When the Saudi consultant Khalid Alkhudair advised his client, a leading supermarket franchise, to hire women in 2010, he knew he was stirring controversy in the kingdom.
The recruitment of 16 women at Panda supermarket made headlines globally, sparking discussions over Saudis’ perceived taboo about the employment of women in public venues.
But since its inception in 2011, Mr Alkhudair’s start-up, Glowork.net, has generated 11,000 jobs for Saudi women. It has found ways for women to work at home and is now looking at women-only business hubs.
"We saw a gap between the labour market and female seekers in the kingdom," Mr Alkhudair said at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Abu Dhabi last week. "The issue wasn't that there weren't any jobs, but that employers don't know how to find women."
It is a measure of Glowork.net’s success that the Saudi software company SAS Holding last month acquired a 51 per cent stake in Glowork.net for US$16 million. The money will be invested in the firm over the next few years.
Glowork.net has also secured a contract from the Saudi ministry of labour, which wants to pare unemployment benefits expenditure of 2.4 billion riyals (Dh2.34bn).
According to the ministry, women comprise 1.2 million of 1.6 million job seekers.
Mr Alkhudair’s contract requires him to screen, interview and prepare women ahead of the interview process. His company gets paid for every candidate who finds a job.
“We got access to the database of all unemployed women in the kingdom and started working with the ministry of labour in a public partnership, as well as acting as an adviser in drafting regulations that encourage the employment of women,” Mr Alkhudair said.
When he started his business in 2011, it was a women-focused online portal to connect job seekers with companies. He gradually grew the business by targeting companies to advertise jobs specifically for women.
"We identified sectors that hadn't been targeted before, for example SMEs," Mr Alkhudair said. "We found that SMEs wanted to hire women, but the segregation law was an obstruction.
“Women have to be hired in a separate office, with a separate wall, doors, entrances, making it unfeasible to hire one or two women in a small SME.”
Mr Alkhudair today helps more than 150 women a month find jobs. And Glowork.net participated in a career fair that resulted in more than 500 women being hired over two days.
The company has expanded to include “online office portals” that allow women to work from home yet be monitored by their employers.
“We wanted to do something that eases the mind of the Saudi men, because when you approach change you need to do it in a systematic manner,” Mr Alkhudair said. “The way we approached it was by arguing that only a small percentage of Saudis own their own homes, and this is due to a limited income in the household.
“When a woman is making money, even if it’s little, and her husband sees that she’s working, emailing, speaking on the phone with men, within a year or two, he understands the value of what she’s doing. “He’ll say: ‘Get out into the workplace, we need to start getting you to make more money, we need to grow and build a family together’.”
Over the next three months, Glowork.net will be testing the efficiency and competitiveness of women in the office and at home via the company’s online office portals.
If the study shows that women are more productive at home, the ministry is prepared to invest in office hubs across the kingdom that would be leased out to local and foreign organisations to provide workplaces for women.
Mr Alkhudair said his firm would be launching a pilot scheme in the kingdom in the next couple of months. “If this works out, the idea is to build centres in different cities and rural areas. These centres would be managed and operated by the ministry of labour and they would rent out certain sections to companies that hire women,” he said.