If the designers of an MBA course were looking for an example of a modern, successful, entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan woman in business to use as a case study, they would surely look no further than Ambareen Musa.
The 37-year-old mother of two young children moves between homes in her native Mauritius, her adopted UAE and business centres across the world, from Australia (where she was educated) to Harvard University (where she is soon travelling for a conclave of entrepreneurs).
Her CV has blue-chip names such as Goldman Sachs, GE, Bain & Co, MasterCard and Insead on it. She is the founder of the financial website Souqalmal.com, for which she has raised millions of dollars from some of the hardest-nosed venture capitalist investors in the world.
Her business is at the cutting edge of the financial technology (fintech) sector, regarded by many as the next big thing in the world of finance.
That just about ticks all the boxes of a successful millennial career, but she also makes time to micro-manage her family life. “I’m super time-structured. I try to be at home no later than 6.30pm every day to oversee bedtime, and I’m a great believer in timetables. I’ve got school schedules, meal times and menus all over the fridge,” she says.
That single-mindedness is what has made her a wealthy woman, mainly thanks to the success of Souqalmal, the leading price comparison website in the Middle East. But that is just the latest in a line of innovative ventures in the space where financial meets digital.
Her first was in Australia, where she set up an e-commerce website, which brought her to the attention of the financial arm of the American giant GE, for whom she launched a credit card business subsequently sold to Santander of Spain.
“I wanted to jump up the career ladder so I went to Insead for an MBA, and then was offered an internship with Goldman Sachs in London, but I always really wanted to be an entrepreneur. Besides, I had a student loan to repay so I worked for Bain for a couple of years. That was a university in its own right, and I learned valuable analytical skills there. I used those when I set up the consulting arm for MasterCard in the Middle East,” she says.
By now living in Dubai, the inspiration behind Souqalmal came after she was offered a credit card from one of the big banks. “I told the bank I’d like to compare it with the others out there, and the bank said ‘well, good luck, there are so many out there you’ll probably have to call 50 banks,’ and that’s how the idea for Souqalmal came about,” she says.
She pitched the idea for Souqalmal at the ArabNet Beirut investment conference, and got some interest from venture capitalists and angel investors, in addition to her own equity commitment. Souqalmal raised its third slug of finance last year, in a US$3 million round with Hummingbird Ventures and a private investor.
The aim is to be in profit by the end of next year, about five years after starting operations. “That’s not bad for a business like ours,” she says.
“Investors want to see that you’ve put some personal money into the venture and that you have experience in that sector. I have 14 years of financial services background and start-ups, so all that was good. Would-be entrepreneurs have to show passion and commitment to potential investors.”
Websites allowing consumers to make comparisons between different financial products – credit cards, loans, mortgages and investment products – are well established in western markets, but the Middle East was many years behind the trend when she was thinking of Souqalmal in 2010.
“Yes, I’d say we were disruptive. The first bank we approached with the idea said that it was illegal. We brought huge transparency to the market, and that was a good thing. The idea was always to do it in partnership with the banks, but it took them some time to get used to that idea. Now we’ve got content partnerships with the big banks,” she says.
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Souqalmal, or money market in Arabic, brings together consumers and providers in an online marketplace. The banks and finance companies get access to its customers, while those customers are able to compare rates and terms across the banking system.
The next move was into insurance, “also a business waiting to be disrupted”, she says. Souqalmal is now the biggest car insurance aggregator in the UAE, in which users can customise their searches very specifically to get the best deals. “It’s an even more attractive business model than credit cards and loans, and is super-scaleable,” Ms Musa says.
Fintech is, of course, the flavour of the decade in financial services: at the macro end of the spectrum, with big global transaction systems such as Blockchain; and at the micro level of digital, mobile personal banking and other financial services.
“But, because it involves other people’s money, it is not the easiest place to start up. There are lots of regulatory hurdles to overcome, and it needs a shift in mindset by the industry,” she says.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi have set out their ambitions to be leaders in the fintech sector, which Ms Musa says is a good thing. “Dubai has a lead at the moment, because that’s where most of the industry already is, and where we are based. But I can see Abu Dhabi will probably become as attractive as Dubai,” she says.
Ms Musa’s other regular commitment is as a member of The National’s Debt Panel, which exists to air issues of concern among borrowers in the UAE, who can succumb to the temptations of easily available credit in a market that until recently had few credit-checking institutions.
“There is a debt problem in the UAE. You might say that Dubai itself was a debt-funded start-up that needed credit to grow over the past 40 years,” she says.
“And remember there was no Emirates Credit Bureau until three years ago, and people were deemed to be too creditworthy. They’d been ‘surfing’ on debt and got hooked to a certain lifestyle. I sense there is a greater awareness now, but there is still a job to be done to get consumers off excessive debt,” she says.
What does she see as the next phase in her dynamic entrepreneurial career? “I’m attracted to restaurants and education as sectors, which have been dramatically affected by digital technology. But I’d also like to become an angel investor, maybe back in Mauritius. I’d really like to help build the start-up community there,” she says.
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