WASHINGTON, Aug 29, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Reem Dad, a 22-year-old from Saudi
Arabia, is developing a platform for pilgrims and tourists to experience a
virtual reality tour of Medina, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Heba Zahid, 37, is working on GreenDesert, a venture that would be one of
the first to help create a recycling culture in the Middle Eastern country.
Dad and Zahid were among 14 young women social entrepreneurs from the
ultra-conservative kingdom who recently attended an intensive program at
Halcyon, a Washington-based business incubator, to turn their ideas into
The initiative comes after Saudi women were given the right to drive in
June, among reforms backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman raising hopes
for greater gender equality despite an ongoing crackdown on women’s rights
“Everything is changing now… There is space for females everywhere,”
said Dad, whose virtual reality program is called Taibah VR.
“If a man wants to establish a company or wants to start up something,
there’s a process they go through — the same process we also go through. So
I feel we are equal,” she told AFP.
Other projects include an Arabic-language app to help autistic children
communicate, matching employers and workers to reduce unemployment and
underemployment, as well as a video game to motivate youths to engage in
The Saudi government’s Vision 2030 aims in part to promote local
businesses, including those run by women, whose participation in the
workforce is expected to grow from 22 percent to 30 percent by the end of the
That’s still far behind most other nations. In the United States, where
large gaps remain between women and men’s employment rates, wages and job
positions, around 60 percent of women participate in the labor force,
according to the Brookings Institution.
– ‘Future leaders’ –
Halcyon fellow Asmaa Alabdallah, 22, founded BitGo, a Pokemon Go-like
augmented reality game that uses gamification techniques to encourage
“Of course, we have a lot of challenges… but the most important thing is
that you will never give up,” she said, insisting like Dad that her greatest
obstacle lay not in being a woman entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia as much as in
finding local programming talent.
The training was funded in part by Medina-based Taibah University, which
launched a competition with support from the Saudi consulate in New York.
During their two-week stay, the women fine-tuned their business pitches,
built up their strategic networks and participated in workshops on
negotiations, sales and vulnerability.
They got advice from large companies like Amazon Web Services, other
startups and consultants such as Deloitte.
The program ended with the women presenting their fledgling ventures to
some 150 investors, philanthropists, as well as international organization
and embassy representatives.
Despite the optimism, numerous challenges remain in Saudi Arabia.
Topping the list is the kingdom’s guardianship system that prevents women
from carrying out major decisions — including traveling abroad, getting
married or divorced and signing contracts — unless they get permission from
a male guardian like a husband, father or brother.
“In a country like Saudi Arabia especially that has historically not been
open to women getting access to these kind of opportunities, the fact that
they were willing to do this program with all-women founders was very
welcome,” said Halcyon director of policy and international programs Josh
“We expect these women to return to Saudi Arabia not just as future
leaders for their country and their region, but to start successful
The women got workspace and housing at one of Washington’s most
illustrious addresses in the tony Georgetown neighborhood, Halcyon House, a
sprawling red brick mansion with a sweeping view of the Potomac River.
Since its inception in 2014, Halcyon Incubator’s full-time fellowship has
supported 61 ventures it says have raised more than $56 million and created
some 500 jobs positively impacting 675,000 people.
Last year, Halcyon became an independent non-profit organization that also
encompasses public policy and the arts.
It was launched by Kate Goodall and Japanese American biochemist Sachiko
Kuno, a co-founder of Sucampo Pharmaceuticals and a driving force behind the
Washington-based, female-led investment fund WE Capital.