MENA Entrepreneurs

Defying the Odds

 

Women entrepreneurs and business leaders are scarce throughout the Middle East and North Africa. IFC PERSPECTIVES talks to three remarkable women who are thriving despite the challenges.

Entrepreneurs are a vital part of the economy. They drive innovation, create jobs, and propel economic growth. But entrepreneurs, especially women, face an uphill battle in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

A host of factors, cultural and financial, prevent many women from starting their own companies. In MENA, just 14 percent of smaller businesses—which is where most entrepreneurs cut their teeth—are run by women. That is the second-lowest rate of any region in the world, trailing only South Asia.

Despite the challenges, an increasing number of women are defying the odds. We talk to three remarkable women whose success is paving the way for entrepreneurs across the region.

 

New Ventures in a New Economy

Wafaa Alashwali, Serviis

Saudi tech entrepreneur Wafaa Alashwali is the cofounder and Chief Executive Officer of Serviis, a task-management website that connects customers with service providers in four Saudi Arabian cities. Her journey to success hasn’t always been an easy one.


Wafaa Alashwali, Serviis
 

When Alashwali entered the business world after graduation, she faced resistance from her family, who preferred her to work in a women-only environment. When she was promoted to chief support- services officer in a construction company, she faced further opposition from many who believed the job should have gone to a man.

None of that deterred Alashwali from striking out on her own two years ago to set up Serviis, the first digital platform of its kind in the region. The website, which has 4,000 professionals and 2,000 customers on its books, draws on her HR skills to help small businesses and freelancers, especially, win work and gain new customers. To set up the company she used her savings and liquidated her pension. She also found like-minded partners, which helped greatly.

The decision was driven partly by Saudi Arabia’s changing economy as oil prices tumbled. “I’d completed 10 years of my professional journey and felt very grateful for what I’d achieved but I wanted to do something that had a positive impact,” says Alashwali. “A lot of companies were laying off people and it became very clear that we were moving into a different era. We needed to change the way we worked.”

To build up its client base, Serviis offers its services free or at a nominal cost—a radical business model for the MENA region and something that often deters local investors. Alashwali’s long-term aim is to expand the service to more cities in Saudi Arabia and, ultimately, into other countries across the Middle East and North Africa. In the meantime, she is looking for investors to support Serviis’ continued growth.

“It became very clear that we were moving into a different era. We needed to change the way we worked.”

—Wafaa Alashwali, Serviis

“More and more young people are becoming entrepreneurs,” she says. “I see the passion and the jobs. The government is also committed to its transformation plan. I would like to see investors also contribute by increasing their appetite for risk and changing their traditional private-equity approach to investment. That would be a great contribution to the country.”

 

Changing Perceptions in a Challenging Region

Ambar Amleh, Ibtikar

Ibtikar is a landmark start-up tech fund set up in 2015 in the West Bank and Gaza, and run by Mexican-American Ambar Amleh. It does business under some of the toughest conditions in the world.


Ambar Amleh, Ibtikar
 

On the day the fund was to be registered in the Netherlands, its main lawyers pulled out, citing its potential investments in Gaza. That set back the whole enterprise by six months and several thousand dollars.

The successful launch of the Ibtikar Fund says much about the dedication and determination of Amleh, who tends to see opportunities where others see obstacles.

Before she cofounded Ibtikar, Amleh worked as a manager for Palestine for a New Beginning, a non-profit organization focused on expanding economic opportunity in the area. “I realized the future of Palestine is in its youth,” she says. “These young innovators are not bogged down by the challenges. They’re working very hard to build their companies for the region and the world, and that’s incredibly motivating and hard not to support.”

Ibtikar, based in Ramallah, focuses on accelerator-based investments in technology-related companies that are majority-owned by Palestinians and either have operations in the West Bank and Gaza or make most of their investments there.

“The future of Palestine is in its youth.”

— Ambar Amleh, Ibtikar

Ibtikar has invested in Rocab, a taxi-booking platform; Mashvisor, a real-estate investment service; and RedCrow, which provides real-time data on security threats, armed clashes, and road blocks in volatile countries.

IFC’s $1 million equity investment in the fund in 2016 was a big boost to Ibtikar. It helped fill a critical funding gap for entrepreneurs in the West Bank and Gaza. “So far, we’ve invested in 19 different companies. We support them and mentor them, make sure they have good governance, and try to ensure as few barriers for investors as possible. Six of them are about to raise Series A funding now,” Amleh says.

Amleh says it’s important to change preconceptions about the territory. “I’d like Palestinian entrepreneurs to be considered like any other entrepreneur in the region,” she says. “While there are additional challenges due to our political situation, we are overcoming them, and our companies are succeeding in building great regional and global companies.”

 

Delivering Opportunities for Women

Nourah Mehyar, Nafith Logistics

Nourah Mehyar, who heads up Jordan’s Nafith Logistics, is a woman who can climb mountains—literally. Just over a year ago, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. Determination and perseverance, as well great teamwork, got her to the top.


Nourah Mehyar, Nafith Logistics
 

In an industry dominated by men, Mehyar is one of the region’s most successful entrepreneurs. But she has had her share of career-related mountains to climb. Her determination to integrate and promote women in Iraq’s logistics industry earned her the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency’s first Gender CEO Award. The award honors outstanding leaders for their commitment to gender equality in a challenging environment.

“Most of the time you’re sitting in a meeting where you are the only woman,” she says. “In the beginning, we only had three women out of 250 employees. Since 2008, we’ve managed to introduce women in several sectors—IT, finance, and HR—but my biggest accomplishment was to actually introduce women in operations.”

Nafith’s groundbreaking work in Jordan, where the company began, led to a $5 million equity investment from IFC in 2014. This enabled the company to take its expertise to Iraq, where its systems help manage freight at four major Iraqi ports. The company now deals with 3,500 truck moves in Jordan and 1,500 in Iraq daily, amounting to more than 50,000 logistics transactions every day.

“Women have untapped potential… we need to welcome diversity of thought, rather than resist it.”

—Nourah Mehyar, Nafith Logistics

Mehyar now heads a workforce of about 400 employees. She says the role has definitely had its challenges. Bringing women into the logistics sector—and to work in general—she says, requires constant mentoring of both genders to help with skills like communication, teamwork, and collaboration. “Introducing women in such industries also needs a culture change from within the organization to ensure sustainability and growth,” she says.

Mehyar’s aim is to expand Nafith further and take its expertise into other countries, where she will continue to encourage more women to join the sector.

“Women have untapped potential in logistics, and I think they can bring a new perspective to the table,” she says. “We need both men and women in the corporate space, and we need to welcome diversity of thought, rather than resist it.”


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