Impetuous, daring, nimble. Business-smart and diversity embracing. Team builder; one who is able to discover hidden opportunities and eager to disrupt old commercial orders but flexible and ready to pivot – there are plenty of gender-transcending epithets that one can seek when trying to characterize a successful knowledge entrepreneur in the digital age, beyond the Harvard-classic (and white male originated but no less correct) definition of entrepreneurship as the pursuit of economic opportunity without regard for the resources at hand.
From this academic perspective of striving with a business vision beyond the resources which an entrepreneur has under their control, female entrepreneurship in the digital age should be a gender-lens transcending proposition. Tech entrepreneurship, at least conceptually, is carried out in a gender-neutral digital sphere of online enterprises and based on individual qualities which are wholly independent from previous stereotypes about male and female work-related talents and proclivities. And notably, in Executive’s conversations with female tech entrepreneurs in Lebanon for this report, the question of gender equity, meaning the inquiry if gender translated into a clear advantage or disadvantage in operating an online business and tech startup, was not the main topic of concern – even to the point of disdain.
“When it comes to running a business digitally, from my own experience [the gender issue] is neutral,” says Rafa Hojeij, founder and CEO of Lebanese organic beauty company Potion Kitchen. “For me, with access to the online universe, it really makes no difference if you are a female entrepreneur,” says female entrepreneur and founder of an online coaching platform Lara Shabb. And Vanessa Zuaibi, founder and CEO of natural products themed online marketplace Mint Basil simply disfavors gender-lens entrepreneurship questions. “Generally I do not like to use the term women-led or female-led or female entrepreneur. I don’t want female entrepreneurs to be some kind of minority subcategory, or to be treated as a quota that needs to be filled,” she tells Executive. (Side note: All three of these female entrepreneurs are at different stages in their journeys and have been profiled in the past by Executive Magazine.)
So conceptually and also by way of first responses from several female entrepreneurs in Lebanon, the opportunities for digital entrepreneurs should be equal or at least more equal than they were in the pre-digital interactions of a capitalist economy. But strangely, when examining the most gigantic and investor-attracting fruits of tech entrepreneurship in this digital age, whether the big listed tech firms that comprise the group once known as GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), or the Chinese-origin tech titans of Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Xiaomi, and most recently TikTok fame, their founders and head honchos are males.
It is astounding that the biggest and scariest tech enterprises (and never mind that the group abbreviation of the five Big Tech is now the deceptively feminine MAMAA owing to two corporate name changes) of our digital era don’t show female-male balance and strong gender equity at the level of founders. Given the abominable history of “muscular” and predatory corporations in the annals of Western capitalism, it is moreover far more than frightening that end-of-century and younger tech startups turned super-capitalist market power monsters – which have in their dominance and behaviors already been compared to the earliest capitalist horror houses such as the colonial East India Company of British fame – are 20th and 21st century, male-founded behemoths.
Indubitably, after discounting the tragically failed entrepreneurship outlier of Elizabeth Holmes’ self-destroyed Theranos healthtech unicorn, many successful women-led startups remain and thrive in the global entrepreneurship ecosystems. But are there equitable shares of women-led startups if one were to venture checking for female-led tech enterprises down the lines of entrepreneurial tech unicorns (or, if one wishes to emphasize optimum diversity, of uni-camels, uni-tigers, unipandas, uni-koalas, uni-lions, uni-hippos, and unijaguars) in all cultures and on all continents?
Making a spot check on the French entrepreneurship ecosystem in this regard seems like a logical choice from a Beirut vantage point, given the many historic and current interactions in all tech startup matters between Francophile Lebanon and the much adored European neighbor. The overall picture of Trench Tech is currently mouthwatering from the investor perspective. The market has just scored a remarkable win on the unicorn breeding front, by surpassing a goal of having 25 tech companies with valuation above $1 billion each, and doing so three years ahead of a goal that President Emmanuel Macron had set in 2019. And according to a France24 report, five different startups have raised an aggregate 1.7 billion euros in the first few weeks of 2022, continuing the startup rally year of 2021 which saw French tech companies raking in a record 11.6 billion euros in funds, an increase of 115 percent on 2020.
The thriving French tech startups in the unicorn list range in age up to several decades. They work in areas such as cloud infrastructure, fintech, manufacturing, online marketplaces, edutech, healthtech, adtech, and gaming –sectors where also one or several Lebanese startups have over the years entered the fray and been covered by this magazine, including female-led startups. However, when this writer did search each company’s profile in the French list of by end of January 26 reported unicorns for founders or co-founders – the result was 100 percent male in founders’ names and pictures.
Gender equality among French tech unicorn founders? Hardly. Also, in the famed Silicon Valley, the mother of all entrepreneurship ecosystems, the numbers are not indications of equal opportunity, achieved organically or else how. “Women simply don’t get the financial backing that men do. Women head about 17 percent of the startups in Silicon Valley,” emphasizes American journalist Stacey Vanek Smith in Machiavelli for Women, a recent book of stories and advice for women in the economic realm, and adds that this “alarmingly low number” is even overshadowed by a much lower ratio of venture capital funding allocated to women-led startups.
But as with all business matters, the picture of female led entrepreneurship is full of gray scales, or if you want, nuances and nano-size juxtapositions of black and white. On a first level of nuances, behaviors of humans are bound to past experiences, consciously or not. This is to say that female entrepreneurs in any country are not just part of a tech ecosystem but also enmeshed in their country’s cultural context. Thus in the wider context of the globalized digital economy, where name and perceived gender should not make a difference for a tech startup’s business success, deep-seated old patterns suddenly surface to play immense roles – according to some studies even influencing the work performance and time needed to new communicate a concept to a client if a Joseph experimentally signs his emails with Josephine, and vice versa.
THE LEBANON CASE FILE
When drilling deeper into the experiences of female Lebanese entrepreneurs, the neutral perception of her female entrepreneurship experience by Hojeij for example shows itself as the result of a balance between contradictory perceptions, a balance whose creation entailed quite some battling against a prejudiced maletoxic business realm. “Customers perceive [a female-led online enterprise] in a nice way. They appreciate and over appreciate that a business is led by a woman and that the team is all women,” she says. Weighing on the other side of the scale, however, is the perception that she encounters on Potion Kitchen’s manufacturing side, where she is dealing with suppliers and companies that have a very male corporate self-perception.
“At the first moment when dealing with a retailer or supplier, I can say they hesitate to trust [me] not only because I am a women but a young woman,” Hojeij says. Stepping up against perceptions by business counterparts not trusting her or treating her as “little girl” under a variety of misperceptions was a struggle from the day she become managing director of a new family business upon having graduated from university. But despite still being confronted with male stereotypes and thinking, she has found herself assured as business woman after breaking those early perception barriers. “On one side there is support and appreciation that you feel and on the other side the hesitation and lack of trust. I found myself in the balance in the middle. I am good with this,” she explains.
Female entrepreneurs appear to have discovered and mastered the skill of flipping their seeming advantageous of still being exceptions in a still male-dominated Lebanese business environment into an advantage, claiming it as mark of distinction. For Shabb, a female entrepreneur in the digital economy has to use the tools that the digital realm provides for building a strong personal brand. “If you are a female entrepreneur, [who is] building a personal brand identity for your services, you are at an advantage to the market, depending on how you present yourself to the market. However, if you are a female entrepreneur in a field that is not based on a personal brand, you will see the same obstacles that you face in the corporate world, because you still have [to deal with] investor bias, industry bias, and all the traditional biases that are set against you,” she says.
UPPING THE EQUITY
Yusr Sabra, the new president of the Lebanese League of Women in Business has similar experiences of using her status as female entrepreneur in a male themed business world. An electrical engineer by training, she moved into the logistics sector for ecommerce enterprises with the startup Wakilni that she co-founded with her brother Omar. “Logistics deals with a lot of drivers and is generally perceived as a male industry,” she says. But according to her what is easily seen as a disadvantage of being a female entrepreneur in a male industry was “never a disadvantage”.
She tells her personal story of how she handled the regular occurrence that she got the attention of everyone in the room for a decisive few seconds when walking in unexpectedly as the rare female engineer and logistics expert. “It is up to you how to use this attention, and I have been using it to my advantage throughout, to get people to listen,” she explains.
Sabra and Hojeij in their explanations also emphasize how important it has been for them to demonstrate top entrepreneurial skills and prove themselves by both being experts in their fields and by their business sense, underscoring with their examples the – according to a plethora of women’s studies and stories, universal – notion of how vital it is for female entrepreneurs in any industry and business culture around the world to prove themselves and excel in commanding respect among co-workers and business associates without falling into behavior and perception traps of personages that in colloquial lingo, as cited by Vanek Smith, are labeled with terms such as “dragon lady” or “queen bee”.
As successful entrepreneur and active member of LLWB, Sabra has no doubt that women in Lebanon are vastly underappreciated, under-compensated and under-promoted in the average Lebanese workplace, calling these factual discriminations “givens” in the country. But it appears from the words of the female entrepreneurs who conversed with Executive that by the acknowledgment of the factual gender inequality and without the ideological pretense of an egalitarian equality playing a visible role in Lebanese female thought, avenues have opened for increasing gender equity – female entrepreneurs can play out their strengths in settings were traditional male styles of leadership have proven limited and increasingly counterproductive.
In this sense, Sabra speaks enthusiastically of how she personally witnesses women at LLWB achieving great outcomes in practicing the art of letting go of egos and resolving the usual conflicts that arise in an organization whose members have diverse backgrounds and interests. These requisite qualities in a 21st century entrepreneurial and growth minded enterprise – irrespective of the size or the tech and online angles – may be intuitive in a female entrepreneur’s personal experience but they also have been academically confirmed in a just published study of female-led Lebanese micro and small to medium businesses (from sole proprietor operations to 55 employees).
Rayan Fawaz, a Lebanese scholar at King’s College in London, together with colleagues conducted the study, which comprised two sets of focus group discussions and 17 in-depth interviews with female entrepreneurs – including some 40 participants in total – to assess the situation of female-led businesses in context of Lebanon’s business environment in the aftermath of the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion.
By her findings, women that were leading companies within the researched frame of micro and small to medium enterprises (MSMEs), spent less time wondering and despairing about what to do next but instead sprang into action faster, the larger their number of employees was, and they did so despite the shock and destruction their enterprises experienced. “This was a point of difference,” Fawaz tells Executive. “What was common across the 17 women-led MS MEs was that they were not relying on external factors or governmental help but relying on their own network of people and other entrepreneurs to get up with the business and find solutions. They have created and depend on a parallel ecosystem that is purely one of their own making”, she adds.
While the study did not conduct research on the post-catastrophe performance of male-led MSMEs in comparison to the women-led ones, another common response that Fawaz observed among female entrepreneurs – namely a complete absence of positive expectations of governmental (“what government?”) aid and support – can safely be assumed to be the default approach of Lebanese entrepreneurs irrespective of gender, given the vast majority’s unequivocal expression of governmental distrust in the population.
But this problem of asymmetry between state and business community made the fact only more interesting that the female-led enterprises formed an organic ecosystem across industries where they found mutual support that was independent from formal structures of organization. “It was fascinating to see how informal and organic this relationship becomes in this ecosystem where one bloc builds on the other,” says Fawaz.
Remarkably, 15 of 17 interviewed female entrepreneurs associated negative connotations with word resilience. According to Fawaz, these business women exhibited superior flexibility and preparedness to achieve business survival by rapid contingency planning but talked of resilience as moving forward, changing, creating solutions and making collective efforts, rather than in terms of coping strategies or the familiar meme of ‘rising from the ashes’. Instead of musing about resilience, their focus was to act, adapt, and get back on their feet so that things move somehow while at the same time not accepting the things as they are.
Comparing what one might see as disturbance of normal life and business in a metropolis like London with the ever-present myriad vagaries and distortion factors in Lebanon, Fawaz emphasizes the astounding degree to which female entrepreneurs in Lebanon have been maintaining dynamic mindsets of survival in crisis. “We have multiple plans from A to Z, at all times. These women were heroes in terms of leading their businesses with their personal lives,” she says. And in this context of rebuilding and continuing with their businesses, her focus group studies and interviews applied the gender perspective when discussing how their businesses would have emerged from the economic shocks of 2020 if they had been male-led.
“Although this might be a generalization, the common denominator that emerged from the discussion was that most men are very logic-oriented and very rational, and differ from women in that they don’t want to incorporate the aspect of emotion in their business,” Fawaz reports. With the caution that in reality the picture will be more nuanced, she explains how the majority perspective of her interlocutors was that men are too focused on obvious business logic while the female entrepreneurs in their self-perception were better in combining logic and emotion in developing creative and dynamic solutions and ways of moving forward from the crisis.
THINKING FROM DIFFERENT ANGLES
The emotion and logic, or left brain – right brain track of thinking is certainly worth regarding from the two, practically divergent but fundamentally inseparable perspectives of global entrepreneurship developments on one hand and the peculiar struggles of entrepreneurship and digital era businesses in Lebanon after the 2020 crisis of everything on the other.
From the global perspective, the good news of tech startups, female founders and women-led entrepreneurship in the top-tier ecosystem of the US shows that over the term of the past few decades, the number of women-led startups have grown massively when see in percentages of all startups, from low single digits to the high tens. Reports at the start of this year further show that the allocations of venture capital and recorded equity deals for female-led tech startups surged to new records in 2021, after they had suffered a notable drop in 2020 from a relative record year in 2019 in terms of venture capital allocations amounting to 2.9 percent of the total such VC funding.
Similarly, on relative terms of notable female entrepreneurial contributions to the progress of the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in Lebanon, female founders and women-led or partially women-led startups have been present – some of them succeeding, some pivoting, some folding, and some turning predatory and addicted to profit, some pivoting – over more than a decade of startups that have been tracked by this magazine. The ratio of women led to male founded startups at various demo days and competitions which Executive observed over the years were somewhat in line with situations in other ecosystems, meaning they were always in a minority but always present and the ideas and team integrities of the ventures were always more important for assessing them than the gender lens.
Also in the area of venture capital and startup funding, female angel investor structures have been developed in collaboration between LLWB and company IM Capital in the (although currently not active) Lebanese Women Angel Fund, allowing for funding flows to female-involved startups to be amplified in the last few years before the crisis of everything.
Beyond the similarities of the Lebanese tech entrepreneurship ecosystem with the global situation, however, the most impressive thing about Lebanon’s female-led startups was how they were adding to the diversity of the ecosystem, adding things that male entrepreneurs could not deliver, perhaps not in a million years. Whether or not 100 percent gender equality in any country’s business culture is a realistic expectation for the second half of this century, the next century, or ever – what matters for Lebanon’s economic rebirth prospects today are the dreams of female entrepreneurs and the reality of female entrepreneurship, which provides substantive gender equity in helping the country find a new economic footing and constructive paradigm.
In an example of the importance to dream of a future, and confessing her conviction that there is an ideal and desirable balance of masculine and feminine energies on universal scale, Potion Kitchen’s Hojeij emphasizes that to her the central issue in entrepreneurship is a dream not of gender quotas or programs that are designed exclusively for female entrepreneurs and their advancements. “I do not believe in a quota of gender equality. The ideal theme for me is to have opportunities for everyone and live in an inclusive economy and society. The opportunities should be available to everyone,” she confides.
A to the practical importance of the work of women-led MSMEs in the humongous job of building a better economy from this time on, Fawaz offers her view with conviction, answering Executive’s question about the ability of the female entrepreneurs she interviewed to save Lebanon by saying, “I believe if we have more women with a mindset like those women, we are on the right track to [do] something that can keep the country afloat. These women’s mentality was absolutely heartwarming to see. They still have trust in the country but not in the government.”