Setting the Stage for the Next Generation | Building Up Women in Tech

In this week’s Building Up Women in Tech article, we’re speaking to Sarah Miller, Founder and CEO at the latest startup entering Ventures Lab – our Abu Dhabi-based Venture Builder. Sarah and her team and currently operating in stealth mode and we’re thrilled to be joining them on this journey. More details coming soon!

Today, Sarah recalls her time over the years as a female in the region’s tech scene, including its boom in not just scope and scale, but more recently in diversity. Having spent over 10 years in the region, she poignantly discusses what the ecosystem can do to create an inclusive environment and the three areas her startup focuses on to prioritize success and wellbeing. Interestingly, Sarah also highlights how important it is for women to overcome their own biases and stereotypes, as well as how the creation of new tech has revealed hidden value in all demographics.

Following International Women’s Day last month, we’re speaking to the female founders in our portfolio and venture builders to detail their perspectives on the treatment and role of women in tech, as real women in the tech world today. Check out Sarah’s experience and advice below, and stay tuned for more.

1. What made you pursue entrepreneurship? 

Since becoming a parent, it’s become more important to me that the hours I spend away from my family are valuable and fulfilling.

In my most recent roles, I’ve worked with some of the most incredible and inspiring entrepreneurs. This experience showed me how rewarding it can be to spend those hours pursuing something you truly believe in. It’s amazing to be part of something that didn’t exist before, built completely from the bud of an idea and a dream.

Entrepreneurship empowers you to change the way the world works and be the change you want to see, and Abu Dhabi is such an amazing place to start this journey. I’m completely drawn to being part of the growth and advancement of such an open-minded and adventurous community – and can’t wait to make my own contribution.

2. What has been the most fulfilling part of being a woman in the tech scene?

I’ve been in Abu Dhabi for ten years, and over this time I’ve watched and worked closely in this scene. I’ve seen it boom, first in scope and scale but more recently in diversity. Initially, the tech startup scene seemed a lonely endeavour for well-resourced and well-connected visionaries, but as with everything in the city, this has completely transformed in such a short period of time.

There are so many changes, from access to government support and funding, to organizations such as Hub71 and Modus providing their expertise. However, most importantly to me – a spotlight on what women can bring to the table, crushing a global unconscious bias that men are where new tech is at. I find it incredibly fulfilling to be working in a sector where content and concept comes before gender and origin. The disruption of these biases has created an environment where amazing things are happening and the output is unprecedented.

Our ability to work together has created new technologies that serve everyone, from online mental health and fertility tracking to automobile buying and selling. This has revealed hidden value in all new demographics previously not just untapped, but completely unknown. To be a part of this change not just in tech, but in its far-reaching impact, is incredibly fulfilling. 

3. On the contrary, what has been or is the hardest part of being a woman in the tech scene?

I’ve had three babies and no matter how family-friendly your workplace is, its really hard to walk away from your projects and handover your brain-babies in exchange for your real ones. Then, its very hard to be away from your real babies to return to your projects.

The amazing thing about being in the tech scene in the region is that it has grown so quickly that it has developed as a diverse, balanced ecosystem – we haven’t had to undo decades of bias to embrace equality in this new space.

The most difficult thing is overcoming our own biases and stereotypes and taking advantage of the amazing resources and support that are on offer here. The support for women is amazing, the environment is so supportive – but you need to take a leap of faith yourself first. The more women who realize they are already empowered, the more we will see around the table.

4. What can the ecosystem do to encourage women to pursue a career in the space?

I think it’s important to tell stories – just like this, so that women can see each other succeeding. We don’t have to ‘have our cake and eat it too’. It’s not cake, it’s a right and a necessity to be able to raise a family and contribute to the future of both those children and the technology that make our collective future so exciting.

5. Have you faced any challenges/prejudice or felt you have been treated differently being a female in such a male-dominated environment? If so, how did you overcome this? 

I’ve actually been very lucky to have experienced the reverse. I’ve been put into situations where every voice around the table has been male and, as the only female, my perspective has received disproportionate weight.

This is always an amazing experience but quite a sad one, as a sample size of one is never ideal. I always try to make sure there is balance, where I have this ability, and where I can’t, I try to make sure crucial conversations/decisions are left until there is balance around the table.

6. Wamda recently shared that startups in MENA raised over $2B last year but just over 1% of that was invested in women-founded startups. Why do you think this is?

I grew up in New Zealand, and most of us didn’t see our mother’s taking on the world – we took most of our professional cues from our fathers in a true male dominated environment. My parent’s generation were the first to really get mum’s back into the workforce and most of them were in education/home-based positions. I think that this created a foundation for trusting ‘fathers’ to the business, and ‘mothers’ to the home + pocket money.

I am not surprised or offended, that this has bled over into our adult lives. But I do think it is up to all of us to re-educate each other and set the stage for the next generation. It needs to start at the top, with the VCs and in the driving seat of big firms, but it also needs to trickle down to the education of our kids. They need to see mothers effecting real change in the world (as well as the home) and know that they themselves can do this too.

7. What can startups and VCs do to help promote gender equality and improve the above stat?

It’s not just about getting more women recruits in tech, but also about getting more females in the VCs and decision-making seats. This shift is already well underway but there is so much room for growth. I think its really important that both men and women at the top of the funnel send a clear message that this industry is female-friendly.

8. How are you/will you be ensuring women are given a space to thrive in at your own startup? 

I believe that 6-month gaps in your CV are amazing. I believe that if your family is happy and well, you can perform properly and enjoy your work. The most successful people I know, are balanced and happy – and this is what we focus on. We;

  • Prioritize gender diversity
  • Emphasise results over ‘seat time’
  • Acknowledge and disrupt unconscious bias

My biggest take-away from my career so far is that you should always recruit people smarter than you. The moment you start looking for people who fit this bill – their gender, origin and family situation fall away and their skill comes to the fore.

9. What advice would you give to women in the tech space? What do you wish you had known?

You don’t have to do everything alone. You don’t have to build the strategy, write the code and go to market alone. There are resources, organisations – men and women, that will help you to build your dream. It will never happen if you don’t take those first few steps.

Also, don’t be scared to talk about your idea. Be protective of your secret sauce, but if you drum up support you’ll be empowered to bring it to life. 

  • Are you a female founder looking for tailored operational and financial support to build and scale your startup? Find out more about our Venture Builders.
  • We’re building new and exciting companies and are always looking for talented innovators to join the team.

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