This neuroscience researcher turned entrepreneur is on a mission to enable female founders in Saudi Arabia (and beyond
Tamara Pupic Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle EastFebruary 16, 2021 7 min readOpinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
The growing recognition of the strength of women in Saudi Arabia to fully step into their social and economic power over the last few years hasn’t surprised Emon Shakoor, a Saudi neuroscience researcher who became a technology entrepreneur and startup catalyst. “I see Saudi women possessing vision with great agility,” she declares. “Saudi women are extremely resilient and adaptive, which is a core quality for any entrepreneur.”
Strength is a part of Shakoor’s personality too. Despite battling with dozens of epilepsy seizures a day while growing up, Shakoor managed to get past those hurdles and go on to earn a degree in cognitive sciences from the University of California, San Diego, and then work at Parexel, a US clinical research and biopharmaceutical company, where she led hundreds of Pfizer clinical drug trials across North America. Industry accolades followed, which included Shakoor becoming one of the Global Shapers Community in its Jeddah Hub, a delegate of 30 Under 30 group at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as a TEDx speaker on topics ranging from neuroscience and innovation, to youth and women’s empowerment, equity and inclusion.
The other adjectives she used to describe her Saudi female peers to describe her Saudi female peers –relentless, adaptive, and innovative– apply to her too; however, Shakoor is not hiding a weakness that, she believes, most women have in common. “Perfectionism,” she explains. “I believe this is the case for most women, not only Saudi or Arab women. As women, we often want things to be perfect in our companies, especially when we first launch. I have been guilty of this as well. I recommend entrepreneurs to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and stop holding themselves to these unrealistic ideals of perfectionism. Making mistakes is part of the journey, so enjoy it.”
Source: Blossom Accelerator
Shakoor is the founder and CEO of Blossom Accelerator, Saudi Arabia’s first tech-inclusion and female focused accelerator that provides founders access to community, networks, educational resources, as well as curating investment opportunities. In addition to her role at Blossom Accelerator, Emon also uses her role as an advisory board member at OQAL, Saudi Arabia’s largest angel investment network, to advocate for inclusivity because, she says, it leads to not just greater innovation but also higher economic returns. About her experiences as an entrepreneur in the Kingdom, Shakoor says, “I believe doing business in Saudi is always a good idea. We are an incredible country with diversified resources and we are leading and innovating in so many sectors. We also have a young, innovative and tech savvy population that is essential to our startup and technology ecosystem.”
But Shakoor also admits to having experienced her share of obstacles through the course of her entrepreneurial journey. “One of the biggest challenges was being a young solo female founder, since I had to wear so many hats at Blossom, especially in the early days, as well as to make all the difficult decisions myself,” she says. “Leading Blossom Accelerator was the ultimate multi-tasking experience, and I often had decision-making fatigue, but it taught me to be the fearless, confident, relentless, and savvy business woman I am today. Today, very few things faze me.”
Fueled by a desire to help young Saudi female founders like herself, Shakoor launched Blossom Accelerator’s first cohort in April 2018. The accelerator has since mentored more than 300 startup companies from at least 38 different cities and across five countries, including the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the USA. “Blossom Accelerator’s mission is to create a more innovative and inclusive ecosystem giving entrepreneurs of all kinds equal access to opportunities,” she proudly says. “We believe diversity and inclusion are the pillars of startup disruption and economic growth.”
Some of the success stories which have sprung into life out of the accelerator are Naseej Market, an online fashion marketplace, Beauty Choice, an online beauty market, WhatsApp Digger, a mobile forensics tool, Tabibook, a healthtech startup, as well as Ghalia, a vegan cheese company. Excited with the entrepreneurial ventures emerging from the kingdom, Shakoor set a new target for herself- and, impressively, achieved it quite quickly.
It was recently announced that Blossom Accelerator partnered with Female Founder School, Silicon Valley’s premier startup school, with Shakoor’s mission being to build a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley, in order to empower local entrepreneurs and build a better connected and more collaborative world as well. “We at Blossom Accelerator are very honored that we have partnered with Female Founder School on the content and curriculum that we deliver at the accelerator,” she says. “They are leaders in their industry in Silicon Valley and beyond, and being able to join forces with them gives our entrepreneurs and founders in MENA region exclusive access to Silicon Valley’s best practices and methodologies. Over the years, I’ve watched many startup videos and have read hundreds of books, but what Female Founder School offers is really one of a kind.”
Shakoor points out that Female Founder School’s outstanding content has been localized for the Saudi and the MENA markets with local case studies and examples, adding that the partnership also brings in an additional benefit for female Saudi entrepreneurs. “This partnership has now also allowed us not only to focus on pre-seed and seed stage companies, but also founders in their earliest stage of ideation,” she says. “We are now able to equip female founders who have just an idea with the right tools and resources to take their next steps in their entrepreneurial journey. We are very excited that we are able to focus on founders in the ideation stage, as we believe this will help incubate the next generation of female founders across the MENA, and create a world with more women-led tech companies and more female CEOs.”
Achieving such an important milestone raises questions about the personal features or business strategies that have made Shakoor persevere and overcome any obstacles she might have encountered through the process. “I am incredibly relentless, and I have conviction when it comes to my vision for the company, but at the same time, I have had to learn also to be very agile and adaptive and open to change,” she says. “Sometimes, I must lead with my stubborn vision, and other times, I must be agile in allowing for quick changes according to market demand and need. It’s a tough balance of knowing when to do what. I’ve learned impeccable and quick decision-making skills over the years, and I have also learned to trust my gut and allow our team to lead and innovate more at work, and not micro-manage.”
It is this same mindset that has governed Shakoor’s approach to the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. “2020 has taught us to be more connected and more resilient than ever before,”she says. “It has taught us how strong we are as a company, because even during the most difficult times, we were able to rise above and still create impact in the startup ecosystem, especially for female founders.” 2021 looks bright, she says, with Shakoor continuing to work on her plan “to further enable female founders across the MENA region to receive funding opportunities, and close the current gender gap in venture capital funding.”
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