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In June this year, it was announced that Lateefa Alwaalan, a Saudi Arabian serial entrepreneur, was one of the two women appointed to the board of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, by decree from Dr. Majed Al-Qasabi, the Minister of Commerce of Saudi Arabia. However, given Alwaalan’s proven track record in business and her very dynamic presence in Saudi Arabia’s entrepreneurial community, few were surprised to see her be one of the first female members ever chosen to be a part of the Riyadh Chamber’s board in its 60-year-long history.
Indeed, when appointing the two women to the 18th session of the Board of Directors of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dr. Al-Qasabi had pointed out that both Alwaalan and her counterpart, Khuloud Al-Dakheel, founder of Al-Dakheel Financial Group, had already contributed immensely to promoting the Kingdom’s commercial and economic activities.
Zooming in on Alwaalan, it must be noted that not only is she a successful serial entrepreneur, she’s also only the third ever member of Endeavor that has gone on to later assume the leadership of one of the offices of the global network of high impact entrepreneurs. It was in 2018 when Alwaalan was appointed the Managing Director of Endeavor Saudi Arabia with a task “to uncover the next group of Saudi unicorns and other high impact Endeavor entrepreneurs.”
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However, since then, she has done much more than that- when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Kingdom earlier this year, Alwaalan’s experience and expertise stood her in good stead as she helped entrepreneurs navigate what ended up becoming one of the most unprecedented global crises that businesses could have experienced.
After earning an MBA degree from the University of Washington in 2011, Alwaalan headed back home to Saudi Arabia with a business plan to simplify the traditional Arabic coffee brewing process. In 2013, her first startup Yatooq became the first Saudi company to develop a patented technology, an electric brewer, which removes the traditional pains associated with brewing Arabic coffee. Before long, Alwaalan earned the title of Saudi Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2015 EY KSA Awards in Riyadh. In 2016, she also co-founded Aroom, a startup that was developing innovative hot beverage machines locally. She first joined Endeavor as an entrepreneur in 2014, and she has since followed the path of her fellow Endeavor entrepreneurs who are motivated to pay it forward by helping successive generations of entrepreneurs succeed.
Today, with the COVID-19 crisis disrupting businesses and markets around the world, Alwaalan has made use of her prestigious role within the Endeavor network to support the ecosystem through this difficult time. “We all seemed hungry for information, and adopted the mentality of figuring things out as we go, and Endeavor Saudi Arabia became more relevant than before during COVID-19,” Alwaalan says. “Everything we did turned virtual, from international to local selection panels, workshops, mentoring sessions, and board meetings. We also onboarded new team members during the wake of the crisis.”
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Not only in Saudi Arabia, but all Endeavor entrepreneurs around the world -and to date, Endeavor, as a global network, has selected more than 2,000 founders leading over 1,200 scaleup companies- generously shared the wealth of information and best practices with each other throughout the crisis. It proved invaluable, Alwaalan says. “In addition, Endeavor showed great leadership by adapting to the change quickly and switching its processes to remote work in record time,” she adds. “Making sure we are able to support and help Endeavor entrepreneurs navigate these uncharted territories, in addition to continuing selecting high impact entrepreneurs, despite the crisis. Above all, it was those high impact entrepreneurs who were able to serve the community and solve mobility and healthcare challenges. While the crisis was going, many entrepreneurs were experiencing growth.”
In Saudi Arabia, Alwaalan explains, while the situation on the ground was changing minute by minute in terms of government regulations, customer demand, or cash availability, the fact that the majority of Endeavor Saudi Arabia entrepreneurs are tech-centric allowed them to either flourish with higher demand, or to mitigate challenges much better than other competitors in the market. She shares the examples of Noon Academy, a Saudi edutech company, which accelerated its geographical expansion to five countries (Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, and India) while also announcing a US$13 million financing round, as well as Mrsool, a Saudi delivery app, which became instrumental during the wake of COVID-19 crisis due to the KSA government allowing the public to use Mrsool for all their medical and food delivery requirements.
Another example is Classera, a Saudi e-learning platform that combines gamification and artificial intelligence to help schools digitize their education, which opened up its platform for free use by any school, enabling millions of students to continue having access to education. Furthermore, Alwaalan adds, the League of Arab States collaborated with Classera to onboard schools from 15 different countries, from Morocco all the way to Sudan, in only two months. Alwaalan also points out Nice One, a Saudi e-commerce platform for cosmetics, whose commitment to investing in infrastructure enabled them to leverage the growth in demand during the COVID-19 lockdowns and maintain happy customers even while more prominent retailers could not. “During COVID-19, the logistics sector crumbled with the new imposed restrictions and spike in demand on online sales,” Alwaalen notes. “Many online retailers struggled with merchandise not getting delivered to customers. Some shipments stayed in transit for over two months, but not those of Nice One.”
An Endeavor Saudi Arabia event. Source: Endeavor Saudi Arabia
According to Alwaalan, many companies from the Endeavor Saudi Arabia network, with them attracting capital and closing funding rounds even at the peak of the disruptions caused by COVID-19, prove that a crisis does not necessarily lead to capital scarcity and failures in business. But she points out those outcomes largely depend on having great teams onboard. “Diversity breeds creativity,” Alwaalen concludes. “I want to leave you with an interesting quote from Harvard Business Review that says, ‘Non-homogeneous teams are simply smarter. Working with people who are dif- ferent from you challenges your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking, and sharpen its performance.’”
Related: Why The COVID-19 Crisis Could Give The MENA’s Female Entrepreneurs An Edge