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Look at the startup ecosystem in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, one's amazed by the sheer presence of women-owned businesses. But they still need help on one vital aspect. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The success of GCC’s women entrepreneurs is a story that gets more inspiring with each passing year. In Saudi Arabia, the number of registered businesses owned by women surged 112 per cent last year. The UAE boasts over 25,000 businesses led by Emirati women, collectively valued at over $60 billion.

There's still much more that can be done to encourage and support female entrepreneurship in the GCC. On International Women's Day just around the corner, it's the perfect time to celebrate these entrepreneurial triumphs. At the same time, we should also explore ways to further fuel this momentum, bringing a new level of energy and innovation to the region's startup landscape.

Female empowerment in entrepreneurship

The Gulf region is witnessing a dynamic rise in women entrepreneurship, driven by strategic government policies, evolving socio-economic factors, and cultural shifts that support greater business involvement by women. Central to this are the Gulf States' Vision 2030 agendas, which aim to reduce oil dependency and invigorate the private sector, signaling a significant departure from traditional employment patterns. And highlighting entrepreneurship as an attractive career choice for women. This movement is part of a larger strategy to incorporate more women into the workforce.

Education also plays a crucial role in this transformation, with women making up a substantial portion of university graduates. The impact of this cultural shift is evident in the surge of startups led by women. As of 2023, women-founded startups make up nearly 41 per cent of all startups across the GCC. These ventures have a strong presence in pioneering sectors such as e-commerce, digital wellness, and medical technology, showcasing the vibrant and innovative spirit of women entrepreneurs in the region.

Gender inequality in venture funding

Despite these achievements, a gender gap still exists, especially in accessing venture funding. My colleagues at London Business School, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship Olenka Kacperczyk and Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Dana Kanze, have conducted research revealing these disparities.

Prof. Kacperczyk's work shows female-led startups are 63 per cent less likely to receive external funding than their male counterparts, attributing up to 35 per cent of this disparity to gender biases among investors. Prof. Kanze's studies highlight this gap widens in male-dominated industries, indicating venture investors may have a biased perception and view female entrepreneurs as better suited only for sectors traditionally dominated by women. Evidence from industry professionals confirms these disparities continue to be a challenge.

Addressing this issue is not just a matter of fairness but also sound economic strategy. The ‘GCC Women Entrepreneurship Report’ indicates that the region could boost its GDP by as much as $812 billion over the next three years by achieving holistic gender parity.

How can we effectively bridge this gap?

Firstly, establishing equal opportunities for funding and microfinancing is crucial. The business landscape, particularly within the private sector, must cultivate an environment that supports and uplifts women entrepreneurs.

It's encouraging to see that governments are actively addressing this disparity. The UAE has been at the forefront of promoting gender equality in the workforce. Since 2017, it has contributed more than $50 million to the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative fund, effectively narrowing 64 per cent of the gender gap in the UAE's workforce.

The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security places the UAE at first place in the MENA region and 22nd globally in terms of women's financial inclusion, a testament to its efforts.

Moreover, mentorship plays a pivotal role in nurturing the next generation of female entrepreneurs. In the UAE, a significant majority of women-owned businesses (77.6 per cent) are led by individuals under 40.

These entrepreneurs stand to gain immensely from the guidance of those who have already navigated the challenges of the business world and emerged successful. Initiatives like the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen Council and the Dubai Women Establishment serve as prime platforms for such mentorship, offering a space where women entrepreneurs can engage, learn, and grow.

The journey of women entrepreneurs in the GCC marks a significant chapter in the narrative of economic transformation and gender parity. As we celebrate International Women's Day, with this year's theme being ‘Inspire Inclusion’, let’s renew our commitment to creating a more inclusive and equitable business environment.

After all, inclusion is not just about opening doors; it's about transforming the space within so every woman who enters can thrive. Inspiring inclusion means creating ecosystems that welcome and value women's contributions and nurture them.

Let's commit to making their journey less of an exception and more the norm. Let's continue to break down these barriers, celebrate achievements, and work towards a future where every woman's entrepreneurial vision can flourish and the entrepreneurial landscape is as diverse as the society it serves.

We don't just inspire inclusion; we embody it, paving the way for a generation of women whose innovations and leadership will shape our world.