Tuba Terekli made her first investment at 16. Not in stocks or a startup, but in herself. She bought a computer that allowed her to work from home as a typist for Zahid Tractor, making nearly $3,000 a month. A Turkish transplant living in Makkah, she excelled academically, graduating from high school when she was 16. Unfazed by the cultural and age barriers that greeted her as a young woman in Saudi Arabia, Terekli immediately embarked on a career.
“I loved making money for myself and for my family,” says Terekli, 45, and a mother of four.
She has built an impressive resumé. After graduating from King Abdulaziz University in 1997 with a degree in computer science and engineering, she held positions at Saudi Aramco, International Medical Center, and Procter & Gamble, among other places. She even ran her own healthcare advisory firm. Along the way, she found time to make small investments in 15 startups, mainly in Saudi Arabia, but also as far away as Finland.
Her role as an angel investor and mentor to entrepreneurs led her in 2012 to co-found and lead Qotuf Al Riyadah Development Company, a non-profit organization in Jeddah. It is modeled after the U.S.’s Kauffman Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing entrepreneurship and improving education.
Qotuf works with the Saudi government, universities, accelerator programs, venture capitalists and angel investors to support entrepreneurs. It offers business courses, pairs startup founders with mentors, and hosts Global Entrepreneurship Week and the Creative Business Cup in Saudi Arabia, among other events. In total, 23,700 people have participated in Qotuf’s events and programs over the last four years.
A key part of Terekli’s work is improving access to capital. As a woman, she says people in the Saudi business community were skeptical that she would be able to manage Qotuf’s investments. To add credibility, she reached out in 2012 to Flat6Labs, a branch of the regional seed stage startup accelerator, which first opened its doors in Cairo in 2011.
She struck a deal, where Qotuf owns, operates and funds Flat6Labs Jeddah, and raised $5.3 million from IKEA and Arabian Cement. The accelerator invests between $15,000 and $20,000 in young companies and provides them with workspace.
It helped that Qotuf’s co-founder is Ghassan Al-Sulaiman. He owns the IKEA franchise in Saudi Arabia, and is Governor of the General Authority for SMEs.
To date, Qotuf—by way of Flat6Labs Jeddah—has invested in 38 Saudi startups. They include Sawerly, a platform for freelance photographers, Polisher, a car cleaning service, and Wade7, which makes math and science videos. Half of the startups have received follow-on funding. Although it hasn’t recorded an exit, Terekli cites promising stories such as Maharah, an on-demand home maintenance service, which now employs 450 people.
For her efforts, Terekli has earned the nickname “Accelerator Lady.”
Born in Turkey, she moved with her family to Saudi Arabia in 1980 because her father wanted to be closer to the roots of Islam. A bit of a geek, she taught herself to program at 11. After graduating from King Abdulaziz University, she worked as a teacher for several years, before landing a job as an analyst with Saudi Aramco in 2003. Within a year, she was working in strategic planning, attached to the office of Aramco’s CEO. “Aramco is what made me who I am today,” says Terekli.
With her husband working at Aramco, she thought her chances of advancing her career at the oil giant might be limited. She left in 2004.
Running a healthcare advisory firm in 2011 gave her a taste of entrepreneurship; so did her time as the National Commercial Bank’s manager for SMEs, and a member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Small Business Strategic Committee. Terekli discovered a major socioeconomic gap. Nearly all successful entrepreneurs had a helping hand. “It was specifically the children of privileged families,” she says.
In 2011, Al-Sulaiman, an acquaintance of Terekli’s, proposed they set up a foundation to help entrepreneurs with good ideas but no financial recourse. Although Qotuf will invest in entrepreneurs from all socioeconomic backgrounds, it particularly supports individuals from the middle and lower classes.
An example is Farm Tech, founded by two sheepherders, who rarely traveled to Jeddah before meeting with Qotuf. They raise livestock using hydroponic technology, which helps conserve water.
“Diversity of the economy is our number one requirement right now,” says Terekli.
She looks for companies and traits most Saudi investors overlook, she says, including startups with more than one founder at the helm, entrepreneurs who participate in competitive sports, or who were class president.
Startups that get into Flat6Labs Jeddah usually need to have customers and show six months worth of revenue. Terekli frowns on entrepreneurs obsessed solely with social impact, or who offer apps for free to attract users—which is not an unusual path. “I wouldn’t put a single dollar into someone who doesn’t know how to sell,” she says.
Her plan is to open additional Flat6Labs in Saudi Arabia, and expand Qotuf’s work to other Arab countries.
The Accelerator Lady is on a roll.