Saudi Woman + Will = Way

What if all you had is a smart phone, some savings, and a business idea?

What would I do? I am not sure… I have an iPhone, I might ask Siri if she can be my marketing manager…and Siri will surely give me attitude. Then I might ask my smart brothers to help me with what to do. We would probably end up taking an epic jumping photo, in my abaya. Like this… and hope for the best.

Jan 2016 Ash Sharqiya, eastern region of Saudi Arabia

Okay, okay… all kidding aside. I need to restart with reframing my initial question more appropriately for Saudi culture. In other words, a largely relationship-based, family-oriented culture. A Saudi woman would give a different context that they have more than just a smart phone and an idea. They are rich with supportive family members — usually sisters or female cousins that are willing to roll up their sleeves and help with anything, and in their wide network of family members (tribe) that so and so’s uncle’s cousin is friends with a lawyer or experienced business owner to call for little guidance. Then they might add that they have YouTube as their teacher. However, from a purely business lens, from Western standards, one may see the situation as being highly restricted from startup resources such as access to bank loans, fundraising opportunities, pitching in front of investors, testing ideas in the market, or even typical marketing, promotion, and sales channels as a result of being a woman who chooses to (or follows a rule to) be separated from men outside of their family.

Let’s do a quick overview of Saudi history of women in the workforce.

1980& 90s: When I was a child absorbing images of what adult women did, most women were very busy homemakers. Even with hired house helpers like cooks and nannies, Saudi women were busy managing huge families with several children, elderly, relatives, house guests, house workers, many mouths to feed inside a physically big house that they looked after all day long. It’s like running a mini business. A small percentage of women also worked in healthcare to care for female patients and in education for female students.

2000s: A visible change during this period was a result of mushrooming interest in beauty and healthy living. Many women-only clubs opened up under the healthcare or cosmetics business license. Inside these women-only health clubs were usually a one-stop shop for all women’s self-care needs like hair salon, nail care, massage parlor, facials, fitness gym, fitness classes like aerobics and kickboxing, and of course a coffee shop, etc. Before these centers opened, beauty and spa services delivered to people’s homes where many Saudis have their private gyms too.

2010: The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz brought a few significant reforms to “feminize Saudi labor” by opening up certain retail, hospitality and government sectors for women to be employed, in addition to revamping women universities in country. As a result, now female student outnumber males in universities. Take a look inside the largest, most luxurious Saudi women’s university in the world.

2015: Princess Reema became the first female CEO of a major retail company, Harvey Nichols. In the retail space, there was a long controversy and debate about having sales-men at women’s lingerie shops, which was also replaced by female staff in 2015.

2015: For the first time in Saudi history, women participated (cast votes and run for seats) in municipal elections. However the outcome, the Kingdom illustrated its first step towards opening space for women’s leadership beyond employment.

A Saudi woman casting her ballot, December 2015

2017: There have been several notable changes recently. Saudi stock exchange appointed first female chair, a major commercial bank (Samba Financial Group) appointed first female CEO, 29 women appointed to Shoura council (an advisory body to Saudi king) and last week’s announcement that brought much controversy, Saudi Arabia elected to UN Women’s Rights Commission. However absurd it looks, this continues to build momentum and give hope that Saudi Arabia is committed towards changing to be more pro women.

Now, what about the rest of Saudi Arabia, the parts you can’t read in the news or hear about through a Google search? The women who don’t get to have jobs simply because the available job opportunities don’t match their interests or their families have not opened up to the idea of their daughters and wives working and mixing in public or they simply don’t want to answer to a boss and rather run their own business? Staying modern but in a distinct Saudi way is a crucial question that all Saudi women face these days.

One path that Saudi women have taken is a path of entrepreneurship. Many Saudi women have started their own businesses using just a smart phone, an idea and some small savings. I call them the creative “Insta-preneurs” because their only marketing and sales channel is on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Tumblr. (side note: Facebook is less popular in Saudi Arabia) They make their products in their private spaces (mostly at home, though some rent women-only office spaces) and most service businesses don’t require any physical business space. They use the chat function on WhatsApp for customer service communication needs, taking orders or delivery. The most common businesses are food, sweets, jewelry, fashion design, interior design, clothes, curated makeup & hair art, etc. In fact, some women have become legendary celebrities on social media that their business IS social media marketing. Imagine you met a Saudi woman with over 6 million followers, wouldn’t you want to pay her for a instagram photo post for a moment of fame? For example, check out @afnan_albatel.

I met several of these fiercely motivated entrepreneurs at an annual exhibition of women’s home-based startups called Montijoon KSA, which translates as “producers” of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This exhibition has been gathering several hundred new women-owned businesses each year to showcase their products and services.

Montijoon Exhibition in 2015

It was at Montijoon 2015 that I met a special woman. Her name is Nouf and she is 30 years old now. She runs a business called Korean Food in Saudi Arabia. She has close to 19,000 followers and she’s locally famous for her Kimbab (Korean sushi roll in vegetables) and Ddukbbokki (spicy rice cake stir fry)! Check out KoreanFood_SA Instagram.

Nouf tells me that she started this business because she loves Korean food and it’s a completely new taste to Saudi people. She also saw the opportunity because many people in Saudi watch Korean drama and wish to try their food. She did not have a job before and she is now very happy with her business life.

I asked Nouf how she learned to make Korean dishes. I thought her answer would be about her visiting South Korea. However, she’s never been to South Korea, nor had anyone teach her Korean cooking, instead, she said, “YouTube! I can learn whatever I want on YouTube”.

She reminds me of an old saying I used to memorize while studying English. “where there’s a will there’s a way.”

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I am an Adult Third Culture Kid, life coach, speaker, and a writer. Here, I write about Saudi Arabia and women, to offer third culture perspectives.