The story of Elissa Freiha and Chantalle Dumonceaux.
WOMENA is a platform that makes investment more accessible to startups that are mainly driven by women in the Middle East.
Elissa Freiha learned how to confidently be an angel investor by investing with and getting mentored by her peers. The experience inspired her to co-found this platform to empower other women to do the same. She oversees marketing, business development, sales, events, and member satisfaction, having previously worked in these fields in publishing, F&B, and entertainment. She was included in Arabian Business “The 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2015“. She received her Bachelors in Communications from the American University of Paris. She is Emirati of Lebanese and American descent.
Chantalle Dumonceaux oversees operations, strategy, and investments. She worked in Zurich and New York with startups and angel groups, where she has been involved in every facet of the angel investment process. Upon seeing what a positive impact angel groups make on society, women, and entrepreneurship, she decided to specialize and co-founded this platform to help Gulf women get involved in angel groups. She received her Bachelors in Economics from Columbia University and has lived in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and Zurich.
Please share with us a brief history on how you started WOMENA. What motivated you to establish this company?
Elissa: Chantalle and I saw a need for informed, organized, investing in the Middle East. With her knowledge of early stage start-up investment and my knowledge of the region, we decided to move to Dubai and launch an angel network to help tech start-ups get funded. It was only after a few weeks that we realised we were the only women in most of the meetings and there was a major gender representation disparity in the financial space. That didn't need to be the case. If you look at the UAE, 70% of college graduates are women and nearly 60% of government employees are women, making them incredibly educated and financially capable members of the society. Those numbers locally paired with the knowledge that 22% of the regions wealth is directly in the hands of women means that there is an enormous untapped market of potential investors to include in the current economic growth that is taking place.
Are investors showing an increased interest in investing in female driven startups?
Chantalle: Since launch one year ago, out of 450 inbound entrepreneurs, we have had 20 companies present and 50% of those have had a female on the founding team. Two of those presenters received funding from WOMENA, also 50% who have a female on the founding team. It is currently estimated that 18% of funded tech companies in the Middle East have a woman on the founding team and we are proud our history reflects gender balance and inclusion. Our team and members screen entrepreneurs on the basis of merit.
What is your business model? Where do you see most of your revenue coming from?
Chantalle: Teaming up with economic development organizations and financial institutions with whom we have aligned interests is essential to our long-term growth. We are also fortunate to have a membership base of leaders who pay membership dues to allow our platform to exist and we charge a 15% carry on members' investments made through our legal structure.
Let’s say an investor is reading this interview. How can WOMENA help him invest in any of the companies you are representing? What is the ROI he could be expecting?
Chantalle: An investment in a start-up is more unpredictable than a real estate investment or bonds and cannot be evaluated in the same way. Investors in successful start-ups are unlikely to achieve liquidity for 3+ years and anyone promising a particular ROI on an investment in early stage start-ups is at worst a scam artist and at best misinformed. We focus on the Middle East with the underlying investment thesis that international investors overestimate political risk in the region, thus start-ups are undervalued, and that there are many unfilled niches in the MENA and Arabic speaking market. On the other side, because of the newness of angel investment in the region, we believe our members and team are better positioned to identify potential investments than many existing firms. Returns on angel investment portfolios vary widely and we recommend joining an angel group as a means to make the best investment choices. Our investors see better deal flow, share expertise and due diligence, diversify, and help portfolio companies grow together.
What would be your advice to women who want to get into the business world?
Elissa: Research which side of the business space suits you best. Entrepreneurship is promoted as an option, as is a government post or regular 9-5; and yet investing in these start-ups is also an incredible way to get involved in the business world without having to sacrifice your time and personal life. As an angel investor, you can realise your value beyond the simple financial backing. Your education, your time, your experiences (as a mother, or daughters, or emirati or londoner, or CEO, or baker) and your contacts; these are all ways you can directly help a company grow.
How do you see WOMENA in 5 years? What would you like to achieve with this company?
Elissa: It's difficult in this day and age to predict 5 years ahead. The WOMENA community has grown so quickly in the past year with support pouring in internationally, from investors, entrepreneurs, media, governmental agencies and decision makers in tech. Both genders support this initiative because the simple fact is that diversity breed’s success. We hope to be the leading platform in the region that promotes and empowers gender balance in regards to economic development. With such negative stereotypes about our area making their way to mainstream media in the west, wouldn't it be great to see this country and region leading the way in terms of women's rights and entrepreneurship? It's happening.