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Unleashing Women’s Entrepreneurial Potential in Saudi Arabia

Kelly Lavelle, Founder of the Women's Entrepreneurship Initiative

New Independent Research Reveals Barriers and Opportunities

April 10, 2013 8:40 by

New research reveals that although a small but growing number of women in Saudi Arabia are actively challenging the status quo, further regulatory, educational and socio-cultural changes are urgently needed to promote women’s entrepreneurship and fully realise the economic and social aspirations of the Kingdom.

Although Saudi women are more economically active than often perceived internationally and opportunities for economic participation are increasing, the report ‘Giving voice to women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia confirms women remain vastly under-represented in the vital entrepreneurial sector.

The study, carried out by the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a non-profit company that supports women in business, in collaboration with Ashridge Business School, is the first of its in kind in the region whereby 37 aspiring and established Saudi women entrepreneurs engaged in a series of workshops and in-depth interviews.

Kelly Lavelle, Founding Director, Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, and report co-author, said: “One of the distinctive features of this work is its positive impact on many of the women who participated. The strength of their responses has been the driver to establish the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) across the Middle East and North Africa region to learn, serve and enable change. Now, more than ever, the world needs to unleash women’s entrepreneurship to further strengthen economies and societies.”

Key Research Findings:

The research suggests women entrepreneurs lack essential competencies and capacities for successful entrepreneurship, including:

  • Self-confidence – Saudi women entrepreneurs can present themselves as confident but often suffer from an underlying lack of self-belief evidenced by hesitation in decision making, avoidance of commitment and a strong fear of judgment and failure.
  • Risk-taking – Female entrepreneurs show courage in following their chosen career path, but are however averse to assuming tangible risks e.g. leaving the security and status of government jobs or seeking external funding for their businesses.   
  • Autonomy – A lack of self-reliance, self-sufficiency and personal initiative, often resulting from social restrictions imposed upon women.  This can be internalised to such an extent that they become complacent, if not complicit, in their situation.     
  • Self esteem:  The women interviewed experienced powerful emotional reactions to the gender-specific challenges they face.  They express feelings of frustration, outrage, helplessness and/or self-blame at their lack of autonomy.  They also have a powerful fear of judgment and failure.

Dr Hessah Al Sheikh, Co-Founding Director, Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, comments: “Any procedures designed to address the exclusion of women from the Saudi Arabian economy must address the socio-political and cultural factors that suppress female entrepreneurial spirit and capabilities.”

Current Obstacles:

The Saudi Arabian government has committed to ambitious targets to enhance the economic activity of women and the opportunity for women to play a more prominent role in the Saudi economy has never been greater, with a comprehensive policy addressing women’s participation in the entrepreneurship sector pending.

However current obstacles in business licensing regulations still include:

  • Restricted access to government services: Recently established Ladies Sections within government offices are perceived as ineffective, women entrepreneurs often prefer to rely on a male relative to help them. Also, women continue to encounter a wakeel (legal male representative) requirement when starting their businesses, as the enforcement of its removal is not consistent.
  • Requirement for a ‘mudeer’ (male manager) for public-facing business: Despite its official repeal many women are often still being required to appoint a male manager.
  • Restricted licensing options: A number of business activities that are popular among women, for example home business, are not currently available in the official licensing categories.
  • Lack of support servicesMore support is needed for the growing needs of working women in infrastructure and support services, such as transport and childcare.

Report Recommendations

Dr Gill Coleman, Ashridge Business School, said: “Many of the women’s struggles identified by this work specifically reflect their position in Saudi Arabian society. If greater entrepreneurial participation of women is desired, Saudi culture will need to adapt to help them develop the personal skills and qualities needed.”

The researchers therefore make a number of recommendations to help overcome some of the barriers and allow women to play their part in driving positive change:

  • Review and reform women’s education to increase their economic participation. Ensure greater focus on fostering entrepreneurship competencies, skills and qualities.
  • Create opportunities for women entrepreneurs to support each other through networking events, workshops and change programmes.
  • Address gender-specific challenges in the regulatory environment to improve women’s access to government business licensing services e.g. create a home-business license, and ensure enforcement of positive women-targeted policies.
  • Improve women-targeted entrepreneurship initiatives and funding sources. Establish a central information and advisory service, and provide training support.
  • Invest in support services and infrastructure, such as public-funded transportation services for women and subsidised childcare.
  • Promote awareness of the positive economic role and contribution of Saudi businesswomen.

–ends —-

Notes to editors:

About the report:

The research report Giving voice to women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia is written by Dr Hessah Al Sheikh and Kelly Lavelle, Co-Founding Directors of WEI and edited by Dr Gill Coleman, Director, Centre of Action Research, Ashridge Business School.

About the WEI:

Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative Ltd (WEI) is a non-profit company that develops and works on projects that aim to learn, serve and enable change for women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa region. See

About Ashridge Business School Middle East:

Ashridge was established in 1959 near London and has operated in the Middle East for twenty years. It’s triple accreditation from the AMBA (UK Association of MBAs), EQUIS (the European Quality Improvement System) and AACSB (US Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) places Ashridge in the top 1% of global business schools. As a specialist in delivering completely integrated corporate education solutions for working professionals, Ashridge is consistently ranked highly by the Financial Times for both its customised and open executive education offerings. Activities include open and customised executive educationMBA, MSc & Doctoral  qualificationsorganisation consultingexecutive coaching and mentoringapplied research and virtual learning. For more information visit or call T: 00971 50 554 0905.

Media information, spokesperson and case study interview:

Kate Sansom, The PR Network

Tel: +971 50 5160 112

[email protected]




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