entrepreneurs are just as important as the advice handed down from mentors.

The panelists didn’t have ready answers, but Qamber urged the creation of a local think tank that would help any entrepreneurs who want to start a business. Kanoo and BuQais echoed the idea that more education is needed, especially in creative sectors.

Ultimately, the crowd concluded, what the Bahraini ecosystem needs is more honest discussions like that panel, more gatherings of Manama’s business minds to criticize, question, and urge its women founders along.

One blonde crowdmember's cheeky aside spoke to the undercurrents in Bahrain. “Is it really entrepreneurship if you have so much support?” she whispered to me (no woman's event is complete without a bit of cattiness). Yes, actually, it is entrepreneurship; scaling and finding loyal customers are still difficult with capital. But it's this kind of open dialogue on the state of women's entrepreneurship that make the Bahraini ecosystem one to watch. 

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