My UAE: Elissa Freiha on investing in women
Elissa Freiha is only 27, but she has already climbed to great heights in the business world.
As the co-founder of Womena, an angel investment platform for female investors, she was recently named by Forbes Middle East as one of 50 “Business Leaders Inspiring the UAE”, and was included in Arabian Business’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women.
She has her grandfather, Said Freiha, to thank for her entrepreneurial spirit although she never had the chance to meet him as he passed away in 1978.
“He was this incredible entrepreneur who launched the media publishing house, Dar Assayad,” Freiha explains. “He came from extreme poverty – he was illiterate and taught himself to read under a street lamp, and used to brush hair in the local hairdresser’s to buy food for his family.”
Freiha spent much of her childhood in Paris, where her father, Bassam Freiha, worked for Unesco when she was growing up. But she also returned to the UAE four times a year for holidays.
“I had the best of both worlds,” she says. “I got that metropolitan historic vibe of Paris, and then the optimism and community feel of the UAE. We saw it develop from desert to the buzzing country that it is today.”
Freiha worked in a bakery in Paris and then in PR for Flash Entertainment in Abu Dhabi after graduating.
“I loved working with a team to put on these really exciting events that made tens of thousands of people smile,” she says of her time at Flash.
Freiha met her Womena co-founder, Chantalle Dumonceaux, in 2008 at the University of Paris, when Freiha was studying for a bachelor’s degree in global communications.
“Chantalle came up with the idea of an angel network to link entrepreneurs with people who could really help them, not just invest, but to mentor them through the process, and I loved that idea of helping people,” she explains.
“I knew that there was a market for it in the UAE, where entrepreneurship was booming, but there weren’t yet the right avenues to link investors with those entrepreneurs.”
Freiha describes herself as “creative” rather than analytically minded, and confesses she never imagined as a child that she would end up co-founding an investment company. “My brother is a music producer, my sister is a filmmaker and my mother is an artist, so as a family, we’re all quite creative,” she says.
“It’s not really finance that I have a passion for, it’s entrepreneurship. From a young age, I was into collaborating with other people to solve big issues.”
After co-founding Womena in 2014, Freiha educated herself in the financial field. “I had to, it was one of those sink-or-swim situations,” she admits. “Nowadays, I’m excited by the deals and the processes. I understand, but I never pretend to know more than I do. It’s a learning process.”
Womena and its 40 angels have so far invested more than Dh2 million in seven UAE-based start-ups. As a women’s investment network, it’s the female empowerment aspect of Womena that Freiha is most passionate about. “In my family, there was an assumption that I wouldn’t ever be involved in any sort of asset management, whereas my brother was far more well-versed with the processes,” she recalls. “I think that gap is there in many families, where the girls are not necessarily educated in the ways that markets operate.”
At its last meeting, Womena’s network of investors heard funding pitches from a mixed bag of start-ups, all of whom had been hand-picked for their potential to grow. They included an online platform for second-hand goods, MelToo, F&B analytics software company SerVme, and an insurance provider for low-income earners, Democrance.
“Our companies are very diverse,” says Freiha. “Some have a social impact, some are just purely for profit. But all are quite disruptive to the region.”
What do you always carry in your handbag?
Hot tabasco sauce. I like my life a little spicy.
What kind of car do you drive?
A turquoise Range Rover Evoque.
What’s the best investment you ever made?
Womena, by far, hands down. Investing in myself.
Where do you like to go on holiday?
Copenhagen is one of my favourite cities. I love the greenery of Scandinavia, and the mountains and trees of northern California.
How do you keep fit?
I go rock climbing every week. I like climbing mountains too, but haven’t done that recently because I’ve been busy with Womena.
What’s your creative outlet?
I like to do some sort of art at least once a week. I especially like to paint my walls and furniture. I’ve painted each of the walls of my house on Saadiyat Island in different colours.
Can you name an entrepreneur who inspired you?
My grandfather Said Freiha. He was working at a very young age and built a media empire.
What’s your favourite film?
Dogma, it’s a Kevin Smith film. I like it so much that I named my dwarf-spitz dog after it.
What’s your favourite place to go to in the UAE?
Dolphin Island in the archipelago just outside Abu Dhabi. We get a boat there almost every weekend with friends. It’s completely empty. We take a barbecue, listen to music, play beach volleyball, and in autumn, we can also see dolphins.
What’s your favourite food?
Hummus. That’s my Lebanese side coming out – hummus is in my blood. If we don’t have hummus then we can’t function. It’s like water to us.
What’s been Womena’s most successful investment so far?
Alem Health (a telemarketing platform for the developing world). It’s made great financial progress, but more than that, it helps to save lives, so we’re really excited about that.