By Andrew Raven
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women-led startups receive just six percent of all private equity and venture capital funding – a yawning “gender gap” that experts say is stymieing innovation and economic growth.
A new program co-led by IFC, She Wins Arabia, is aiming to help change that. In March 2022 it brought together in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) dozens of women entrepreneurs and investors from across the region in an effort to tackle gender inequality in the startup space.
"You have a huge role to play in MENA’s future," IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop told founders. "This region needs innovation. This region needs jobs. This region needs new perspectives. And you can help deliver all of those things."
IFC and the Abu Dhabi Global Market, the UAE-based financial center, launched She Wins in December 2021.
The program has provided training to women entrepreneurs and connected them with mentors and with investors. It also worked with accelerators and venture capital funds, helping them to better support women-led startups. Its ultimate goal is to create what organizers call an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that allows women-led startups to grow and thrive.
She Wins also included a pitch competition. Diop announced the winners – Samira Owaynat (Jordan), Dina Shoman (Jordan), and Hela Jelassi (Tunisia) – during a ceremony on March 29 during the World Government Summit.
She Wins was designed to help address what experts have called pervasive inequality in MENA's entrepreneurship sector.
"The sad reality is that many women founders still struggle to secure the funding they need to get their businesses off the ground and their ideas to market," said Diop. "She Wins Arabia was designed to help haul MENA’s venture capital system into the modern era."
In the pitch competition, Owaynat won first place for her business, askPepper, an online ordering system for restaurants. Shoman, co-founder of financial literacy platform Verity the app, placed second, and Jelassi, whose company El-Business connects smaller firms with buyers, came in third.
One-minute business pitches by the winners
The entrepreneurs won a package of in-kind prizes, including mentoring sessions, business strategy support, and credits with Amazon Web Services.
Some 80 entrepreneurs in total participated in She Wins, receiving training in how to pitch to investors, how to gauge the size of a market, and how to develop a business plan.
"(There were) great trainers and very helpful coordinators," said Shoman. "I really enjoyed the program and meeting all the wonderful women."
Others said they valued the chance to network with founders from across MENA.
“She Wins Arabia was a brilliant learning experience,” said Areeba Khan, founder of Taqwa Invest, an app that focuses on Shariah-compliant stock trading. “Knowing there are so many other strong women entrepreneurs out there trying to change the face of the business world is an inspiration in itself.”
Along with the three winners, seven other entrepreneurs were named finalists. They were:
She Wins is part of a larger IFC effort to leverage technology to address a range of long-standing challenges in MENA, including unemployment and a lack of access to finance.
It's also part of an IFC push to create more economic opportunities for women across the Middle East and North Africa. Under 20 percent of women in the region are in the labor force.
Raising that number is considered key to tackling poverty and fostering sustainable economic growth. A report from consulting firm McKinsey found that closing gender gaps in the workplace could add up to $28 trillion to global gross domestic product by 2025.
"Gender equality could be the ultimate stimulus package," Diop said.
Published in April 2022