Arab Entrepreneurs Head To Silicon Valley To Grow Their Ventures

Jun 10, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 5:35 pm

Top tech entrepreneurs from across the Middle East and North Africa are in Silicon Valley this week visiting companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. The week culminates in the TechWadi forum, where the most impressive Arab entrepreneurs from around the world will be recognized.

Throughout the week, Arab innovators will be brainstorming with successful CEOs, learning how to expand their companies and getting tips on pitching to investors.

Journalist Nafeesa Syeed is co-author of the digital book Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making a Difference. She has reported extensively on entrepreneurship, tech innovation and Arab culture for major media outlets, and she will be speaking at the TechWadi forum on Saturday. She was a Twitter contributor to Tell Me More's #NPRWIT: Women in Tech series back in March.

Interview Highlights

On some of the female entrepreneurs and women-led startups she encountered while working on the book

In the book, we profile Yasmine El-Mehairy, an IBM alum who started SuperMama in Egypt. That's turned into a pan-Arab parenting site with what she calls "localized content" in text, video and interactive features.

There's also Rama Chakaki, who founded BarakaBits, which grew out of her social entrepreneurship firm Baraka Ventures in Dubai. The tagline of BarakaBits is to share "good news from the Middle East." Rama, who is Syrian, will also be speaking at the TechWadi conference in San Francisco. Other women have used Facebook and social media to start businesses that eventually led to brick-and-mortar stores and ventures. A lot of women are using this model to get their businesses off the ground.

On some of the challenges facing female entrepreneurs in Arab countries

We were struck by the number of women studying computer science and engineering across the Arab world, whereas here in U.S. we still talk about how to get girls interested in science and tech. In Arab countries, women and men both face challenges such as access to capital and seed funding to get off the ground; lack of soft skills training, such as knowing how to do a business plan; difficulty getting loans for Internet-based businesses, since banks aren't as confident in giving out money for what they see as abstract ventures. And for-profit social enterprises face bureaucratic problems when trying to register their enterprises as businesses and not NGOs. There's also the challenge of not enough training resources available in Arabic to help women ...; difficulty recruiting and retaining talent, since startups are seen as unstable versus a government job or multinational corporation. There's also the challenge of fighting against a society averse to risk-taking.

Specifically to women, some told us they found no challenge specific to their gender. And they even decried women who use their gender as an excuse for not getting ahead. However, some also told us that social attitudes around women in public spaces and workplaces can create challenges for them sometimes. For instance, some women who have products said when they go to factories and suppliers that are male-dominated spaces, they have to work to be taken seriously. Some said they feel limited when business meetings happened at night or in spaces where it's not respectable for women to be, so they felt it hurt them when they couldn't join in those times.

On whether the Arab Spring inspired this newfound interest in innovation around women and tech

It's important to note that female entrepreneurship or the presence of businesswomen is not a new phenomenon in the Arab world. Muslim kids grow up hearing stories about how Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad's first wife, was a successful trader and businesswoman.

There's been a lot of buzz around the word "entrepreneurship" since the Arab Spring, as some say the uprisings were a grand articulation of entrepreneurship. But we can't say that innovation and tech started with the revolutions. It certainly existed before that time. Women such as Hanan Abdel Meguid, the former CEO of OTVentures, began startups back in the '90s in Egypt.

The surge in women entrepreneurs also coincides with larger trends such as greater numbers of Arab women pursuing higher education — almost higher than that of males in many countries — as well as more women entering the workforce and becoming breadwinners. And, Internet and mobile penetration rates have also soared in the region. So, with more women getting in the mix, you see them pursuing tech and innovation.

On what she hopes Arab entrepreneurs will take with them

My understanding is that the entrepreneurs are looking to connect with Silicon Valley veterans as they seek to scale their businesses to the next level. These are startups who have made it through those initial phases to become viable, but face the next challenge of expanding. The MIT and TechWadi conference will help close some gaps in the ecosystem by providing entrepreneurs with training and mentorship from knowledgeable folks to grow their businesses.

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Let's talk now about a venture in the tech world that's going on this week. Now we've often talked about the role technology can play in changing the world and how tech players are tried to reach out beyond their own borders. Well, this week we are seeing both those ideas come together in Silicon Valley as top tech entrepreneurs from across the Middle East and North Africa head to Silicon Valley to visit places like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. These entrepreneurs will be brainstorming with successful CEOs, learning how to expand their company's and getting tips on pitching to investors. We wanted to hear more about it, so we've called journalist Nafeesa Syeed, she's reported extensively on entrepreneurship in the tech world. She's actually headed out to this conference later this week. And she is with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us. I do want to mention also, that you are one of our Twitter contributors around our women in tech series back in March. So it's good to see you in person.

NAFEESA SYEED: Thanks so much Michel, it's good to be here.

MARTIN: So whose idea was this, who to put this conference together?

SYEED: This conference is the brain child of several different groups, including MIT Enterprise Forum, that has held startup competitions across the Arab world as well as TechWadi, which is a non-profit that builds bridges between Silicon Valley and the Arab world.

MARTIN: And what does Wadi mean in Arabic by the way?

SYEED: Wadi means valley, hence TechWadi.

MARTIN: (Laughs) Oh, OK. Well, that makes sense. So you've, as we mentioned, you've done a lot of research on female entrepreneurship and startups. In general, who are some of the people coming to this conference?

SYEED: This week they have a variety of entrepreneurs, ranging from publishing, E-publishing, to health services. A couple that I can mention particular include a group called Tomautom (ph) out of Jordan, and they're a mobile gaming studio and publisher. And they say they're trying to create culturally specific games for what they identify as 60 million smart phone users in the Arab world, and who are seeking Arab speaking content. And then another is called KarmSolar, which is out of Egypt, and they're looking to replace diesel power with solar energy because they say it's eco-friendly, but also more affordable and more reliable as well.

MARTIN: You know, we talked a lot, I think, a lot of Americans who followed events in the Arab Spring heard a lot about the role that technology played. But I get the sense from you that these entities, I'm just wondering were these entities, are any of these entities influenced by the Arab Spring in any way? Most of these are, kind of, basic products that people would want to use. Do you know what I'm saying?

SYEED: I would say that entrepreneurship has become a huge buzzword since the Arab Spring. Some people identify it as sort of the grand articulation of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Arab world. But I would also say that it's not new. It has been around before. In our book "Arab Women Rising," we cite several examples of women who started tech companies in the early 90's. They talk about what it was like to convince people to use the Internet early on. But at the same time, this has been definitely a huge boom in terms of the momentum people have and how can I change things, how can I use different tools to, kind of, change society? And there's, so there's definitely a momentum built around that. And you see lots of organizations both, international organizations, U.S. government, pouring in money into the idea of entrepreneurship. But then you also have a huge ecosystem that has evolved, with local incubators in the Arab world nurturing local entrepreneurs.

MARTIN: You mentioned women earlier. That is also another focus of your reporting. It's kind of ironic that there's this focus on women entrepreneurs, when as we've just discussed just recently, Silicon Valley has its own issues around the lack of diversity. You know, both gender and ethnic. And also, kind of, the growing sense, the environment itself is not as hospitable to people of different backgrounds as many people think they would like it to be, and that it should be, given its purpose and importance in our society. I wanted to ask, with all the women entrepreneurs you've been reporting on, what do they say about the role that gender plays in their lives as entrepreneurs? What do they say? Similar experiences?

SYEED: One of the things my co-author Rahilla Zafar and I both were struck by was the number of women we met who were studying computer science and engineering. Whereas here in the U.S., we still have an ongoing discussion of, how do we get our girls to be interested in science and tech? Where is there, that's already happening with a lot of the women we met. So you have a convergence of a lot of different forces coming together that have pushed women into the tech field and the Arab world. You have more women pursuing higher Ed. In many countries, more, women outnumber men. You have more women entering the workplace, and then you have more women becoming breadwinners for their families. In addition to that, the very high Internet penetration rates. So all of that combined, you see, sort of, women being pushed into the tech world. Now in terms of whether gender played a role, in my interviews with dozens of women, we asked has gender played a role, do you ever feel like it has held you back? And there were actually many women, several of the women said gender has never been an issue of getting ahead and they actually decried and criticized women that do think that gender has held them back. But then there were other women that did tell us that there were some social attitudes or social-cultural issues that may have got in the way sometimes. So, for instance, if a woman has products, where she has to go to a supplier or factories, there are certain parts of town that maybe her family's not comfortable with her going, or these are male dominated areas that she had to, sort of, assert herself in a different way that she's not used to. We also asked the women to be very candid about their, managing their work and family lives. And so, there again, you see maybe their gender coming up as an issue, where some of their families thought they needed to make their home their priority and not their work. While some told us their husbands and their fathers or brothers actually encouraged them to continue their business. Some whose spouses may not have shared their vision ended up getting divorced because they weren't able to continue doing both.

MARTIN: I think those are stories that will sound very familiar to many, many, many people here. So tell us a little bit more about what the various participants are hoping to accomplish this week? Recognizing, you know, you're heading out at the end of the week to present. So we hope that goes well. But how, tell us a little bit more about what the people participating hope to accomplish, and what do people who are receiving these entrepreneurs hope to get out of this exchange as well?

SYEED: My sense is, you know, when I'm talking to people in the region, talking to young entrepreneurs, they're fascinated and they glean a lot of knowledge and inspiration from the experiences in Silicon Valley and look to some of those people as their heroes. It's something they want to emulate in a way, in their own work. But when it comes to the knowledge of what's needed, or what technology makes sense, and what programs, what software will make sense, it's only going to be the people from the region who can actually develop that. So I think they're - going there my sense, a lot of them might be their dream to go visit Google or Twitter and learn what they can but also have an exchange. So see what ideas they could learn from Silicon Valley but also let Silicon Valley know what it is that they're doing and how they're innovating in ways that Silicon Valley may have never seen actually before.

MARTIN: I'm just looking at the list of the entrepreneurs who were invited. They all seem young. Is that correct? Is there, kind of, an average age? They all seem to be, kind of, hovering around their thirties, am I right about that? And is that generally the way, the wave of the future, it's young? TechWadi is young, right?

SYEED: Sure. There's a huge, obviously they call it the youth bulge and a lot of these countries have a very young population and technology is just, you know, from a young age being eaten up by these young people. And you also have to keep in mind that a lot of the problems and issues facing societies, whether it's, such as high unemployment, who's going to create opportunities. Even amid the turmoil and other huge issues and challenges going on, sort of taking matters into their own hands. And again, I would say from the Arab Spring, they're taking that inspiration of how can we create new realities for ourselves.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with Nafeesa Syeed, she's co-author of the digital book "Arab Women Rising: 35 Entrepreneurs Making A Difference." She's been telling us about a conference going on in Silicon Valley this week. It's called The Arab World Meets Silicon Valley, she's headed out there to present at that conference. But she was kind enough to stop here first in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for stopping by.

SYEED: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.