Named one of The 100 Most Powerful Businesswomen by Arabian Business, Elissa Freiha is bringing the western model of “angel investing” to the United Arab Emirates.
Barriers to entry are one of the most common challenges creative entrepreneurs face. When young business people have excellent ideas, they have few resources to make these ideas concrete: this is where angel investing comes in. Angel investing is a relatively new concept that began in the western world and is spreading to areas with high concentrations of wealthy people, such as the United Arab Emirates.
Women and Business
Elissa Freiha received a Bachelor’s in Communications from the University of Paris and has worked in publishing and entertainment, both fields where women have been relatively successful in challenging the patriarchal status quo. A native Emirati of Lebanese and American descent, Freiha knew first-hand the challenges women face getting ahead in the business world in both her home country and the European west.
Entering the business world is challenging for both founders of start-ups and for investors. Wealthy individuals need advice on where, how and when to invest, and often need a great deal of coaching and education when they are considering their first large investments. In the UAE, financially independent women are still viewed with apprehension, making it even more difficult for them to make informed business investments.
Freiha recognized the need for a platform that would connect wealthy individuals with determined young business people. Freiha saw an opportunity to combine her feminist ideals with her business acumen: women across the globe have been historically left out of business investment and development. While this is changing in the western world, with more women breaking through the glass ceiling to the top levels of Fortune 500 companies, women’s visibility and participation in top-level business is still stunted in the Middle East.
With the aim of creating a platform for wealthy female investors to meet and collaborate with un-funded start-ups, WOMENA was born. It is not only a bold rejection of the male-dominated business world (men are not allowed to have membership), but is also a play on words: MENA is the acronym used to refer to the Middle East and North Africa in international forums.
Women, Money and MENA
WOMENA is investor-focused, not entrepreneur focused. Members pay an annual fee for exclusive access to WOMENA’s extensive business connections, educational materials, hands-on advice and training workshops. The only institutional angel investment platform for women in the Middle East and Africa, it seeks to help women in the MENA region control their wealth intelligently. With a web of partners with varied business backgrounds and expertise, WOMENA offers members a unique approach to internationally and Middle Eastern focused investment. It does due diligence on all potential investment venues and, when a start-up is selected for presentation; the platform carefully goes through the risks with interested members.
According to the website, their mission is to make “investment more accessible and valuable” in that every new member and every new investment helps to redefine the role of women in business. WOMENA is a platform for progress, equality and education. We are bringing together inspiring and motivated women to make intelligent investments confidently. Development is our driving force: whether that is on an individual or collective level, we aim to push both social and economic boundaries.” Unlike other angel investing platforms, WOMENA does not aim to speed up or incubate start-ups, citing that “we have partners for that”, but are instead a platform for funding start-ups.
Ringing in the Future, Today
It is bold innovators like Freiha who will lead women in the MENA region into the business world. With money to invest and few platforms to do so, WOMENA is changing the way women handle money. A likely positive consequence of this platform will be the introduction of non-traditional start-ups to the MENA region. Women investors have different priorities than their male counterparts, and often look to promote women’s interests: several of the start-ups in WOMENA’s portfolio are apps that take out the time-consuming aspect of traditional “women’s work” so users, likely women with full-time jobs outside of the home, are able to spend more time on their careers and less time on gendered work. Other start-ups include online marketplace for used children’s clothing, an online database of e-books, an app that connects students, and more.
By inviting women into the investment seen with WOMENA, Freiha is changing the face of MENA investment. Financial independence and autonomy is an integral part of women’s empowerment, and Freiha has created a safe space for women to learn and grow as investors.