On Monday, March 12, the AUIS Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted the event, “Assessing Women’s Entrepreneurial Potential in the Aftermath of the Kuwait Conference” as a follow-up to the inaugural IRIS Dialogues held the previous day. The event was designed to be an open discussion to share ideas about increasing women’s participation in Iraq’s entrepreneurship sector.
The discussion was led by Christina Andreassen, Business Development and Education Manager at WOMENA, a Dubai-based angel investment platform geared toward female entrepreneurs in the MENA region; Aziz Al-Nasiri, CEO of Noah’s Ark, an online initiative to foster entrepreneurship in Iraq; and Zahra Shah, Program Manager at Iraq re:coded, a humanitarian startup that trains conflict affected youth with tech and entrepreneurship skills. It also included input from a range of female entrepreneurs, including Hero Mohammad (Helena Hub), Ghareba Hussain (Nujin), Fatima Muhammad (Tech Teens), Talar Noore (World Wide Business Management), and Ava Nadir (Zain Iraq), in addition to representatives of NGOs and the private sector.
The discussion began with an overview of the entrepreneurial scene in the UAE and obstacles and opportunities to applying aspects of the model there to entrepreneurship and women’s participation in Iraq. The discussion fostered a debate about the unique challenges Iraqis and particularly female Iraqi entrepreneurs face and how they can be overcome using existing models or locally developed solutions.
According to the participants, female entrepreneurs in Iraq face a twofold challenge: one in navigating the issues that affect growth of the entrepreneurial sector as a whole and one in overcoming the gap between men and women’s participation in entrepreneurship. Despite high rates of education, especially among women, Iraq faces systemic issues including a lack of middle class, limited use of the latest technology and an education system that fails to foster innovative ideas, brain drain, difficulties in financing, ethical issues such as corruption, lack of customized training programs relevant to Iraqi issues, and cultural issues such as risk aversion and hesitancy to work in teams.
One female entrepreneur sensed people felt a lack of trust toward women, and another noted that she had hired a male CEO because she thought he would attract more business. While some gender-specific issues impeding women’s participation can be alleviated through a variety of outreach and advocacy campaigns through media and education, the government and private sector needed to take active roles in making the ecosystem more amenable toward entrepreneurship broadly and female entrepreneurs specifically. In particular, reforms to investment laws, the establishment of venture funds and coworking spaces, and coordination between government ministries, banks, private sector actors, and chambers of commerce to improve private sector conditions could make a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs. In addition, requirements that entrepreneurs have a sponsor (kafeel) to start their own business and lengthy bureaucratic procedures to acquire a loan are just two examples of potential areas of reform.
Given the short length of the discussion, the participants decided that the best way to continue fostering a more entrepreneurship-friendly private sector with greater opportunities for women was to maintain a sustained dialogue in the aftermath of the roundtable.
Special thanks to Womena for partnering with us on their Women of MENA Campaign and raffling off tickets to two of our participants for the STEP Conference held in Dubai from March 28-29.