Home The Washington Diplomat September 2018 At D.C. Business Incubator, Saudi Women Startups Shatter Stereotypes

At D.C. Business Incubator, Saudi Women Startups Shatter Stereotypes

At D.C. Business Incubator, Saudi Women Startups Shatter Stereotypes

Also See: The Saudi Ventures at Halcyon and Saudi Women Take Halting Steps Forward


Runners say that if you want to really get to know a neighborhood, get lost running in it. (This works as long as you find your way back to where you started.) Foodies say the best way to get to know a place is to eat where the locals eat. And the director of policy and international programs at D.C. business incubator Halcyon, Josh Mandell, says if you want to really learn about a country, meet that country’s entrepreneurs.

That point was illustrated perfectly at the Georgetown-based Halcyon Incubator in the first two weeks of August, when Halcyon’s red brick building became home to 16 young social entrepreneurs from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi cohort was the second speed-dating-for-entrepreneurs group to pass through Halcyon this summer, and the incubator’s first partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, said Mandell. The seven ventures (see related sidebar) that ended up coming to Washington were identified through a partnership Halcyon has established with Taibah University in Medina. “Taibah University has scores of startups and young entrepreneurs so we formed a partnership with them, developed a selection process and identified seven companies that we thought would be a good match with the Halcyon Incubator,” said Mandell. “We’re delighted that it ended up being a cohort of all women founders.”

For a fortnight, the women (and one man) lived, breathed and dreamed their ideas, backed by Halcyon, a nonprofit founded to help early-stage entrepreneurs, artists and innovators realize their ventures and promote the social good. The Saudi cohort forged ties with an array of advisers, mentors and, inshallah, investors who’d give them money, and they learned how to transform their nascent projects into sustainable, scalable businesses.

a4.saudi.women.labonclick.storyEvery day was packed to the rafters with activities. A typical day kicked off a one-hour breakfast talk by an expert on topics like branding, marketing and communications. There were discussions on sales, business planning, team building, negotiations, company finances and intellectual property. There were visits to organizations around Washington, such as the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, where the businesswomen held a two-hour roundtable with U.S. CEOs who do business in the Middle East, and Middle East CEOs who do business in the U.S. On the second to last day of their stay in D.C., the women presented their pitches to a full house, including Michael Ready of George Hacks, a group that organizes hackathons at the George Washington University (GW).

“We’re hosting the women tomorrow at the GW innovation center as a sort of breaking of the ice between the two countries and establishing relationships with them,” Ready told The Washington Diplomat. “We’ll try to find the resources in D.C. to help them start their ventures and to connect them with the right people to grow their mission.”

At the same time the entrepreneurs developed their business ideas and contacts, and became better acquainted with America, they were also helping America become better acquainted with Saudi Arabia.

“There were myths to be dispelled on both sides,” said Mandell. “We expected them to be very conservative and a little reserved, for instance, but they’re outgoing, dynamic, creative, very inquisitive, very engaged with everyone we introduce them to. I have to cut off every session because they have so many questions and are so interested and want to learn as much as they can. And a lot of the myths around Saudi women, not being afforded all of the opportunities they should, have not been apparent to me at all since I’ve been with them.”

A dynamic mother of three with a fourth on the way, Heba Zahid is also an assistant professor at the faculty of applied medical science at Taibah University and does research on breast cancer. She was part of a husband-and-wife team that wants to promote recycling in Saudi Arabia. She said the most important lesson she learned during her two weeks at Halcyon was that you can’t do everything by yourself.

“I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to have a happy family. I want to be a professor at the university because I love my job. I want to continue to do cancer research. The people I met here taught me that time management, asking for help when you need it and delegating to other people are all key to success,” said Zahid. 

Zahid also hoped she and the other women entrepreneurs will help to dispel some of the myths about Saudi women in general. “There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, and especially about women,” she said. “I hope we’ll be able to fix these ideas in lots of the people we’ve met.”

For instance, she said, one of the advisers she met in Washington asked her if she could get a loan from a bank, or if only her husband could. “I was like,” she explained, using expressions she picked up during previous visits to the U.S. and time spent in Australia, “Of course not. Anyone can get a loan. Your gender doesn’t matter, as long as you match the criteria.’”

Some of those misconceptions, however, are rooted in reality, particularly given Saudi Arabia’s abysmal track record on women’s rights. In the conservative Sunni kingdom, women’s lives are essentially dictated by a guardianship system, whereby their male guardian (husband, father, brother, etc.) controls whether they can marry, divorce, obtain a passport, rent an apartment or file a legal complaint, among other major life decisions. Women dress according to Islamic law, wearing an abaya (long cloak) and head covering, and are restricted from interacting with men in public, which is why universities, parks and other public spaces are usually segregated.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, has embarked on an ambitious modernization effort to moderate the role of Islam in Saudi society. He won plaudits last year for finally allowing women to drive. But he’s also jailed several prominent women’s rights activists who campaigned for the ban to be lifted. And when Canada criticized the imprisonments, the kingdom expelled the country’s ambassador in Riyadh and froze trade and investment deals with Ottawa, signaling to the world that Prince Mohammed’s reforms have their limits (see related sidebar). 

Despite the gender disparities not only in Saudi Arabia but throughout the Middle East, women in the region have, in fact, been able to make a deeper mark in the startup world than their U.S. counterparts.

One in three startups in the Arab world is founded or led by women, a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) says in a report published earlier this year. In 2013, 35 percent of entrepreneurs in the Middle East were women, compared with 10 percent worldwide, according to an article in The Economist magazine. And according to the 2016/17 Women’s Entrepreneurship Report, published by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa are 60 percent more likely than their male counterparts to offer innovative solutions and about 30 percent more likely to have an international reach. Young women in the Arab world lead startups in tech, finance and entertainment, and many women-led startups are involved in social entrepreneurship, the report says.


One reason for this is that “with the tech industry still relatively new in the Arab world, there is no legacy of it being a male-dominated field,” says the IFC report. Another reason is access to digital platforms, which means women can launch a business from home and don’t have to worry about cultural constraints, transportation, child care, discrimination and social censure, the report notes.

Halcyon actively seeks out social ventures, which Mandell defines as those that weave their social impact throughout their business plan. “These are companies whose main ideas are transformative, that improve society, whether in education, health, agribusiness, energy,” he said. “Most if not all of the women’s ventures are social enterprises in every sense. We teach them to think much bigger, so their enterprises can have a global impact.”

The two-week intensive program that the Saudi women attended is one of two summer programs run by Halcyon. A group of South Korean entrepreneurs had taken part in a similar two-week program just prior to the Saudis.

But Halcyon Incubator’s bread and butter is its 18-month fellowship, which offers a diverse cohort of fellows free residency and workspace, mentorship, leadership coaching, support from business consultants and a stipend to help them turn their entrepreneurial vision into reality. In the competitive admissions process for the fellowship, Halcyon seeks “innovative social ventures that sell a core product or service to achieve impact,” and that are scalable. Applications for next year’s fellowship opened on Aug. 15 and close on Oct. 10, with pitch day held on Nov. 13. More information is available at https://halcyonhouse.org/incubator/selection-criteria-and-process.

The Saudi Ventures at Halcyon

BitGo was inspired by the fact that kids spent a lot of time playing online games and grownups spend an almost equal amount of time trying to get them to stop. Instead of continuing this futile exercise, BitGo gamifies community service, allowing players to be the hero in a videogame that shows them the benefits of helping their communities.

“By playing the game with a personalized avatar and doing community services in the gaming world, you will soon be immersed in doing good and finding happiness in helping people you care for,” co-founders Asmaa AbdelMohsen Alabdallah, Zainab Hawsa and Nadaa Muhammad Samman say. It makes video games “more than a game,” they say.

Ebtehal Nayef AlMohammadi founded Exteer after being told one too many times by a prospective employer that she needed experience to get a job. “I’d just finished university, so how could I have experience? I stopped looking for work and set about trying to solve this problem.” The result was Exteer, which matches job seekers with certain talents and companies that can give them the experience to get a job in their chosen field. The services provided by the startup could be expanded to include job placement and recruitment.

Husband-and-wife team Heba Zahid and Hamza Moshrif founded GreenDesert to encourage the people of Saudi Arabia to recycle. “We don’t have the culture to do that,” said Zahid. “If you want to recycle cans, you have to collect them and take them somewhere. In some Saudi cities, that isn’t even possible. So we had the idea of launching an app or a website to encourage people to recycle. When you recycle something, you’ll get rewards that you can exchange in pharmacies or grocery stores or cinemas. We want to partner with shops and big companies whose stuff we use on a daily basis.”

LabOnClick is a digital platform that aims to streamline communication between dentists and dental lab technicians. “We have around 9,000 dentists in Saudi Arabia and only 80 dental labs,” LabOnClick co-founder Aliyaa Zaidan told The Washington Diplomat. “With this platform we hope to find ways to communicate with dental labs all over the world, to reduce mistakes that arise from miscommunication between dentists and labs, and possibly to allow patients to come to the dentist fewer times to have all their work done. Dentists will also be able to use the app to choose which lab they want to work with, which will help dentists in rural areas.”

Medvation was created to help kids see their ideas come to fruition, founder Sakhaa Bandar Alsaedi says. “It’s an online, interactive educational platform to teach kids everything new in AI, robotics and 3D printing. If you teach kids to think and invent something, you teach them to solve problems,” she said. The platform also sells the learning/creation tools that teachers and students need and is planning to launch a kind of food truck for innovation, a mobile “library” where kids and their families can shop for tools and kits and take part in workshops. Medvation already has 150 clients.

Taibah VR co-founders Reem Mohammad, Samar Rashed and Seham AbdulJalil spotted a business opportunity in the millions of people who visit Islam’s second holiest city, Medina, every year to participate in the pilgrimage known as the Hajj. They are looking for funding to develop a virtual reality (VR) headset that visitors can rent to learn about the history of the city and Islam. Currently, Medina has just one museum where the history of the city is presented using static models. “We asked some visitors if there were VR glasses and they no longer needed to do research about Medina, would they use them. They were very excited and encouraged us to launch.”

Wahedoon is an app that helps autistic children improve their communication skills through games and educational activities. It’s currently the only app in Arabic in Saudi Arabia. Co-founder Nouf Khalid Hammad, along with Raghad Khalid Hammad, started the venture to help the more than 500,000 children with autism in Saudi Arabia. A prototype is already on the market and has been very successful.

— Karin Zeitvogel

Saudi Women Take Halting Steps Forward

In 2004, nearly eight in 10 Ph.D.s awarded annually in Saudi Arabia went to women, and by some counts (those that included women-only colleges), women made up 75 percent of students in the kingdom, writes Eleanor Abdella Doumato in a chapter on Saudi Arabia in the 2010 book “Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance.”

These achievements came despite the fact that “the Basic Law of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not guarantee gender equality,” Doumato writes. “To the contrary, gender inequality is built into Saudi Arabia’s governmental and social structures, and is integral to the country’s state-supported interpretation of Islam, which is derived from a literal reading of the Koran and Sunna.”

Things are changing, but haltingly. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the first in line to the throne, loosened restrictions on women’s dress, expanded their role in the workforce and even allowed them to drive. The young prince said on “60 Minutes” in March that women are equal to men.

Bin Salman is also steeped in entrepreneurship and business. Before he became involved in the government, he established several companies. He served as secretary-general of the Riyadh Competitive Council, as special adviser to the chairman of the board for the King Abdulaziz Foundation and member of the board of trustees for the Albir Society. In 2013, the prince was named personality of the year by Forbes Middle East for supporting Saudi youth and their development through the MiSK Foundation, a nonprofit that, among other things, develops startups in the country through incubators.

In spite of the progress that’s been seen recently in Saudi Arabia, constraining laws still affect women, and Human Rights Watch said in a report in 2018 that Saudi authorities have “stepped up the arrests, prosecutions and convictions of peaceful dissident writers and human rights advocates” protesting some of those laws.

Among those detained at the end of July are women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, both of whom have challenged Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system and had pressed for women to be allowed to drive. A tweet by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland decrying the arrest of Badawi, who has Canadian citizenship, led to a diplomatic rift between the Saudis and Canadians that, at the time of this writing, showed no signs of being resolved.

— Karin Zeitvogel

About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.