Elissa’s Keynote at SME Beyond Borders Conference

Our Co-Founder Elissa Freiha was invited to give a keynote address at the SME Beyond Borders Conference in Dubai last year. She joined top executives from the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Raiffeisen Bank in a session titled “Finance Beyond Borders – An International Solution”. To an audience composed of investors, government officials and senior management, Elissa addressed the issues facing both investors and startups in the Middle East, namely finance and education, both of which are key to WOMENA’s mission.

In entrepreneurship, it’s all about the dream.

In business, it’s all about the money and the deals.

In success, it’s all about the drive.

There is, however, one more thing they all need to be about in order to secure sustainability: Differentiation.

Differentiation is one of those challenges we all need to face:

How will you stand out from the crowd?

In a world where ideas are a dirham a dozen, where anyone can learn what you do in about half the time with a quick Google search on their browser – How will you be noticed by consumers and investors alike?

How can you guarantee that you will stay ahead of the game?

Differentiation is the one challenge that inspires innovation. It is what will make your dream come true, bring deals to the table, and drive you further than you ever imagined.

How many of dream of progress?

How many of you dream of making the world a better place? How many of you dream of having or are convinced that you have the next disruptive technology or initiative that will directly contribute to the amelioration of quality of life for millions of people on the planet?

Right, that last one is a bit far out.

But they do say dream BIG, Right?

Ok, So let’s start small and work our way up:

What do you need to live? To survive?

What will make you happy?

Now, how can those two things be brought together?

Then, when you think you have your answer you ask the hardest thing of all:

What will make this endlessly inspiring so that you can do it with all the determination in the world day in and day out as all entrepreneurs know is the way?

These are questions all entrepreneurs should ask themselves. And these are the questions my best friend and I asked ourselves 18 months ago, on a summer’s night, under the moonlight, somewhere in the waters between Greece and Turkey.

What we came up with was the basic skeleton for what WOMENA is today. Thank god for that because what we first had would not have carried us, as inspired and determined as we are now, over the hurdles that we have faced and will continue to face for years. So here is the story, here is our process; here is the how and the why of WOMENA.

Firstly, we identified a global need: Financing.

Not funds, we all know there are more than enough funds. But those funds are not being used appropriately. It is the financing of ideas and businesses that is not being addressed. Because as things stand in this region, most people find financing through friends and family, government entities like the Khalifa Fund or Banks.

Secondly, we identified a regional need: Education.

Currently, investors come from friends and family who invested out of guilt or trust and didn’t necessarily think about returns or put in the time, or the due diligence that was needed. Higher returns come from higher due diligence.

The other side of education was educating the SMEs and entrepreneurs. The SMEs needed strategic investors, they don’t just need funding they need smart funding and this is something that really needs to be emphasized in the region. Most entrepreneurs fear that by having investors outside of their family and friends or outside of a bank, they must give up equity and therefore must give up decision making power. Which is not at all the case.

A massive amount of education is needs to be brought in on the sides of the entrepreneurs.

And Finally we identified our personal need: Our need to make an Impact.

The first thing that came to mind at this point was the trickle down effect of finance. Managing to spread the wealth and spread the knowledge. An average angel investment creates an average of four jobs, so you can imagine that if every single person in this room made one angel investment, the amount of impact that that would have on the community would be incredible.

So this was it. This was our basic structure that we came up with that summer night. And it was good. But it wasn’t…different.

It was how we’d achieve our dream, It was how we were going to make our deals and how we were going to maintain our drive. But there wasn’t that differentiation. So what we’ve seen is that angel groups exist everywhere, and they can exist in the UAE, and why not? But what we saw was that they were quite corporate and unattractive to a young demographic. And when you have a younger demographic like you do in a lot of the middle eastern countries certain structures can sometimes deter people from looking into a side of business that they otherwise wouldn’t have gone into. The other side of it, was the female side. Coming to the UAE and going to the few meetings that angel groups would have here I quickly saw that I was the only woman, or one of two in the entire room. This is not for lack of availability, after all 50% of the population is women, in fact, 22% of the regions wealth is controlled by women. And although women are a minority in finance and in the business world, they are NOT incapable. You find that 78% of all startups that are funded are run by men, 22% are women, Women in the work place tend to earn an average of 15% less however, women entrepreneurs tend to earn an average of 15% more than their male counterparts.

All you needed was a few people to step up, to streamline the process, and with a determined eye, build a platform. And that what we did.

Women are more interested in people development, so, we focused on the service side of it. We made an angle group that knows, every single member and every single member is interested in the amelioration of the other members. We help every company that we fund through it’s entire process, because we care about the companies that we fund and their success whether we, as individuals, were a direct investor in them or not.

Angel investing offers a great solution to the work-life balance problem. A lot of times in corporate environments you see that as women go up the ladder, they tend to drop off. That, lot of people claim, is because they tend to start families and have children and don’t have necessarily the same time. OR they don’t work in the companies that provide the right resources to allow them to balance both. Angel investing allows for that.

It allows for you to go to your daughter’s recital, it allows for you to work on your hobbies or your business idea, it also allows you to come to your meetings once a month or once a quarter and invest and meet with like-minded individuals.

What WOMENA is specifically and what we’ve created, is a women-only angel group. The investors are women because they needed this safe space, they needed to get away from the intimidating atmosphere of the corporate world and perhaps some condescension and perhaps voice their concerns, and voice their ideas in that atmosphere.

We focus on investments in the MENA region. We don’t necessarily focus on women entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs are just as capable as male entrepreneurs, especially in the region. And since it’s such a diversified population in the UAE, we can’t specifically close ourselves off to companies just in the UAE. Members and Angel investors, tend to want to invest locally and regionally. So you have to open up your borders and you have to open yourself up to investments in Morocco, and Egypt and Jordan and Lebanon. This created a few problems for us. In that, how can you bring all your investors from one place in the world and have them invest in a bunch of other places that may have different laws, different cultural norms and different repercussions for certain actions. Well, we were able as a manager-led organization, to streamline the entire investment process for our members, we give them a stronger negotiating position and we allow them to be able to invest in these companies with greater ease and relaxation than they would otherwise.

They don’t have the headache of having to go through a lot of the paperwork and having to go between their husbands and their neighbors and their fathers and their bankers and their lawyers. They come to us, they bring who they like, and the terms are already set.

At WOMENA we really stress the idea of sharing wealth and wealth of knowledge. Our members benefit from diversification, high level deal flow, the standardized process which makes it much more efficient, and working and networking with like-minded women, all accomplished, all inspiring.

We focus on collaboration, and not competition. We focus on bringing all the different fragmented entities together so that financing is more easily accessible to SMEs and startups. We focus on investing in your dreams, we focus on investing in the deals, and we focus on investing in the driven people.

And in the end, that’s an investment in making a difference. Thank you.

Ladies Who Launch