Sahar Madani, founder of the Women Empowerment Group, which is based in Dubai and aims to help female entrepreneurs in the Gulf. Image Credit: Francois Nel /Gulf News

Dubai Contrary to popular perception, female entrepreneurs have been at the forefront of the UAE's small business space as much as their male counterparts. It has been particularly so since 2008 when a host of factors, both macro-economic and personal, came together to create opportunities for women to get into business.

The newly created Women Empowerment Group aspires to be something more than a networking platform for successful female-owned businesses.

According to Sahar Madani, founder of the not-for-profit entity, the intention is to live up to its name, particularly the ‘empowerment' part.

"Our focus is much more than generating opportunities for businesses for the women in the Gulf," she said.

"We aim to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and improve the quality of life by creating awareness and empowering them with equal opportunities.

"Women's empowerment is an ongoing process rather than a product. One does not arrive at a stage of being empowered in some absolute sense.

Gulf-wide exposure

"For anyone can be empowered, or disempowered, relative to others or relative to themselves from a previous time."

A start has been made with more than 300 members having signed up. There is an operating board that has been tasked with seeing it through the crucial launch phase.

While the launch took place in the UAE, the founders want to scale up the operations immediately and give the entity a Gulf-wide exposure. That may well provide it with a more receptive audience given that women-owned businesses are less prolific there than in the UAE.

"The primary obstacle is access to capital for the business venture, where aspiring women entrepreneurs lack knowledge of the funding options available," Sahar said. "Then, there is little knowledge of the processes of accessing funds. Because of this, women's access to regional markets is limited.

"As per our research, some aspiring women entrepreneurs lack the self-confidence necessary to overcome the challenges they face in securing investment in their start-ups. Therefore, the issue is not just about access to capital, but also about how to manage it.

"Our role is to empower women in all of these, besides facilitating their information base and overall knowledge."

Access to start-up capital remains the most difficult part of the entire process, according to the co-founders of a recently launched e-commerce portal. They had to do the rounds of many a potential lender's offices before finally getting one to sign up.

Even then, they still could not get the loan amount they were hoping for and ended up having to use more of their own equity ahead of the launch.

Then there is the other hurdle, which is just as steep.

"Even though everyone says that it's a low-interest rate regime now, it wasn't the case with us," said one of the founders. "While there's always a premium attached to loans for new businesses, it can easily prove a heavy burden if the business does not generate enough volumes in the initial period."

Making a difference

While it offers no instant formula to alleviate all such concerns, the Women Empowerment Group believes it can still make a difference through the simple process of peer networking. Members can also get advice provided by professional speakers, CEOs and established business owners.

"We believe in participatory methods for empowerment," said Madani. "The participatory process of identifying constraints allows members to reflect on their situation and develop their awareness."

And if they become sufficiently empowered from doing so, the purpose would have been served.