Middle Eastern Women Making Waves in Silicon Valley

Middle Eastern Women Making Waves in Silicon Valley

By Erika Masako Welch, 31 July 2023

We’ve all read about how notoriously unfriendly Silicon Valley and the Tech World can be towards women.

Perhaps that’s why only a third of the workforce at the largest tech companies are women. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for women across the United States sits at 57%. Amazon reports 39% of their workforce being female, while Microsoft reports a lowly 26%. These numbers significantly decline when we talk about women leaders in tech. Apparently an abysmal 11% of leadership positions in top global tech firms are filled by women today, and that figure looks like it’s drowning – instead of improving upon itself.

It doesn’t seem to be just a Silicon Valley problem either, but an industry-wide issue across the globe. Women occupy only 22% of all tech roles across European companies. Here in the Middle East, I speak to Managing Partners at the top VC firms, who all say they are eager to meet female founders, but they are few and far between. And without women in leadership positions to look up to, how will we bridge the gap?

Related Story: Women in Saudi’s Venture Capital Ecosystem

A barrage of high-profile women exiting top tier tech roles in Silicon Valley in recent months has caused a stir. Unfortunately, many of these roles left by powerful women have since been filled by men. We're talking about movers and shakers like YouTube’s Chief Susan Wojcicki stepping down in February 2023 after 25 years at Google and 9 years at the helm of YouTube, at the age of 54. Shortly after Facebook became known as Meta, Sheryl Sandberg – who was often referred to as “co-CEO” alongside Mark Zuckerberg - stepped down after 14 years at the helm in early 2022, at age 52. Meta Platforms Chief Business Officer Marne Levine stepped down just this past February 2023, after 12 years with the social media player at age 52.

Some analysts say it’s the Covid-effect, with some estimates stating that roughly 2 million women left or lost their jobs between February 2020 and January 2022, while the number of men in the US workforce largely remained about the same. According to a study by Lean In and McKinsey, female leaders are also switching jobs at record rates. In Silicon Valley, they are leaving their jobs, period.

Many say that Covid only exacerbated issues, not caused them. The hoards of women leaving tech, and the many that are refusing to join – is likely just proof of how much of a ‘bro-culture' tech has become, and how unfavourable an environment it is for women to work in.

Sandberg, who remains as Chairperson of Lean In after her departure from Meta said, “the issue is not women leaving. The issue is that there are so few of us in the first place. No one writes articles that men are leaving senior jobs. People leave senior jobs all the time. But because there are so few women in senior leadership it is more remarkable when that happens. We have to make the extraordinary, ordinary.”

In order to do just that, and particularly for an even greater minority – Middle Eastern women in tech – we here at Lucidity Insights thought we’d pull together a group of remarkable women with regional roots that are making their impact on Silicon Valley. Be inspired. Will you or a woman in your life be the next trail-blazer in Silicon Valley or the wider global tech ecosystem?


1. Iman Abuzeid

Iman Abuzeid is a Sudanese-American physician and entrepreneur. She was born to Sudanese parents in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked as a surgeon. Iman then graduated with both undergraduate and medical degrees from the University College of London, after which she moved to the United States. She received her MBA from Wharton, and worked for various HealthTech startups in Silicon Valley as a Product Manager until she co-founded Incredible Health in 2017. Incredible Health touts itself as the fastest growing and highest valued career marketplace for permanent healthcare workers. Some have touted it as a “souped-up LinkedIn for nurses.”

Incredible Health has managed to raise over US $97 million in funding thus far, and has a long list of notable investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, and Kaiser Permanente, among others. Some 60% of the United States’ top-ranked hospital systems have signed onto their platform, and by mid-year 2022, when the startup closed its’ $80 million Series B funding round, the startup reached unicorn status with a valuation of US $1.65 billion. That’s right, Iman is one of very few female founders and CEO’s of a unicorn startup.

“What I always tell people who look like me is you really need to compartmentalize the bias in the system and focus on winning the day. You have to be crazy assertive, and just keep driving towards your vision and your mission.”

- Iman Abuzeid, Co-Founder & CEO, Incredible Health


2. Rana El-Kaliouby

As an Egyptian-American computer scientist and entrepreneur in the realm of AI, Dr. Rana El-Kaliouby stands at the frontier of (facial) expression recognition research and technology development. Rana earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the American University in Cairo and her PhD from Cambridge (UK) before her journey led to MIT’s Media Lab as a research scientist. There she co-founded Affectiva, a company credited with defining the field of Emotion AI, a novel approach that combines facial expressions and tone of voice to interpret emotions. Affectiva now collaborates with a quarter of Fortune 500 companies, and in April 2019, the company raised $26 million in a funding round with aims of advancing its emotion and object detection Al for monitoring vehicle passengers.

Rana was recognized by Forbes among America's Top 50 Women in Tech, Fortune included her in their 40 under 40 list, and she was identified as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Additionally, she is a member of the WEF's Future Global Council on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Rana is also a frequent speaker at international conferences, ranging from the Aspen Ideas Festival to the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything, and shares insights with a broader audience as host of PBS Nova. Rana has also authored a book titled, “Girl Decoded”.

“As we build socially and emotionally intelligent machines, what does that mean about our relationship with them, and more broadly our relationship with one another. Because this machine is going to be programmed to be amazing at empathy, it’s going to always be there for you, it’s not going to get bored of you. I don’t know how I feel about that, I think about that a lot.”

- Rana el Kaliouby, Founder & CEO, Affectiva



3. Ayah Bdeir 

Ayah Bdeir is a Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur, inventor and interactive artist who founded littleBits, an award-winning platform of easy-to-use electronic building blocks that is empowering kids to create inventions. The Beirut-native graduated from MIT’s Media Lab and the American University of Beirut. Her career has largely been centered around empowering everyone to be an inventor with a particular focus on underrepresented communities, especially girls, to become tomorrow’s changemakers.

Ayah is now considered one of the leaders of the open-source hardware movement and has made a huge impact on the lives of millions across the world. Her company, littleBits, was incubated within Disney’s accelerator in 2011. LittleBits became an industry leader with over 2 million users, 120 staff, over US $70 million in fundraising, and over US $150 million in lifetime revenue locked-in with partnerships signed with retailers like Walmart and Target. Ayah and the company has also written curricula that are used in 20,000 schools worldwide. The company was acquired by Sphero in 2019 for an undisclosed amount, and Ayah has since moved on to get more into angel investing.

Ayah has received numerous recognitions and awards, including being named Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business (2013), BBC’s 100 Most Influential Women (2019), and has appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine (2011). She has also been featured on Forbes and Business Insider, among others. Her inventions are included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and she holds over a dozen patents.

“Too many companies are trying to tackle the so-called [female] pipeline problem in the wrong places – at work, in the media, via strategic investments – but where they really need to be tackling it is in the eighth grade, when many girls make a final decision as to whether or not to pursue STEM careers.”

- Ayah Bdeir, Founder of LittleBits



4. Wardah Inam

Wardah Inam, Co-founder and CEO of Overjet, is on a mission to revolutionize dental diagnostics. Overjet’s dental AI platform has been approved by the FDA and stands at the cutting edge of dental technology as the company has been named to Forbes #AI list of North America’s Top AI Companies Shaping the Future. Overjet has successfully raised US $77.4 million since launching in 2020, and Wardah was touted among the Top 100 Female Founders of 2022 by Inc Magazine, along with being named one of the 32 Most Influential People in Dentistry list by Incisal Edge. Wardah's goal is to make dental care more accessible and accurate for all.

She has previous corporate experience at both GE and Apple, and is the recipient of the MIT Graduate Women of Excellence Award. She is the Co-founder of U-link technologies, where they developed the first AI-driven operating system of an autonomous and fully-distributed micro-grid. She has both a PhD and Master’s degree in Computer Science from MIT, and completed her Bachelor’s studies in Pakistan. While at MIT, Wardah was an active member of MIT’s Muslim Student’s Association.


5. Amira Yahyaoui

Amira Yahyaoui is a Tunisian entrepreneur, blogger, and human-rights activist that was kicked-out of her home country at the age 16 for her activism. Under the repressive regime of the country’s former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she lost her right to finish high school and pursue higher education for a blog she started criticizing the regime and highlighting human rights abuses. She spent years as an immigrant-exile in France without papers, which prevented her to pursue a formal education. Desperate to learn, she acquired a fake ID and managed to take college courses, all the while knowing she wouldn’t be able to receive a formal degree.

She founded Al Bawsala in 2012, when she was able to return back to Tunisia after the President was ousted. Al Bawsala is a globally renowned NGO that fights for government accountability, transparency and access to information. Of this time, Amira remarked in a 2019 interview, “I always knew that I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else before solving the problem in my country and today, Tunisia is the only Arab democracy in the world.”

Amira’s entrepreneurial spirit then took her to Silicon Valley, where she launched a platform called Mos in 2017 to help connect students to student aid and scholarships in the United States. In the startup’s first 4 years, Mos was able to open access to a pool of over US $160 billion in financial aid to more than 400,000 students within its community. In 2019, Mos expanded its ambitions from being an Edtech player to becoming a Fintech in the form of a challenger bank. Amira estimated that Mos was the tenth largest neobank in the US at the time. The startup has attracted over US $57 million in funding thus far.

Amira is a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum and chaired various WEF meetings in Davos. She has also held board seats with Amnesty International and the UNHCR on the Advisory Group on Gender, Forced Displacement and Protection.


6. Noor Shaker

In 2008, computer scientist Noor Shaker left Syria for Europe to pursue her passion for Artificial Intelligence (AI). Following her master's degree, she spent eight years as a machine learning researcher in Copenhagen, Denmark, focusing on the application of technology in computer games.

Academia was clearly her first step; an entrepreneurial storm was her second. Noor co-founded Generative Tensorial Networks (GTN) in 2017, a company that combines quantum computers with Al to speed up the creation of new medicines. She was also the co-founder for the AI for drug discovery start-up Glamorous AI, which was later acquired by the US-based company X-Chem in Nov 2021. She remains at X-Chem as a Senior VP and GM, focusing on Business Development.

Her significant advances for the pharmaceutical industry have landed Noor a spot on the "Innovators Under 35 Europe" list in 2018. One year later, she occupied space on BBC's "100 Women" list and was then featured among the Top 100 Asian Stars in UK Tech 2021.


7. Layla Shaikley

Layla Shaikley is the co-founder and head of product of Wise Systems, a startup helping companies make real-time delivery decisions, optimize route efficiency and generate repeatable delivery schedules for last-mile delivery fleet operators using AI. The company was founded in 2014, and has fundraised over US $73 million to date. The vast majority of their funding was acquired in their 2021 US $50 million Series C. The company graduated from TechStars Mobility accelerator out of Detroit but is based in Cambridge, MA.

Her background is layered and lively. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Art at UC Irvine before getting a Masters degree in Architecture. She furthered her studies in Architecture at MIT. “I love design,” she says. She was also a NASA intern, and the co-producer of a YouTube video “Muslim Hipsters: #mipsterz” that went viral in 2012. She also co-founded TedxBaghdad and sits on Forbes Technology Council. 


8. May Habib

May Habib is an up-and-coming Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur of Lebanese origins. After obtaining her BA in Economics from Harvard University, she spent some years as an Investment Banking Analyst during the Global Financial Crisis, and then worked at Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s Soveriegn Wealth Fund. In 2015, May co-founded Qordoba in Dubai, a machine translation and localization software company that successfully fundraised $21.5 million in its first five years.

May is an expert in AI-driven language generation, AI-related organizational change, and the evolving ways we use language online. In 2020, she co-founded Writer, a leading generative AI platform built to deliver accurate content and insights, fine-tuned to an organization’s brand, messaging and company facts.

As CEO, she successfully secured US $26 million in funding for Writer, and has scores of big name customers such as Deloitte, Spotify, Intuit, Cisco, Twitter, and many more. May currently lives in the Bay area. May has been the recipient of the Young CEO of the Year Award from Arabian Business magazine and featured in the Top 30 Under 30 business leaders list as well as Inc’s 2023 Female Founder’s List.


9. Joy Ajlouny 

Photo Source: Arab Woman Magazine

Born and raised in California to Palestinian refugees, Joy Ajlouny received her BBA from George Washington University and is now recognized as the #1 Female Founder in the Middle East among the top one percent of female entrepreneurs globally. Joy has created and exited two startups, raising over $100 million in venture capital and disrupting the traditional dynamics of women in business.

Joy started out as the driving force behind Bonfaire, an e-commerce luxury fashion platform founded in 2012 and based in Silicon Valley. After raising just US $2.4 million and operating for under two years, the startup was acquired by fashion e-commerce giant Moda Operandi in 2013. After finding success in Silicon Valley, Joy turned her sights to the Middle East venture ecosystem.

She co-founded Fetchr, a Silicon Valley-backed tech company aimed at addressing the "No Address" problem in the Middle East. She moved to Dubai and helped raise US $52 million for the logistics and delivery player while at the helm as CMO. Fetchr expanded its operations across six countries and built a robust team of 6000 employees in that time, and at one time was recognized as Forbes #1 Startup in the Middle East. It should be noted that Joy left the startup in early 2019, a few months prior to fetchr becoming insolvent at the end of same year, before securing additional emergency funding.


10. Hind Hobeika 

Hailing from Beirut, Hind Hobeika is the brilliant mind behind Instabeat. Her innovative concept focuses on a connected accessory for swimming goggles, a state-of-the-art tool capable of capturing real-time heart rate, stroke type, and laps.

Hind’s entrepreneurship began with Stars of Science, an Arab reality TV show promoting young innovators where she won third place and was able to introduce her market-ready product in 2011. "Stars of Science was life-changing," Hind reflects, "because it taught me the power of outside-the-box thinking." Her passion for competitive swimming was the engine propelling her R&D efforts, which over the course of its 9 year life-span, engaged competitive swimming communities in both Beirut and Silicon Valley. Instabeat raised a total of $6 million, but was ultimately put on ice during the pandemic. Hind has since taken on a role as a Product Manager at Meta's Augmented Reality division. 

Hind won the MIT Pan Arab Business Plan Competition and landed features in Time Magazine as well as the Intel CEO Summit in California, the Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam, the MENA Business Women Conference in Dubai, and the prestigious INK conference in India.


Related: 10 Notable Middle Eastern Executive and Founders who have made their Mark in Silicon Valley


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