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The New Middle East: Women at the Center of a Startup Ecosystem, Pt. 3

Pando Daily

Ask any woman in the Middle East startup community about her greatest challenge, and the first things you’ll hear are familiar to any entrepreneur. Can I do this? Will anyone care How do I choose from a hundred different priorities? When do I raise money? How should I hire? Can I move fast enough?

Press a little further and equally universal themes come up for women, but with some regional sensitivities added.

As one online video founder told me, “Being a woman entrepreneur in general means that you have to overcome many cultural stereotypes especially as wives, mothers or daughters. It is easy, in our cultural conditioning, to feel guilt for not being there for our kids as we have so much work to be done.” Another agrees, “It is a very delicate balance. If you drop the ball, you are judged twice as harshly by society.”

It is no surprise that great startups are offering platforms to help navigate this balance, and offer powerful resources for the Arab world and beyond.

Neither Yasmine el Mehairy nor her partner Zeinab Samir are mothers. The Cairo-based entrepreneurs, however, were stunned when Yasmine’s sister-in-law became pregnant and there was no online resource for new mothers in Arabic. “I come from a family of doctors, so we were comfortable enough with English language medical information,” Yasmine told me. “But we wondered what other Arab women do.”

Having failed together in an earlier IT services venture, the two friends were looking for a new idea. They found that the opportunity to create the first parenting portal was wide open, so a year ago, their team of 10 launched what is fast becoming the go-to online parenting experience: Supermama.

After a year of researching the space, Yasmine and Zeinab concluded that the three greatest challenges for young mothers are finding information, scheduling their lives, and financial planning. Supermama became one-part comprehensive resource, one-part mommy blogging portal for mothers who have “been there,” covering basic questions around pregnancy and parenting, running a home, time convenient recipes, and juggling the many things that vie for their time.

“Modern moms are online all the time,” Yasmine notes, “But there is so little in Arabic. And so much information in any language is outdated or simply invalid.”

Yasmine was a Computer Science major at one of the top universities in Cairo. “I started with the belief that technology is the way to make things happen. So for one year, we all worked from home, running the entire business on email and online tools. This allowed us to build a network of mommy bloggers and experts. They love working with us, since they are not required to sit in an office space all day.”

They quickly received attention in the growing Egyptian startup community and were a finalist in the MIT Enterprise Business Competition last year (one of nearly 4,000 competitors). But it was the Europe-based Startup Boot Camp that changed their lives.  “We were connected with experienced mentors and could ask them anything,” Yasmine recalled. “We learned not only how to think about mistakes, but to understand we weren’t just good in an Egyptian context, but one of the best teams among the region and global participants.”

Coming out of beta last spring, with thousands of mothers already sharing experiences, investors have agreed. They are finalizing their first $350,000 angel round this week which includes one of the leading local venture funds, MBC Ventures. “We think that there is global potential here – there are hundreds of millions of Arabic speaking women around the world,” Yasmine notes looking forward. “But we want to remain focused, diversify services around parenting, and grow from there.”

Like the founders of Supermama, the tech and business concerns of Rama Kayyali Jardaneh and her partner Lamia Tabbaa Bibi have an aim on spanning the region and the globe. Rama is Jordanian, Lamia Jordanian/Saudi, but both studied at university and received masters in the UK and the States.

“We never thought of ourselves as entrepreneurs, per se,” Lamia told me. “We were both working as freelancers in video documentary and news content production after university. But when we had our kids we felt there was an utter lack of responsible, high-quality Arabic educational products for them. We simply wanted to fill that gap.” Little Thinking Minds, the region’s first Arabic audio-visual educational company for children under seven, was born out of this desire.

They started planning the business together virtually. Lamia was living in London and Rama in Amman, each with their toddler sons, complaining that all they found for their kids were old Barney episodes or badly dubbed Disney cartoons. At the same time, Disney’s “Baby Einstein” series was a huge hit all over the world, and their sons also loved the series. When Lamia came to visit Rama in Amman they started asking each other, what if someone created the Arabic versions of this popular series?

Sharing their passion with each other, they began working on their first plot-lines, which remain as popular today as it was when it was first screened in 2005. Back then, they hosted small cinema screenings for three-year-olds, whose reactions were unequivocally positive. People started showing up to their screenings in droves, and they had to expand their plan for one test screening to provide for six.

“It dawned on me then,” Lamia told me, “that what we are doing is quite revolutionary.  By offering this [series] on a digital platform, and by being first, we would become market leaders.”

They started the company part-time, Rama overseeing production and DVD distribution while Lamia, still based in London, wrote scripts, consulted with child education specialists and pursued distribution deals. While still offering videos on DVDs and even VHS, digital access changed everything.

“Parents simply want content delivered to their children that is culturally sensitive and reflects their values as Arabs, and they are willing to pay for it,” said Rama. “By going digital, this resulted not only in larger visibility for us in Jordan and the region, but reaching Arab expats around the globe.”

Today they offer their tools and content across an entire spectrum of media – DVDs and CDs sold online, and in brick and mortar stores, including Arabic Virgin Megastores. Apps, music, video, and online games are available on the App Store, iTunes, and Youtube rentals. They are in negotiations with regional airports and airlines to host their experiences for travelling families.

Looking forward Rama said, “We plan to develop a portal on everything related to Arabic education to children under seven, as well as teaching kits for schools that will connect with our digital/electronic platform to enhance Arabic language-learning for parents and young kids.”

Alexandria-based Sara Galal was a hotel and tourism exec., but her heavy travel schedule didn’t allow her the time or ability to connect with her new baby. Switching to human resources at a local IT company changed everything for her. She learned both the power of technology as tools of connection and how important a company’s culture can be to the success of its mission. What, she wondered, could she create that would combine her passion for building things and allow her to be the best parent possible?

Galal decided to attend the popular Startup Weekend Competition, an event that attracts as many as 1,000 participants from all over the Middle East.

“Over 90 pecent of those competing are from technical backgrounds with very sophisticated ideas,” she told me. “This pushed me to think how can we utilize technology to support and strengthen the relationships between parents and kids. But it was also intimidating — my Facebook status then was ‘Should I go, should I stay, should I come back another day?’”

Her answer to that question reflected the balance struck by many working women : “My deep inside feeling was that I have to prove that a working woman can also be a good mom and a good wife.”

What came out of Sara Galal’s experience at Startup Weekend was Sweetyheaven, currently in beta, a Web and mobile experience that helps parents and children set behavior expectations. Kids learn lessons like “keep your room clean,” “do your homework,” and “be respectful” in a game-like environment that tracks their success. Based on whatever time frame and goals they set, a parent and child create a reward system for good behavior, which can include a toy or gift delivered right to their door or a donation to a local charity.

“The idea is quite simple, and it’s what parents do every today already,” Galal told me. “But this platform really brings parents and children together to form closer and happier relationships [online], even if a parent might be travelling from time to time.”

Galal was surprised that early investor feedback was enthusiastic but also encouraged her to take the idea to start-up in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in the West. “With all the change in Egypt, I feel obliged to bring positive energy to my country, myself, my daughter,” she explained. “I feel positive toward Egypt’s future [and that there are] significant market opportunities in the Middle East.”

She adds, knowingly however, “I think parents and children anywhere in the world might want to use our platform.”

Her husband, Mohammad Badrah, is an IT engineer and, like Sara, quit his job to join her as tech lead and project manager. They have built out a local team of seven product specialists and engineers. “Having a supportive husband is like the kiss of life,” Sara told me. “When you are so down, helpless, and hopeless – and all entrepreneurs feel this at some point – a great spouse can lift you up in a magical way. We complete each other.”

Sara speaks for many women – in the region, and around the world: “Believe me, being a woman entrepreneur is very hard. It is an unusually challenging thing for a woman to balance between taking care of home, husband, a child, and even work outside – so many entrepreneurs cannot simply quit their ‘day jobs’ for financial reason. But if you want to ask why we do this is because we have no choice. I won’t be able to make my family happy, if I am not happy. And in my startup I have found a great happiness. In using platforms like ours, women can feel connected, and maybe have more time for them and possibly create and build their own ideas.”


Originally published by Pando Daily, September 27, 2012.

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