Just like many high-ranking job positions at large corporates and other institutions, entrepreneurship sees relatively fewer female founders than their male founders. According to a study by ArabNet and Dubai SME in 2017, just 14% of startup founders in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were women, compared to a global average of 17%. According to the report, there are two themes, there is a subconscious bias against the technical knowledge possessed by female founders, and there are fewer females in angel groups and venture capital firms who can push gender-neutrality. Both these factors are contributors to the fewer number of women-led startups in the region.
However, there are investors that are aiming to break this circle. Their mandate revolves around improving equality by bringing more women into business and investment firms, which will create a more inclusive and diverse ecosystem. Consequently, the economy and ecosystem will benefit, as pointed by a 2018 Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report that found ‘despite this disparity [of female-led startups receiving less funding than male-led startups], startups founded and co-founded by women actually performed better over time, generating 10% more in cumulative revenue over a five-year period: $730,000 compared with $662,000.’
Two of the front-runners in investing in female-led startups are Dubai-based Womena and Women’s Angel Investment Network (WAIN). Both these institutions are angel groups that focus on early-stage startups with female (co-)founders in order to promote female participation in the startup ecosystem and workforce in general. Following provides an in-depth understanding of their operations, focus, and prominent portfolio companies.
Founded in 2014, Womena is a Dubai-based angel group that has facilitated over 3 million AED in funding into 10 startups. They have multiple initiatives to invest in female-led startups and promote female participation in the workforce, through its multi-dimensional media company that accelerates equality with creative content and entrepreneurial experiences.
One of these initiatives, its accelerator program called Womentum, is an experience-based early-stage accelerator for female-led tech startups in the Middle East, and aims to increase the pipeline of women entrepreneurs in the regional ecosystem. As part of the 4-week acceleration programme, the startups are documented through Womena’s media platform, which is then produced into a series called Womentum. During the acceleration programme, the selected female-led startups go through intense training during a bootcamp in both Berlin and Dubai, which includes guidance on their operations, go-to-market strategy, product-market fit and much more.
Another initiative, Womena’s Bossladies events and network, has the largest number of female entrepreneurs and investors in the Middle East. Among its network of female-led startups are ones like Bayzat, Souqalmal, Melltoo and Loyyal, as well as the acquired startup Wrappup. Through all these initiatives, Womena is one of the leading enablers in the ecosystem when it comes to diversity and inclusion of female founders.
Women’s Angel Investment Network (WAIN)
Founded in the same year, 2014, the Women’s Angel Investment Network aims to build an informed ecosystem of female investors that support female entrepreneurs in the Arab world. Initially founded by Heather Henyon, who is also a founding partner at venture capital firm Mindshift Capital and Dubai Angel Investors, WAIN is run by three directors – Heather Henyon, Lucy Chow and Rebecca Hill. According to WAIN’s website, they currently have an average unrealised portfolio return of 2.9x with a gross IRR of 130%, as well as nine investments in eight companies to date.
Through its initiatives, WAIN aims to educate and build self-confidence for female entrepreneurs through investing and mentoring female-led startups as angel investors in the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, they aim to create an active network of business women and democratise access to capital by providing investment opportunities to individuals and facilitating capital-raising for entrepreneurs. Well-known investments include private wealth management startup Sarwa, e-commerce platform Bulkwhiz, and Jordanian education startup Little Thinking Minds, among others.
According to WAIN, it invests in roughly 4.1% of all startups that apply to them for investment, which indicates that it is still difficult to raise investment for startups, even with an investment that has a very specific investment mandate. Through these investments, however, WAIN and Womena are promoting female participation in the startup ecosystem, which is much needed for economic diversity and potential. Some of these startups, like Sarwa, Bulkwhiz, Little Thinking Minds, Bayzat and Souqalmal, have already scaled quickly over the last few years, and are looking to grow even more with the support of their investors.