Jenny Atout Ahlzen
Jordan. Swedish expat living in the Middle East. Impact Investor with a gender lens. Zebras Unite chapter co-lead Jordan.
A Zebra is…
…real! As opposed to the nearly impossible to reach concept of a unicorn, zebras actually do exist and they’re everywhere. They have different stripes but they’re never identical but, as unique as the fingerprints. We, Zebras, are herd animals. We don’t have a winner-takes-it-all mentality. On the contrary, we are a family, we thrive together and we believe in shared prosperity. As Zebras, we try to maintain and repair the balance of nature and the ecosystem.
Funding gaps for growing Zebras
Our chapter is based in Jordan in the Middle East, where we have one of the most significant gaps in access to finance globally. And that directly translates into a significant gap in the types of funding instruments available. So when it comes to access to funding and the suitable instruments for Zebras in Jordan, I often feel like they’re the square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
As Amam Ventures, we are trying to address that by helping Zebra companies who have identified expansion opportunities but lack the risk capital to grow to act on these opportunities.
The future we aim for: building the companies we want
I often find in life that we are sometimes pressured to fit into a certain mold or the concept of a social template that dictates what we have to be, act, or look like, to fit in. For a better future, we need to do away with that.
Our ideal future would be a place where founders have the freedom to establish the kind of company they want, not restricted or obliged to fitting into a certain mold or being a particular type of entrepreneur. But to have the open horizon to have their own version of innovation, creativity and stripes.
I want people to have a chance to live the life they dream of living and to build the companies they want to build.
Secondly, I would hope to take part in building a future where people are excited about their future prospects. We live in a melting pot of a region, one that is surrounded by a lot of wars, uncertainty, and negative news leading to discouragement and despite all that, we still find incredibly positive and persistent individuals trying to make the world a better place. I would love to see the young generation excited about the future. In this part of the world, and even globally, entrepreneurship is touted as THE solution to unemployment. But entrepreneurship is hard and not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, that leader in the front.
Running a great company is hard.
Everyone has their unique identities, few see themselves as entrepreneurs, and even fewer fit this challenge. However, everybody can be a key player in a startup or an SME, leading by their area of expertise and knowledge. My wish is that young people see the value of working with an SME or a startup, not necessarily as the famed entrepreneur or founder at the front who calls the shots, but as one of the key assets that each SME or startup needs to succeed and thrive.
A more flexible capital infrastructure
Right now, as a business owner in Jordan, if you have an expansion opportunity and need funding to grow, you would typically go to a bank. If you are a startup entrepreneur who wants to become a unicorn and make it big, then you go down the route of VC funding. The third option is grants, but they are not sustainable.
What is missing is the type of capital that is flexible and lends itself to companies that don’t strive to be the next Uber. All the small and medium-sized businesses that don’t meet the collateral requirements of a bank, but that want to expand their business, to move into a different country, or open up more branches nationally.
Someone to have your back: The role of community
Communities play a critical role. I’m one of three co-founders of Amam Ventures; my two co-founders have already created a community for women in business in the Middle East. With more than 44,000 members, it’s one the most active groups in the region. We know that community matters, especially for a gender lens fund like Amam Ventures.
Entrepreneurs, and female ones in particular, need to feel that someone has their back.
Women are often risk-averse so if they’re taking a leap of faith on a risky opportunity or large-scale expansion, they need to feel that they have a support system around them. It’s absolutely critical.
Tolerance, honesty and destigmatizing failure
I’m originally from Sweden but have lived in Jordan for the last 15 years.I have a background of working in conventional asset management and the venture capital space, where the culture is sometimes characterized by supporting the lucky few, who more often than not fit into the narrow social template of what a startup founder should look like. Going forward, I hope we can set a standard of diversity and inclusion, one that recognizes true grit and is tolerant of all the different stripes we all come with and where it doesn’t matter what networks you’re part of, or what family name you happen to have.
If you have a great idea and a cool concept to scale it, it shouldn’t matter what your background is.
In an ideal world, I would like for the startup culture to value honesty and celebrate the insights we gain from failure. It should be okay to try and fail so that you can learn from it and move on. The stigma around failure is one we need to break away from.
We work to support putting “Women in Front” – “Amam”
About two years ago, we had the idea of Amam Ventures. Amam is Arabic for “future”, “front”, “forward” or “coming up”. We’re an impact investing fund who invests with a gender lens. We live in a country with one of the lowest female economic participation rates in the world. Our thesis is to help put more women towards the front, make more women successful entrepreneurs, or encourage promoting them into senior management roles, or even just helping them (re-)join the workforce.
Our fund provides financial and non-financial support to companies that are committed to diversity and equal opportunities. We invest in companies that make a conscious effort to create a positive impact in their communities. We focus primarily on SMEs instead of only startups and are sector-agnostic.
We are an impact fund in every sense of the word.
Beyond the financial support, we see how important the non-financial services are alongside the investment. Arcan, the capacity building arm of Amam Ventures, is where entrepreneurs benefit from capacity building as they take on investment and scale their business.
How can we support you?
Help us raise awareness of Zebras Unite in the Middle East! We’re trying to raise awareness of the fact that there is more to business than striving to become a unicorn and that there are alternative global movements to counter existing startup and venture capital culture.
When I first came across Zebras Unite two years ago at the start of Amam Ventures, I thought ‘This is exactly what we’ve been looking for! This is what WE are trying to do!’ Being based in the Middle East, our Jordan chapter aims to plug into the global community. For entrepreneurs here in the desert, it’s fascinating to see what else is out there. We want to be that link between Jordanian entrepreneurs and the global Zebra movement.
Jenny asks the community
For the ones who have been part of this community for a while: What is the best thing about this community? What do you leverage the most?
Amina’s Skincare is one of the Middle East’s first certified organic skincare producers. Amina is a mother and when her children suffered from severe eczema, she was left with no other option than to create her own natural remedies that worked for her babies’ sensitive skin. In Jordan, we have access to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth’s surface, and Amina is able to use the Dead Sea salts as a natural preservative in her products. She’s done incredibly well in Jordan and wants to expand regionally and internationally.
She is the perfect example of the type of Zebras companies I’ve been talking about. This business is her baby. She wants to grow it sustainably, balance profit with purpose as opposed to scaling it quickly and breaking things on the way.
Jenny Atout Ahlzen
Swedish expat living in the Middle East. Impact Investor with a gender lens. Zebras Unite chapter co-lead Jordan.