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The New Middle East: Women at the helm of a startup ecosystem, pt. 5

Pando Daily

When leading Middle East platform to empower entrepreneurs held its “Celebration of Entrepreneurship eCommerce” gathering in Amman last June, people packed in by the hundreds. The Middle East is an enormous consumer market with money to spend, and signs of a land grab are everywhere.

Local juggernauts like, and countless other startups and retailers are launching online. Germany’s juggernaut Rocket Internet recently doubled down with JP Morgan in Dubai with the Zappos-like Namshi, and PayPal opened operations throughout the region this summer. These are still early days in ecommerce in the region, and the opportunities could not be more interesting. Women are helping to lead the charge.

In focus and energy, I knew Jordanian Linda al Hallaq was a great entrepreneur when I met her at the Wamda gathering, but clearly it was in her blood. Raised in Saudi until the first Gulf War, she returned to Amman to study hospital management. As early as the age of seven, she would pick parsley from her grandmother’s garden, wash it, remove the stems, wrap bunches in napkins and sell them to her neighbors. In college, she organized student parties and threw children’s events, and later in 2004 — knowing nothing  about cars — she launched Jordan’s first auto enthusiast magazine because she sensed a market need

But it was in 1998, with only $50.00 to her name, that she founded HandCrafts with her sister Hanan, creating and producing painted handicrafts to their friends and relatives. Their business succeeded, and they began to meet other women creating crafts, and eventually built a network of a thousand women artists working from home. They organized over sixty public shows and bazaars for local crafts artisans, with over 200,000 people attending over time. And they knew through technology, they could build an online store that would take the idea across the Middle East.

First Bazaar was launched in March, 2012 to match designers and artists working from home to an enormous customer pool for one-of-a-kind and beautiful handicraft products. “We are providing hundreds of thousands – mostly women – with a portal to display and promote their products without the hassle of logistics, money transfers, high costs of store rentals,” Linda told me.

“Without us, they really would not have an opportunity to connect with each other.” 13 years in the craft sales business is a significant barrier to entry. Linda notes, “We have the contacts, the know-how to reach and promote handmade crafts, and how to create awareness. We help buyers and sellers get exactly what they are looking for.”

With two full time employees, two part-timers and a team of trainees, Linda and Hana see no limits. They were proud when Queen Rania of Jordan visited one of their bazaars last year, admiring the quality of the products and thought they should expand globally. “We absolutely will next year,” Linda said. “Though we already have had international sales because the Internet by definition is global.”  They currently have over 200 designers offering more than 3,000 unique products online, and 50,000 unique visitors last month still in beta.

And Linda and Hanan are proud to pay-it-forward. “In 2010,” Linda told me, “we created Hands Advocacy, a non-profit organization that provides a platform for women entrepreneurs working from home and women interested in owning their businesses.” Hands Advocacy offers free confidential advice, connection to mentors, and basic essentials to influence the policy environment for business formation and growth. “Our vision is to empower working women nationwide to achieve economic security.”

Rasha Khouri is a global mix – born in London to Lebanese Palestinian parents, she grew up in New York City, studied at Brown and INSEAD. Her commitment to her birthplace never wavered.

“When I was at INSEAD,” she recently recalled, “I realized I wanted to combine my interest in retail and my love for the Middle East. Through my research, I realized that no one was offering luxury goods online specifically catering to the region. I knew this was an enormous opportunity to create something new and exciting.”

DIA-style was launched in the spring 2012 as a definitive online destination focused on delivering on-trend luxury shopping to the Middle East. Commuting between London and Beirut, Rasha appreciates the opportunity of this emerging market. “Even in 2010, there was an explosion of users online in the Middle East as well as an increased consumer confidence to online shopping,” she notes.

“We became the only site that offers a comprehensive selection of on-season and on-trend women’s ready-to-wear and accessories in both English and Arabic,” she said. Surprisingly, leading luxury brands already in ecommerce — such as Ralph Lauren and Burberry — do not have sites in Arabic, concentrating their ecommerce efforts on European languages, Chinese, and Japanese.  She believes that they are missing a 7 billion dollar market opportunity in the Middle East.

More than just an ecommerce site, Dia-style helps “fashionistas” learn their best options by offering popular  virtual styling tools for users to create their own fashion “mood board,” and a “Lifestylizer Quiz” they can share with their friends and receive feed-back.

Rasha is proud that she is building a broad-based Middle East ecommerce enterprise.  “At one level, we are giving an online fashion voice to a region that is finding its voice politically and socially,” she believes. “But moreover, the business itself is linked to all parts of the Middle East — our translators are in Lebanon, our developers are in Palestine, and we are working with a marketing agency in Saudi Arabia and a PR agency in Dubai. It is very exciting to work with this region during this time of change.”


Originally published by Pando Daily, October 8, 2012.

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