Call for more mentors to help female entrepreneurs in the UAE

While the number of UAE women entrepreneurs is growing, a lack of female role models is hampering innovation, claims an Australian academic conducting a comparison study on the start-up ecosystem in the UAE and his homeland.

Brian Yecies is researching the rise of female entrepreneurs for the Council for Australian-Arab Relations. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Women entrepreneurs in the UAE need more female role models and mentors, says an Australian professor who is comparing the start-up environments in these countries.

Brian Yecies, a senior lecturer in media and communications at Wollongong University, along with colleagues Greg Kerr and Richard Howson, is conducting a study into the growth of women entrepreneurs and innovation hubs on behalf of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR).

Australia is keen to grow new sectors of business after the demise of mining, agriculture and traditional heavy manufacturing industries and has ramped up its start-up ecosystem to “grow new pipes of business”. So, it is looking to places such as the UAE, where “very aggressive, dynamic innovation is occurring”, says Dr Yecies.

He says that while there are plenty of women going into science, technology, engineering and maths (the Stem subjects) in the UAE compared with Australia, there is not enough support to get these women into jobs, or to become entrepreneurs.

Only 16 per cent of Stem-qualified Australians are women, according to a recent report by the office of the chief scientist, with engineering showing the largest gender gap.

Here in the UAE, half of the 10,000 Stem graduates – 90 per cent of whom were Emirati – are female, according to 2014 figures from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

But these figures slump in the start-up world. In Australia, one in four start-ups is now founded by a woman, according to Start-up Muster, up from 17 per cent five years ago. But crowd investment platform Eureeca says only 12 to 15 per cent of SMEs in the Middle East are owned by women.

Overall, the number of women working in start-ups is more positive. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 39 per cent of the 1.9 million Australians engaged in starting new businesses are women. It does not give similar figures for the Middle East but says the region has the highest rate of women entrepreneurs working in teams, at 27 per cent.

Dana Shaddad, a 31-year-old Australian of Jordanian origin, who founded innovation consultancy Imtiaz six years ago, has been helping Dr Yecies with his research. She says the UAE is a lot more “gender-aware” than many Middle Eastern countries and that the number of women entrepreneurs is growing visibly but that “girls in tech” – the backbone of most start-ups – is “still a minority globally”.

Dr Yecies says: “Men and women are given equal consideration across the ecosystem. Gender is not a consideration when backing start-up teams and projects. Rather, the emphasis is on a business case.”

“But there is a minority of women when it comes to mentors in the innovation and entrepreneurial space. It will take time to address this gender imbalance, but it remains a critical challenge.”

Ms Shaddad, however, does not believe it matters too much that there are not enough women mentors, until you climb higher up the ladder. “The whole aspect of mentorship is still a little loose in this region,” she says. “It’s often volunteered time that is unstructured.

“I strongly feel that a mentor is a mentor, just like an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur, leaving the gender aspect at the door. Being a woman cannot become the crutch we lean on.

“But women’s specific mentorship becomes more relevant when you grow and become more successful. The higher up the ladder we progress, the fewer women there are. It sometimes causes a feeling of isolation. Having a female mentor who has been on that journey might help with navigating that.”

The case for mentors is strong: Start-up Muster found that 63 per cent of all Australian start-ups used mentors, rising to 72 per cent where the founder was a women. An overwhelming 99 per cent said having a mentor was very or somewhat helpful.

In May, Dr Yecies reviewed five incubators and accelerators in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – In5, ImpactHub, Turn8, Flat6Labs and TwoFour54 – as part of the first phase of his research.

University networks and hubs such as In5 are “critical connectors”, Dr Yecies says. In5, a hub set up by Dubai’s Tecom free zone, is nurturing 100 start-ups. About Dh34 million has been raised by its start-ups in the three years since its launch.

Ms Shaddad says Australia is “massively insular in terms of its business” and can learn a lot from the UAE.

“Both are still developing and growing. The UAE is very smart. It is opening the doors to innovative business, branding the country as a business-friendly hub,” she says.

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