For the seventh episode of Who Run the World, Marilyn talks to Elissa Freiha, co-founder and CEO of Womena, a multi-platform media company and accelerator that focuses on women- led startups. Who Run the World and Womena have a lot of things in common. We both want to highlight the incredible stories of female leaders, and most importantly we both believe these stories will ultimately lead to empowering younger women to accomplish their own dreams. Elissa champions all of these ideals not only through her company, but also in how she lives her life everyday.
During her sit down with Marilyn, Elissa shares her personal journey of starting her own venture story with all the good, the bad and the ugly that comes with this career path. I am discovering first hand that starting your own business can be quite the solitary emotional rollercoaster. After hearing Elissa’s story, I can guarantee you’ll feel less lonely in those. What's cool about Elissa's story is that despite the failures encountered, she powered through to get Womena where it is today.
Elissa started Womena with a friend in 2014. Back then, Womena was an angel investment fund that targeted women lead startups in the Middle East. Their goal was to pair up female entrepreneurs with investors. The early days of Womena looked a lot like the first days of a lot of startups: two founders working from home trying to get their vision off the ground. However, unlike most startups you hear about in the news, this one was based in Dubai with its two female co-founders.
Elissa and her co-founder Chantal saw a gap in the market: women were not sufficiently empowered to use their financial power to invest their capital. At the same time, female lead companies had difficulties in finding investors. So they wanted to create an angel network that would help pair investor and investee.
Elissa spent more than four years developing the angel investor network. During those years, she encountered many pits and peaks. Se found herself trying to pitch her idea in a room full of men, who all regarded he as a cute granddaughter figure. A first investment was made at the very first event Elissa organized. She got new people to join the angel network, while other people left. This all continued for some time, until one day Elissa realized that the Womena business model was inherently flawed. So she found herself having to have a difficult conversation with her co-founder. Ultimately the two parted ways and Elissa was left to pick up the pieces and figure out what she wanted to do with Womena.
Yes, Womena's business model was not great, but as a brand, Womena had developed quite the following that Elissa could not ignore. So she decided to completely pivot the direction her company was going. The angel investor network was transformed it into a media company that told the stories of women entrepreneurs to inspire others. The Womena team also decided to conduct accelerators that put Middle East based startups through a program that equipped them with actually useful tools to make their endeavor a success. You can now watch the stories of the entrepreneurs part of this accelerator in a new web series called Womentum that follows the journey of each company and its founders through the accelerator.
Today, you can find Elissa continuing to power through, empowering women and sharing stories. She continues to lead her team, and take her company to new heights. A lot of us get paralyzed by anxiety. We all have grand thoughts about starting a business, starting a new project at work, picking up a hobby, chasing after a dream. Sometimes because of overthinking, sometimes because of fear, sometimes because of lack of self-confidence, all our hopes and aspirations end staying forever just that: hopes and aspirations. When Marilyn asked Elissa how she did it all, Elissa simply said, “I don’t know. I just did it.” I believe it is this propensity towards action that allowed Elissa to safely steer Womena through the storm and drive it towards success. If her story tells you anything, if you have a dream, don’t just wait around - start doing something. If you are faced with a problem, don’t wait for an answer - start doing something. If you are unsure of which path to take - start doing something and things will become clearer. It worked for Elissa, and it will probably work for you too.