Women entrepreneurs tell their stories at Virtuzone

The Life: Virtuzone's most recent networking event is just for women.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - January  21, 2013.  Women entrepreneur at a breakfast meeting in Make Business Hub.  ( Jeffrey E Biteng / The National )

"Can I take your breakfast order? Scrambled eggs, crêpes, or muesli and yogurt."

It was a promising start to the Virtuzone Women Entrepreneurs Connect Breakfast at the Make Business Hub in Dubai.

Mona Ataya, a co-founder of the mother and baby store Mumzworld, also promised to be informative, speaking about how she made it as a serial entrepreneur.

Surveying the room, there was a good turnout: 50 or so women entrepreneurs - or those who wanted to be.

When Virtuzone started operations in 2009, its main business was helping small firms set up as free zone companies. But as competitors invaded its niche, it attempted to stay ahead of the game by offering additional services and creating a community in which newly fledged entrepreneurs could learn from each other, buy each others' services, and ultimately grow their businesses.

This, of course, is not entirely an altruistic endeavour. Companies that stay in business are more likely to renew their licences via Virtuzone and continue paying them for services. Companies that fold won't. The women-only breakfast came about when Virtuzone noted that more that half of the businesses registered with it were female-owned.

Ms Ataya, a skilled public speaker, did not disappoint. Her tale is "inspirational", as one lady commented afterwards.

She told her story by identifying the key choices she made at different stages of her life that set her up on the entrepreneurial track. The decision she made, fresh out of college to work really hard rather than party as a graduate trainee with Procter& Gamble in the United States; the decision to return, after four years there, to the Middle East to work in advertising; the decision to then get experience in Europe; the decision to leave her well-paid job in Switzerland at the height of the internet crash in 2000 to set up Bayt.com, an online recruitment company. She was told she was crazy.

The insights she offered were: surround yourself with a great team and learn that you will have to make compromises.

"The mistake I made was doing it on my own and it's taken time to get a good team," she said. "If I had done that from the beginning, Mumzworld would be where it is now nine months ago."

Ms Ataya is also a mother of three, so effectively she has not one but two full-time jobs. As such, it's important to realise that something has to give, she told the audience.

"If my son is playing rugby and I have a board meeting, I tell them I have to leave at 1.30. I am sure they talk about me when I leave but I am not going to miss my son's match" she said.

Fielding questions from the floor about e-commerce, she also pointed out that the market in the Middle East is not at all saturated.

Following Ms Ataya's presentation, the important business of networking commenced.

A quick survey revealed the diversity of business present and the objectives of coming to such an event.

For Alison Schofield, the co-founder of IngeniousEd, which puts together education programmes, the main benefit of these events is learning from others.

"You have to network if you are going to be a business entrepreneur, especially in Dubai because it's not easy to find information," said Ms Schofield.

"Most people [here] tend to learn things through others. I am from Canada and [there] we have a system for everything. If you want to go start a business, you go the commerce centre or wherever and they tell you about all the groups. There is no such thing here, so you have to network."

Vida Rizq, the principal founder of Aflamnah, a crowdfunding company that focuses on the creative industries in the Arab world, uses such events to find new projects.

"We spend a lot of time going to networking events and maybe 20, 30 per cent of the projects on the [Aflamnah] site have come through networking," she said. "We feel like we are getting the word out one person at a time. And face-to-face contact is really important with the concept of crowdfunding. [You meet people and think] OK I like this person, I can trust them, we can have a second conversation."