A path to success
Many women are born entrepreneurs, equipped with natural business instincts. However, having an entrepreneurial spirit alone is not enough – it has to be well-matched with resources and support that enable the women to be successful in their businesses.
Apart from the perennial challenges faced by startups, such as funding, management skills and human resources, another key factor for emerging women entrepreneurs is the use of technology.
In this new millennium, technology is critical in every aspect of business, including operations, financing, marketing and communications. Technology is also the secret to global expansion, helping small and medium enterprises to reach an international market without the traditional physical barriers.
However, the million-dollar question now is: are women entrepreneurs capitalising effectively on technology to make their business a success? How is technology changing the face of small and medium enterprises today, especially in the Middle East?
Enterprising Middle East
The Middle East is becoming an exciting region of growth for women entrepreneurs. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2012 Women’s Report,
women run one out of every four startups overall in the region that includes the Middle East.
At startup competitions and in funding pools, a third or more of the entrepreneurs are often women.
There is a growing number of women-owned businesses in the Middle East – a change from the days when it used to have one of the lowest rates of women’s entrepreneurship due to many factors, including restrictive laws and cultural gender biases. Middle Eastern society is changing. There are increasing numbers of educated women, but employment remains a problem.
The Middle East has a 26 percent rate of female work participation, the lowest in the world.
Entrepreneurship became the natural solution to this dilemma, especially for women who could not find formal jobs, who took time off to have children and who preferred to march to the beat of their own drum.
It’s an online world
The entrepreneurial revolution in the Middle East has been largely spurred on by the rise in online technology and social media platforms. Women in Saudi Arabia and Dubai are setting up small businesses on the Internet or even platforms like Instagram, ranging from fashion and baby products to translation services.
Women entrepreneurs are also responsible for innovative social enterprises, which give them the edge over other entrepreneurs starting up conventional businesses. For instance, Supermama is an Egyptian startup that aims to provide budget and health management tools for new mothers. In Saudi Arabia, Trochet helps disabled women find jobs by “upcycling” plastic bags that the women turn into various furnishing items.
The Internet, in particular social media, has opened up the world for women entrepreneurs like never before. Social media helps to connect women with their markets, regardless of geographical boundaries. In some countries of the region, entrepreneurs are limited by domestic markets and need to look outwards in order to expand their reach.
Online technologies have also facilitated new funding platforms, such as crowdfunding, to help women overcome financing challenges, which is one of the biggest hurdles faced by small-medium enterprises, not to mention those run by women.
Online business networks and platforms also make it easier for SMEs to collaborate with other firms, such as partners, suppliers and vendors, which may be located overseas.
SMEs no longer need to be the underdog of their respective industries – technological applications are levelling the playing field, enabling them to compete with more established companies whose resources traditionally open more doors for them.
Women need support
However, women entrepreneurs still face plenty of hurdles, especially in the Middle East region. Funding is the most obvious challenge – one that affects male and female entrepreneurs alike – as funding opportunities in this region are extremely hard to come by for startups. When it comes to competing for the small pool of available funds, women tend to lose out to men in a society still largely dictated by patriarchal practices.
For this region,
one possible solution that could overcome the funding challenge is to provide women-only funding.
Rather than discriminating against men, the idea is to allow women to compete with their female peers and have a smooth transition into the business world.
Apart from easing funding troubles, there is a need to invest more efforts in helping women entrepreneurs thrive, with a special focus on advancing women’s skills and knowledge on technology. The WIEF Foundation, through its WIEF Businesswomen Network (WBN), is one important platform that is opening doors for women entrepreneurs worldwide. The WBN was established to provide networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs across the world, especially those from Muslim countries.
Apart from its annual Women Entrepreneurs Workshops, the WBN also organises Online Marketing Workshops. These workshops aim to capitalise on the technological connectivity that women entrepreneurs require in order to expand their business reach internationally, and to improve on their traditional operating models by adopting a more responsive structure.
The WBN has organised four Regional Online Marketing Workshops, the most recent of which was held in Kuching, Sarawak, with the support of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development of Malaysia.
Held from 18-22 August 2014, the 5-day workshop taught the participants how to design websites and upload content, as well as how to utilise sales and social media marketing tools. The event also provided a valuable platform for the women entrepreneurs to network with other local and international participants to explore further business opportunities.
There have been many success stories from participants who have attended the WIEF Regional Online Marketing Workshops, which is a testament to the value that the workshops provide – not only in terms of technological skills and savvy, but also in terms of building confidence and networks. The Workshop has reached out to, over 200 participants from, countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda and Yemen, amongst many others.
These are important efforts that go a long way in nurturing women’s natural business abilities. With such support, women entrepreneurs – especially those in more challenging regions like the Middle East – can propel their businesses forward, enriching the world with innovative products, services and solutions.