Saudi women seize start-up culture with both hands

Saudi Arabia is making the transition to a more diverse economy, having been dependent on oil for much of the last century – a trend sparked by Vision 2030 as well as commitments made at the COP26 summit last month.

As giants like Aramco and Sabic continue to dominate the economy, a corporate culture is taking hold as more young people start their own businesses.

And contrary to international perceptions, it is Saudi women who play a major role in this new era.

As many as 17.7% of Saudi women started or ran a business in 2020, according to a report released last month by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a London-based data group that tracks startups around the world. This is considerably higher than the global average of 11 percent of women who start a business.

The report also noted that more than 30 percent of Saudi women intended to start a business within the next three years; and that, compared to men, women were “more likely to act according to these intentions”.

GEM claims that these measures are supported by “recent government policies and interventions aimed at supporting women entrepreneurs in the Kingdom”.

Nouf Al-Qahtani, the owner of the NSHQ perfume chain, is one example. Al-Qahtani went into business in 2005, repackaging and reselling their fragrance collection.

Her startup took her from the souks of Kuwait to essential oil merchants in France and Italy, and a loan of SR 300,000 ($ 80,000) from the Prince Sultan Fund enabled her to launch her first boutique in Alkhobar in 2015.

Today she runs three perfume shops in Alkhobar and Riyadh with a staff of 14, while a fourth outlet is on the way.

“It’s easier for Saudi women to go into business now,” Al-Qahtani told Arab News.

She adds: “A lot of businessmen in Saudi Arabia didn’t even want to talk to a single woman when I started my business. They would say, “Come back with your father or your brother and we’ll talk to him.

“But now Saudi women are more powerful. They encourage each other and even the mentality of Saudi men has changed. If they start a business, they want a female partner. You know why? Because she will work harder, she will do her best to prove herself and she will be more organized.

Al-Qahtani attributes this cultural shift to reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

She says, “I love the way he makes Saudi citizens, and especially women, believe in themselves and their national identity. Previously Saudi consumers only wanted imported products – now they really care about local producers like me. “

Abeer Al-Hashim, the owner of the Nine Soft Serve ice cream store chain, is another woman who started more or less from scratch and went on to bigger things.

Starting with a single mobile unit based in Alkhobar in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province in 2018, Al-Hashim now operates six outlets, four in Riyadh and two in Alkhobar.

Al-Hashim agrees that the situation has improved rapidly for female entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia.

She says: “Five years ago it was very difficult for women to have an independent life and run an independent business.

“The whole business process is now easier, especially in terms of technology applications: it’s so easy to communicate with government online, and as a woman you no longer need a man to. speak on your behalf. “

Al-Hashim was recently approached by Monsha’at – the General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises – who told her that her product was ideal for franchising. He then provided Al-Hashim with advice and resources to expand her business locally and internationally, including putting her in touch with a franchise consulting firm.

This is an example of the Saudi government’s new proactive approach – a radical departure from the red tape and excessive delays that faced anyone doing business in the Kingdom.

“We have such official support,” Al-Qahtani says, “and that’s something I’m very proud of. “

Language and Learning Stimulation Center, Jeddah: Established by Rana Mirza in 2012 to help children with language impairments

Rana Mirza, who faced successive obstacles in establishing her language and listening stimulation center in Jeddah for children with learning disabilities in 2012, wishes she had reaped the benefits that the founders of Startups are now taking Saudi Arabia for granted.

Mirza said: “I had to pay a man to keep track of all the documents in the different government offices, but now I can do everything on my own. And government online services save a tremendous amount of time and energy as you no longer have to go to a physical office. Everything is online.

This is an important factor for Mirza, whose 40-employee center requires numerous official licenses to provide a range of language and psychological therapies.

These businesswomen have their own clear message for other women considering a new startup.

“I would advise her to believe in herself,” Al-Qahtani said. “If she believes in herself, others will believe in her too. “

Al-Hashim said, “You cannot start something without a feeling of passion. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, you’re wasting your time.

Mirza’s advice is more practical: “Try to have knowledge of management, quality control, finance and customer service before starting your business. I learned this the hard way. It’s not just about your passion, it’s about craftsmanship.

These three entrepreneurs are a testament to the fact that there are significant opportunities for anyone, man or woman, who benefits from the emerging business culture in Saudi Arabia.

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