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Arab Entrepreneurs Head To Silicon Valley To Grow Their Ventures

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.