As an entrepreneur it’s my obligation to keep tabs on all of the exciting startups and promising entrepreneurs who are changing their respective industries. Here’s the thing, though: many of the startups and entrepreneurs I learn and talk about are right in my backyard; Silicon Valley.
Recently, I’ve been reading up the budding entrepreneur scene in the Middle East. For example, I recently came across this interesting article in the Huffington Post by Jamil Wyne. In it, Jamil discusses the importance of educating these enterprises in the region. For example, he reports that over 70 percent or entrepreneurs in countries such as Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and Lebanon have had difficulty in finding talent. Because of this, there have been a number of organizations, such as INJAZ, the International Labor Organization and the Arab League, who “have created trainings, research, and other programs to support this cause.”
I decided to take it one step further and take a look at four leading Arab business leaders and entrepreneurs who are not only innovative, but challenging the status quo, breaking barriers, and bridging the cultural gaps between the East and West. Along the way, it is these individuals who are paving the way for future Arab entrepreneurs – even in the face of diversity.
Muna AbuSulayman – @MunaAbuSulayman
Muna AbuSulayman can be referred to as the Saudi Arabian version of ‘Oprah’, and for good reason. Muna is an extremely influential media personality who has become an expert in management, education, sustainable development, entrepreneurship, the Middle East, and female empowerment. In fact, she was listed as one of the Most Influential and Powerful Arab women in multiple lists.
Not only is Muna the founding co-host of Kalam Nawaem (“Speech of the Soft”), one of MBC TV’s most popular social programs, she was also the former director of Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation and the first Saudi UNDP Goodwill Ambassador. Other awards and achievements include: Arab Media Achievement Award, 2014; Siltech, Global Ambassador, 2013; Avon Middle East Ambassador for Stopping Domestic Violence Abuse, 2012; Social Innovation Award, George Mason University (2011); Award for Female Empowerment, Women in Leadership Foundation (2011); and Young Global Leader by World Economic Forum (2007).
Muna is also a director and co-founder for Glowork (“the first MENA staffing and recruiting company dedicated to women and their economic empowerment”) and Meedan (described as “a gathering place for English and Arabic speakers who want to exchange thoughts on Middle East issues”).
Dr. Naif A. Al-Mutawa – @DrNaif
Born in Kuwait, Dr. Naif A. Al-Mutawa founded Teshkeel Comics while studying for his M.B.A. at Columbia Business School in 2003. Teshkeel Comics established a relationship with Marvel Comics which lead to the release of The Spectacular Spider-Man in Arabic in 2006. A year later, Dr. Natif released The 99, which as CNN describes, “follows 99 superheroes whose powers are based on the Qu’ran’s 99 Virtues of Allah: strength, courage, and wisdom among them.”
Not only did The 99 do a six-issue crossover with DC Comics in 2010, Dr. Natif even received a shout out from President Obama during the 2010 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.
“His comic books have captured the imagination of so many young people, with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam. In his comic books, Superman and Batman reached out to their Muslim counterparts. And I hear they are making progress, too.”
The 99 have also spawned a theme park in Kuwait and international animated series. In 2014 Dr. Natif was awarded the 2014 Islamic Economy Award and named by ‘Forbes’ magazine as one of the Top 20 Trends Sweeping the Globe.
Salma Ali Saif Saeed Bin Hareb
When Salma Ali Saif Saeed Bin Hareb became the Chief Executive Officer at Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority in June of 2005, she made history. She became the “first ever woman to assume this level of responsibility in a free zone in the United Arab Emirates, Middle East, and North Africa region.” As Bloomberg Business states, she helped make “Jafza one of the most customer-friendly organizations in the region, and possibly the world, she has not only changed the dynamics of the free zones business worldwide but has also contributed towards its tremendous growth over the past three years.” She also helped Dubai secure the World Expo in 2020, which she promises to increase economic activity, as well as “generate approximately 277,000 new opportunities in Dubai, and each opportunity will sustain another 50 jobs in the region.”
Besides being included as one of the Most Powerful Arab Women by Forbes for multiple years, Salma Ali Saif Saeed Bin Hareb was also recognized with the “Business Women Award 2006 for Leadership”. She also serves as a director for of Forsa LLC. which “is a private equity and venture capital firm specializing in investments in startups and expansion capital in mid cap companies.” Forsa LLC.invests in female-led or female-oriented businesses in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman.
Loai Naseem and Mona Al Haddad – @lmnassem
With a background in fashion design, Loai Naseem worked for Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris. In 2005, Loai founded Lomar Thobe with his wife Mona Al Haddad. The husband and wife team began their operation in a basement and sought out to change a Saudi staple. He informs Forbes that, “In the past, people had four options: white or off-white, collar or no collar.” With Lomar Thobe, the entrepreneurs blend tradition with future trends, which has resulted in the production of 120,000 garments and annual sales of $16 million by 2013.
Lomar Thobe now has 11 locations across Saudi Arabia and is using the waste from their factories to create furniture for its Lomar Home line. Lomar is looking to expand into the hotel industry and break into international markets in New York, London and Milan.
As a pioneer, Lomar offered this piece of advice to his fellow entrepreneurs, “It is important to stay creative, to challenge what is normal and what is accepted, and to keep moving forward.”
With a busy schedule and a 24 hour news cycle, it can be easy to miss the amazing innovations happening across the world. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on these inspiring innovators who are striving to change the world.