The Saudi accelerator removing roadblocks for women
By May Rostom
For reasons ranging from cultural or self-imposed barriers to age-old beliefs, sex-role stereotyping has proved one of the biggest obstacles to women’s progress in the workplace and one of the main causes for the lack of female representation at the executive level and in startup culture in Saudi Arabia.
Despite the constant progress in the Middle East’s startup scene, the region still faces some unique challenges. These include the lowest female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in the world – at 24.6 per cent, it significantly trails the global average of 47.8 per cent.
According to a McKinsey report and to Emon Shakoor, CEO of Saudi Arabia's first female-focused accelerator, Blossom, women’s participation in professional and technical jobs is not on par with men’s.
“As it is, starting a company is pretty difficult, but starting a company as a woman often had additional challenges. Gender biases and cultural beliefs added an extra layer of difficulty for women who wanted to launch their own business,” says Shakoor.
In 2017, the then 23-year-old sought to start her own venture and build a strong entrepreneurial network in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, she found it extra hard to reach out and talk to upper echelons, which is when the idea for Blossom emerged.
“At that time in Saudi Arabia, there weren’t any startup accelerators or network platforms that offered startup advice, especially ones that catered to women,” she says. “That’s when I realised that women who launched their own business in KSA faced a different set of challenges than the average Saudi male founder.”
“With Blossom, I wanted to tailor an experience that met the needs of female founders while enabling and equipping them with everything they need to know to overcome the barriers they might face along the way, she adds. “This is a global phenomenon; it happens even in Silicon Valley."
As noted in a MAGNiTT report: "5.1 per cent ($36 million) of total funding went to startups with only female founders in 2019, which is close to double the figure in the United States. Beyond that, startups with only female founders accounted for 4.5 per cent of all deals in 2019, more than twice the percentage in the United States.”
While the founder of Blossom acknowledges there have been noticeable efforts to increase female participation in the economy, “we still have a long way to go".
The Jeddah-based accelerator gives early-stage startups the opportunity to participate in a bootcamp and a demo day while also providing them with resources, knowledge, networking, and access to mentors, speakers and investors.
“Startups get mentorship on everything – from business models, introduction to entrepreneurship, lean principles, hands-on implementation, marketing and finance, and a lot more,” says Shakoor. “We believe one of our differentiation points here at Blossom is our heavily-mentored programmes that give access to mentors and speakers from both Silicon Valley and the region. Having that international exposure, alongside local expertise, gives our female-focused startups a 360-picture of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Since its launch, Blossom has mentored more than 300 female-focused startups and arranged three events: Techpreneurship Sprint (a one-day business plan competition for technology startup ideas), SELLA (a technology entrepreneurship function focused on idea-sharing, inspiration, and networking), and THIQAH (a female- empowerment event teaching women how to be more confident and create the company they deserve). A fourth virtual event is underway.
Shakoor adds “The coronavirus has motivated us to take our event online. Going virtual means reaching more startups across the globe and expanding our Blossom network worldwide. We always had the idea for the online accelerator, but corona expedited the process for us.”
Blossom continues to grow and evolve, with mentorship programmes spanning the GCC and Mena, but Shakoor is only getting started.
“I see Blossom being the accelerator and platform for female founders in MENA, the place for any woman who wants to start or grow a company to go to and ultimately scale and succeed. We’re also planning on starting our own fund to grow our business and network and eventually invest in multiple talents across this part of the world.”