RIYADH: The UN World Tourism Organization on Wednesday, World Tourism Day, announced the winners of its Women in Tech Startup Competition: Middle East, being held in Riyadh.
Launched in March to celebrate International Women’s Day, the competition sought women-led startups with innovative approaches to provide services and solutions with a positive social impact.
The competition saw 143 applicants from across Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Syria.
The winner of the Social Impact Category was Saudi national Nouf Al-Hazmi, CEO of Plastus Biotech, which specializes in making PHA biodegradable bioplastic by re-purposing organic waste.
Al-Hazmi said: “They’ve only selected four from all over the world … It’s huge. It means a lot to us, for young Saudi women and women around the world.”
Plastus Biotech’s concept falls in line with the Kingdom’s circular carbon economy goal for 2030 and the carbon neutrality agreement of 2060.
She said: “There are many opportunities. We can replace so many products that are fossil-based with more sustainable products that are actually carbon negative, and everyone will benefit.”
The winner of the Tourism and Travel Experience category was Kirti Chandel, chief product officer at SparkleHaze, for creating an enterprise-based, artificial intelligence assistant speaker named Woo-Hoo, as an in-room voice assistant for hospitality.
Chandel says Woo-Hoo creates a personalized experience for guests while remaining sustainable and easy to use.
She said: “We are boosting green hospitality. We are moving away from all the different devices that are used in hotels that are more cluttered. So, we combine them into one single form factor and also, we are digitizing your compendium menu. So, all the paper that is there within the room is gone.”
The winner of the Future Tech Category was Serbian national Zeljana Babic, CEO of Xenios Academy, an AI-powered training program with the mission to help hospitality businesses boost revenue by investing in employee training.
She said: “I feel extremely empowered. I feel very humbled. I am still shocked. To be honest. This might be one of the happiest moments of my professional career …
“We cannot invest in hospitality without investing in people and without investing in their education. And only once we do that, they will be able to provide services to their guests.”
The winner of the Events and Community category was Menna Ayad, CEO of Fosha, an AI-powered app for booking personalized experiences in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Executive Director of UNWTO Natalia Bayona said that Saudi Arabia is “booming when it comes to tourism.”
Bayona is a frequent visitor to the Kingdom and has collaborated with the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Education to boost the tourism industry.
She said: “I have to say that … (Saudi Arabia) has those values — the values of investment in people through education, investment in the planet through a better futuristic city for the next generations, and of course, investing in prosperity, in youth, and in technology and innovation.
“I have been working a lot with the ministry to foster education to create together a strategy of human capacity development and to strengthen the power of partnerships again with the private sector for innovation and technology and investments.”
Bayona said that the Financial Times’ joint report with the UNWTO reported that Saudi Arabia has been growing its foreign direct investment by 80 percent. “That’s crucial and that’s really strong because that means that the country is really into investment and diversifying the economy through tourism.”
With tourism being the top employer of women and youth, Bayona says staying committed and being part of a positive community makes all the difference.
“The most important thing is that I have to be thankful to my bosses,” she said, crediting her employers for empowering and trusting her. “And at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Because of course you can be talented, and you can have a very bright curriculum, but if you are not empowered, you are not (going) anywhere.”