GLOBAL VENTURES GENERAL PARTNER NOOR SWEID’S NEW VENTURE HAS HER ON A MISSION TO ENABLE GLOBAL ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS STORIES FROM THE MENA REGION by ABY SAM THOMAS
Having met and interacted with Global Ventures General Partner Noor Sweid quite a few times over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that there is a sort of protocol or understanding that both of us bring to the table whenever we do get the opportunity to catch up. Sweid is direct, to-the-point, knows what she’s talking about, and doesn’t really have time to waste- all of which are qualities that I respect and try to exhibit as well, and also allow me, as a journalist, to have extremely efficient, effective conversations with her. And so that’s exactly what resulted when I got to catch up with the accomplished entrepreneur and investor over coffee and gummy candies at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dubai International Financial Center in September, with Sweid telling me what she’s been up to since our last interview in February 2016.
At the time, Sweid was Managing Partner of Leap Ventures, following which she took on the role of Chief Investment Officer at the Dubai Future Foundation, and then, in early 2018, she set up Global Ventures with Basil Moftah, who, like herself, boasts of several years of experience in operating, exiting, and investing in businesses. While Moftah’s career has seen him work at Thomson Reuters for 18 years in a number of different roles (his last position there was as President, Intellectual Property and Science, and prior to that, he was Managing Director for its Global Emerging Markets Unit), Sweid’s experience includes working at corporate firms like Accenture and Charles Schwab, leading the IPO of interior decorating firm Depa onto NASDAQ Dubai and the London Stock Exchange, and also launching, scaling, and exiting her own startup, ZenYoga. As for why the two came together to launch Global Ventures, Sweid says that they saw a gap in the market when it came to access to capital for enterprise tech founders from the MENA region, who, while being based here, had the potential to grow internationally. “We find that the region has a lot of enterprise tech, B2B tech, but that there's a challenge enabling these companies to be scaled globally,” Sweid explains. “And so, that's where we come in.”
“WE FIND THAT THE REGION HAS A LOT OF ENTERPRISE TECH, B2B TECH, BUT THAT THERE'S A CHALLENGE ENABLING THESE COMPANIES TO BE SCALED GLOBALLY. AND SO, THAT'S WHERE WE COME IN.”
Sweid describes Global Ventures as a network-based venture fund (“we believe we can enable the growth of revenues through our networks”), with most of its limited partners (LPs) being people who are either operating businesses on the lookout for new technologies, or tech founders and VCs internationally that are keeping on eye on new markets, like the MENA. While the fund is 70-80% focused on B2B tech, Sweid says that it also has a 20-30% focus on B2C, as they “believe that the consumer market in the region is massive, and still has a lot of space to grow in the next 5-10 years.” In terms of companies it has taken under its wing so far, Global Ventures’ portfolio includes names like field workforce management solution provider Arrow Labs (which boasts of clients like the Jumeirah Group, DP World, G4S, Hitachi, etc.), food tech startup Lunch:ON (whose subscription-based platform for corporate employees to order lunch from over 200 restaurants in the UAE currently counts more than 9,000 customers), online floral B2B marketplace Floranow (which is disrupting the flower supply chain on a global level by enabling direct transactions between growers and florists), among others.
As Sweid describes the companies that Global Ventures has supported so far, it’s not hard to find a common link between them- while they are all players that have started out in the region, the offering they propose has international appeal. For instance, Lunch:ON solves the universal problem of employees at any company asking, “What do we do for lunch?” (Sweid tells me there’s only one other company, located in the US, that has a proposition similar to that of Lunch:ON, whose solution helps not just its direct customers, but restaurants as well), while Arrow Labs, while building a solution catered toward a workforce management problem in emerging markets, found that it had a global application as well. “The region is actually ahead of the curve in certain verticals,” Sweid explains. “One being anything we've seen in food tech, that tends to be ahead of the curve- we [in the MENA] like to eat! Second, anything we see in distribution logistics, and third, anything we see in travel and hospitality.”
“THE REGION IS ACTUALLY AHEAD OF THE CURVE IN CERTAIN VERTICALS, ONE BEING ANYTHING WE'VE SEEN IN FOOD TECH, THAT TENDS TO BE AHEAD OF THE CURVE- WE [IN THE MENA] LIKE TO EAT! SECOND, ANYTHING WE SEE IN DISTRIBUTION LOGISTICS, AND THIRD, ANYTHING WE SEE IN TRAVEL AND HOSPITALITY.”
According to Sweid, the aforementioned sectors are where the action is happening on a global level, and Global Ventures is seeing and reviewing proposals from regional players in these fields on a rather frequent basis. “We're seeing about 15 to 20 deals a week now,” she says. “I would say, we really like two or three of them- we will probably invest in five this year; we did five last year… We think that there's a lot of innovation happening here, as well as emulation. So, there's a lot in emulation; everyone knows that: this worked somewhere else, and so they have to work here. But there's also a lot of founders in the region that are solving problems with an emerging market lens, and then that logic gets used internationally.” When asked about the specific characteristics she looks for in a startup, Sweid replies that Global Ventures looks at companies that have at least a million dollars in revenue, and they can prove that their technology is “somewhat unique, or superior” to what’s out there on the market. And don’t think you can bluff your way in a pitch to the company- Sweid’s pride is evident in the way Global Ventures operates as per international best practices, and as such, the VC firm’s due diligence for a startup involves contacting everyone from its clients, to its ex-employees, and everyone in between. “We operate our fund on a very much a global best practices level,” Sweid explains. “Even the way we run our deals, the way we make our investments, the terms we give founders, it's all very much international best practices, it's run as an international VC fund, the same way it'd be run if we were in the Bay Area.”
With this being an indicator of how things run at Global Ventures, one can easily make the case for how this Deloitte-audited firm (which recorded a 38% net asset value increase in its first year of operations) was selected to be a part of Draper Venture Network’s DVN Beta program, making it the first fund from the MENA region to become a part of this global network. Founded by Tim Draper in 1990, Draper Venture Network (DVN), consists of over 20 VC funds from around the world that collectively manage US$2 billion in assets. The collective operates in more than 60 cities around the world, with more than 800 companies being funded by it over the years, and Sweid’s excitement and happiness at Global Ventures becoming a part of this rather exclusive group is easily palpable. “What that means is you end up having access to 20 general partners (GP), so, a large percentage of deals get to be syndicated among these GPs, which, since we like syndicating deals, it makes sense,” Sweid says. “And it allows our portfolio companies to have access to new markets.” At the same time, the significance of Global Ventures being the first MENA entity in the Draper Venture Network shouldn’t be understated either- this achievement, as Sweid put it, has elevated the MENA region as such that “it has been put on the map, literally!” Besides enabling Global Ventures’ portfolio of enterprise tech startups to get a foot in the door in international markets, being a part of the network also allows the firm to be a part of curated events that the Draper Venture Network puts together over the course of the year, with Sweid letting slip that Tim Draper himself is set to make an appearance in Dubai later this year.
“A LOT OF THE BEST TECHNOLOGY WAS BUILT BY PEOPLE WHO
ARE ORIGINALLY FROM THE REGION, STEVE JOBS ONWARDS.”
Now, while achievements like these deserve to be lauded and appreciated, I can’t help but note that these are almost like part of the course for someone like Sweid, who has already had winning forays into the realms of entrepreneurship and business. While she is indeed wearing an investor cap at Global Ventures now, Sweid says that her current venture is very much an entrepreneurial outing for her, at least personally. “I am an entrepreneur more than I'm an investor,” she says. “Not just time-wise, but also thinking-wise. For me, I'm always looking for the next problem to solve, as any founder or entrepreneur is. I look back at the fortunate success stories we've had, and the exits, and in my personal experience, I realized that we would've never been able to scale those companies, had we not had the right capital. And then, if there's one thing that hinders companies here from growing to their full capacity, it's access to capital… The percentage of capital that gets put into ventures is still tiny, and so, we need to solve that problem of access to capital. So, as an entrepreneur, I set out to solve the problem of access to capital for entrepreneurs. And that just happens to be called venture capital. And the only way to solve that problem is actually to generate significant outsize returns for investors, to prove to them that this section of capital markets is actually worth investing in, which will then drive further and further investment, which will create an abundance of capital for founders, and then they can grow their companies in the way that makes most sense. So, we're out there to generate returns, and find the best founders that can benefit the most from our capital, and become global success stories, rewrite the narrative of the region, from, you know, a technology production, not just consumption, perspective. And this is the best way to do that.”
“WE HAVE VERY SMART PEOPLE, GREAT IDEAS, THE RIGHT INFRASTRUCTURE FROM A TECHNOLOGY AND LEGISLATIVE PERSPECTIVE, THE ABILITY TO ATTRACT TALENT... IT'S JUST CAPITAL THAT IS THE MISSING PART OF THE ECOSYSTEM.”
When I ask her why she wants to enable another 10 or 20 entrepreneurial success stories from the MENA, Sweid has a very simple but clear-cut answer. “Because I think that the region deserves it,” she declares. “I think that we have really smart people. Even if you take a look internationally, a lot of the best technology was built by people who are originally from the region, Steve Jobs onwards. So, we have very smart people, great ideas, the right infrastructure from a technology and legislative perspective, the ability to attract talent... It's just capital that is the missing part of the ecosystem. And so, there's no reason that these people shouldn't have similar opportunities to people as elsewhere whether it's in India, or in Singapore, or in China, or in the US, or in Europe. Especially given that we have the right talent, it's a shame not to have success stories, and to grow these companies, and to create jobs and employment, and to create returns in the region, just because of one lacking part of the ecosystem. So, what drives me is the ability to create these success stories, because, then, everybody wins. And, you know, one success story might create 10,000 jobs, but it inspires a 100,000 people. And I think what we need in this part of the world is hope and inspiration, and the belief that we can do it.” Sweid is certainly optimistic about the MENA region and its prospects, and it’s hard not to be taken in by her enthusiasm and the work that she’s doing at Global Ventures. It may well be a long road ahead- but with people like Sweid along the way, the region seems to be well on its way to getting there.
WOMEN FOR WOMEN
Global Ventures’ Noor Sweid on being one of the few females in the MENA VC space
(and what can be done to fix that)
“30% of our portfolio is female founders… The fact that there just aren't that many female VCs means that most female founders looking for funding end up in my office at some point, just by default. And so, I think that a larger portion of our pipeline end up being female founders, and therefore a larger portion of our deals.
I think what's happening in the US is really interesting. I think they have realized that, the end result being that female VCs will end up seeing more female founders, and therefore, funding more female founders, just as a statistical result…
But there are so few female VCs. And so, the US solution to that was, let's fund more female managers, because if we put more money in the hands of female funders, then you'll end up with more female founders being funded and more successful female-run companies. And statistically, that actually generates better returns.
So, I think that that's where it starts, if it is going to start anywhere. It doesn't start at the bottom, it starts at the top, where there need to be more female managers managing money, generally across the board.”