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How to Start an Online Lingerie Store in the Middle East

The Atlantic

Startups are sprouting up across the Middle East, and in spite of social mores, women are holding their own.

When I was invited to speak at the Celebration of Entrepreneurship 2010 in Dubai -- one of the first region-wide tech startup gatherings in the Arab world -- I was impressed by the size, scale, and excellence of a new generation of entrepreneurs. My subsequent travels to Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Jeddeh, Doha, Istanbul, and Damascus became the basis of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.

Startup Rising explores the rise of the tech, mobile, and startup sectors of the region, telling the stories of some of the tens of thousands of young entrepreneurs who have been willing to take on their local political and cultural challenges. It delves into the regional investments made by major tech players like Google, Intel, Cisco, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and PayPal, despite the uncertainty in the region. It connects the influences that have put millions onto the streets demanding political change to the forces that have compelled them to take control of their economic futures.

Nothing may surprise western audiences more than to learn that 35 percent or more of these entrepreneurs are women -- a number comparable or better than found in Silicon Valley. The following excerpt is from the chapter, "The New Middle East -- Women at the Startup Helm."


"Sorry to disappoint anyone," Alex Tohme said to me in an elegant, deep, last-century British accent, "My e-commerce startup is not focusing on 'sexy kinky lingerie' because that doesn't address the issue that women really want. They want advice, they want answers to their bra problems, and they want to feel like someone is focusing on their feelings and not their wallets. Every woman should be celebrated no matter the shape and size."

I met Alex first at Omar Christidis' ArabNet in Beirut in 2012, which she helped organize, and later in a café by her offices in Dubai. As a digital marketing executive at Western ad agencies like Ogilvy One in the Middle East, she has built a following as an at times shockingly blunt blogger on the startup ecosystem in the region. Lebanese born, Saudi raised, she was sent off to Britain for high school, and then in 1998 she passed the Regular Commissions Board for entry into Sandhurst, the United Kingdom's high school version of West Point. After studying psychology at the University of Manchester, she returned to the region in 2006, intrigued by the early days of the rise of the digital economy. One does not forget her.

She is launching as the first underwear shopping blog and e-commerce platform in the Middle East. Her first blog post described bluntly how difficult it could be to find personal clothing that fit well, and not feel uncomfortable shopping in a public place. "I think it's the first time anyone actually showed their boobs in a bra in this region!" she laughs. "But I'm still alive and haven't been arrested. Women reached out with the same experiences and questions I had. If you take the risk it gives others confidence to follow."

Tohme has experienced significant pushback in what she acknowledges remains a heavily male-dominated retail industry. "I've even had some men tell me that women empowerment won't work," she pauses incredulously. "We are talking about a shopping experience for and about women. Women are more likely to admit where their skills are and where their weaknesses are and seek out people who can fill that gap." She believes that while the ecosystem is deeply challenged, something new is happening with women stepping up to lead. "Everyone says the Middle East isn't ready for X, Y, or Z but nobody knows until you try. Most of the time the market is ready, it's just that there isn't anyone around with the balls enough to do something about it."

Her anatomical analogy stayed with me later that day on my ArabNet panel when I received the greatest reaction I ever received on any stage. Event founder Christidis, who is an exceptional, thoughtful, and provocative moderator, pushed us to speculate on why the Middle East seemed to be lagging behind other emerging markets in startups. "Do we not think big enough?" he asked with exasperation, and then channeling Alex, "Do we merely lack balls?" I looked over him and winked, "Well, the first thing you can do is promise never to ask about balls again. In my experience, some of the greatest innovation is coming from women." The room--all of the women and not a few, perhaps sheepish men--erupted in applause.

Like many of my fellow westerners, I once harbored the one-dimensional view of the Middle East that we often see on the news--a series of male-dominated societies where, in places like Saudi Arabia, women cannot even legally drive. After all, I often play a thought experiment with my friends in Silicon Valley, asking them to name five women general partners in venture capital firms or how many women engineers they have on their teams. Given how often such questions are met with silence here, I assumed female representation in the Middle East must be near nonexistent.

There is no question that men are more common on the tech scene in the Middle East. At the same time, one still sees a striking number of women at every gathering and meetup. Hala Fadel, who runs the Middle East MIT Business Plan Competition, sees the number of women applicants increasing each year, from an already surprisingly high base. In 2012, more than 4,500 teams of three people or more competed. "That means over 13,000 potential entrepreneurs," she told me. "Teams that included women were near 48 percent! How many Silicon Valley competitions can say that?"

The answer is none. The rising role of women in the Middle East mirrors the rising role and impact of women across emerging growth markets.

* * *

One must be cautious about painting a region as rich and diverse as the Arab world with a broad brush. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Gulf States tend to be significantly more restrictive than Egypt or the Levant, and they pay a significant price for it economically. According to a recent Booz study of women's role in Gulf region, women actually represent the better-educated talent pool than the greater population but a drastically higher percentage of the unemployed. "Women in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia constitute 67 percent, 63 percent, and 57 percent respectively of university graduates," the study found. In countries like Kuwait, however, nearly 80 percent of the unemployed are women.

Whether in the Gulf, Egypt, or Levant, however, one can find examples of both the old and new narratives just about everywhere. "Don't get me wrong," one 20-something B2B CEO from Beirut told me, "too many men here, especially older investors, judge us in an old lens and it can be a problem." Another entrepreneur from Alexandria, who has developed a regional portal to connect mothers and their children, added, "Believe me, being a woman entrepreneur is very hard--being a wife, a mother, a daughter puts real pressure on us, we can feel real guilt under the weight of expectations. But at the same time being an entrepreneur is not mutually exclusive." And yet another social network founder from Cairo challenged why I was making any distinction. "We are not women entrepreneurs," she chastised me. "We are entrepreneurs who are women. We face all the same issues as any entrepreneur. If anything, as women, we probably work harder, are better collaborators, better at just getting things done than a lot of men."

Whatever one's perception of the Middle East, significant change has been well underway for years. And the crucial role of women in economic development is a global phenomenon. As every study of women's impact on society demonstrates--most recently the World Bank 2012 Gender and Equality and Development Report--that while gaps remain, women have an ever-increasing role in job creation, business creation, and consumer economic activity across every industry. It is no surprise that with access to technology, they are hungrier than anyone to create.

Alyse Nelson, CEO of Vital Voices, Hillary Clinton's nongovernmental organization that trains and invests in emerging women leaders around the world, told me that she sees the change in the Middle East as part of a global shift. "We see women closing the gap with men in areas of economic development and girls' education," she told me, "but the greatest unfinished business in the twenty-first century is that women still lag significantly in leadership, power, and decision making." She has found worldwide that women hold less than 20 percent of the seats in parliament and fewer of the C-level positions or board seats in larger corporations. "The exciting thing, however," she notes, "is that the power dynamic has shifted dramatically in recent years with access to social networks and mobile devices. Agency--real influence in making change--is no longer just wielded from the corner office, but also from a Twitter account. Technology is changing everything--breaking down cultural barriers that once held women back and creating innovative opportunities to make positive change."

This post is excerpted from Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. Copyright 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd..

The article was first published on The Atlantic on August 13, 2013.

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