It is nothing but an unprecedented time for the global tech and entrepreneurship space. You have the sudden rupture of the world’s ‘favorite’ fund keepers on one end and the staggering rise of consumable AI on the other- which puts the world of tech in a centrifuge of destinies that even Bill Gates believes could be the next technological leap since… well computers.
Although these heavy headlines have become the core conversation points shaping the future of tech spaces in the region, today, we’re exploring an underrepresented and perhaps undervalued segment of the ecosystem.
While women in tech have proven to be on par and, in many cases, ahead of their male counterparts, their journeys have been more complex. In building innovative businesses in an often-biased tech world, women have to explore their agility, tenacity, and resilience- three vital virtues every tech founder and investor is encouraging for the survivability of their businesses at our current moment.
We sit down with successful entrepreneurs and founders Mai Medhat of Eventtus (acquired by Bevy) and Sophie Smith of Nabta Health to talk about pandemic survival, investment maneuvering, and the journey of women in the MENA tech space:
Over in MENA, recent reports on VC funding by the likes of MAGNiTT and Wamda exhibit that even though capital has been grappling with global economic downturns and risk-off investor sentiments, global interest in MENA is still on the rise. From our last conversation with UAE-based founders, the real fruit of tech success in the region seems almost ripe, and the time for cross-geographic expansion has come.
According to a study by PitchBook, female founders received just 2.7% of all venture capital funding in all startups across major markets globally in 2019. This disparity is even more pronounced in MENA, where only 10% of startup founders were women, according to a report by Wamda.
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While this could be a striking opportunity to rethink our startup landscapes, it has also been an excellent opportunity to reflect on the many female founders who have been there since the start. Sophie Smith, the founder and CEO of Nabta Health, a femtech startup, aims to accelerate the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of chronic diseases in women. Sophie’s goal is to provide affordable and accessible healthcare to women in the MENA region, and her innovative approach has helped her raise $1.5 million in seed funding.
Another woman who has made a mark in the tech industry is Mai Medhat, the co-founder of Eventtus, an event and community management platform. Mai made history as one of the first female tech founders to exit in MENA, exiting to a US-based community events platform in 2020. Mai’s journey has been a rollercoaster ride, and we’ve seen Eventtus grow spectacularly as a community member of AstroLabs in Dubai, but she has emerged victorious.
The tech industry is known for its fast-paced and constantly evolving nature, and the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified this trend. Businesses had to be inventive to survive, and Sophie and Mai were no exception. Faced with the need to extend her funding runway during the pandemic, Sophie set out to keep her full staff. Supported by a team who believed in the power of building the hybrid femtech platform it is today and the positive impact it will have on female healthcare across the region, Sophie rolled out convertible notes, which proved to be an effective method.
Mai, on the other hand, had to reinvent her community and event engagement business at a time of social distancing. It took the two female founders, along with Co-founder and CTO Nihal Fares, just a month and a half to turn a challenge into a business opportunity as they pivoted their platform to host immersive virtual events. This eventually led to the successful exit of the company.
But surviving the pandemic “Death Valley” was just one of the many challenges these women faced. The tech industry, like many others, is male-dominated, and this can make it difficult for women to navigate. Specifically, in the tech industry, a survey by Fortune in 2021 found that women held just 11% of executive positions at 500 large US companies in the technology sector. This includes positions such as CEO, CFO, CIO, and other executive roles. Despite the low representation of women in executive leadership positions, there have been some notable examples of women who have broken through the glass ceiling.
As Sophie shared (amongst a plethora of statistical data she keeps under her sleeve), female-founded businesses are less likely to be invested in based on potential, which is all a business has pre-series A. In addition, women have less time in a day as they are responsible for 80% of the total hours of unpaid care work in MENA. This means that women have to be inventive and highly efficient with their investor-facing time.
Sophie and Mai discussed these challenges and more during our Women in Tech panel hosted at our spaces last week. While Sophie suggested the need to reteach how female founders pitch their startups, Sophie and Mai both agreed that up-and-coming founders have to build relationships with investors outside of the pitch room- and for women, it could be on their time and terms.
Sophie believes that disrupting the investment and entrepreneurial landscape requires more than just having more female investors. She argues that women need to be in all decision-making positions, including LPs, fund managers, lawyers, and wealth managers. Mai left with a message on empowering her peers, reflecting on how experiences can and will be great sources of resilience and inspirational drivers to reach out and empower others that are in “the same boat.”
Yet one thing remains clear, while the world is pushing forward for a diverse and inclusive tech industry, it is founders like these that often show us the true innovation in entrepreneurship- pushing boundaries and rethinking mediums as a full-time job.