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How these Saudi women kickstarted their business
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How these Saudi women kickstarted their business

How these Saudi women kickstarted their business
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(L-R) Ragad Alsharif of Innoras, Wafaa Al Ashwali of Serviis

 

What does it take to be a successful female business owner in Saudi Arabia?

The simple answer to that question is a lot of hard work and a good deal of determination. Being a female business owner in a conservative society is never easy, mostly due to the heavy reliance on the opposite gender.

This is one of the reasons why, though there has been a significant increase in the percentage of women entrepreneurs in recent years, only a third of Saudi businesses are currently owned by women.

“Despite massive government efforts in empowering women, a great part of Saudi society is conservative and would feel more comfortable with and confident about working and investing in men,” said Wafaa Al-Ashwali, co-founder and CEO of Serviis. “[This is] given that the majority of the Saudi business scene is male-dominated.”

In 2016, after 10 years of working in the private sector, Wafaa launched Serviis as a digital platform connecting professional service providers, such as plumbers, with customers. Aside from the gender issue, Wafaa also found that the majority of investors required a proven profitable track record to offer a company funding, and this is, of course, difficult to achieve as a young startup. This may have put others off in a tough market, but Wafaa stuck it out and decided that she would take the initiative and tackle these obstacles one by one.

The company has grown exponentially over the past two years, and they faced several roadblocks to get where they are now. At first, they focused on developing a service provider base in the first few months before reaching out to customers. Halfway through 2017, after reaching around 20 orders per month, the company launched a social media campaign that increased their orders to 98 orders per month, and since then, the numbers have only gotten higher.

 Wafaa Al Ashwali, CEO of Serviis

Pic: Wafaa Al Ashwali, CEO of Serviis

 

Along the way, she decided to help other women who are trying to succeed in a male-dominated field, so she began working on an initiative with Misk Foundation, a non-profit established by Prince Mohammad bin Salman in 2011 to help Saudi youth to become active participants in the future economy. In the fellowship programme Wafaa joined, each fellow must develop a social initiative that will have an impact on a large segment of young people in Saudi Arabia. Wafaa chose funding women entrepreneurs as her initiative. In her analysis of the problem, she targeted four key players as the core of the problem: the government, angel investors, venture capital funds and the entrepreneur.  She aimed to bridge the gap between these parties by understanding the expectations of each player to develop the tools and programs that can address these expectations.

“We will develop programmes and tools to understand the concerns that angel investors and other financiers have against women entrepreneurs,” she explains.

But not all challenges for Saudi women are gender-related.

Ragad Alsharif is the founder and CEO of Innoras, a company that aims to turn innovative ideas into physical products that could solve everyday problems for many people. Their first product, called Tesh Tesh, is a portable bidet and has achieved considerable success in the kingdom.

For Ragad, the challenges lie in learning about the market and target audiences. “Being a business owner has the same challenges for a male or a female entrepreneur; I don’t see much difference in either,” she told My Salaam. “The main challenge of being a business owner, in my opinion, is ignorance; you need to educate yourself as much as possible about the market you are trying to approach.”

For others, the challenge is in taking the first step. Nouf Alsaleem faced the all-too-common difficulty of not being able to acquire initial funding for Mathaqi, a homemade-food-delivery app that helps families market their food products and increase their income. Nouf had to turn to a family member for support.

“I presented my idea to my father, who is a businessman, and he liked it. He believed in the possibility of making a great profit and social impact [by] providing housewives with job opportunities,” Nouf told Wamda last year. Mathaqi has since gone on to win several awards at tech startup competitions and is quickly expanding.

(Writing by Mostafa Adel; Editing by Seban Scaria seban.scaria@thomsonreuters.com)

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