Inspiring snippets from female founders turning their passions into vehicles for financial independence and social change
By Hannah Jo Uy
There are many ways in which the female entrepreneurial spirit manifests itself. It can stem from the desire to solve a problem, effect change, or provide a new perspective to address overlooked challenges. In whatever form they materialise, the founders must navigate various unique internal and external obstacles to bring their ideas to life.
One such person is Maria Menezes, Founder of Circle of Grey, who started The Caramel Theory, taking on branding work for clients. However, a personal passion spiraled into a movement opening an unexpected path for the consultant. It was during the Covid-19 pandemic that Maria witnessed the struggle of seniors. "For the rest of us, work and school went on," she says, "we were busy, but for the elderly, they were so vulnerable, and it was more dangerous for them to go out, leaving them isolated, lonely, and with little access to social life.” From this observation, Circle of Grey was born, an initiative aiming to provide seniors with a safe and stimulating social space.
For Oreabetse "Ore" Matlhare, Founder of The Scalable CFO, side hustles became a gateway to finding her true path. As a chartered accountant, Ore skilfully maintained a thriving consultancy business for tech start-ups while building an e-commerce business. "It was to make money on the side, but I realised I was enjoying the work; it solved a real problem, and I wanted more of it." In 2016, the concept for The Scalable CFO began brewing in Ore's mind. At its core, it aims to help small businesses make sound financial decisions and get the benefits of a CFO without the cost by connecting them with the best part-time CFOs in the region. With that, she and her co-founder developed the platform while being the part-time CFOs to test the concept before building a community.
Jane Harvey, CEO and Co-founder of Savii, also believes in the importance of a needs-based approach in entrepreneurship. Savii is Jane's fourth start-up since beginning her entrepreneurship journey 13 years ago after stepping away from her successful oil and gas project management career. Before starting Savii, Jane had no experience in the financial industry. Still, she was acutely aware of a pervasive problem, inadequate financial education and lack of appreciation for the value of money among the younger generation.
Jane says, "Money has changed a lot since I was a child. I received pocket money in cash, and I spent it in cash. Cash has become irrelevant today, with 3 out of 4 places teens want to spend money requiring digital payments. Still, banks in the region rarely cater to those under the age of 18. This became a guiding principle for the creation of Savii, the region's first youth spending card catering to Gen Z . It was designed to raise awareness among the youth to help them avoid costly mistakes often caused by a lack of financial education. "If I had understood basic financial principles like compound interest when I was a teen and how to make money work for me, my 20’s and 30s would have been very different," Jane reflects.
Piercing through the patriarchy (and other challenges)
In whatever stage of an idea's materialisation, there are eventual roadblocks. For Ore, the first big challenge was deciding to work on the scalable CFO full-time. When her stint with an SME ended prematurely, she had to make the following decision: go back to another corporate job or work on her project full time. A question, she says, that most founders must eventually face. "I was interviewing, but I was not invested," she recalls, "When I had to face the root of the issue during that period, I was at crossroads. I realised that it was stemming from fear. Fear that if I take a risk, I put the family at risk."
Challenges facing female entrepreneurs, however, are not merely internal, as Jane would attest. "There are many challenges when launching and scaling a fintech in the MENA region, not least the effort required to establish partnerships with the issuing banks and payment processors in each country we want to operate in, as well as navigating the multiple regulatory frameworks. And as a fully female-founded company, we have to also consider the additional challenge of fundraising," she says.
Ryaan Sharif, General Manager at Flat6Labs UAE, adds that there are inherent gender biases that further create an unfavourable business environment for aspiring women entrepreneurs. "Surrounding yourself with the right people is a struggle that all entrepreneurs encounter as they navigate their start-up journeys," he says. "There is also a phenomenon known as "wasta" in the GCC region, an Arabic word that can be loosely defined as a form of nepotism or private influential connections. The lack of "wasta" can pose a barrier to many female entrepreneurs, as it is evident that there may not be enough women decision-makers represented at a venture capital (VC) level."
Scaling up and living in integrity
Despite female founders’ challenges, the entrepreneurial spirit has always remained resolute. "A VC once said to us, 'I think you need an investment banker in your team,'" Jane recalls. "My response was that the fact we don't come from financial services actually puts us in a stronger position to build our product because we don't have preconceived ideas for the solutions. We looked at the problem through unbiased eyes. After talking to over 200 teenagers, we realised the youth demographic doesn’t feel banks speak to them in a language they understand and don’t offer products and services that align with their needs and values. Hence, our goal became to reinvent the banking experience for this generation."
For Maria, as a founder, remaining true to one’s values is critical, being a believer in businesses moving from profit to purpose. Despite the initial challenges of managing a self-funded project, Maria has begun working with like-minded organisations such as the technology firm Blue Logic to help with the events. "We hope in the next year to start to move on a commercial angle," she says. "It will be a different entity supporting the Circle of Grey. We don't want members to pay for what we do. We always want to have it accessible to the elderly we are working on a business model to go commercial without compromising."
Whether it's an unfavourable environment or lack of knowledge and investment, Ore admonishes that there is no perfect time to start, and authenticity and self-reflection are key. "Lack of integrity is a silent killer," she says. "At the end of the day, I don't think I could live with myself until I gave 100%. If you have the itch to do something that will never go away, you owe it to yourself; it's about creativity and creating value."
Ryaan echoes this, "It's good to think through all the processes of launching a product, but I will also encourage them to jump on their ideas and perfect them through iterations, trials and many conversations," he says. Additionally, he adds that there are more tailored initiatives to service female founders to further the goals of female economic empowerment in MENA.