Renna Al-Yassini | Projects

Roudha Center

The Roudha Center will support Qatari women entrepreneurs at any point in establishing or running their businesses. Sketch courtesy Renna Al-Yassini

In 2007, Carnegie Mellon University's Donald H. Jones’ Center for Entrepreneurship launched its Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program in Qatar. The contract stipulated an increase in the enrollment of women to 50 percent within five years. In December of that year, my colleagues and I ventured to see how a design approach might help the Center meet its commitments.   

What emerged from the 18-month-long project's fieldwork was an understanding of just how essential women entrepreneurs are to this small country's objective of transitioning from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. To succeed, Qatar must recruit from among its most educated people, and those are women by a large margin.

Women, it turns out, are the gas-rich nation's greatest untapped resource. In the 1980s, more Qatari females than males started earning college degrees. By 1997, the number of women acquiring degrees was double the number of men (46 percent to 26 percent), with the gap continuing to widen. Not only do women complete advanced education in greater numbers, but the final degrees they earn are higher than men's and from better institutions. Yet 42 percent of those degree-wielding women are neither in Qatar's workforce nor students. According to government reporting, the people most prone to unemployment in Qatar are the least educated men and the most educated women. 

One might attribute the gender imbalance in the labor force primarily to a Muslim culture that promotes gender segregation outside the family. While these constraints are very strong in the Arab world, women there have been navigating them for countless generations. Gulf women are not strangers to entrepreneurship, as illustrated by the pivotal role played by Khadija, the wealthy widow who first employed the young Mohammad, then married him and gave financial backing to his later prophetic work. Islam’s inheritance laws give many women the experience of controling their own assets. Today numerous instances exist within the Gulf of inspirational women who run successful businesses and use the latest technologies to help them succeed.  

Like their American counterparts, they are likely to launch service- or education-based, career-long businesses structured to maintain greater personal control over their work/life balance. It is not surprising, therefore, that when a U.S. institution attempts to take its MBA entrepreneurship curriculum to another part of the world, the content fails to resonate with local women students as it has with Western ones. Such curricula stress technology as discontinuous innovations and business as scaled toward eventual corporate structure launched by venture capital, as in the Silicon Valley model. Only 5 percent of all such U.S. businesses in the past 40-plus years have been started by women.

The women of Qatar are ambitious, savvy and highly driven. There is no lack of ideas, nor any absence of desire to put in the work needed to realize them. What is missing are applicable, robust and transparent processes and resources to support entrepreneurs — entrepreneurs who use technology as tools to support businesses financed by the region’s traditional source, family and clan based financing, not venture capital.

The Roudha Center was initially presented in concept form in May 2009 to such institutions as the Qatar Science and Technology Park, Silatech, the Qatar Financial Center and the Qatar Foundation. It is to be an entrepreneurship and innovation resource center for women. Two local women, Shareefa Fadhel and Aysha Al-Mudehki, and I worked together to refine the proposal. We conceived of a physical location designed for the user's ease and control that any woman could come to for support at any point in her business process — whether researching the feasibility of a new idea or scaling up her already successful business. The Center is designed as a one-stop hub where any woman can learn both the specifics of how to launch a business and the skills, knowledge and technologies needed to make her particular idea successful.

The concept includes a targeted yet robust list of proposed classes, training sessions and workshops, designed to promote Qatar’s current realities and its ambitions for the future. The availability of affordable real estate being an issue in Qatar, the Center includes office, studio and retail space that corresponds to the certification process, along with classrooms, conference rooms and an auditorium. And since the very concept of angel investing and venture capital is utterly absent in this society, access to different models of financial support and seed money are an important part of the Center's proposal and outreach. Additionally, the Center is intended to provide bureaucratic and administrative mechanics in-house. Women would file for all the appropriate licenses and have the assistance of attorneys, accountants and other professionals to help them to effectively, directly and transparently navigate a currently mysterious process in both Arabic and English. 

By designing resources, connecting action, supporting success and building new models, the Roudha Center will remove many of the large and small barriers that prevent women from becoming the innovative entrepreneurs Qatar so desperately needs them to be.

Posted in: Social Good

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