AstroLabs gives women in tech start-ups a helping hand

When Mai Medhat launched Eventtus, a social platform for conferences and events three years in Cairo, she was just one of a handful of female technology entrepreneurs in the region. The 27-year-old Egyptian attracted investment from the likes of Vodafone Ventures and Cairo Angels to develop her company and she is now expanding in the UAE with the help of AstroLabs.

AstroLabs is the brainchild of Mohammed Meki and Louis Lebbos, the founders of one of the most successful digital companies in the region – Namshi, the online retail site.

Now the two have partnered with Google for Entrepreneurs to find the best technology start-ups in the region, and they are focusing on women.

“We need to highlight more women entrepreneurs and women in executive positions,” says Ms Medhat. “People need to hear success stories and achievements by women in tech to believe that we can do it and we can do it right.”

To date, AstroLabs, launched in March 2013, has provided training and support to 120 start-ups from Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, raising US$50 million in funding among them. Some have gone on to claim regional and international success, including the Arabic food website Shahiya and online car service Careem. One of AstroLabs’ main aims is to increase the participation of women technology entrepreneurs by 25 per cent.

They have recently nominated two female technology entrepreneurs from the region for the BlackBox Connect accelerator programme in San Francisco.

“While women across the world constitute a significant number of university graduates, sometimes more than men, we don’t see this representation happening in technology,” says Mr Lebbos. “There are a lot of theories as to why this is. The more women with jobs in the tech ecosystem, the more other women will be comfortable joining it. It would be good for the overall economy.”

The region has become a hotbed for female entrepreneurs in recent years keen to shatter the corporate glass ceiling and reach the top of the pyramid in their own right, and the easiest way nowadays is through technology.

“The region compared to other parts of the world has more women in tech start-ups participating as a percentage based on the programmes we’ve seen even compared to Silicon Valley,” says Mr Mekki. “Tech start-ups are a great equaliser, you can set up your own business and own ideas and make things happen yourself without being encumbered with bureaucracy or gender bias.”

The two have already accepted more than 20 companies to be part of the community and claim to be accepting new applications every week. They include the likes of Jordan’s Madfoo3at, South Africa’s ImpressME and Innspire from Sweden.

AstroLabs will house these companies in a 6,500 square feet centre in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers. The centre, the first such Google-sponsored hub in the region, will open next month and will play host to a bevy of partners from all around the world to help the local tech community thrive and bring global standards to the region.

AstroLabs has also partnered with the Dubai Investment Development Agency, part of the Department of Economic Development to drive investment into high-growth sectors. The emirate is keen to attract more tech-focused companies to Dubai ahead of Expo 2020 and is planning to invest Dh4.5 billion to turn the city into an innovation hub for global technology businesses and entrepreneurs.

“We’re creating a very diverse group in terms of industry, background and country background,” says Mr Mekki. “They’re mostly from the Middle East for now, but we’re working on partnerships to bring more international start ups here.”

Membership offers companies access to AstroLabs’ network of experts, an office space and mobile device development lab. A monthly membership for entrepreneurs is Dh1,500 and Dh2,250 for a licensed company. The fee includes licence and registration costs associated with starting a business from scratch.

“The reason why we created AstroLabs is to tackle the biggest challenges that entrepreneurs face when starting up a company – high cost of rent in Dubai and the talent gap in the region,” says Mr Mekki.

While interest and investment in the region’s technology sector has picked up over the past couple of years, the development of the sector is still lagging behind other emerging markets. One good indicator of the health of the sector is the penetration of e-commerce. Across the Middle East just 1 to 2 per cent of sales are generated online, whereas in the United Kingdom it accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of all retail transactions.

“There’s no doubt that tech entrepreneurship is still in its early days,” says Mr Mekki. “There are major players who are definitely interested, the commitment of Google shows that. But it is still early days in terms of where the region as a whole stands.”

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