When I was invited to speak at the Celebration of Entrepreneurship 2010 in Dubai -- one of the first region-wide tech startup gatherings in the Arab world -- I was impressed by the size, scale, and excellence of a new generation of entrepreneurs. My subsequent travels to Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Jeddeh, Doha, Istanbul, and Damascus became the basis of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.
Startup Rising explores the rise of the tech, mobile, and startup sectors of the region, telling the stories of some of the tens of thousands of young entrepreneurs who have been willing to take on their local political and cultural challenges. It delves into the regional investments made by major tech players like Google, Intel, Cisco, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and PayPal, despite the uncertainty in the region. It connects the influences that have put millions onto the streets demanding political change to the forces that have compelled them to take control of their economic futures.
Nothing may surprise western audiences more than to learn that 35 percent or more of these entrepreneurs are women -- a number comparable or better than found in Silicon Valley. The following post is excerpted from the chapter, "The New Middle East -- Women at the Startup Helm."
"Sorry to disappoint anyone," Alex Tohme said to me in an elegant, deep, last-century British accent, "My e-commerce startup is not focusing on 'sexy kinky lingerie' because that doesn't address the issue that women really want. They want advice, they want answers to their bra problems, and they want to feel like someone is focusing on their feelings and not their wallets. Every woman should be celebrated no matter the shape and size."
I met Alex first at Omar Christidis' ArabNet in Beirut in 2012, which she helped organize, and later in a café by her offices in Dubai. As a digital marketing executive at Western ad agencies like Ogilvy One in the Middle East, she has built a following as an at times shockingly blunt blogger on the startup ecosystem in the region. Lebanese born, Saudi raised, she was sent off to Britain for high school, and then in 1998 she passed the Regular Commissions Board for entry into Sandhurst, the United Kingdom's high school version of West Point. After studying psychology at the University of Manchester, she returned to the region in 2006, intrigued by the early days of the rise of the digital economy. One does not forget her.
She is launching amourah.com as the first underwear shopping blog and e-commerce platform in the Middle East. Her first blog post described bluntly how difficult it could be to find personal clothing that fit well, and not feel uncomfortable shopping in a public place. "I think it's the first time anyone actually showed their boobs in a bra in this region!" she laughs. "But I'm still alive and haven't been arrested. Women reached out with the same experiences and questions I had. If you take the risk it gives others confidence to follow."
Tohme has experienced significant pushback in what she acknowledges remains a heavily male-dominated retail industry. "I've even had some men tell me that women empowerment won't work," she pauses incredulously. "We are talking about a shopping experience for and about women. Women are more likely to admit where their skills are and where their weaknesses are and seek out people who can fill that gap." She believes that while the ecosystem is deeply challenged, something new is happening with women stepping up to lead. "Everyone says the Middle East isn't ready for X, Y, or Z but nobody knows until you try. Most of the time the market is ready, it's just that there isn't anyone around with the balls enough to do something about it."
Her anatomical analogy stayed with me later that day on my ArabNet panel when I received the greatest reaction I ever received on any stage. Event founder Christidis, who is an exceptional, thoughtful, and provocative moderator, pushed us to speculate on why the Middle East seemed to be lagging behind other emerging markets in startups. "Do we not think big enough?" he asked with exasperation, and then channeling Alex, "Do we merely lack balls?" I looked over him and winked, "Well, the first thing you can do is promise never to ask about balls again. In my experience, some of the greatest innovation is coming from women." The room--all of the women and not a few, perhaps sheepish men--erupted in applause.
Like many of my fellow westerners, I once harbored the one-dimensional view of the Middle East that we often see on the news--a series of male-dominated societies where, in places like Saudi Arabia, women cannot even legally drive. After all, I often play a thought experiment with my friends in Silicon Valley, asking them to name five women general partners in venture capital firms or how many women engineers they have on their teams. Given how often such questions are met with silence here, I assumed female representation in the Middle East must be near nonexistent.