It’s a journey that is as scary and filled with potential as falling in love. More and more women are fulfilling their dream of starting their own businesses, being their own bosses, making their own schedules – both globally and in the Arab world. There are more conferences and funding opportunities aimed at entrepreneurs, including women, which have sprung up in the last few years. Just last month, London mayor Boris Johnson announced a 100 million pound tech fund for Mideast tech start-ups.
Hala Fadel, who organises the Middle East MIT Business Plan Competition in the UAE, said that 48 percent of the teams competing in 2012 included women, a figure that is much higher than any found in the US and Europe, according to Christopher Schroeder’s book Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.
The 15th Annual Women’s Exhibition ran at the Dubai World Trade Centre in December 2013, featuring the latest products and services for women in diverse industries, ranging from technology and health to fashion and culinary art. The event was organised by Thoraya Al Awadhi, founder and owner of the Thoraya al Awadhi Group of Companies, to encourage female entrepreneurs. “It’s a celebration of women’s entrepreneurship, empowerment, and creativity,” says Thoraya. “As the leading event for women, by women, we bring together visionaries with big ideas and bigger ambitions.”
The exhibition was affiliated with the UAE Federation of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry, which has confirmed that female entrepreneurs now constitute 10 percent of the UAE’s private sector, with an aim to raise this number further to 30 percent by 2021.
Thoraya herself is a successful entrepreneur who started out as a full time housewife and mother for 25 years. After raising her seven children, she pursued and realized her dream of starting her own business by launching the first Women’s Exhibition in the region. So what are you waiting for?
VIVA caught up with Ayah Bdeir from Lebanon for some in-depth insight into what it takes to build a company from scratch. Ayah is the founder and CEO of tech company littleBits, an award-winning library of electronics dubbed “LEGOs for the iPad generation,” that allows children to build simple electronic devices and promotes science and technology to younger generations. Ayah is a Ted Fellow, a Creative Commons fellow, and an alumna of the MIT Media Lab. Did we also mention that she was ranked in the top ten sexiest startup CEO’s alive this year?
How long did it take you to launch your business, from concept to product?
I started working on littleBits in early 2008, but it wasn’t until about late 2011 that I had the first functional preview product.
Why did you decide to work on a concept that targets children’s learning?
We noticed that kids started hovering around the exhibit when we showcased our product. Seeing them engage with the modules, I realized there was a very big opportunity to change the way kids learn about science and technology. littleBits enables kids to participate in the invention and creation process: they come up with ideas, test them out, then take them apart and do something else. Essentially, littleBits allows kids very early on to be innovators and problem-solvers.
What was a big “aha” moment while you were building your business?
Once, a few months after I started the company, I got a google alert for littleBits. I followed it, and saw that someone had uploaded on youtube a video of a project he did with his dad. I then searched youtube for the word littleBits and suddenly found all these projects that people had made and uploaded videos, without us even knowing: from South Africa to Singapore to Mexico to Canada! It was such an exciting moment to see a global community starting to grow and people taking the product different places. It made me realize that littleBits was a universal product, and we could make impact on a global scale. So it was one of those inspirational moments.
What was a particular challenge?
Making something that never existed before is really hard. I almost gave up many times. But maybe the hardest thing was getting the first products manufactured before I had money or a company. Usually manufacturers don’t want to talk to you unless you have a large order or a lot of money. So it took a lot of courting and searching until I found someone that wanted to make a prototype and go into production with us.
Was it hard to raise funding, how did you go about it?
The first time it was very easy to raise money. Our lead investor Joi Ito (who used to be the CEO of Creative Commons where I was a fellow) sent me an email asking “are you raising money?”. The second time around it was harder of course, it was $ 3.65 million and it was important to find the right investors that would really understand and support the vision of the company. The funds the first time went towards putting in an order of the product and getting it out. The second time, it was to build a team and transfer manufacturing overseas.
What’s next for you and for the company?
We want to be in every home, every school, every engineering and design studio. We want to see people creating with electronics whether they are inventing a new product, learning about Science and Engineering, or just creating toys.
What advice would you give to budding female entrepreneurs?
I would give the same advice to female and male entrepreneurs. Don’t start a company unless you are obsessed about solving a problem and you can’t get it out of your head. In addition, to female entrepreneurs I would say, don’t spend too much time thinking about being a woman. It takes too much space in your brain and in your life. Just try to do the best possible work you can.
Top Tips from experts on starting your own business:
1. Look into local sponsorship versus Free Zone: Local sponsorship involves giving an Emirati partner 51 percent of your business, which would allow you the freedom to operate anywhere in the city. The sponsor is paid a yearly fee. A Free Zone-operated business lets you operate with 100 percent ownership. There are some restrictions related to rental fees and location.
2. Location, location, location: Find a spot that will be most profitable to your business. It’s no use making the best pizzas in town if nobody can find your restaurant!
3. Look into your Visa eligibility: You need a specific visa to allow you and employees to live in the UAE. The visa type depends on the business and your current sponsor needs to apply for you.
4. Consider hiring a business consultant: Someone can be there to give you the right advice and hold your hand through the whole process (we hate paperwork, too!).
5. Look into your finances: This is key, as most banks in the UAE rarely provide loans to start-ups. Look into how much you need to get your business off the ground and consider keeping your day job while you are starting this up so then you don’t have to take a giant leap.
1. Don’t do it for the money, do it for the passion: “I’ve always had a love affair with creating beautiful interiors and tabletops,” says Zainab Alsalih, founder of event planning agency Carousel. “There is a fine-line between being passionate and obsessive – and I cross it all the time!”
2. Don’t expect it to be easy: Be ready to put in the hours of hard work. Mona Atayah, founder of Mumzworld.com, an e-commerce site for new parents, says, “An online business runs 24 hours a day; it doesn’t sleep and neither do I.”
3. Don’t give up too early: It takes time to get things right and there will be setbacks along the way.
4. Don’t get intimidated: Arm yourself with the right amount of research and a good support network. “Get out there and meet people in the industry you’re interested in and get advice from other entrepreneurs,” says Zeina Abdalla, founder of two online businesses: photography company, www.fishfayce.com and party kit company, www.moushii.com.
5. Don’t rush it: “I’ve met many who just wanted to turn a profit in a year or else they would consider the business a failure, but it doesn’t work that way,” says Alex Tohme, founder of www.amourah.com, “If you’re starting from scratch, you’ve just got to be passionate and give it time to grow.”