It was late 2021, and I had just come off a panel at GITEX where we had discussed, at length, the struggles women face when fundraising. The discussion had become heated, and I had dismounted the stage feeling frustrated, even a little cheated. Once again, instead of talking about what we were building, we had ended up debating what it means to be a woman in business - the struggles, the challenges, could we perhaps explore crowdfunding as an alternative source of capital?
But let me take a step back.
2021 was a particularly difficult year to stomach as a female founder. Plastered all over mainstream media were enthusiastic reports about the total amount of venture capital invested in Middle East and North Africa (Mena) startups. $3 billion! A record year! Could Mena be the next Silicon Valley? Was there any better place to be a fundraising startup?!
Why then, did it not feel like a record year? If anything, 2021 felt harder to fundraise in than in previous years. More conversations, with more people, for less money. Why?
Turns out, the “record year” didn’t count if you were a female founder. In fact, as a proportion of the total dollars invested, investments in female-led startups fell by 50 per cent in 2021, to a measly 1.2 per cent of the total.
Once, I tried to explain the lived reality of this statistic to my three-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and five-year-old son, Oliver. They got it straight away.
(Me) “So Eleanor, imagine you and Oliver both want to open a chocolate shop. I’m going to help you set up your chocolate shops by giving you some M&Ms. I have 100 M&Ms, and I’m going to divide them between you and Oliver. I’m going to give Oliver 99 M&Ms, and I’m going to give you one.”
I hand out the M&Ms. Eleanor bursts into tears.
(Eleanor) “It’s not fair! Oliver has more than me!”
(Oliver, concerned) “Why, Mummy? Why do I have more than Eleanor?”
(Me) “Because Eleanor’s a girl, Oliver. Not as many girls open chocolate shops. How many chocolate shops can you think of that are run by girls in Dubai? One? Two? How do I know Eleanor’s going to do a good job? Eleanor’s younger than you. And she likes playing with babies. Eleanor, what happens if you get distracted in the middle of running your chocolate shop and want to play with your baby? Who will look after the chocolate shop then? Besides, I’m pretty sure Oliver knows more about chocolate than you.”
(Eleanor) “Oliver doesn’t know more about chocolate! I like chocolate the same as Oliver!”
(Me) “It’s OK, Eleanor. I’m not going to give you more M&Ms. But I am going to spend a couple of hours teaching you about chocolate and how to run a chocolate shop. How does that sound?” (It broke my heart doing this, even though I’d explained upfront it was just to make a point).
(Eleanor, uncertain) “Then will you give me more M&Ms?”
(Me) “No, I won’t. But once you prove you can start a chocolate shop with one M&M, maybe someone else will give you more M&Ms. What do you think?”
It took me a good 10 minutes to restore order. Oliver had already fetched two bowls and counted out 49 M&Ms into Eleanor’s bowl in an attempt to console her. Although I explained to Eleanor that in no way did I believe the proposed system of M&M distribution to be fair, and of course she was just as capable of running a chocolate shop as Oliver, she looked at me warily for the rest of the day, and still today asks if she can have the same number of M&Ms as Oliver every time I hand them out.
The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.
I came away from the panel at GITEX feeling a little like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the same inevitable chain of events and interactions until the end of time.
But the next day was better. I sat with a potential angel investor and had a good conversation with her about Nabta Health and our $1.5 million Seed round, which we were raising at the time (and have since closed). We discussed the shortage of female angel investors in Mena, and how difficult it is to pitch a product to a group who are significantly less likely to experience the critical, “Wow! That’s so cool!” moment that investors want in order to back a venture. Not because what we’re doing isn’t cool, but it’s hard to appreciate the benefits of holistic and hybrid healthcare for women if you are not a woman.
We fixed a date for a follow-up meeting. The Closing Meeting. And then, thirty minutes before we were due to meet, for perfectly legitimate reasons, she cancelled.
I sat on the sofa, deflated, and thought, “Now what?”
This woman wasn’t a local angel investor; she had flown in for a brief trip, and she was returning home the next day. I had trawled through the publicly available lists of Mena angel investors online; I knew who the female angels were, I had spoken to all of them.
“This can’t be it,” I thought. There must be more women who are willing to invest. The Mena region boasts some of the most empowered women in the world. Thirty per cent of capital in the GCC is held by women. There must be female angel investors out there somewhere.
I put out a post on LinkedIn, mentioning the launch of a movement to identify and publicly list 2,022 female angel investors for emerging markets by the end of 2022. I was overwhelmed by the response. Over 36,000 people saw the post, almost 500 responded. That one post was featured by news outlets on four separate continents.
So the 2022 Female Angels movement was born, with the long-term aim of transforming the investment landscape for female-founded companies in Mena, and with the short-term aim of getting more women to invest, and to discover the joy of making their money work for them. Fast forward one month, and the movement had officially launched at the Capital Club around a newly formed SteerCo - a group of women and men committed to working together in a voluntary capacity to engage, educate and encourage women to become investment angels in early stage startups in Mena.
Today, the 2022 Female Angel movement has grown into a fully-fledged operation, with multiple committees, ambassadors and advocates, and a programme of speaking engagements to help get all women investing as angels.
To date, the 2022 Female Angels movement has added over 200 female angel investors (more than 10 per cent of its target) to a publicly available list on its website - fifty more than the latest list of female angel investors pulled together by Sifted for Europe.
My hope for the 2022 Female Angels movement is that it makes the early stage fundraising process a little bit easier for a lot of founders in Mena. Founders with exciting ideas and huge potential, who just need the opportunity to sit in front of people who can look back at them and exclaim, with genuine feeling and mounting excitement, “Wow! That’s so cool!”