September 07, 2021
MENA Q&A Thesis VC women

Ambar Amleh on Building an Ecosystem for Entrepreneurship in Palestine

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Five years ago, Ambar Amleh (KF Class 23) co-founded Palestine’s only active VC fund, Ibtikar. Prior to that, Ambar had directly supported Palestinian entrepreneurs as the program manager for Palestine for a New Beginning (PNB), a Palestinian nonprofit focused on entrepreneurial development. Ambar grew PNB from an idea and a loose and small board leadership to an established Palestinian institution. Through PNB, Ambar organized the yearly Celebration of Innovation, a Palestine-wide competition of entrepreneurs, and the follow-up support to these entrepreneurs, including Global Entrepreneurship Week in Palestine.

One of the few female general partners of a VC fund in the MENA region, she’s also been recognized as one of the ‘50 Most Influential Women in the Arab World‘ by CEO Middle East Magazine. Since launching Ibtikar, she’s made an active effort to bring more women into the entrepreneurial ecosystem – and her fund has overperformed funds across the world in terms of the number of women in which they have invested.

Ambar recently made her TEDx debut discussing how women can help “make the mountain taller” for other women (tune in here). Sharing personal anecdotes from her own upbringing while also discussing the pandemic’s impact on women’s equality, her TEDxAlManaraSquare talk offers motivational optimism and solutions for how those in leadership positions can create a more inclusive workplace.

We recently caught up with Ambar to discuss her serendipitous path into venture, Ibtikar’s unique investment thesis, and how she ensures their portfolio prioritizes women both as leaders and consumers.

 

Q: What made you interested in venture capital in the first place, and how did you get from there to launching the fund?

A: There wasn’t necessarily a clear path towards venture. It was a culmination of many years working with Palestinian entrepreneurs – a boots-on-the-ground experience that started after I got my MBA and applied for a fellowship that serendipitously landed me in Jordan. 

This was post-September 11th when development organizations were looking for people to work in the Middle East. While I was there, I started learning about Palestine. I’m embarrassed to say this now, but like many Americans, I had very little knowledge of what was happening in the region. It’s a complicated, drawn-out history,  and I think it overwhelms many. 

After being here in the region and learning more about Palestine, I wanted to help Palestinians tell their story. And so, because of my marketing, PR, and political background,  I was hired by the Palestinian negotiations team to do that. I moved to Palestine and six months later there was this huge leak of thousands of memos and position papers. It was a big deal because the PLO had failed to really explain to its people what they were, in fact, negotiating. So then I was out of a job. 

Next, I was hired by the Palestinian Coca-Cola chairman, Zahi Khouri, to continue some of the advocacy work, but from a private sector perspective.

Zahi had also just been named the chairman of a new Obama program called Partners for a New Beginning (PNB). Obama had promised a new beginning with the Muslim world when he was elected. This was a concrete way for the State Department and those embassies to act. Zahi had convinced several of Palestine’s most important business leaders to join him on PNB. During our first meeting, they said, “Look, our biggest threat after the Arab Spring is the unemployment among youth. We, as the largest employers, cannot create jobs fast enough. We’re constrained in our growth, and we need to do something about this.” 

That was where the entrepreneurship focus came from. We supported in various ways – training courses, hackathons, and startup weekends; national entrepreneurship celebrations; and Global Entrepreneurship Week. And finally, what became obvious was that we needed capital.

So we started working on Ibtikar (which means innovation in Arabic) seven years ago. We took time to structure it and understand where we would be best placed within this larger ecosystem.

Back then, there was one other venture capital firm called Sadara, which was investing at Series A. Still, they struggled to find enough pipeline, while accelerators and incubators were graduating companies who could not access smaller amounts of funding to grow. As such, we decided to close this early-stage funding gap and focus on smaller investments, coupled with a lot of support. That was five years ago when we closed our first fund – and now we’re launching our second fund. We are very excited that we will be able to invest more in more companies and bigger companies to continue this work.

 

Q: Do you have a specific investment thesis for the fund?

A: It’ll continue to be early-stage tech under Palestinian ownership, but we will be looking to do more diaspora companies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. We have seen that the early-stage funding gap exists throughout MENA, plus we hope that we’ll be able to bring some of those founders back to Palestine in some way, whether it’s by connecting them to our ecosystem or hiring in Palestine.

Because it will be a larger fund (our target is $30M USD), we are also excited that we will be able to invest more in more companies. 

 

A: In your TEDx Talk, you mention investing in women. How do you ensure that your leadership team has diversity? 

A: Right now, we’re two partners, myself and Habib Hazzan. So, I am very proud of what we’ve done in terms of investing in women. 

40% of our founders are women. 30% of those employed by our portfolio are women. Many of these women are in tech, and they’re the people who either would drop out of the workforce or leave if they couldn’t find work in Palestine.

We’re glad to provide those opportunities in Palestine, especially in tech startups that provide more flexibility for women than traditional jobs. Now post-COVID, we see that even more women are working from home. And yes, it’s challenging with family, but you can work at your own pace or at night. So, it’s a little more flexible than maybe working for the civil service or a larger, less agile organization.

I’m sure that having a woman around the decision-making table helped us attract more female founders in fund one. Female founders often approach me for guidance, and we spend a lot of time talking before they officially approached Ibtikar. With fund two, we will be much more conscientious about our efforts to attract more women.

We have targets to increase the number of women in which we invest. We will do that by widening the pool of pipeline companies founded by women, by organizing activities and events that target women as founders and as clients. Because the other issue is that women are often ignored as consumers. 

The second thing we’ll do is help our companies hire more women throughout their ranks, including in senior leadership, by helping maintain a database of women who can be hired. 

If you look at the research, companies led by women often outperform men, so there’s a real reason for us to focus on this, especially in the Middle East, which has historically had larger percentages of women out of work. 

 

Q: You mention in your TEDx talk that “the MENA region is consistently in the lowest spot for females in management positions, with Palestine in some of the lowest spots around the world.” Despite those reports, are you hopeful for the future of women in the workforce and women in tech in the Middle East? What do you see as the final nail on the coffin to get things to a jumping-off point?

A: The biggest signal of the potential woman is the number of graduates. So if you look across MENA, the number of women graduates, overall and in tech, is rising. There are more women in universities, and they’re outperforming men. But then we’re losing them post-graduation.

So if somebody needs to stay home, it will be the woman that stays home. This is not only in the Middle East but around the world. With COVID, women went first as people needed child care, parental care, or just to lay people off. 

But in terms of positive signals, it is the education level of women. If we can attract women and have women-led companies where the leadership understands the needs of women, then I am very hopeful that we’ll be able to hire and retain more women.

 

Q: On the flip side,  would you consider products and services that cater specifically to women as part of your investment thesis? If we can create companies that target women as consumers, you’re creating products that respond to the needs of half of the population that were previously ignored.

A: We are hesitant to be more focused on a moment, specifically because of our already narrow focus on Palestine, so we don’t want to close ourselves off too much. But certainly, some of the biggest opportunities we see now are in work from home, education, technology, health technology, and other sectors typically led by women. So we are confident that we’ll be able to raise the numbers and attract more women, both as employees and founders. 

 

Q: What are some of the most exciting portfolio companies that you have?

A: One of our most promising is actually our first investment is called Mashvisor. It is a company based in Palestine and targeting the U.S. market. They sell data to U.S. real estate investors.

We’re excited to show that a company from Palestine can grow to a certain level and expand anywhere and sell products from here and continue to hire and create economic development in Palestine. 

Because we’re sector agnostic, we have companies across the span (view full portfolio here). We have the best e-commerce site for lingerie and undergarments in Saudi Arabia, and women lead that one. It’s a unique company because they realized, “Look, the lingerie shopping experience in the region is horrible. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. The product offering is horrible. So how can we improve this situation through e-commerce?”

Just today, I was meeting with our company called 360Moms, a content and loyalty platform for mothers. Mothers are constantly researching; they’re constantly looking for information. And as consumers, they’re quite powerful. 

We have companies that do marketing technology. We have ones that do security work. As an investor, it’s exciting to hop around in different areas. One day I’m learning about the consumption habits of a woman shopping for undergarments in Saudi Arabia to the next day, learning how to maximize sales on Shopify. I’m constantly putting on these different hats. And because these are all early-stage companies, you’re able to make an impact. At the end of the day, most of these companies have very similar problems. So you can start identifying those early, honing in on them, and supporting the portfolio.

 

Q: What are your thoughts on the local tech and VC ecosystem? Are there a lot of active accelerators, events? Or are those growing in numbers? Do you think it’s helping with getting people into tech earlier? Getting them connected to capital?

A: The Middle East is getting better. We just had two major exits through SPACs (Anghami and Swivl). So that is exciting because the IPO markets in the region weren’t much of an option. Before, you never were going to exit in the capital market in Dubai, for example.

Previously, you mostly had acquisitions and mergers as exit options. Now you have the public markets.So that’s changing, and it’s exciting. And, more and more investors are really starting to see venture capital as a very viable investment possibility.

Further, more young people are eager to join startups and then eventually starting their own startups. And that’s also happening in Palestine. That’s one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen. When I first started working with entrepreneurs 10 years ago, we used to see early grads from universities with very basic solutions for very basic problems. For example, there was an app to get through the checkpoint and understand the traffic conditions. Well, yeah, that was great, and it’s needed here, but we’re never gonna sell it anywhere else. Now, we see more experienced entrepreneurs who are solving regional or global problems, and who come to us for sales and expansion funding. 

In terms of our ecosystem, it ebbs and flows. That is because a lot of work in supporting entrepreneurs is donor-driven. So you have big donors like USAID and the World Bank supporting accelerators, incubators, hackathons, etc. But while it’s good for us and our pipeline development, in terms of sustainability, we need to make sure that those programs are strong enough that there is actually a pathway to success.

We’re thrilled to be launching our second fund. We continue to be the only VC, but a few others are getting into it. For example, Paltel, our biggest telecom company, has made some investments.

 

Q: What would you say to someone who is not sure about getting into venture because it’s intimidating or they don’t have a financial background? What would be your advice?

A: Well, I was there. Finance courses were not my strong suit. But, especially in the early stage, it’s about people more than numbers. Besides money, we offer a lot of support to our companies, opening up doors in terms of relationships, calling on people for partnerships, etc. So it’s a lot of relationship building. It’s not only about number crunching and finance.

In the end, yes, it does require the number crunchers. But venture requires a lot of different skills as well. It’s an exciting space to be in. I think it’s sort of cliche, but it’s the future.

It’s where technological advances are happening. It’s where you’re cooking up products and solutions to big problems. In places like Palestine, it’s game-changing. It’s stimulating for many reasons, including economic development and putting Palestine on a map that is not only political. 

As your career progresses, you will very likely question yourself and your abilities. Go for it anyway — go for that job for which you don’t meet ALL the requirements, go for that master’s, go for that audition, whatever it is your heart desires…you’ll never know if you don’t try.

I leave you today with the poem that inspired the title of my TEDx talk, legacy, by Rupi Kaur, a 28-year-old Indian-Canadian poet. 

“i stand

on the sacrifices

of a million women before me

thinking

what can i do

to make this mountain taller

so the women after me

can see farther”

How many of you can take some of the ideas I presented today and help make our mountain taller?

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