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The New Middle East: Women at the Center of a Startup Ecosystem, Pt. 2

Pando Daily

As a mentor and advisor to two remarkable ecosystem builders in the Middle East — the region-wide start-up portal and angel investor Wamda and Jordanian incubator Oasis500 — I see (but take no economic stake in) some pretty astonishing entrepreneurs. Through them, I discovered two wonderful stories that offer significant opportunities for the Arab-speaking world.

May Habib came to her idea out of her typical tenacious and thoughtful deliberation. Lebanese-born, Harvard-educated, and an Abu Dhabi wealth-fund manager, she became increasingly restless two years ago. She had come of age when many of her friends were starting businesses, looking to solve problems, and she wanted to make a difference in her region’s development.

During a holiday in Europe, Habib began to fill a notebook with lists of problems and potential solutions in the region, everything from female disempowerment to religious radicalism to lack of college counseling in high schools. But it was reading the 2005 “UN Arab Human Development Report” that it hit her. With over 80 percent of the Middle East’s 350 million people speaking solely Arabic, shockingly little global information resources – especially online – could be found in Arabic. Even five years later, less than 1 percent of all content online is in Arabic.

“By the end of the holiday,” she recalled, “I had a model of how I could use a crowd-sourced expert network to address this.” Within two months she had written a detailed business plan and returned to Beirut to seek funding. Her first start-up Qordoba was born in 2011.

Her team – now 14 full-time and three part-time engineers, and over 500 freelance writers, editors, and translators — has built one of the first and largest Arabic content creation vehicles in the Middle East. Qordoba launched in the B2B space as, among other things, that’s where the money is.

“The region’s multinationals, eCommerce startups, consulting companies, [and] law firms all complain about the same thing: how hard it is to find Arabic language services that are high quality, fast, and convenient,” she notes.

By building a Web-based platform that screens, tests, and employs freelance writers, editors, and translators, and distributes projects based on expertise and skill, Qordoba solves all three of these requirements. “Our customers were previously served by expensive global translation services companies and less than reliable local mom-and-pop shops,” she adds. “We made the whole process easy and efficient.”

Beating revenue forecast each month in a market place where star engineers cost a fifth of what they do in the States, Qordoba is attracting significant investor attention but wants to hold off their first Series A for the Spring of  2013. And they plan, by then, to enter the consumer space by offering Arabic translation of English language books.

Habib’s roots help explain her dedication and determination. She was born in a small, agricultural center in Akkar in the northwest corner of Lebanon, and her family immigrated to Windsor, Ontario, when she turned six. Her parents entrepreneurially founded a machining tool company, where she and her seven siblings were expected to help out while remaining focused on their education.

Entrepreneurship may have been in May’s DNA, but her first job upon graduating college was the investment bank, Lehman Brothers. She eventually moved to Abu Dhabi to work in private equity.

“I had a great two years there, in part because I was doing tech deals all over the world,” she told me. “I kept seeing the problem of Arabic content everywhere, everyone talking about it, and no one was doing anything about it. Now no one has an excuse — we have built an awesome, affordable solution.”

Habib worries about all the traditional start-up challenges of any entrepreneur – long hours, hiring the right people, finding customers and keeping them happy, spending every dime as if it their last.

“Being a woman, if anything, has been an advantage,” she believes.  “I work with an A-team, and they took pay cuts to join us. I think I was able to recruit them because of traits I see more frequently in female entrepreneurs. I have made my success their success, and I didn’t take no for an answer. For cultural reasons (and this is true in both East and West), that’s easier to do if you are a woman recruiting a man versus a man recruiting another man or woman.” She is proud that online distributed platforms like Qordoba open up job opportunities for Arabic writers and translators throughout the Arab world.

Jordanian Samar Shawareb also knew early she wanted to be an entrepreneur. Having graduated from the American University of Beirut in business, and then receiving her MBA at the University of Jordan, she landed a job at the British Embassy in Amman. She soon learned she had a passion for and skill in throwing events.

“I thought there was a need in the market for a professional event management company in Jordan,” she recalls. “I decided to  start my first business Events UnLimited in 2001 to organize exhibitions and conferences throughout Jordan.”

Over the next decade, as the wedding category became one of her business’s largest and most lucrative areas of development, she began to believe she could offer greater resources to brides-to-be throughout the region. Some of the most time consuming,  stressful, and confusing parts of wedding planning — like identifying and selecting the right wedding suppliers; seeking guidance and inspiration on issues related to wedding planning, fashion, beauty and other tips; evaluating various offers and finding out what they truly need and can afford – were ideal for an online content and social platform. To her surprise, few resources, especially bilingual, were available for the Middle East online.

In 2011, Samar launched Arabia Weddings as the first comprehensive bilingual wedding planning website to serve the multi-million dollar weddings industry in the Arab world. Originally launched in English, now also in Arabic, Arabia Weddings offers a unique combination of rich content (like original, aggregated news, and online directories of wedding suppliers in ten Arab countries); innovative planning tools, and special deals.

Samar believes her timing could not have been better. Having become one of the go-to executives —  Events UnLimited ran the only bridal exhibition in Jordan, “The Wedding Show,” for seven straight years — her market knowledge gave her unique insight into what could be built online. In addition, Jordan’s Internet penetration and information and communications technology sector being one of the leading in the region, Amman ended up being  a perfect place to build a region-wide footprint. Her team of seven is preparing to expand through the lucrative markets in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia next.

Samar agrees with Habib about the challenges and pressures of a startup. “Quitting a great job to set up my first business was one of the hardest decisions I had to take, mostly because of the loss of a monthly secure income. The risk was mitigated by the fact that I worked in parallel for a few years setting up the company and maintaining my day job. My new online company ties nicely to my off line businesses — seeing a dream becoming a reality is rewarding,” she pauses and smiles. “Albeit it’s always mixed with a sense of fear.”

Originally published by Pando Daily, September 26, 2012.

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