Elissa Freiha on helping female-led start-ups in the UAE attract investors
The UAE government has set goals for the country to become one of top 25 countries for gender equality in the world by 2021— a goal that it would struggle to achieve if not for people like Elissa Freiha. The Emirati-Lebanese businesswoman is the founder of Womena, a platform aimed at empowering women by attracting investors to invest in new female-led start-ups.
“We are getting there!” laughs Freiha when asked about the astounding success Womena has had on women since it started in 2014. For more than five years it has dedicated itself to the goals of supporting more women in business, more women investors and a more inclusive, diverse, and consequently booming ecosystem—helping it become the largest women-empowerment platform in the Middle East.
“I work in female inclusion, and therefore my industry is essentially all industries,” Freiha explains. But while female representation still lags behind on a global scale, Freiha is conscious that the GCC region has its own specific obstacles to clear.
“Parts of this region are definitely ready to accommodate the work we do, especially when it comes to economic growth and female inclusion in the economy,” she says, “however, what we are working on is the inclusion of women from a wide variety of backgrounds and industries in decision-making positions, because true innovations come from a diversified viewpoint. This region is different and it requires a difference in mindset to overcome the difficulties that we all face.”
We sat down with Freiha as part of Esquire’s 10 for the next 10 issue. You can read the whole interview below.
What is Womena?
The largest women-empowerment platform in the Middle East. It is driven by the goal to increase the role of women in society. We work with female changemakers to tell their stories by supporting their companies and missions by helping them produce media to transmit their message.
We also have an accelerator program designed to support female-led start-ups, it is our flagship program that runs over four months, assisting women across the Middle East to grow their businesses until they are investable and they we get them in front of the biggest investors here in Dubai.
What is the most pressing issue in your industry?
What is interesting is that my industry is actually all industry, because what I work in female inclusion within any industry, specifically female inclusion in business or female inclusion in areas that pursue change. This includes law, technology, health care, fashion – women are a minority it too many industries. For me the biggest issue is being able raise awareness of the gender issue, and perhaps consider having a gender lense when looking at growing their teams, or bringing on new suppliers because unconscious biases do exist and building up that awareness is key to making a change.
What is the most rewarding thing about what you do?
Getting to work with the entrepreneurs that we work with, and watching them evolve and grow as a direct response from the advice that my team does – watching them develop into ‘boss ladies’ at the end of these programs.
That’s what I say about women empowerment the whole time… “we are getting there!”
How important are the roles of nationality and gender in your work?
Gender is very clearly a large part of the work that I am doing. Making people aware of gender biases in society, but that is also applicable to nationalities. True innovation will come from a diversified viewpoint, diversified problem solving and that can only be achieved through a mix of cultural, political, religious and gender experiences – that is what creates unique solutions.
Do you think this region is ready for the change you are wanting to make?
Parts of this region are definitely ready to accommodate some of the work that we do – especially when it comes to economic growth and female inclusion in the economy. The region doesn’t really have a choice but to include women as they need that at a core level for economic growth.
I am aware that the UAE is very much in a bubble when it comes to female empowerment is very much at the forefront of the modern culture. But in the wider parts of the region you still do see a reluctance to give women basic human rights. For us, our work is going to be a lot more difficult as we move away from concentrating on business and more into conversations on social rights.
What I would like to see in the region over the next ten years in is the inclusion of women from a wide variety of backgrounds and industries in decision-making positions. Leading female creatives and wellness leaders, and not just women who have success in corporate structures – we want people that are thinking differently, because this region is different and it requires a difference in mindset to overcome the difficulties that we are facing.