Women Entrepreneur Fund: Silver Lining for Female Entrepreneurs in Middle East?

Time: June 15, 2017

Middle East is witnessing a boom of women entrepreneurship, with governments and private companies also jumping on the bandwagon to support and encourage women’s labor force participation. Still, women entrepreneurship hasn’t reached its full potential in this region. Nonetheless, Al Masah Capital reported that 25% new startups are being founded by women. Moreover, GCC women have delved into asset management worth $385 billion via small and medium enterprises (SME). Although women entrepreneurs make a small fraction of the total population of Middle East in contrast with other developing nations, the firms owned by these women are as diverse, well-established, productive, and large as that owned by their male counterparts. So, female entrepreneurs in Middle East are consistently defying the expected.

It might be surprising to know that the percentage of startups being run by women in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is higher than that in Silicon Valley, says Christopher M. Schroeder in ‘Startup Rising.’ Also, PayFort’s inforgraphic revealed that 33% of women-led businesses in UAE are earning more than US$100,000 revenue against 13% in developed US market.

Women-owned businesses are acting as a catalyst for economic development and job creation in MENA. An in-depth survey concludes that regional GDP can be increased by 47% over the next decade and economic impact can be realized worth $600 billion annually, only by equal participation of men and women in labor markets. New startups do create jobs for all, but women-owned firms may specifically be inclined towards hiring women. With female employment and entrepreneurship on the rise, the region will benefit from richer startup ecosystem, increased productivity, and reduced gender inequalities.

However, it is a tough row to hoe for female entrepreneurs in Middle East, especially when it comes to availability of finance. Financial institutions deny adequate funding to 70% of women entrepreneurial ventures in developing economies, with MENA region having the largest credit gap for women. On average, a woman-owned SME lacks funds worth $271,000. Tlaiss also reported in her study that access to capital is a big barrier for women entrepreneurs in the Arab world. Due to difficulty in raising capital, most female entrepreneurs eventually turn to relatives and friends for funding in addition to their own savings.

As lending institutions consider women as riskier customers, women entrepreneurship can only be boosted by giving female business fraternity access to ‘women only’ funds. This will enable them to compete with each other, instead of men, and have higher prospects of entering the business world. Hoping to get funded by women-specific funding pool, female entrepreneurs will take risks and innovate outside traditional sectors. One such initiative has been taken by Ivanka Trump. She has proposed a Women Entrepreneurs Fund by The World Bank, wherein Saudi Arabia and UAE pledged $100 million. This fund will help aspiring female entrepreneurs to start their business. Ivanka Trump hopes to empower women by such initiatives in face of repressive and conservative government policies for women in Middle East. With such programs, issues of gender discrimination and lack of equal rights can be tackled.

When asked about Women Entrepreneur Fund and its outcomes, Aadhya Prasad, a small jewelry business owner in Saudi Arabia, said that “such initiatives serve only half the purpose. Female entrepreneurs in Middle East require mentor-ship, training, and skill development programs along with reliable funding platforms. Women here have a lot of potential and poised for growth but need some assistance and direction. Therefore, Ivanka Trump and other such influential women must have all things considered and really play their role in empowering women in this part of the world.”

This article was first published in Female Entrepreneurs

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Is Saudi Arabia the next startup haven?

SOURCE: Khaleej Times

March 20, 2017

It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia has long been known as the centre of oil. Ever since commercial-grade crude was discovered in Dammam back in 1938, the kingdom’s economy has become heavily-reliant on the commodity, one which has spurred economic prosperity and fuelled a huge chunk of the world’s oil needs.

It’s also no secret that the kingdom cannot rely on oil as it used to, given all the circumstances and conditions of the market. Riyadh has mapped out reforms to its strategy, which requires tapping into other industries that won’t be directly affected by any kind of oil shock.

And in this day and age, what better sector to tap than the one that, in its own right, can be compared to the way oil powers several industries: technology.

But we’re not talking about tech in its purest form; rather, Saudi firms have set their sights on investing in the rising army of startups.

Not a one-way street

All roads apparently lead to a larger technology market in the Middle East.

Markets and Markets reported that the region’s cyber-security sector will reach about Dh10 billion in 2019, double the $5 billion it was just in 2014.

A Bank of America Merrill Lynch report, meanwhile, pointed out that the smart city projects being incorporated in the Middle East – in Saudi Arabia’s case, in King Abdullah Economic City – “have good prospects because of strong and stable economies and high construction rates”.

“In the ‘Autonomous Age’, Arabian Gulf governments are at the forefront of adopting global innovations, integrating smart cities and the Internet of Things and Services,” Keith Kaplan, CEO and co-founder of US-based think-tank Tesla Foundation, said at a recent event.

Saudi Arabia wants to transform its Public Investment Fund (PIF) – one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds – into a major player in the tech space. The plans already gained traction when, in October last year, the PIF announced that it will be partnering with Japanese tech giant SoftBank Group to create a technology investment fund worth a whopping $100 billion (Dh367.3 billion).

Whether it’s returning the favour or not, investing in technology is the obvious trend now. Several studies have shown that Silicon Valley firms have their sights firmly on the Middle East, a market that is teeming with potential.

This is the obvious reason why Saudi firms are taking their acts to startups – and with good reason, aside from the financial rewards that await. Entrepreneur.com listed down five reasons why startups are better than more established businesses: agility, team chemistry, less bureaucracy, competitive pricing and personality.

CB Insights’ Business Social Graph mapped out the relationship between Saudi investors and their target companies. It showed that between January 2012 to January 2017, firms from the kingdom have done quite a lot in either investing in a startup or totally acquiring it.

The study was able to churn out five key points:

Saudi Aramco has already invested beyond oil: Surprise. As the oil titan is being prepped up for what is potentially the world’s largest initial public offering at a mind-boggling $2 trillion, but its venture arm, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, is already the second most active player, making 20 investments in that five-year period. Some of them are beyond crude and into – you guessed it – startups, including gas-conversion firm Siluria Technologies, big data specialist Maana and enterprise solution builder Wearable Technologies.

Clean energy: There are 24 deals involved in oil, energy and drilling, with at least 12 directly related to clean energy. National Petrochemical Industrial participated in the financing of Siluria Technologies. Riyadh Valley Company was more active in this space: it has been involved rounds of funding for solar energy capture and storage company Sol Voltaics ($12.5 million), Japanese electric car firm GLM ($14 million) and solar commercialisation specialist BeamReach Solar ($36 million). Additionally, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s Kaust Innovation Fund was in two rounds of financing (totalling $1.2 million) for Nomadd Desert Solar Solutions, a maker of automated solar panel-cleaning robotic devices.

Ride-sharing: Of the 70 deals pertaining to technology in the period, 16 are directly for the mobility sector. Saudi Telecom Company and Al Tayyar Travel Group were involved in a $350 million round of funding in the fourth quarter of 2016 for Uber rival Careem Networks, one of the newest members of the elite unicorn group. Uber, however, got their share first; the PIF, in the second quarter last year, was in a $3.5 billion private equity round for the sharing economy pioneer, which remains the world’s most valuable unicorn at $68 billion, way ahead of second-placed Chinese mobile phone firm Xiaomi with $48 billion. And not to be left behind, Lyft also received some, well, lift from Kingdom Holding Company when it participated in a funding that totalled $497 million.

Private jets: The Saudi Royal Family was involved in a number of rounds totalling $155 million for private-jet mobile marketplace JetSmarter, another unicorn with a value of $1.5 billion. Fact: rapper Jay-Z has also pitched in to this startup.

No place like home: While Saudi investors have their fingerprints all over the world, majority of their cash is still in the Middle East and North Africa region. Mobily Ventures, the investment unit of Etihad Etisalat, invested in four Mena companies, including the UAE’s delivery app Fetchr and Saudi Arabia’s online food-ordering platform Hellofood. Seed investor Flat6Labs, meanwhile, had 30 deals in the kingdom and all of them are related to technology, and was the most active in the report.

Saudi Arabia’s rising activity in the startup space could just be the beginning of bigger things and more investments to come. With more tech firms proving their worth with their unique offerings and viable business models, it may just be a matter of time before the kingdom becomes a full-blown oasis for startups.

Saudi Arabia launches $133m ICT venture fund for startups

SOURCE: Deal Street Asia

January 17, 2016

Shiwen Yap January 17, 2016 Saudi Arabia has formally launched a new ICT (information, communication and technology) fund for startup ventures worth SAR500 million (~US$133 million), known as Riyadh Taqnia Capital. The fund was unveiled at the ArabNet Riyadh 2015 tech conference in mid-December 2015, the funds partners include Riyadh Financial Capital, the General Pension Fund, General Investment Fund nad several other state-linked funds. First reported in Geektime, the fund will have its headquarters (HQ) in Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh, the international unit will be based in and operate from 3000 Sandhill Road in Menlo Park, California. According to the firm, aside from ICT investments, the fund will also explore investments in the spheres of energy, sustainability and advanced materials. This is aligned with geographic considerations of the fund, with the website explaining: “Because the majority of science and technology innovation takes place in developed economies such as the US, Western Europe, and Japan, Taqnia Investments will make numerous investments in early stage companies in developed innovation ecosystems such as the Silicon Valley.” Adding that the portfolio envisages a focus on technologies relevant to Saudi Arabia (i.e. water desalination, oil and gas exploration and production technologies, renewable energy), it will also maintain a diversified portfolio to ensure suitable risk management and sustainable financial returns in the long term. According to its website, the venture fund “…seeks to be a major player in the Kingdom’s innovation development ecosystem, by supporting and investing in suitable local and international R&D that would fuel the growth of selected technologies…” that can lead towards technology leadership, sustained economic growth, and self-reliance for the desert kingdom. Operating on the premise of making investments that are of strategic interest to Saudi Arabia, the target is also aimed at growing the innovation ecosystem and venture capital sector of a country known mostly for its oil & gas industry. Additionally, it desires to focus on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) engaged in slow organic growth but require access to capital they cannot secure from banks.

Challenges ahead However, with the kingdom’s conservative reputation and traditional resistance to dissent – argued to be a necessary element to innovation – this fund may have some way to go in building a self-sustaining innovation ecosystem. Despite China’s commitment towards and investment in research  & development activities, its innovation ecosystem still lacks behind that of the US. Saudi Arabia’s economy has been heavily petroleum-based since its founding, and the inception of a government-backed venture fund reflects a shift towards developing a more knowledge and service-based economy, given the finite nature of hydrocarbon resource reserves and suspicions of Saudi Arabia overstating its oil reserves. Ranking among the top five of the world’s biggest oil producers, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum sector accounts for roughly 80 per cent of budget revenues, 45 per cent of GDP, and 90 per cent of export earnings. This is notwithstanding the challenges that building a startup ecosystem face in the cultural arena. The Middle Eastern entrepreneurial content portal Wamda notes in an opinion piece by entrepreneur and startup adviser Nader Ajami, commenting upon a misreading of Saudi Arabian entrepreneurship, that: “We can all agree that entrepreneurship, both as a culture and a mindset, is slowly but surely growing in the Kingdom.” Ajami added, “However, one must also realise that a country with a landmass ironically roughly the same size as Greenland is home to many varying yet thriving mini-ecosystems stretching from coast to coast.” Ajami also noted the challenges that Saudi Arabian entrepreneurs encounter, particularly in the different approached required by investors in dealing with small & medium enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurial ventures, given that entrepreneurial startups tend to be highly illiquid, high-risk venture capital assets. He observed: “SMEs tend to be very precise and sustainable about how they operate, fully aware who their customer is and what need their product/service addresses. Startups, on the other hand, tolerate risk more; look to build growth quickly and work hard to remain relevant in the minds of its customers. This affects how support is mobilized and deployed, and why many entrepreneurs end up having an unfulfilling experience.” He contributed that observation that banks in Saudi Arabia did not acknowledge ventures smaller than an SME, while private debt financiers adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to debtors, regardless of the asset class. Despite this, the launch of such a fund is the additional of a vital elements that will contribute towards developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem, synchronising with efforts by the Saudi state. One example is the inception and launch of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) in 2009.