Female entrepreneurs in the MENA region: Education as a lever for success

female entrepreneurs

Article by Dr. Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, Associate Professor in Entrepreneurial Leadership and Diversity at HEC Paris in Qatar, a member of Qatar Foundation

Education is a lever for economic participation for everyone – in most cases it is viewed as the gateway to professional growth.

Increasingly, we are seeing more women entrepreneurs and an increasing representation in new sectors that drive innovation and growth. The Middle East’s entrepreneurial climate is growing at an exponential rate, supported by the Qatar National Vision 2030’s objectives to diversify the economy. With its geographical location accessible to many markets, it’s becoming a hub of innovation and future-orientated advancement. In the last 3.5 years, 21% of women in Qatar are reported to be entrepreneurs with established businesses. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia one in three tech firms is headed by a woman, a higher proportion than Silicon Valley.

From my own personal experience as Associate Professor and Academic Director at HEC Paris in Qatar, I see how the economic infrastructure, education and culture incorporates history.

Access to innovative thinking through education is essential. Qatar’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is closely aligned with education opportunities, from innovative thinking being taught in schools, to entrepreneurial mindsets being taught across different Universities in Qatar. The high proportion of female undergraduates creates a foundation for nurturing entrepreneurial thinking and confidence for women. This also means getting comfortable with taking risks, creating a tolerance for mistakes and learning from failure.

Blending academic learning with real-world experience

Learning from one’s surroundings plays a fundamental role in building innovative and agile entrepreneurs. Contrary to the myth of graduates launching businesses, successful entrepreneurs build experience by working in industry for many years. This approach allows individuals to gain invaluable transferrable skillsets and strengthen the confidence in their capabilities that they can take forward into their start-up endeavours.

Entrepreneurship programs offered by Universities and Business Schools are most effective when they are pragmatic, providing students with the opportunity to problem-solve, ideate and develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Exposing students to entrepreneurs who share their failures as well as success is highly valued. Through exposure to real-world issues within a workplace, such as time management and team management, students can gain practical problem-solving skills that can drive innovative solutions. Entrepreneurs also have higher levels of internal motivation and the ability to bounce back from failure.

Countries in the Middle East are innovating and strengthening entrepreneurial activity at a phenomenal pace, and it is necessary to have women as strong players in this ecosystem. Creating connections and collaborations strengthens the potential and resources for female entrepreneurs to access to resources and overcome barriers that have historically inhibited business growth amongst this group.

The role of failure in developing entrepreneurial spirit

Strong education provides confidence in individual capabilities, and this can be cultivated for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are strong by virtue of their willingness to overcome barriers and failure. At the core we are talking about growth mindset and cultivating a culture of learning from failure. Entrepreneurship education has a responsibility to normalise failure as an integral part of business start-up and to create opportunities to learn from failure and improve the quality of thinking for the next set of challenges.

I have seen the strongest creativity among female entrepreneurs comes when they have a strong sense of purpose to make big impactful changes. When you focus on big impact then you create space for small failures as part of the process, failing fast and recovering is key to entrepreneurial success. Women are particularly good and creating connections, asking for help and using these resources for support.

Middle East and North Africa (MENA) universities / business schools as entrepreneurial hubs for women

As the MENA region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem evolves, it is quickly becoming a hotspot for women to flourish – providing them with a foundation of skills and networks needed to thrive.

The root of this foundation is education. At the forefront of Qatar’s universities is the need to invest in innovative ways of teaching, to ensure the syllabus is adapting to the current climate and equipping students with advanced skillsets to handle the challenges of the future. The degree programs at HEC Paris in Qatar, Masters and EMBA, integrate gender diversity and encourage entrepreneurial thinking as a critical leadership skill. Through our business start-up programs, we endeavour to break down gender barriers and provide a safe and conducive environment for women to grow and explore their potential as an entrepreneur.

Being part of the Qatar Foundation (QF) and the evolving entrepreneurship ecosystem empowers women to become more comfortable with different forms of entrepreneurship, identify different ways to launch their businesses, and convert their ideas into reality. Through our network, QF has supported various projects as part of initiatives such as Stars of Science, to help alumni navigate the competitive business landscape and develop their own ideas. In 2020, Qatari female inventor, Eiman Al-Hamad, reached the final of the competition for her fraud detection innovation in the Arabic language. Having studied a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in internet security, Eiman is an example of a student who is able to channel her expertise through the network of support provided by QF and bring her idea to life.

As a part of the Qatar Foundation network, female entrepreneurs can connect with one another, as well as learn from unique role models who can offer guidance and resources.  HEC Paris in Qatar has been working with other Universities in Qatar to participate in programs to support entrepreneurial activities for students, with plans to develop these initiatives further. We also create opportunities for female entrepreneurs to become part of an international network, through HEC Paris initiatives such as Female Entrepreneurs 4 Good where entrepreneurs pitch at the Global Women’s Forum in Paris.

Globally, female entrepreneurship is high, and growing at a fast rate. Entrepreneurial women create opportunities for economic participation, flexibility, and the opportunity to create solutions to problems often overlooked.

The MENA region is no exception. Qatar’s female entrepreneurs are contributing to a new pathway within the country’s job market by generating employment opportunities for both men and women alike. With high expectations for growth, these businesses are contributing towards empowering women in Qatar and the wider MENA region, as well driving the country’s start-up ecosystem and diversification of the wider economy and workforce – overall, building a generation of dynamic leaders.

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