This Startup Star Is the New Face of Saudi Arabia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this plane-flying entrepreneur is showing the world a different side of the kingdom.
By Tania Bhattacharya
- Adwa Al Dakheel, 28, is fostering the next generation of Saudi entrepreneurs as one of the kingdom’s biggest innovators.
- She’s also an online influencer who flies planes, plays squash and more.
It was just another day for Adwa Al Dakheel when she agreed to accompany her friend on a flight aboard a single-engine aircraft. The 28-year-old Saudi pilot had no idea her friend planned to practice stalls that day during her first flight on such a plane. At 6,000 feet, he reduced the throttle and lifted up until they stalled, and they experienced zero gravity. “I was scared for my life, shivering and yellow in the face,” says Al Dakheel. “That’s when I promised myself I would learn how to do this and not be scared.”
Al Dakheel is not a pilot by profession though. She’s a successful businesswoman running Saudi Arabia’s most promising investment hub, Falak, since 2018, as well as other businesses she founded, such as a jewelry company and a recruitment firm. She’s also a guitarist, writer, former squash champion and a social media star across the region. In many ways, Al Dakheel represents a new Saudi Arabia where women can fly planes, run successful businesses and represent their country on the global stage. She also represents a new generation of Arabs who, buoyed by sweeping policy changes in the Middle East, are dreaming audacious dreams.
“It is all thanks to the previous generation of Saudi and Arab women who paved the way for us in a much more difficult time,” says Al Dakheel. “I aspire to build a legacy not in terms of money, but in terms of true impact on the world.”
For Saudi Arabia, recent years have seen rapid change, both economically and socially, under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who launched the Vision 2030 initiative to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil. Women were only given the right to drive in 2018 amid a relaxing of some of the kingdom’s conservative Wahhabism traditions. Even still, Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, giving men legal power over women, remains in place — if loosened — and a prominent women’s rights activist who protested the driving ban now faces 20 years in prison on terrorism charges.
Yet Al Dakheel is supportive of the regime and goes out of her way to praise its leaders. She says being a woman in Saudi Arabia has not been a barrier. “The only hindrance I can speak of was my age — being too young to run a business or earn trust from other parties,” says Al Dakheel. “Breaking these barriers made me braver.”
Al Dakheel’s social media status, with nearly 1 million Instagram followers, is proof enough of how much her country admires her. Last year, she was named Saudi Arabia’s third-most popular social media influencer. “Adwa has become a source of inspiration for many of us, and she fills me with pride and joy,” says Abdulaziz Al Dakheel, her brother. Her addiction to coffee is a weakness though, he adds mischievously.
Born and raised in a middle-class family in Jeddah, books were Al Dakheel’s world. Her parents nurtured her insatiable curiosity and frequent desire to stay in her room and read all day. With a passion for business, Al Dakheel could churn through a book a day. And at 16, she wrote the bestseller Proven Billionaire’s Formula.
In 2017, Al Dakheel was invited to become a high-profile ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, traveling to Bangladesh, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan on goodwill missions and spreading awareness about the refugee crises. It changed her, imbuing a new sense of purpose into her work. “I see myself as a full-time philanthropist in the future, spending more time and effort toward helping refugees,” she says.
Al Dakheel’s vision for Falak is far-reaching and has the potential to completely overhaul Saudi Arabia’s business landscape. “There are lots of venture capital firms in [Saudi Arabia] and the [Gulf Cooperation Council] looking to invest in growth-stage businesses, but there aren’t entities focused on the stage before that — creating investible startups,” she says. “That’s where we come in.”
Operating out of a 7,500-square-foot hub in Riyadh, Falak invests more than $1 million every year on tech startups for an accelerated four-month development program, and it also links investors to promising businesses through its angel investment unit. Success stories include the Tabib Group app, which offers health and beauty packages to Saudi consumers. Next year, Falak will set up a fund for growth-stage businesses. The Falak campus also includes executive offices and co-working spaces. Named the country’s most innovative investment management firm this year by Global Business Outlook, Falak has created 150 jobs and its 17 startups have generated more than $125 million in revenue — with a focus on driving “GDP growth and female employment in Saudi Arabia,” she says.
Hajar Alghofaili, Falak’s head of partnerships, believes Al Dakheel will soon be leading the world’s fastest unicorn developer. “Adwa is an empowering leader,” she says. “But some things need to take time and we need to be more patient.”
It wasn’t all rosy. Al Dakheel stuttered as a child and was never a social kid. Reading out loud and therapy helped her to overcome speech problems, and when she moved to Boston to study at Suffolk University, Al Dakheel soared. “I became a social butterfly, because I’m curious about people and lives that I’ve never lived,” she says. Al Dakheel graduated in business management, entrepreneurship and finance with a minor in psychology, and later also earned her private pilot’s license in the U.S. This year, she completed her MBA in management and entrepreneurship from Boston College and Mohammed bin Salman College.
Needless to say, Al Dakheel always has her hands full, but she refuels by switching off to reflect and reorganize her mind every day. “I am a loner,” she says. “I cannot function if I have people around me all the time. I really enjoy talking to myself and my own company more than the company of others.”
She is disarmingly honest and her inwardness doesn’t rob her of adulation. But it is delightfully ironic, given that Falak means “the galaxy,” drawn from a Quranic verse which roughly states that all the planets and stars are swimming in the galaxy to create something bigger than a single individual. It’s what Al Dakheel strives for each day.
- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY Author Contact Tania Bhattacharya