It's well known that many women entrepreneurs in the Gulf face obstacles trying to join the workforce. At our Wamda for Women roundtables at some of Wamda's Mix N' Mentor events, women entrepreneurs identified male-dominated business as one of the highest barriers to being taken seriously in the workplace. For some, not all, difficulty negotiating in male-dominated environments may make dealing with bureaucracy or closing an investment deal more of a headache as well.
Despite the myriad challenges, there are many examples of
startups founded by women that have succeeded in breaking into new
markets, while challenging what I personally believe are
unfavorable conditions. Saudi entrepreneur Lateefa Alwaalan,
the founder of Yatooq,
a startup that produces instant Arabic coffee,
told Wamda in May that one of the biggest obstacles she
has faced is having to have a male director as a necessary
condition. "I didn’t have any employees when I started, which I
needed just to handle all of the governmental procedures for
starting a business."
It's not just women in the Gulf that face these issues, however; Lebanese entrepreneur Hanan Saab revealed to Wamda last year at the MENA Businesswomen's Network forum how she managed to overcome a lack of support from her peers and society to found Pharmamed, which provides medical institutions with pharmaceutical supplies.
The general culture may take time to shift, but new government policies are easing the way for female entrepreneurs. Several countries – including Saudi Arabia, considered one of the least supportive work environments for women – have developed new laws and regulations that promote women’s employment and make labor laws more flexible for them. Several websites have also come online to help women connect to jobs in Saudi Arabia.
Things are similarly looking up in other Gulf countries; women-owned startups won 30% of the total funding grants offered by the Khalifa Fund for Entreprise Development in the UAE during the first quarter of 2013, with a total sum of US $14 million. This fund, established in 2007, offers various funding programs to support the launch and growth of startups in the UAE.
Other recently-launched funding programs are only available to women entrepreneurs. An as-yet unnamed Shariah-compliant fund, the fruit of a partnership between the British DVK Group (which specializes in financing solutions), and a Qatari princess, will put US $500 million at the disposal of the Gulf's women entrepreneurs. Female startup owners can also obtain mentoring grants through the GROW Fellowship Program, which focuses on building their management and inestment skills.
While many challenges remain for women in and out of the workplace, developments like these may spell an exciting new chapter for women in the Gulf with big ideas.