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Young, gifted, and Saudi: Adwa Al Dakheel

Young, gifted, and Saudi: Adwa Al Dakheel

From musician to stock trader to entrepreneur and social media star, Adwa Al Dakheel has emerged as the face of ‘new Saudi Arabia’. We speak to the young businesswoman in an exclusive interview

In the three years since the launch of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 diversification plan, the kingdom’s young people have emerged as leading players in the dramatic shift taking place across the country.

Against the backdrop of dwindling oil supplies, corruption crackdowns and diplomatic tensions, the country’s largest age demographic has been gradually building momentum with their own businesses, initiatives and aspirations.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 41.58 per cent of Saudis are under the age of 25, while 70 per cent are aged under 30. Official statistics from the kingdom show that more than 8.5 million people were aged between 20 and 35 years old in 2016 – 5.6 million of whom were Saudis, and 2.9 million were expats.

Vision 2030 itself has youth empowerment coursing through its veins. The project’s driving force, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – himself only 33 years old – described the nation’s youth as “architects of our future”, and later stated “70 per cent of the population is under 30, and we won’t allow the other 30 per cent to hold them back”.

Education, entrepreneurship, opportunity and participation are all keywords associated with the Vision, with young people being given permission to take up the gauntlet in many various ways.

One of the most prominent figures in this youth movement is Adwa Al Dakheel – a 27-year-old entrepreneur who has already acquired a long list of impressive achievements during her 13-year career to date.

From Forex trader to author, musician to pilot, squash champion to jewellery designer, Al Dakheel is redefining what it means to be a young Saudi woman. And people are taking notice. With around 2 million followers across her social media platforms, she was recently named one of the top three most influential social media figures in the Middle East, alongside Ahmed Al Shugairi and Thunayan Khalid.

As such, the businesswoman has become a major role model for young people in the kingdom – a notion backed up by an Ithraa Consulting Group study that asked university students if they had a role model. An astonishing 80 per cent answered Adwa Al Dakheel.

Her latest venture – Riyadh-based Falak Business Hub – aims to support, develop, build, finance and promote a new wave of Saudi start-ups. The businesses at the hub will all work towards filling gaps in the kingdom’s social landscape, with Falak already having launched one and financed two projects since its soft-launch late last year.

For Al Dakheel, the momentum behind Saudi’s youth movement has been building for some time, and now the kingdom is starting to see the results of young people’s energy.

“What’s beautiful about Vision 2030 and the youth development that came along with it is that the youth were on the edge, waiting for such a thing – waiting for a push to go and do crazy things,” she tells Gulf Business.

“You have the media sector and you have the amazing filmmakers that came out of Saudi Arabia and are now winning awards around the world. You have the business hubs and the start-ups that are also coming out of Saudi Arabia that are different – not duplicated. One of the first e-wallet companies just came out in Saudi Arabia, for example. That’s not something that could have happened 10 years ago because neither the regulations nor the ecosystem were in place. Nothing was facilitating such a change. I’m telling you, the youth were on the edge, waiting for such a development to happen.

“The recent developments in Saudi are so beautifully chaotic that if they are fostered in the right way under a bit of guidance, the sky is the limit. You have the talent, you have the ideas, maybe a bit of infrastructure needs to pivot towards the entrepreneurs’ benefit, but you are seeing it happen now. It’s not just talk – there are also governmental alterations and changes towards our mutual benefit.”

 

“I lost everything”

If anybody personifies those key aspects of talent, ideas, and change, it’s Al Dakheel.

From the age of 14, when she taught children how to play guitar “at the minimum hourly rate”, she has been on an adventurous and successful path rooted in the notion that anything is possible.

“When I was 14 years old I decided I needed to find an income that would allow me to be financially independent,” she says of those early years, adding that the guitar lessons were her way of raising enough money to enter the world of stock trading.

“That was a world I was curious about, so little by little I managed to save up $4,000 by the time I was 16-years-old. I opened up an account in Forex trading, and the first day I doubled the $4,000 into $8,000. The second day, I lost everything. I was actually minus $126, and this made my financial obsession stronger.”

Starting from scratch Al Dakheel raised $1,000 to open a new account not in foreign exchange, but stock trading.

“Stock trading is more straightforward because it’s not governed by politics or a country’s actions,” she says. “The risk was less, and for an entry-level trader it was a better choice for me.”

Al Dakheel carried this “obsession” with her to college in Boston, US, where she studied three majors – business management, entrepreneurship, and finance – as well as a minor in psychology.

There she made a name for herself by winning three trading competitions, bringing a level of fame the then student had not experienced before.

“Social media went crazy,” she says. “I was asked to be on a TV chat show back in Saudi Arabia, and after the show I got calls from Alwaleed bin Talal, and all kinds of other people I would only read about. Now they knew that Adwa Al Dakheel exists.”

Calling herself an obsessive person rather than a successful person, Al Dakheel threw herself into various other projects during this period of her life.

As well being the first Saudi woman to release an instrumental music album, as well as become a squash champion, as well as launching jewelry and perfume brands, and as well as gaining her pilot’s license, she published a best-selling book entitled Proven Billionaires’ Formula, in which she summerises 328 business and psychology books that she read over the course of 18 months. She had also launched a trio of companies.

Obsessive is probably the right word.

 

Life changing 

Her current obsession is Falak – a hybrid accelerator, incubator, co-working space and angel investor. And it’s a project that represented a major shift for Al Dakheel when she drafted plans for the hub between 2016 and 2017.

“In November 2016 my life changed,” she explains.

“I went with the UNHCR on a humanitarian trip to Bangladesh, to Kutupalong, where it was the most urgent humanitarian crisis that had occurred since who knows how long.

“It was a trip that I was completely broken from, but that completely reshaped me.

“After that trip that I felt I was the smallest person in the world, because my problems in comparison to these people were a joke. And I realised that business and this world has a much bigger spectrum than just financial profit.

“I believe I’ve reached a stage where I am financially independent and sustainable, so now it’s my time to do something for society, and not only focus on financial profit and financial independence, like I was focusing when I was 14 years old.

“Everything changed after that trip. I came back and opened Falak. It was a Godsend – God planned it out.”

Exiting all of her companies, Al Dakheel went full throttle with Falak, having noticed a lack of genuine accelerators or incubators in the market – especially with a Saudi focus.

“A lot of them are in fact real estate companies renting out spaces to entrepreneurs. You do have some acceleration programmes, but these are global. For example, you have 500 Startups which is a global entity and not suited to Saudi content. You also have Flat6Labs, which has a presence in Jeddah but is also a global entity.

“You do not have a single Saudi accelerator programme that actually offers value instead of something commercial. In Falak we are truly looking long-term. We’re not looking at quick wins, and I think that’s what make us very different in the market.

“We’re not looking at pure cashflow clients that come and just rent the space – we’re looking at the next unicorn start-ups in the region to invest in, to incubate, to accelerate.”

With 900 start-ups already waiting to be approved for selection, Falak is off to an impressive start. Geared towards emerging tech businesses, and social businesses powered by tech, Al Dakheel has big plans for the hub – not least through its upcoming accelerator programme, which will run from September to January.

“We will invest up to SAR500,000 in the winning start-ups that get admitted to the programme, as well as incubating them for four to five months,” she says.

On the investment front, Falak has already put money into three businesses.

“The first was an event management company called Evento, the second was an education company that’s basically an Uber for home tutoring, and the third is a home services application.

“There is a fourth that we’ve not invested in, but that we’ve built from A-Z. It’s called Ns3a, and it’s an artificial intelligence solution for recruitment.

“If we can do this in our first four or five months, imagine what we can do in a few years.”

 

Great responsibility

In many ways, Falak is an example of Vision 2030 in motion. Whether you look at it from the perspective of youth leadership, entrepreneurship, diversification, or female participation, Falak features them all, representing the general shift Vision 2030 is aiming for.

“The amount of small changes we’ve seen is great,” says Al Dakheel.

“For example, Falak is 80 per cent female, which wasn’t planned. Where I want to see further change outside Falak, thought, is an increase in female participation on boards. Certainly in every company we invest in.”

And as a young, successful, female entrepreneur, it’s no surprise that Al Dakheel has such a strong following on social media, among university students, and across the kingdom and wider region.

But as a role model to so many, how does she shoulder such great responsibility?

“I guess it goes back to the same feeling I had through the Bangladesh trip – it’s that amount of social responsibility,” she says.

“When you get a father or a mother coming to you saying that their daughter follows you and wants to replicate every single thing that you do – and you see their eyes face-to-face – this is something that not a single person can overlook.

“The amount of responsibility that social media carries, none of us as social media influencers actually understood that. After we started seeing people face to face – parents, children, the poor, the rich, every single demographic you could think of – this is when you truly feel like God put you here for a reason. And if you waste this reason on trivial lifestyle matters, you are not worthy of this blessing – because this is truly a blessing.”

Citing her mother as the person she continually refers to for guidance, Al Dakheel prefers to steer clear of single role models.

“I think every person’s role model should be a hybrid of different role models,” she explains.

“No one is perfect, and if you dive deeper you could find a lot of issues, so I think a hybrid model is the way to go. You could have a role model for every specialty.

“I have different role models, but actually my main role models are my books. They are written by people who are considered role models, but are a summary of their good parts.”

If her record of reading 328 books in 18 months is anything to go by, books are more than just role models for Al Dakheel; rather a central aspect of her very being.

“If I don’t read, I honestly feel as though my mental state deteriorates,” she admits.

“It’s only when you read that you get to go at your own pace, that you get to research anything you want, that you get to really expand your horizons.”

And in terms of recommendations, she is quick to name three books that have helped to shaper her and her business.

“I would say The Lean Startup by Eric Ries; Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki; and The Go-Giver by Bob Burg. That last one is one of the best, best, best books, with some of the best advice I’ve received – basically to give more in value than you take in payment.

The Lean Startup is one of the main methodologies we use in our programme at Falak. We also use How to Build a Billion Dollar App [by George Berkowski], and Stanford’s course, How to Start a Start-up.

“Another amazing book that I haven’t mentioned is The Click Moment by Frans Johansson. It basically tells you that ‘specialisation’ happened in the 19th century, when people started to be told that if you specialise in a number of things, you’re not really a specialist. The book explains that the biggest companies in the world were never created by people that were purely experts in one single arena – you have to be a 360 manager or business person to truly start something and make it grow.

“Look at my life. If I can tell you anything about education it’s that getting my flying license taught me more about business than anything else. Flying teaches you risk management, communication, how to be calm under pressure. This is the beauty of trying out different things, even if you want to be specialised. You have to make your brain circuits open up to different aspects of life.”

 

Growth and happiness

Listening to Al Dakheel, it’s not uncommon for pearls of wisdom to drop into conversation. But what straight-up advice would she offer to young people across the region?

“Go out of your comfort zone and learn new things,” she says.

“You might think you’re only learning this, but what’s happening in the back-end of your brain by connecting all these dots is something you can never overlook.

“The second thing is read more. It’s through reading that you get to live multiple lives, that you get to live different experiences while sitting in a single chair.

“Lastly, and most importantly, don’t wait for the opportunity – go and look for it. The government will not spoon-feed you; no economy in the world will spoon-feed you. Go and actively look for opportunities.”

Following her own advice, Al Dakheel is taking proactive steps for herself and Falak, with ambitions “to invest in the next three unicorns of Saudi Arabia in the next year and a half”.

But true to the roots that the UNHCR trip to Bangladesh planted in her, the entrepreneur has an overarching hope for all her future plans.

“Continuous growth and happiness. Because growth without happiness is nothing at all,” she says.

“This is why purpose-driven companies are the ones that last. Profit-driven companies have a quick win, and then plummet. It’s not only growth we should aim towards – whether a female or male, entrepreneur or businesswoman. Emotional and mental happiness and satisfaction is what’s going to make us work with love and actually make us do something worthwhile.”

If any words epitomise the new youth movement in Saudi Arabia, these are they. It’s little wonder that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has so much confidence is these “architects of the future”, especially with Adwa Al Dakheel on the front lines.

 

Photos: Iman Al Dabbagh

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