Digital Revolution: Women Tech Leaders Defy Lebanon’s Gender Gap

In Lebanon, women outnumber men in many parts of the tech scene, succeeding and leading in an industry that’s dominated by men around the world, and challenging their country’s ingrained gender inequality.

BEIRUT – Whenever Lebanese tech investor Hala Fadel goes to Silicon Valley meetings, she takes her 16-year-old daughter with her. “My daughter loves what I do, and people always remember,” she says. “My approach stands out because it feels natural.”

It’s no wonder why Fadel wants her daughter to see her holding her own with some of tech’s biggest hitters. She is on the front line of a digital entrepreneurial revolution in Lebanon, leading in an industry not known for gender equality, in a country where patriarchal attitudes still reign.

Raised in Paris and living back in Lebanon since 2003, Fadel is a founding member and chair of the pan-Arab MIT Enterprise Forum, which was set up as a nonprofit body in 2005 to promote entrepreneurship. Outside of the forum, she has a similarly tech-focused track record: She worked as a Merrill Lynch analyst; got an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management; launched and later sold a telecom software company; and then, in 2014, cofounded Leap Ventures, a $71m venture capital fund that targets Middle East technology businesses.

In many parts of the world, Fadel would be seen as a lone woman leader in a male-dominated tech environment. But not in Lebanon. She says the MIT Enterprise forum received 9,000 applications last year, and at one point, 45 percent of applicants were women. At the forum’s U.S. chapter, she says, 36 percent of applicants are women. Meanwhile, at Beirut Digital District, a busy tech hub providing space and support to various companies with a total of 1,300 employees, the gender ratio is 55/45 in favor of women.

This is in striking contrast with the status of women in general in Lebanon, which is ranked 135 out of 144 for women’s rights, according to the 2016 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. Women’s tech success in the country also stands out from the worldwide picture. Figures from the National Center for Women and Information Technology show in the U.S. only an average of 25 percent of people working in the tech industry are women. In the U.K.just 17 percent of people in tech are women, according to the Chartered Institute for I.T.

Priscilla Elora Sharuk cofounded password protection provider Myki in Lebanon in 2013. She says the software was inspired by her grandmother’s inability to remember passwords. “What started off as a USB-password-storing hardware device to cure Grandma’s password pain slowly but surely turned into Myki,” she says.

Sharuk, who also mentors tech startups, says the women of Lebanon’s tech scene are in a unique position to promote the growth of the industry, as the country’s economy struggles with an environment of political turmoil and the pressure of the more than 1 million refugees who have fled there from Syria.

“A large part of the responsibility that falls on us as female founders in the ever-changing tech scene is to create a culture that fosters [the] creation of technology amid the stagnation of our economy and the guts to simply dare to create and go up against the giants of the world,” she says. “How do we do this? By surrounding ourselves with women equally daring and bold.”

Delphine Edde, cofounder of digital media company Diwanee, agrees. The company, which Edde started with her husband in 2008, specializes in digital content creation and distribution for targeted, mainly female, audiences in the Middle East and Gulf. “The difficult part was working with men employees who were not used to a woman giving directions,” she says. “I don’t feel that now. Either they got used to it or I don’t care anymore!”

Hala Fadel, founding member and chair of the pan-Arab MIT Enterprise Forum, often takes her daughter to Silicon Valley meetings with her. (Courtesy of Hala Fadel)

All around the country, male tech employees are learning to get used to working for women. Projects such as the U.K. Lebanon Tech Hub (UKLTH), an initiative between Banque du Liban and the U.K. government, are helping more women carve out spots at the heads of their own tech companies. One of its graduates, Nadine Haram, is the cofounder of Proximie, which uses augmented reality to train surgeons and assist during surgeries in conflict zones such as Gaza, Syria and Iraq. It recently signed Yale as a new partner. Other UKLTH women-led successes include the ed-tech startup Play My Way, home allergen tracker Sensio Air and MakerBrane, a platform for designing and building toys.

But even with support, it’s not easy for women to lead in Lebanon’s tech industry, says Sharuk. “When speaking about developing, middle-income countries like Lebanon, it seems fair to say a man starts building his career from zero, while women start building from below zero,” she says.

And Diwanee cofounder Edde, a mother of two boys, says women’s ambition often runs up against society’s expectations. “I got the weirdest comments from schoolteachers, such as, ‘We need more women like you, but it would be great if you could be home every day at 3 p.m. for your kids.’”

For Fadel, the impulse to buck the stereotype is one of the reasons women are doing so well in Lebanon’s tech scene. “Being sparky, breaking the rules, it’s part of the mentality. It is intrinsic to the tech industry,” she says. “Other industries could learn from tech. More self-confidence for women helps, and people need to look at women as credible business partners. In tech, this shift in mentality has happened faster than in many other fields.”