Last Thursday and Friday, Startups Galaxy had the privilege to attend the first virtual conference, third in general, for Women of MENA in Technology. However, the exciting thing is, that they were able to bring the whole global community together through one platform; Hopin (the online venue for virtual events).
11,000+ attendees gathered at the conference, not just from North Africa and the Middle East like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, and Qatar, but from all over the globe, from Japan, China, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, Germany, USA, Canada, Belarus, France, Venezuela, and Brazil. They came to network, connect, communicate, listen, and learn from each other.
What is Women of MENA in Technology?
Women of MENA in Technology is a five-year-long non-profit organization and a global brand, established in Silicon Valley with a mission to close the diversity and gender gap by connecting, mentoring, educating, and elevating MENA women in STEM globally.
It was founded by its current CEO Sepideh Nasiri, who is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with over 16 years of experience in the Tech Industry, and a life-time advocate for women, diversity, and inclusion.
According to the data presented during the conference by Nasiri, which goes back to early 2020, Women of MENA in Technology has over 35,000 community members, in 17 cities around the world, 90% of whom identify themselves as technical and self-reported as engineers, data scientists, researchers, founders, intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors.
Also, there have been around 1500+ companies that have worked with Women of MENA in Technology to enable hiring and engagement with the community. Moreover, 1,000 events and programs have been curated to date, to educate, motivate, and inspire the current and next generation of innovators and technologists over the past 5 years.
And what is the purpose of the organization & the conference?
According to Sepideh Nasiri: “Our purpose is connecting, mentoring, educating, and elevating our community globally. Wherever you live, and you’re within the STEM ecosystem; tech ecosystem, we would like to be your support system.”
Women of MENA in Technology is trying to create a safe community for the women of MENA working in STEM, to access resources, connect with mentors, and unlock career opportunities. Also, they are working on educating companies on their responsibility towards diversity and enabling women to elevate their voices globally as leaders.
They are working on achieving their goals through education, mentorship, providing career opportunities, and entrepreneurism.
The conference, throughout the 2 days, covered topics like entrepreneurship, how to build your own company, funders & powering innovation with purpose, intelligence & robotics. Also, there were workshops, mentorship sessions on entrepreneurship & funding for startups, career booths, and networking sessions.
So, what did we came up with from the conference and felt that you need to know?
Here are 3 interesting insights to take away from Women of MENA in Technology conference 2020:
1.How to help the next generation of leaders?
‘Leaders aren’t born, we are shaping, remolding, we are mentoring, we are collaborating to manifest and create people as leaders’, that’s how Sanaa Nour, morning master ceremony speaker and the one responsible for the digital marketing part in Women of MENA in Technology started her introduction for ‘Shaping the next generation of leaders’ panel.
The panel included some of the top female leads around the world, such as Hoda Gerami; Principle Product Manager worldwide robotics & operations at Amazon, Heba Sayed; Strategy Leader for Cloud & AI unit at IBM Middle East & Africa, Hoda Mansour; Managing Director at SAP Egypt & New Frontiers countries, Nora Lamoudi-Sutcliffe; Senior Account Director & Co-Lead of Women at LinkedIn, and Kamelia Aryafar; Director of Cloud Artificial Intelligence at Google.
Some of the thoughts and experiences about how to help in shaping the upcoming generations of leads revolved around closing gender gaps, women empowerment, and the best practices to lead.
Heba Sayed spoke about how to help the leaders of the next generations, and the importance of setting role models, by saying: “I think when we were younger, I think I can speak for everyone in the world, we didn’t have role models; someone to look up to, it was really male-dominated, we had to be our own heroes. So, we have to take time out of our busy schedules and be out there. I think it’s a responsibility that we have towards the younger generations; I think it’s individuals’ responsibility; I think individuals have more impact.”
Hoda Gerami had an interesting addition to what Sayed said, as she talked about how mentorship helped her personally, and how her mentors assisted her every time she had a question or didn’t know how to tackle a certain situation.
As for the subject of the importance to close the gender gap, Hoda Mansour commented on this by explaining to the panel what they do at SAP, saying that they have in every country or group of countries ‘businesswomen network’ where they try to promote women and try to promote women not only between themselves but also to get them on board and help them understand the value of diversity and value of supporting women within your organization.
She talked also about using a forum to exchange ideas and experiences from other women leads within the organization or generally as well.
Hoda Gerami added to the subject, saying: “I think that the problem is one that needs to be systematically fixed, and at the same time, there is a lot of responsibility on all of us.”
Gerami explained some of the methods and actions they do at Amazon to ensure that there are inclusion and diversity. She said that, within her team, she makes sure that the people interviewing others for jobs must take inclusion and diversity training. Another great example she mentioned was of people within the company who is responsible for creating a panel of people who would interview a candidate, they must make sure that there is one woman as part of this interviewer list.
When it came to the subject of empowering women, Kamelia Aryafar commented on this saying: “empowering women across the board requires systematic change, but I think as individuals we can still have some impact.”
Based on her own experience, Aryafar said: “What I have tried to do in my own career is try to set a stage so I can involve other women and have a mentor relationship with some of them, or just they can reach out. Within our groups, with senior leaders like ourselves, from the things I have seen that have impacted, is talking about our own experiences and making sure people know who we are and what we do.”
As for leadership and the best practices to lead teams, Heba Sayed talked about how important it is to understand the different types of people that we work with, how they like to talk, and giving them a way to express themselves. She said that they need to feel empowered; that you have to give them a voice and create new spaces for them so they can share their points of view.
2. Pros & cons of being an entrepreneur & building your own company:
Being an entrepreneur and building your own company, is one of the hardest roles out there that you can choose because you get very passionate about one idea, but you also have to learn all of the other roles like you have to learn about pricing, marketing, finance, customer service, HR, leadership, and so on.
That’s why Eileen Brewer; Director of Takween Accelerator and the moderator of “Building a company: The Good, The Bad and The Purpose” panel asked her fellow participants in the panel, saying: “why would you choose that? why did you choose to be an entrepreneur vs. something else you could have done? I train entrepreneurs, invest in them, I listen to hundreds and hundreds of pitches, I coach and mentor entrepreneurs and I am not an entrepreneur because it is the hardest.”
Nooshin Behroyan; Founder and CEO at Paxon Energy & Infrastructure Services answered Brewer’s question saying: “Well that’s the beauty of it, working in an abstract environment; the beauty of having faith in yourself. Even if you are still afraid, you will do it anyway. You are leading with curiosity, you are leading while learning. Being an entrepreneur is almost like when you have to become a teacher on a specific subject, then you have to teach yourself first. So I just love the learning aspect of it.”
Besides what Behroyan said, Shadee Barkan; Senior Vice President of Global Partnerships at 2U, Inc. added that you realize that you don’t need to be the expert in everything, all that you need is to be able to trust your peers and developing a good relationship with them.
Moving on to talk about what is the best part of running a company and business, Roya Mahboob; Co-founder & CEO of Digital Citizens Fund said: “When you have your own business, you have the power to control the situation; you are independent. I think the best thing for me is that I can offer opportunities for many women to work with me.”
“There is something very empowering for women when you are running your own business”, Shadee Barkan added. She continued on by saying “to be able to drive the level that you need to and to have that full scope of authority as opposed to being in a position where you are referring to other leaders, for me that really unlocked a level of confidence and also courage. For me, that is so life-changing in terms of how you elevate yourself in your career.”
Moreover, all of these inspiring leads, and CEOs shared some of the most valuable lessons they learned throughout their careers. An interesting one by Shadee Barkan, was “listen to learn, not to react.”
She went on to explain that you need to listen to learn, take the time, and have the patience to truly understand what your employees are saying, what your clients are saying, and what your product team is trying to tell you, just to fully absorb and to take in that information. Barkan added: “one of the shifts I made early in my career and it really helped me, is just to pause sometimes and listen to learn. That will allow you to make better decisions, as opposed to just quickly reacting.”
3. Funding in the MENA region
One of the interesting panels at the conference was a panel under the name “The New Wave of Funders; Empowering Innovation with Purpose”. The panel participants spoke about the availability of capital, and the changes in the diversification of the sources of capital like investors. The panel included some of the brilliant minds in the MENA region such as Sharif El-Badawi; Managing Partner at +VC (Plus Venture Capital), Laila Hassan; Principal at 500 Startups, and Tala Al Jabri; Partner at HOF Capital.
Sharif El-Badawi, the moderator of the panel, started the panel with a q question saying: “How do you think the funding environment is evolving now?”
Tala Al Jabri contributed to this question by saying “I think it’s really interesting and exciting what’s happening today, at least in the region what we have seen over the last few years is people participating in many more rounds.” She went on by speaking about how difficult it was to get capital before, particularly in the pre-seed stage, in comparison with nowadays, where there are at least half a dozen Ventures Capitals that have been deploying serious money in those stages.
According to Al Jabri, what has been driving a lot of VC activity is the fact that a lot of VC activities are actually linked back to the economic objectives of different countries, which is the case in Saudi Arabia, Khaleej, the UAE, Bahrain, and so forth. She said “I think when the government enabled that kind of activity, either by funding the startups themselves or by funding the VCs, that is only going to get activity up. I think the fact that we have a more diverse consortium of investors, whom I find is quite collaborative, despite the increase of competition, is actually very hopeful because I think it will raise the bar not just for VCs to show how they can add value, but also for the wider ecosystem.”
El-Badawi added to Al Jabri’s talk, he said, “in terms of what we are seeing and evolution, over the last 5 years just here in the MENA region, there are many more VCs than there were before.”
Going forward, El-Badawi added an important insight and question, “There were clear funding gaps before, but now it is recorded that there are over 200 investors investing in the region, do you guys still think we have gaps? And if so, what are those gaps?”
“Definitely I think that my people have become a lot more comfortable with this asset class, so the early pre-seed gap stage is getting fulfilled”, that’s how Laila Hassan replied to El-Badawi. However, she went on “What I see now is a gap in VCs that lead rounds. Honestly, I feel in the region the people who are doing deals are only a handful, and there is the concept of willing to put in money but putting for the leads, so I feel that this area still needs to be addressed.”
Another discerning point the panel discussed was diversifying investors. El-Badawi started by saying: “One of the things I have noticed and I want to get your perspective on it, is in terms of diverse investors; diversifying investors from the gender perspective and representation of the population. We are seeing some changes happening in the region, what do you guys see here in the Middle East?
Laila Hassan replied based on her experience, she said: “If I reflect, I remember when I first started joining the VC like 3 or 4 years ago, the VCs were very little in Egypt, like there were 3 or 4 and they were all males. So definitely from the investors’ side, it’s really great to start seeing females joining this side of the equation. Definitely, I started seeing some progress there.”
However, she added: “But again when we see VC, I have the same experience with private equity as well and investment banking, so I think it takes time to bring in females to those different asset classes.”
After many informative panels, workshops, fireside conversations, and sessions, Sepideh Nasiri ended the conference by saying “One request I have of you if not anything else, is to share with everyone what you learned; Share with everyone the connections you made today, and of course, share with everyone what Women of MENA in Technology is all about.’
Hopefully, we transferred to you some of the knowledgeable insights from the conference that can help you, your business, and network.
To many more conferences ahead, Women of MENA in Technology.