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Arab News, Sun, Apr 14, 2024 | Shawwal 5, 1445

​​Saudi Arabia a beacon for female entrepreneurship, according to industry leaders

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia is witnessing a significant surge in female entrepreneurship, positioning the Kingdom as a global leader in women-led small and medium-sized enterprises.  

This growth comes as Saudi Arabia’s entrepreneurial landscape flourishes, with SMEs becoming increasingly dominant. 

By the third quarter of 2023, the Kingdom boasted 1.27 million SMEs, showcasing the country’s commitment to diversifying its economy, as reported by the Saudi authority responsible for the sector, Monsha’at.   

In an interview with Arab News, Stephanie Nour Prince, partner at Riyadh and Dubai-based venture capital firm Nuwa Capital, highlighted the dramatic shift in the environment for female entrepreneurs in the Kingdom.   

Prince said: “In recent years, the landscape for female entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia has undergone a remarkable transformation, both socially and professionally.”     

She further emphasized that this change aligns with a broader vision, which is already yielding impressive results as evidenced by the growing number of women in leadership positions within companies.  

As reported by Monsha’at in January 2023, women lead 45 percent of the Kingdom’s SMEs. Moreover, their participation in the information technology sector has seen a significant increase, jumping from 11 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2021, surpassing Silicon Valley’s figures by 8 percent.  

A new era of entrepreneurship  

As the Kingdom forges ahead with its technological revolution, female entrepreneurs like Nour Taher, co-founder of the Saudi-based artificial intelligence startup Intella, are making significant strides toward success.     

Under her leadership, Intella has experienced remarkable growth, secured multiple rounds of funding, and moved its headquarters from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.    

This move not only signifies Intella’s commitment to the Kingdom’s burgeoning tech ecosystem but also underscores the broader trend of female-led enterprises gaining ground in traditionally male-dominated sectors.   

Reflecting on this evolution, Taher told Arab News: “It’s promising that we are starting to see women venturing and excelling in diverse business sectors, particularly in technology. This shift is reshaping industries that were traditionally male-dominated and contributing to the emergence of a new era of entrepreneurship.” 

A VC narrative  

The new era has also reached the world of venture capital, with a growing focus on female entrepreneurs, according to Prince.  

“The venture capital community is increasingly aware of the diverse perspectives and innovative approaches women bring to the table. Success stories of female entrepreneurs in the region demonstrate women-led businesses’ potential,” she said. 

Prince also points out the essential role of this industry in enabling women to not just start but also significantly scale their businesses.   

“While venture capital is not a prerequisite for launching businesses, it is pivotal for their rapid growth and success,” she explains. 

Prince elaborated that Nuwa Capital’s portfolio boasts female leaders across various sectors, from health-tech to fintech. 

“Equally important is the employment of women across our portfolio,” she said, going on to reveal that currently 20 companies in the firm’s early-stage offerings collectively employ around 1,000 females. 

“That’s about 50 women per company on average — something which is unheard of in large businesses, let alone startups. This is something we are extremely proud of,” Prince added.  

She further advocates for a venture capital ecosystem that is more inclusive and meets the unique needs of female entrepreneurs, including access to investment and mentorship networks.   

Echoing Prince’s sentiment, Taher highlights the significance of networking in entrepreneurship.   

“Women often have fewer networking opportunities, partly because men tend to benefit from more informal networks stemming from social interactions. This can put women at a disadvantage when seeking angel investors,” Taher explains.   

She recommends overcoming this challenge by actively engaging with the ecosystem and leveraging one’s network to facilitate introductions to active angel investors.  

Overcoming challenges  

The Kingdom has significantly advanced in eliminating barriers for women in entrepreneurship, yet there remains room for further progress.   

“I’ve been seeing a lot of initiatives supporting female founders in Saudi Arabia, and I’m very pleased to be seeing women take up as much space as they deserve to,” Taher noted.   

As an advocate for women in the Saudi entrepreneurial ecosystem, she highlighted ongoing efforts to enhance women’s participation in the sector.  

Despite these advancements, Prince, a strong advocate for female entrepreneurship, points out that the journey toward full empowerment and inclusion is far from complete.   

“The unfortunate truth is that there’s a lot more to be done and we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Prince said.   

“But we’re seeing early signs of change — but also early signs of self-awareness — and it’s encouraging to see women in Saudi Arabia championing each other,” she added.  

Prince noted that the lack of female representation in startup leadership is a global challenge, not confined solely to the Middle East. 

“However, we have a chance to be a beacon for the world and demonstrate how Saudi Arabia is championing women in innovation,” she added.

A beacon for the world   

Observing the increasing number of women entrepreneurs entering the business realm, Prince offered her guidance for navigating through the hurdles of entrepreneurship.   

“Being an entrepreneur is tough, but being a female entrepreneur comes with its own set of challenges. We need to collectively solve this by building an inclusive, diverse ecosystem where others, globally, have failed,” she said.  

Building on Prince’s point, Taher noted that the real journey starts from within, advising female entrepreneurs to believe in themselves and the reason for embarking on the challenging road.   

“Don’t be afraid to take risks and challenge societal norms. Seek mentorship and networking opportunities within and outside your industry. Cultivate resilience as setbacks are inevitable, but they serve as valuable learning experiences. Be humble through it all, and, most importantly, be kind to yourself,” Taher said.  

“Surround yourself with a supportive network of like-minded individuals; this doesn’t have to be a very lonely journey,” she concluded.   

Prince also outlined a multi-faceted approach to support the government’s vision.   

She stresses the importance of the private sector, particularly international companies within the startup ecosystem, to integrate and adapt best practices on female empowerment from global markets to the regional context.    

“Secondly, VC firms must ensure that their portfolios are establishing the right measures to encourage career growth for women. VCs must also ensure they eliminate any gender bias to help develop a diverse team, especially at leadership levels,” she added.     

“Lastly, women need to actively back one another, whether in the form of capital, mentorship, training, etc.,” Prince explained.

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