By Rebecca Hogg
The worldwide shutdown brought on by COVID-19 was a shock for businesses and employees across the globe. For Nita Odedra, it was the moment she was able to realise a long-held ambition to start her own business.
When international travel and days in the office morphed into Zoom meetings at the kitchen table and evenings on the sofa, many workers took up new interests to stay creative and feel in control. Amid the sourdough starters, Dalgona coffee and TikTok dances that marked the early pandemic, so did another trend: entrepreneurship.
The UAE, a country with a vibrant start-up community, saw a surge in new enterprises throughout 2020. Dubai Startup Hub alone recorded a 236% year-on-year increase in membership during the first half of the year.
During the initial lockdown in Dubai in June 2020, activity at the tech company where Nita Odedra served as General Manager was slowing down. Nita used this opportunity to re-evaluate her career and take some time out to develop a business plan for a start-up. This decision led to the launch in November 2020 of Waai Tek, an artificial intelligence and smart solutions start-up that helps companies to integrate custom, scalable AI systems into their existing operational infrastructure.
“I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted more autonomy. I would’ve done it sooner or later, but the pandemic accelerated my decision by a couple of years,” Nita says.
The leap from full-time employment to going it alone reflected the conversations her friends – all 30-something professionals like her – were having at the time.
“My generation started working during the Great Recession, which was demoralising, but we learned to pick ourselves up. The pandemic has once again made many people, especially my circle, re-evaluate their long-term visions and goals. It goes beyond money, material things, or what was traditionally classed as success,” Nita explains.
Graduating in 2006 in the UK, Nita carved out a successful career in global technology sales, climbing the ranks of companies such as Gartner before moving to the UAE in 2015.
Having worked with clients across the Middle East, Nita realised that they would need tailored smart solutions if they were to achieve the ambitious growth targets envisioned by the region’s economies. The UAE has made AI central to policymaking, appointing the world’s first Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence in October 2017.
This emphasis on innovation gave Nita confidence that Waai Tek could succeed in the region’s nascent AI sector when the start-up launched. “There are so many opportunities to build new systems from the ground up because of the number of greenfield developments. They don’t need to overhaul legacy processes.”
Founding a start-up is risky – one commonly-cited statistic suggests that 10% of start-ups fail within their first year. But Nita believes the Middle East’s approach to digital transformation has led to an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is ideal for new founders in the tech space, especially women. Recognised for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and support for entrepreneurs, the UAE ranked first in the region and fourth globally in the Global Entrepreneurship Index 2020, climbing five places.
“Dubai is a city with so much energy and prosperity. They’ve developed a strong social infrastructure that empowers people to excel. There are a lot of initiatives for founders, especially women in technology, to take advantage of, such as Dubai Startup Hub. The government’s smart technology strategies such as Dubai 10X, an initiative to place Dubai ten years of leading global cities, also provide frameworks for tech start-ups to prosper.”
It's clear investors are attracted by start-up potential in the Middle East. According to a January 2021 report by Magnitt, MENA start-ups secured a record $1bn in funding in 2020 – a 13% year-on-year increase – despite the challenges of the pandemic. Waai Tek itself received seed funding from a private investor.
Having come from a company with significant back-office support, Nita found that investing time in areas that didn’t contribute immediately to her bottom line was her biggest challenge.
Despite this, being hands-on has helped Nita develop her strategy to suit her clients’ needs while she continues to build her team. “As a start-up, you need to be able to adapt to the market and to do that you have to be agile. We can take feedback on our solutions and make changes or re-develop them – this is something we can deliver that more mature companies wouldn’t be able to do as quickly.”
As a result, Waai Tek scored some landmark successes in its first year, winning contracts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “We delivered a fantastic project in partnership with Al Arabiya on Thalia Street in Riyadh, which was a smart navigation city guide application on digital signage.”
In November 2021, Waai Tek also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Digital DEWA at GITEX to collaborate on a range of projects in line with the Dubai 10X strategy.
As Waai Tek looks to the future like the city where it was founded, Nita says keeping a positive mindset will ensure the company builds on its initial achievements.
“You can have a great idea, but there are so many other traits that you need as a leader to get a start-up off the ground: resilience, determination, and a lot of self-belief. Other people aren’t going to believe in you unless you believe in yourself.”