The role of women in Middle Eastern society has evolved greatly throughout history. From behind-the-scenes homemakers to fully-fledged businesswomen, the Arab woman now sits alongside men at the head of some of the region’s largest companies, supported by a host of government initiatives in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Over the past two decades, Middle Eastern women have increased both their knowledge and their capital, making them a largely untapped source of investment for startup projects throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.
Enter: Womena – an angel investor group made up solely of women. It is over breakfast at the newly opened No.57 Café in Abu Dhabi that Savoir Flair meets with the duo behind the concept, Elissa Freiha and Chantalle Dumonceaux, two young women who are as beautiful as they are smart and captivatingly eloquent. In between bites of smoked salmon and freshly baked croissants, they tell us how they plan to empower women and de-corporatize the world of investment.
What are your respective backgrounds? What were you both doing before Womena?
Elissa: I grew up in Paris and studied there my whole life, apart from a quick semester in Madrid. I was focused on marketing, global communications, and political communications. I’ve worked across so many sectors and for so many different companies – the UNESCO, a bakery, even a record label. But it was always with a focus on PR and marketing, except for the bakery, which was more hands-on.
Chantalle: I’m from Los Angeles – my mother is Canadian and my father is American. I studied at the American University in Paris, which is where I met Elissa, and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in economics. I then lived in New York, where I worked for a platform that manages venture capital (VC) and angel groups, and through them I got exposure to micro VC and angel investing.
And what prompted the decision to team up and start Womena? Was there a specific eureka moment?
Elissa: It was a summer night, the breeze was blowing… [Laughs] No. We have an incredibly deep mutual admiration for each other and for the qualities and strengths that the other person has. We were the typical best friends gushing about how wonderful we think the other person would be in their life and how many things they are going to accomplish. Then there was a phone call when Chanty called and said, “Why wait? Why do we have to wait until we are both successful? Why don’t we do something now?” So we started brainstorming and we came up with a few ideas of what we could do. I was already planning to come back to Dubai and be with my dad and my sister here. This country is really the perfect place for entrepreneurial projects; the government has a lot of different entities and initiatives that help entrepreneurs and especially female entrepreneurs. So we decided we would work together.
Chantalle: We were actually sitting on a boat and the stars were above us, which sounds like the beginning of a romantic story. [Laughs] I had my laptop out and we were just discussing various project ideas. We kept coming back to the idea of an angel group and thinking about all things that made the UAE the perfect place to start an angel group.
Elissa: It was the first time I was introduced to the idea. I had never heard about angel investing before.
How exactly does it work?
Chantalle: So an angel investor is someone who invests in new companies for an equity stake in the company. An angel group is where angel investors are joined together to invest collectively. Angel-group members get the benefits of diversification, which means that you are able to put smaller amounts of money into more companies in order to lower the risk of investment. They get the benefit of shared expertise and knowledge. For instance, the company could be a publishing company and you have someone in the group who has expertise in publishing, another one who is a lawyer, and another person who understands graphic design who can help.
So it’s investing money and expertise.
Chantalle: Yes, you are investing money and expertise and you really participate in the growth of the company. You mentor them and you get to learn about so many different industries at the same time. You’re also involved in the economy without necessarily working full-time.
Elissa, how are you finding this new industry?
Elissa: I think it’s fascinating. I think there is a reason why we kept coming back to this idea that night on the boat; we saw that there was a desperate need for organized, informed investing in the region. We were not initially going to be focused on women, but when we first came here and joined the angel groups that are already in place, we quickly saw that this industry was completely male dominated. If a woman isn’t confident and walks into or a corporate club full of suits and there is a presentation going on, it can be very intimidating to raise a hand and ask a question or maybe point out something that you noticed. We spoke to our advisors and decided to focus on women and really create a safe place where women could learn, support each other, and collaborate together, co-invest together, share their expertise, share their networks, and be involved in the larger economy.
What kind of members are you looking for? Can anyone be an angel investor or do you have to meet certain criteria?
Elissa: At the moment, the way that we are sourcing our members is through our own networks, so we do require that our members follow international accreditation standards.
Chantalle: That means that they have to have a certain yearly income in order to be able to comfortably invest. They need to also have character.
Elissa: Yes, character is the biggest criteria even. Women that are part of Womena are motivated, they are proactive, they are strong, and they are driven.
Are they all working women?
Elissa: Not all of them. Some of them are philanthropists, some work with charities, and some are women who have families to look after and don’t have time for a nine-to-five job.
What do you hope to achieve with Womena?
Elissa: The beautiful thing about angel investing, to be honest, is that it allows you to be a part of so many different sectors. So as an angel investor you can be investing in F&B, in healthcare, in aviation. This allows you to constantly learn, and so we want our members to really grow as an entity and as individuals to become powerhouses of investing, to become knowledgeable, smart, informed women that can make their own financial decisions. On top of that, the way we would impact the community is quite strong.
How do you work together? How are the tasks divided between the two of you?
Chantalle: Elissa is in charge of marketing, branding, design, sales, service, and PR, and I look after logistics, operations, strategy, and finance. We are also co-creating an educational program with a partner.
Elissa: I also look after client relations. We are complete opposites in the best possible way. We’re complementary. Her job description is something that I would find very overwhelming and unappealing in every way, and my job description might not sound very appealing to her. However, I love everything I do and I work in finance as a choice. In the morning, I wake up and I am really excited to get to work.
You also live together, right? How does it feel to live with your business partner?
Chantalle: You would think that we would have a lot more problems than we do! I think we’ve had one fight that lasted about two minutes in the past six months. We just get along in general, even if we have very different ways of doing things.
Elissa: If you find a good co-founder, it is really important to be able to communicate. That is the most important part when it comes to starting a business in general. We are very lucky that, as individuals, we are able to compartmentalize and really see the context in which anything is happening. So, if something is bothering me personally, I can take it out of the business setting and focus on business conversations. And if there is something personal that is affecting us, then we will be able to step out of our business space. We have these egg chairs on the balcony that we sit in and talk. That’s our space.
How do you unwind at the end of the day?
Elissa: To relax, I tend to paint the house. I paint our walls, or I paint furniture. I don’t know why I do this, but I’ll buy random bits of furniture and paint them, like little Ikea toddler chairs or clocks. Arts and crafts are my way to unwind.
Chantalle: I don’t unwind. [Laughs]
Elissa: She reads books about neuroscience to unwind.
Chantalle: We’ve just been so busy that unwinding, for me, means that I can’t keep my eyes open anymore and I just fall asleep. Then I wake up and start the next day. Eventually I plan to take up DJ-ing. I really enjoy music and I want to learn how to mix it well.
Is there anything else that our readers don’t know about you but should?
Elissa: Oh, I don’t think your readers know anything about us. We just got here.
Elissa is wearing Peter Pilotto trousers, AED 3,800, BySymphony.
Chantalle is wearing a Temperley London dress, AED 6,985, The Dubai Mall.
Chantalle is wearing a Roksanda Ilincic dress, AED 6,865, BySymphony.