“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
For women in the Middle East, participation in the labor force is not just about empowerment, it also makes clear economic sense. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) indicated that while women are more likely than men to graduate from universities in the MENA region, gender gaps in labor participation are at 50 percent.
Christine Lagarde, Director of the IMF noted that “for the entire Middle East and North Africa region, the gap between men and women’s participation in the labor force over the past decade was almost triple the average gap in the emerging market and developing economies. If this gap had simply been double instead of triple, the gains for the entire region, the Gulf countries included, would have been enormous almost $1 trillion in output, amounting to annual gains of about 6 percent of GDP.”
Despite these statistics and the oft-cited barriers to entry such as access to funding, a small and determined cadre of women are starting their own companies, creating jobs not only for themselves, but for countless others. Here are a few women from around the GCC that have caught media attention in this regard.
Buthaina Al Ansari
Founder and Chair, Qatariat and Senior HR Director, Ooredoo Qatar
Buthaina Al Ansari is the founder and Chairperson of Qatariat, a company that specializes in facilitating Qatari women’s workforce advancement with three segments; training and development, development consultancy, and a print publication. Al Ansari, an ardent supporter of women’s development, is also the Qatar Women Leading Change ambassador. Recognized several times for her active involvement in both commercial and not for profit spaces, Al Ansari was chosen as Entrepreneur Qatar’s 2014 Equality Enterprise Achiever at the Qatar Enterprise Agility Awards in association with Barclays, held in September of last year in Doha.
Dr. Hayat Sindi
CEO and founder, i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity, and co-founder, Diagnostics For All
“Science should become more human,” says Dr. Hayat Sindi, recently named as one of the most powerful women in Saudi Arabia, and a frequent power-lister for the MENA region. While Dr. Sindi holds a PhD in Biotechnology from Cambridge University, she’d rather be known as a social innovator and a champion of science and technology. If her impressive biography is any indication, Dr. Sindi has done it all, but says she aims to simply solve social problems with science.
Founder & CEO, Global Group
From being a homemaker to becoming a successful businesswoman in the male-dominated environment of cargo services, Bahraini national Huda Janahi bested the odds stacked against her as a woman in the closed-off logistics sector. According to Janahi, when she started her business, they rejected her license, because she was a woman. Custom’s clearance was only granted to men when she first put her application through, but fortitude of personality and a desire to succeed caused Janahi to question established custom’s regulations. “I’m proud. I changed many things in my country, because I am insistent.” From launching her company with a modest $4000, Janahi puts the current day valuation at approximately $16 million.
Maha Al Ghunaim
Vice Chairman & Group CEO, Global Investment House
Fifteen years before Sheryl Sandburg penned her New York Times bestselling book promising women worldwide that by leaning in they could unlock their greatest career potential, Maha Al Ghunaim and a handful of other trailblazing women had already ‘leaned in’ in one of the boldest ways possible - by starting their own companies in the Middle East. Al Ghunaim’s company, Global Investment House, later became the very first Kuwaiti company to list on the London Stock Exchange, and now manages a formidable US$4.3 billion in assets.
Nayla Al Khaja
Founder, D-Seven Motion Pictures
The entrepreneurial back story of the UAE’s first female filmmaker and founder of UAE-based film production company D-Seven Motion Pictures, Nayla Al Khaja, seems like a thrilling scene out of a well-scripted movie. Unconventional and passionate, Al Khaja’s description of her trek is enough to keep any audience riveted. Unlike some of the other entrepreneurs in the region, she believes being one of the few women in her field is a card played to her advantage in the UAE. Her interest in making movies was sparked by a mixture of passion for telling stories, connecting people and cultures, and “intertwining and promoting peace through film,” she explains.