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Shimi Shah, the chairwoman of the consultancy Carousel Solutions in Dubai, uses her global business experience and resources to help women entrepreneurs in the Emirates get started. Satish Kumar / The National
Shimi Shah, the chairwoman of the consultancy Carousel Solutions in Dubai, uses her global business experience and resources to help women entrepreneurs in the Emirates get started. Satish Kumar / The National

Angels out to help entrepreneurs fly

Investors have been a boon to start-ups around the globe for decades. Now, business leaders in the UAE say its time that the nation's ambitious men and women had their own network of cash and entrepreneurial experience to tap into.

As a Cambridge graduate, Shimi Shah is well qualified to work in business.

But she did not develop her skill to spot a fledgling company at university.

Part of a small, select group of risk-takers in the Emirates, Ms Shah is an angel investor, specialising in funding start-ups. And she knows a thing or two about putting together a profitable company.

"I started a jewellery business, Spearca, from scratch and grew it to about 450 sales consultants in about two years turning over a couple of million pounds from nothing," says the chairwoman of Carousel Solutions in Dubai, a small business consultancy.

"Two years in we were basically growing so quickly we were running out of cash because we were expanding so fast."

Ms Shah, who speaks seven languages, originally began her career in banking in 1993 but quickly became bored and left to set up Spearca three years later.

"I come from an entrepreneurial background because both my parents are entrepreneurs. They both run their own businesses, so I decided that I was going to leave and set up my own business," she says.

Ms Shah, who is a British citizen but was born and raised in Kenya, will not say how much she sold the business for in 1997 when she was just 26, only that it was a "high multiple". From there she moved into venture capital, running a number of funds, including one owned by the British government in 2001.

"I was head-hunted to run Partnerships UK under Gordon Brown, the then chancellor. The [fund] was investing in things coming out of the research departments in universities [and was worth] about US$100 million [Dh367.3m]," says Ms Shah.

"We took that government fund private and raised about $300 million," she adds. "A lot of the money we raised was Asian and the Middle East and that's really what brought me to Dubai."

After moving to the emirate in 2007, she became involved in Forsa, an investment company founded by Dubai World, which was run by women for women.

Ms Shah left Forsa in 2010 but is still investing in women's enterprises as an angel investor.

"I'm a woman, so I kind of understand. We have, call it a sixth sense or a little bit of a different way of looking at things, and I like that," says the owner of Carousel Solutions, which supports small and medium-sized businesses.

The term angel investor was first coined to flatter wealthy businessmen who helped to bankroll early theatre productions on Broadway in New York.

Today, they still provide start-ups with capital to help them get off the ground.

In certain countries, including the United States, there are large networks of angel investors. Last year, they invested $22.5 billion, an increase of more than 12 per cent on 2010, according to the Centre for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire.

In the Emirates, no such statistics exist because the sector is still very much in its infancy.

Ms Shah wants to set up a network, which would have a bias towards women's businesses.

"I come from an industry which is incredibly male dominated," she says. "It's great to support women who are really hungry to want to create something."

Women tend to find it tougher to succeed as entrepreneurs than men, according to Stephen Mezias, a professor of entrepreneurship and family enterprise at Insead Abu Dhabi.

"An angel network especially for women might be in some small way a remedy for social factors that make otherwise talented women unable to succeed as entrepreneurs," he says.

But while others agree it is high time networks were set up here, others think it may be too early in the angel space to specialise.

"My personal view is that there is so much work to do, men or women, we still need to do [it for] everybody," says PK Gulati, a veteran entrepreneur and investor who is the managing director of the Dubai technology company, Optimistix Ventures.

"I wouldn't be averse to looking at it when it is structured. The more there the merrier."

But Mr Gulati is also looking into setting up his own angel network in the UAE, which, like Ms Shah's, will not be a traditional arrangement.

"It is almost like a 'make success network'," he explains.

Members of that network, which does not have a name yet, will "hand-hold" fledgling entrepreneurs to success by offering them the use of their offices or helping them drum up more trade.

He also plans open to an angel network that would specialise in certain sectors.

"If we can possibly create a network of people [interested in] specific industries, so be it," says Mr Gulati,

Over the years, angels have been major financial backers in companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon in the US. To underline the point, Amazon received $1.2m from a dozen investors after the company's founder, Jeff Bezos, was turned down by venture funds, according to a Bloomberg report.

"Angel investors reached a critical mass [in Silicon Valley]. This created the impetus to develop standard practices, templates and contracts for early-stage investment," says Mr Mezias.

The UAE is a long way from that yet but Mr Gulati has been speaking to young Emiratis with an interest in launching an angel network here.

"These are people who also believe that we need to do something because nothing breeds success like success," he says.

Muna Al Gurg, an Emirati who is the director of retail at Al Gurg Group and the chairwoman of Young Arab Leaders, also believes in that philosophy.

"I cannot emphasise more the need for additional start-ups in the region and a community of angel investors," she says.

"The Middle East has a nascent creative entrepreneurial population.What they lack is financial support and solid guidance."

And that is where investors such as Ms Shah come in.

"There are enough people in the UAE who could help start [a network] up.

"I'm in touch with a number of those people and one of the things we're starting to talk about now is how do we make this happen because we are all working 27 hours out of 24 most of the time, so it is about when do we make this happen from a time perspective," she says.

"But there is enough knowledge and expertise in the region to pull it all together."

gduncan@thenational.ae

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