Elissa Freiha is the Founder of womena®, a multi-dimensional media platform, accelerator, and network that accelerates equality through creative content and entrepreneurial experiences. Through their Bossladies Network; they identify female tech leaders and investors from around the Middle East and engage them through an exclusive Slack group and in-person workshops. Their media platforms promote these Bossladies and highlight inspiring stories of women changemakers from around the region. Lastly, their female-focused Womentum® Accellerator is making waves as an unique experience-based program and a groundbreaking documentary series. Currently, the Dubai-based platform has 10 companies in its portfolio in which womena® invested $800,000 since it was founded as an angel investment network in 2014. womena® expanded from being just a network of investors to become a pivotal voice and community leader for women in entrepreneurship in the Middle East.
“At some point, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to the advancement of women internationally and I’m choosing to do that through womena® for now. If I must wake up at five in the morning to get to a university to teach a classroom of 40 young women about venture capital, innovation, and entrepreneurship, that’s awesome to me, I love it and think it’s so profound and meaningful!” Freiha says
Elissa is an Emirati of Lebanese and American descent who was born and raised in Paris, France. She moved to Dubai after graduating from the American University of Paris with a BA in Global Communications. She relocated with the intention to open a restaurant but ended up finding her passion for angel investment, entrepreneurship, and women empowerment.
“Before moving to the Middle East, I was a baker making cakes in Paris and painting in my spare time. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial and the Middle East was undoubtedly going to be my market. Europe was far too traditional and the U.S. was far too saturated, so I saw the Middle East as the next big hub for change and innovation.” Freiha adds
How did WOMENA start?
I moved to Dubai in 2013 with the intent to start a restaurant business with one of my best friends, and right before moving there, I was introduced to venture capital and the concept of angel investing. It was so different from what I associated with ‘investment’ at the time. It is not an investment in stocks or bonds or public equities, but a far more exciting space as you are making investments in a person, an entrepreneur. You are investing in someone who’s passionate, determined, innovative and has a dream. It’s an active kind of investment, and collaborative one, and it was amazing for me to realize that I can be a value beyond the finances; meaning that I am not only investing money but also my time, my contacts, my knowledge or my experience.
“It turns out I don’t have to abide by the conventional societal expectations from a 23 years old woman to start with an entry-level job, build her experience and work her way up the corporate ladder. No, I realized that I can be of value at this early age and help a startup founder with the money and skills that I have, and he lacks. Then I started thinking that people, regardless of their gender, would benefit from being part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and investment platform which would help them in different ways.
So, I while I started the restaurant I started working on womena® as a side project. The restaurant fizzled out after three months while the investors’ network boomed; we started focusing on finding women who could invest, women who were already investing, and women who were leading the business space who would make ideal angels and then tried to convince them to join our platform. When womena® started, the term angel investment wasn’t commonly used and the technology startups ecosystem was still at an early stage. So, we just wanted to establish a platform that raises awareness, educates and empowers women to invest in technology startups.
About 3 years into the journey, my cofounder left, and my team and I we realized that there was so much more we wanted to do as an organization for the community. It was a big strategic pivot but we all committed and took the dive into launching the media platform and accelerator. I feel like we started all over again as a new startup with new energy but our years of experience as investors gives us a unique insight to guide entrepreneurs and spot the best stories to tell.
Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times?
Passion. I feel this word is overused in the entrepreneurial space but with passion I can guide myself strategically, professionally, and personally towards a goal in directions I’m not familiar with. Usually if I don’t feel excited about what I’m doing, I change what I’m doing. That’s the luxury of being an entrepreneur. I would lose focus if I’m not interested, when I feel I’m wasting my time, or I’m stuck in monotony and living by other people’s expectations of what I should be doing or where I should be going. So, for me, it really is about finding what makes me excited, through taking on different opportunities and experiencing various things, which would eventually guide me professionally and personally.
Being a baker before starting womena®, how did you find your passion for angel investment and women’s rights?
I loved making cakes; I didn’t think there would be anything else in the world that would wake me up at 5am other than coffee, sugar, cinnamon and baking those cakes; it was so much delicious happiness and just pure joy. But I haven’t baked a cake in 5 years now; I’m doing something bigger, I’m happy and stressed at the same time, so it doesn’t just wake me up in the morning but keeps me up all night sometimes. It is challenging because I feel so much more responsibility and so much more indebted emotionally in what’s happening.
I’ve always been a humanist; I’ve always been convinced of the positivity, diversity, and desire to treat humans equally regardless of ethnic backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation or age. So, this has always been in my heart. The moment I truly became passionate about it was when I realized the real state of women in the world and learning there’s a pay gap based on gender. It just didn’t make any sense to me and I couldn’t believe what the truth and the statistics were. Also, the fact that it will take us between 83-100 years before we reach pay equality just blew my mind. So, I started reading and educating myself more about it and I couldn’t get enough of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I was just absorbing all the information and wanting more and more; it consumed me. That made me realize how passionate I am about it.
I realized that the world doesn’t work in the way I hoped it did, specifically when it comes to women. Being a woman and coming from a family of very strong outspoken women leaders, I knew that I want to empower women, the largest community that is marginalized on the planet, for no historical reason apart from somebody who established dominance in some way.
How did you manage to start womena® without previous experience in investment?
I read as many books and articles I could get my hands on, talked to everybody and asked every question I could think of. I picked up things very fast, I learned to jargon and I very quickly learned that 85% of the people I was encountering were filled with emptiness and words; they thought they sounded smart. But the reality was that what they were doing had no substance behind it, and that gave me comfort because I knew that we at womena® had substance. So, I held on to the people with substance, the people that drove me, the people that were real with me and I just learned from them. I surrounded myself with people that challenged me more and I started investing. I figured out the basics of early-stage investing, the complexities and the region’s specificity. I’m still learning but now it’s more about processing myself as a founder, as a woman and as a business leader, finding what it means and how that translates into a business environment.
What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?
I believe its self-doubt and fear of being judged. I personally struggled with self-doubt; I doubted my perception and ability to judge a situation appropriately. I also didn’t give myself credit for being able to recognize and understand certain things; I thought I couldn’t do it. Secondly, I thought I would be judged if I speak loudly, challenge someone, criticize somebody else, or if I call someone out. Because we fight so much to show that we are strong that if we feel weak in any capacity we usually don’t want to show it or talk about it.
So, the fear of being judged is something that I constantly see in women as they grow in leadership roles. They don’t want to be known as the one who’s too nice, too serious, too masculine, or too selfish. Whatever it is, they just simply don’t want to be judged. I’m fearless; I’m not afraid of judgment, I had a very good story from the beginning: two women taking on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Middle East and empowering women economically. I don’t agree that you should show yourself stronger than you really are, I am very open about my struggles and people find that threatening sometimes. It took me a while to get comfortable enough to speak about my weaknesses.
Tell us some of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?
I can think of two big achievements for me. First, Womentum. My team and I conceptualized a new kind of entrepreneur accelerator that we thought was missing in the world. It was a dream, that is now a reality. Not only did we create it from scratch, and launch it less than a year later, but we filmed a docu-series around the whole thing. We are changing the face of entrepreneurship in the world and showing the true journeys and sacrifices that founders make as they fight for success.
Second, was when I did a speech at the Higher College of Technology in the U.A.E. where I talked about who I was, what my journey was, what WOMENA was, and I started the speech by showing an image of me and my co-founder in university hugging at a party and saying this is me and my friend Chantalle when we were your age, 22 years old, and then here’s us at the cover of a business magazine two years later. After that speech, I was approached by a 19 years old girl who came to tell me that I was a sign sent to her to show her that she can do what she wants to do, which was starting her own business. This for me was a great accomplishment, this moment completely changed my life!
I realized for the first time that I may not have all the answers, I may still mess up in business and I may still feel weak and lost, but I’ve done something, I’ve taken a step, and I am an example for girls younger than me showing them that they can also take a step. So, working with the students, these young women, not being far off at age to them, and seeing their beliefs grow beyond whatever limiting thoughts they had in their mind, gives me so much satisfaction and fulfillment.
The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?
I have a very strong network of people to whom I talk very openly about my stresses, my fears, and anxiety: people that have opposing views and others who will blindly support me. The more I speak about my fears, the more they become pragmatic and easier to handle. However, if things get very tough and scary, I just stop, switch off, meditate or sleep. I do this to recharge, take some time to relax and then deal with it with a clearer and more objective perspective.
What do you believe will be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?
Involving women in discussions will help find solutions that are far more inclusive of the general world population and transcend many barriers that are currently limiting human progress. Also, women bring a different perspective and that leads to far more creative and innovative ideas and solutions to the table,
Women are more compassionate and definitely more detail oriented, which is why they tend to make better investments decisions and lead companies with better returns. Women tend to take their time to understand and analyze ideas and proposals which allows them to make better investment decisions. Regardless of what women bring to the table, whatever they bring is going to be different, and that difference makes to a more valuable conversation and a much more fruitful outcome at the end of the day.
What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?
Firstly, men need to stop being so scared to outwardly support women and their involvement in business. Also, people need to change their perspective about the term feminism, which is seen as a very aggressive word, especially in the Middle East, and understand that it just means equality and fairness.
Secondly, men really need to be made aware of some of the subconscious biases that they have, whether they don’t invest enough in startups with females on the founding teams, or they don’t make effort to find or hire women in their organizations and have more gender-balanced teams.
If you could know the answer to only one of the following, which one would you choose, and why?
a. What happens after death
b. What is the meaning of life
I wouldn’t want to know the answer to either. What happens after death doesn’t change anything for me because at the end of the day I want to be able to live this life wholeheartedly, in the way that I want, and not necessarily dictated out of fear or expectations of what is going to come afterward. Second, knowing what the purpose of life is, would take all the mystery and fun out of everything we do.
What advice would you give to women out there?
A lot of times when women see there are many processes that should be done before they get started in entrepreneurship, they hesitate to take the first step. So, I would say, don’t be afraid to take a step, just start with something and don’t hold everything too close to your heart. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, own what you do, own who you are and show your strengths because the next generation really needs to hear your stories and learn that everything is possible. Talk about your work and achievements and make it easy for people to find you and be inspired by you. I believe there are so many stories that haven’t been told yet.