Interview with the founders of the first angel investor group for women in the UAE
Elissa Freiha and Chantalle Dumonceaux founded two years ago Womena, the first angel investor group made up solely of women. After this period, WSI Magazine interview them to review all their goals and future plans.
How do you describe Womena two years after its foundation? Which is your current goal?
EF: Womena is the region’s leading angel investment platform funding Middle East tech startups. Our goal is to educate and empower a generation of predominantly female angel investors so that they may contribute to the booming growth of the MENA entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Which ones have been the main successes during this period? And the main challenges?
EF: Our main challenge has been to provide the extensive investment education needed in this region as well as helping to build the confidence of risk-averse investors. Our successes however have been a result of us overcoming these challenges: because we have focused so much on education and transparency, we have the largest network of confident investors that are actively making investments. We are now the largest contributing investment entity in the region that is not a VC ‘fund’. Y we happen to be mostly women. This is unexpected by any standard in technology or finance and we are excited to see these results coming from, of all places, the Middle East.
Do you have a specific profile to define the women that approach you to be an angel investor? Do you require previous experience?
EF: The background of the women in our network is varied: most are working women based in the UAE, some are academics, some lawyers, some homemakers, some successful entrepreneurs, some aspiring entrepreneurs, some mothers, they vary in cultural background as well as age. The main thing that links our investors is their access to disposable income and most importantly a shared value system: Womena’s members are proactive, motivated, and collaborative. They are driven to succeed and help others succeed with them. They want to contribute to change and growth, not just socially but economically.
How do you find the entrepreneur environment in the UAE? Is there anything that makes it different from other startups hubs in Europe or USA?
CD: The UAE benefits from a diverse population that bring talents from around the world. Many of the entrepreneurs whom we’ve met are well-educated, experienced, and understand how to work with venture investors. This openness creates a positive environment for entrepreneurs. It is a smaller ecosystem so a great entrepreneur really has a chance to outshine competitors. There is a different set of challenges that entrepreneurs must confront as well: venture funding is less readily available and often come from informal sources (family offices, individual angels, etc rather than structured and stage specific funds) so entrepreneurs always need to be in fundraising mode, and licensing is much more complicated for a startup company, and usually takes months and thousands to complete.
What are you looking for in a startup in order to be considered as a good investment opportunity?
CD: First and foremost, we look for superior teams in large and growing markets. We also look at traction, customer validation, barriers to entry, differentiation from competitors, proprietary technology, and business model. In order for us to look at a startup, it must be highly “scalable,” or be a business based on technology, and thus able to grow at an exponential rate. If you fit the bill, we want to hear from you!
Is there any challenge in common between the start ups founders and the angel investors as women?
CD: One of the first questions I get asked when I head back to Silicon Valley is how problematic it is to be a woman in business in Dubai. And my answer is that the Middle East is filled with different countries that have different geopolitical climates and views towards human rights. Dubai has been welcoming to me in my time here and shows fast progress on this front. Did you know that there must be at least one woman on the board of a UAE publicly traded company, for instance? In general, I have found that the majority of people in the startup ecosystem are self-selecting as forward thinking, and therefore I’ve had the honor of working with great people who have not impeded my growth and Womena’s development. This is as true in Dubai as it is elsewhere.
Which are the main advantages of joining an angel investor group like Womena?
CD: We are a manager-led group and serve as the back office for the individual investor’s activities. We have partnerships with all the main funding entities in the region and source deal flow from VCs leading the deal and we have created a sufficient brand to get organic deal flow. We conduct due diligence and provide investment memos to our members as well as education on angel investment and venture capital. Our members then invest through our vehicle in the Cayman Islands which allow them stronger legal protections and the negotiating power of the group. Members not only benefit from the team behind Womena, but from the network where they can validate their investment decisions and learn from each other. We are selective about who we let join Womena.
From the entrepreneurial perspective, even considering yourself, what does it make the UAE as a good choice to start a new company?
EF: The UAE is securely the hub of the Womena entrepreneurship ecosystem. Although it has a long way to go to be fully entrepreneur-friendly, it is the most politically stable and economically promising market in the region. It is the most globalized ecosystem and the most complete ecosystem as well, making it an exciting environment of potential and innovations. Not to mention, if you are averaging 20-hour days and constantly stressed out, the awesome beaches make it really appealing too.
Which are your professional goals for the coming two years?
We want to grow our investor network across the region and show the world that women in the middle east are a brilliant force for economic prosperity.