In July 2020, we wrote a feature about the role of women in the startup ecosystems of Central Asia and the Caucasus. We highlighted how, in our views, positive changes were slowly but structurally taking place - despite persistent gender bias. We noted the presence and appointments of women at various levels, sometimes in leadership roles, across the two regions, these were: Alyona Tkachenko, Ainur Akkhuzina, Ainur Zhanturina, Sasha Sternik, Elena Selezneva, Irine Khech, Uuganbayar Tserendorj, and (humbly) our very own Zari and Jazira.
Since then, the world has witnessed the appointment of women in key roles, such as the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Ngozi Iweala at the World Trade Organization. We wondered how such developments have been reflected in our ecosystems. Hence, we thought about following up with 2 of these profiles and hearing their perspective on how and if changes took place. It turns out that almost a year later, these women are continuing to thrive despite the seemingly never-ending coronavirus pandemic, even using the crisis as a launchpad for further success.
In 2020, Sasha led the External Relations and Investments team at Uzbekistan’s ITP Hub. Along with her productive team of women, she contributed to solving the gender issue by putting in orbit startups such as Tumaris.Tech, an initiative dedicated to promoting technical entrepreneurship among women in Uzbekistan. Since then, having grown as a leader at ITP, she has launched a career as a consultant advising organizations on gender equality and the digital economy. She seems to be on track to fulfill her hopes: “go deeper into the VC world, continue working with women empowerment issues, and hopefully make the world a better place to live for us all.”
We also caught up with Uuganbayar, the AND Global CFO, who since our article has welcomed a baby girl into the world. Her having other kids and planning to resume work highlights that, at least in Mongolia, a tech startup executive's role is compatible with family life (stay tuned for our next feature on women in tech before and after delivery). She commented on the undercurrents of change in the Mongolian startup world: “for the last year or two, I see that a great shift is happening in the tech industry where more women start holding top positions in governmental/regulatory institutions and more start-ups are being founded/co-founded by women.” Last year, Bolor Battsengel was appointed as chairperson of the Mongolian Communications and Information Technology Authority (CITA) and is now leading a major digital transformation in the country. Uuganbayar notes that her own company, AND Global, has welcomed an influx of women over the last two years - so much so, that the company has nearly reached gender parity. She hopes that as her company strives to become the first unicorn company to come out of Mongolia, many more women come to take seats at the executive table.
An international role model from Armenia
Since our July article, we have been lucky to meet a female role-model. Naré Vardanyan is one of those tenacious doers who sees, creates and capitalises on opportunities. She speaks 11 languages, which alone is a testimony to an ability to navigate across various settings.
This Armenian entrepreneur is the CEO and co-founder of Ntropy, a startup that raised a whopping $4 million USD in seed investments last year, a major achievement during the coronavirus pandemic. Ntropy’s product is an API that collects, cleans and organizes financial data (ex. banking transactions). Naré describes the product as an “enabler” - it enables user organizations to make the most out of the data they collect.
At the start of her path to serial entrepreneurship and success, Naré was a double outsider. Not only was she a woman entering an enduringly male-dominated space, but as an international relations scholar, she lacked technical knowledge. So she took the bull by the horn to transform herself. She attributes her inspiring successes to vigorous self-study, good work ethics, and numerous mentors who helped her along the way.
Naré acknowledges her role and responsibility in helping the startup world grow more inclusive. While she greatly appreciates the male mentors who guided her, she wishes for more female peers in the startup space to share experiences with. She plans to hire and empower more women in the future, lamenting that the current pool is still too small. Naré shared some wisdom for upcoming female entrepreneurs: to make space for themselves in the startup ecosystem, not fear rejection and failure, and “jump right into the water.”
Who took on the challenge?
Our July 2020 article somewhat challenged male decision-makers to emulate progressist Abdulahad (the CIO at ITP Hub who gave Sasha her break) by promoting more women and applying fair compensations (please share below any comments illustrating in your firm noticeable facts solving the gender issue).
Some talk the talk, and also walk the walk! This is the case of male serial entrepreneur & industry leader Aman Tentiyev (founder of Namba Group) who set a strong example - many women hold executive positions such as Cholpon Ashimova CEO of Namba.media and Nora Azygalieva CEO of Namba One within his group of companies. Clearly, a year on, other progressists have emerged across the region.
Lasting change and empowerment is fostered through the joint effort of hardworking, self-made women leaders such as Sasha, Ainur, and Naré, as well as male leaders like Aman who serve as allies within the startup world.