July 15, 2024

DealBook: Women Break Down Barriers in Mideast Finance

Hoda Abou-Jamra is the founding partner of a $40 million private equity health care fund that is based in Dubai.Heinz S. Tesarek for The New York TimesHoda Abou-Jamra is the founding partner of a $40 million private equity health care fund that is based in Dubai.

Hoda Abou-Jamra still remembers the meeting when potential investors for her private equity fund thought she was the secretary.

“I would ask a question, and they would answer to the man next to me. I would answer their question, and they would look at him,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t let it bother me. I just stood up straighter and talked louder.”

Women deal makers, financiers and entrepreneurs are a rare breed in the Middle East. As a founding partner of a $40 million health care fund in Dubai, Ms. Abou-Jamra operates in a male-dominated industry globally and a male-dominated work force locally.

In private equity, women account for roughly 9 percent of the senior management positions worldwide, with the share varying from 9.1 percent in Europe to 8.7 percent in the United States, according to a study this year by the industry research firm Preqin. The gender imbalance is even more extreme in the Middle East, market participants say. While few statistics are available on the region’s nascent industry, only 25 percent of women enter the job market at all, compared with nearly 60 percent in the United States.

Ms. Abou-Jamra and other women financial professionals in the Middle East are trying improve the mix. It is a slow process, but they are making headway by creating their own investment vehicles, forging ties with influential players, and generally raising awareness.

“For the gulf states, in the last decade, women have become a lot more entrepreneurial,” said Dina Kawar, the ambassador to France from Jordan, where women account for about 13 percent of all private-sector workers.

Like Ms. Abou-Jamra, Maha Al-Ghunaim found a place at the top by creating a new financial firm, rather than working inside an existing one. At the investment arm of Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund, Mrs. Al-Ghunaim steadily rose through the ranks, reaching the position an assistant general manager. But competition was intense, and she felt her best opportunity for advancement was elsewhere.

“When you are climbing the ladder, you have to balance between speed and safety,” Mrs. Al-Ghunaim said.

So 13 years ago she founded Global Investment House, a Kuwait-based financial firm that began as a brokerage firm and investment bank. She has since expanded into private equity, with four funds overseeing about $1.5 billion.

The barriers for women are both cultural and structural.

“The guys have so much testosterone, I’ve had to learn to be more aggressive to be heard,” Ms. Abou-Jamra said. “I’ve found that unless I participate in boys’ club activities, I’m put aside. You have to be one of the boys to really fit.”

But some Mideast countries ban women from driving or mixing in public spaces with the opposite sex. Strict dress codes are also enforced in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“There are buildings where I walk in, and I’m the only woman there,” said Ms. Abou-Jamra. “Even the secretaries are male.”

Such restrictions made it difficult for Muna AbuSulayman, an entrepreneur and former television personality, to develop her latest ventures, a fashion line and a Facebook application for new parents. Simply registering the businesses with the government took a year, instead of the usual three days, she said.

“Each time, they would ask for something else, another piece of information, but they wouldn’t ask for all of it at the same time,” she said.

One item that held up the process: an address. The country’s law forbids people from using their home for commercial purposes. Ms. AbuSulayman could not use her father’s office either, since it was not licensed to have women employees under Saudi Arabia’s gender segregation rules. She obtained a business address through a brother.

It can be difficult to find capital, too.

Despite the region’s wealth and deep-pocketed investors, women are often reliant on conservative lenders, which are reluctant to give loans to small, women-led firms. When Ms. AbuSulayman and a male counterpart submitted similar applications to the same Saudi Arabian bank, she received a loan roughly a third of the size of the man.

“Applying for a loan, a woman will not get as much as a man,” she said. “My sister decided to sell her catering business when she could not raise the money she needed to expand it.”

Ms. Abou-Jamra went outside of the Mideast to find money for her firm. After meeting with four international private equity firms, she won the backing of the TVM Capital, a German private equity firm focused on the life sciences, to start a health care fund. She has since raised capital from investors like the World Bank’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, and the health care unit of General Electric.

Fund-raising in the Middle East was a central topic at a conference in Paris this month. The one-day event, attended by dozens of business people, diplomats and policy analysts, covered how mentorships and social media could play a transformative role in helping women financiers succeed in the region.

“As a woman in the Middle East, as an Arab woman, I found some men were very supportive,” Ms. Abou-Jamra said. “They helped me to not give up.”

Anu Bhardwaj, organizer of the conference, said “like-minded people invest in one another.”

Ms. Bhardwaj’s efforts are tied to a wider campaign by the Women’s Business Forum. Backed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Jordan and the United States, the group is trying to educate women entrepreneurs and executives across the globe.

The group wants to tap into the vast resources of the region’s wealthy women. In the Middle East, women are thought to control billions.

“Widows and divorcées have that kind of money,” Ms. Bhardwaj said, “and they don’t spend it all on eye shadow.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=dff0511063cba6c47b03b82cd5012b38

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