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Breaking the Mold: Can the MENA Region Be a Leader in Inclusive Capital?


The Middle East North Africa region (MENA) is fertile ground for founders who want to start a business venture, but the environment wasn’t always so welcoming. In this virtual panel, four veteran business leaders from the region discuss the myriad ways in which the entrepreneurial ecosystem has transformed from a terrain that was once parched for capital to a landscape lush with billions of investment dollars deployed each year. Despite remarkable progress that has produced several international unicorns, there’s still much work to be done. In 2020, for example, all-male teams received about 86% of the venture capital in MENA, while all-female teams captured a paltry 2.2%. The lopsided numbers illustrate the disproportionate challenge of inclusivity. For capital to become truly transformational in ensuring wealth and prosperity across the region, it must move beyond the stereotypical founder: a middle-aged man with a university pedigree, a visa-friendly passport, and a track record of success. These privileges are afforded to few, and investors who favor them will continue to keep the capital door shut to other types of entrepreneurs, especially women. The panelists, whose bios are listed below, share their career journeys and talk about what it will take to create a more inclusive future. Keep reading for key takeaways from their conversation.

The April 7 panel was a collaboration between the Middle East Institute and The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT. It was hosted by Legatum Executive Director Dina H. Sherif and joined by Regie Mauricio, research manager at Legatum. The discussion follows an article co-written by Sherif and Mauricio for MEI’s publication, Thinking MENA Futures.


Mona Ataya, CEO and founder of, MENA’s largest online shop for baby products. Under Ataya’s leadership, the company became the top-funded, female-led e-commerce site in the Middle East.

Fadi Ghandour, executive chairman of Wamda Group, the region’s leading venture capital firm. Ghandour is co-founder and board member of Dubai-based Aramex, the first MENA logistics firm to be listed on Nasdaq. 

Mohamed Okasha, founder and managing partner of DisrupTech, a $20 million fintech-focused fund in Egypt. He previously co-founded Fawry, a digital payment platform that became Egypt’s first unicorn, valued at $1 billion.

Hadeer Shalaby, managing director of Egypt-based Talabat, an online food delivery service. She founded Taxi El Sa7el, the first ride-hailing app in the region, and was general manager of Careem Cairo, which was acquired by Uber.

Four Key Takeaways:

  1. The ecosystem has matured over time. Twenty years ago, capital was a scarce commodity, the internet was nascent, and consumers were largely offline.The rapid increase in internet penetration and access to smartphones has leap-frogged progress for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, pushing governments to create regulatory frameworks and provide more funding. That support has been instrumental in expanding MENA economies through startups. “In any ecosystem, without funding, you’re not going to have an ecosystem. Full stop,” Ghandour said.
  2. Startups attract the best talent. Unlike the U.S., where huge multinational corporations such as Amazon, Apple, and Google have the star power to draw the top talent, the best minds in the Middle East often head to startups. In addition to the opportunity to innovate, small enterprises allow for failure, iteration and learning. That’s why so many startup employees take their acquired knowledge and become founders themselves, building a perpetual network often referred to as a “mafia” for creating a small core of very wealthy people. These opportunities are also reversing the decades-long trend of “brain drain” from MENA to the West. “I don’t like the word ‘mafia,’” Okasha said. “In our culture we call it a school. Good people come and they learn.”
  3. Gender discrimination is real. Like their American counterparts, female founders in MENA get a fractional amount of the available capital. Ataya said it will take a “complete shift” for the ecosystem to embrace diversity and recognize it as fundamental to growth. She urged venture capitalists to be proactive about increasing funds to diverse founders. Ataya also called for root changes to attract more women to STEM careers, to promote more women to decision-making positions, and to establish female mentors. “Success breeds success. If other women have been in the ecosystem and have been successful, you’re more likely to attract other women and minorities also,” she said.
  4. The future looks very bright. The panelists said they believe that MENA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will continue to expand, powered by the next generation of smart minds and new wealth. They hope to see more companies scaling and creating for consumer value, not just profitable exits. They want more acquisitions by MENA mega-companies, rather than startups being sold to Western firms. And they can’t wait for what’s next. “I’m an optimistic person by nature. Just looking at where that startup ecosystem was 10 years ago, every year it changes, and it’s just super exciting to be part of that,” Shalaby said.