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It's not unusual to hear a story about young entrepreneurs developing apps for smartphones. This next story is unusual because the entrepreneurs are 15 women from Saudi Arabia. They've come to the U.S. for mentoring as they develop their pitches. The kingdom has made news lately for jailing women activists along with others who speak up. At the same time, women have been breaking new ground in business, like the group NPR's Deborah Amos spoke to.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: They are young, highly educated and exceptionally ambitious at a time when the right kind of ambition can pay off in Saudi Arabia for a woman.
BUSHRA ALGHAMDI: So my name is Bushra Alghamdi.
AMOS: Alghamdi is a 24-year-old dentist. Her all-female team won a competitive slot for training and mentoring at Halcyon, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs who answer social problems. They stayed at Halcyon headquarters for a two-week course. These Saudi women are riding the wave of change.
ALGHAMDI: Now we are in the era of risk-taking, thinking out of the box. And here I am. I'm a dentist, and I'm going to be a businesswoman.
AMOS: Her business will be an online platform for dentists and lab technicians that offers patients faster and better dental services. Saudi Arabia has nothing like it, she says, and that pretty much describes all of these ventures - new to the Saudi market, including an online program for autistic children and an app for recycling called Green Palm. Joshua Mandell is Halcyon's director for policy and international programs.
JOSHUA MANDELL: Some of them are in a real early development stage, but they're all interested in how to access capital from outside Saudi Arabia.
AMOS: And he says they get the support they need here from business professionals.
HELEN MANICH: Helen Manich, M-A-N-I-C-H. I'm a mentor here at Halcyon, and I mentor on the path to the revenue stream.
AMOS: Do you see that some of these projects could go?
MANICH: Oh, absolutely.
AMOS: She helps them shape the pitch they make to investors. Now a consultant, she was a business pioneer, a female executive in the 1980s.
MANICH: I find these women to be self-confident. They're very clear about their strengths. They are absolute spitfires in their own way.
AMOS: Women outnumber male college graduates in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women hold more than a billion dollars in local banks. And many Saudi women applaud these new opportunities driven by the 32-year-old powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He's loosened religious and social restrictions. He encourages women to go out and work - part of a grand economic plan to expand the private sector and wean the kingdom off an oil economy.
HEBA ZAHID: We love Mohammed bin Salman. He's our crown prince. He's our age. And we like the change he's introducing.
AMOS: Heba Zahid, a biology professor, dismisses recent Western criticism of the crown prince for locking up women activists who campaigned to lift the driving ban weeks before he lifted it - a sign he doesn't tolerate any public activism.
ZAHID: We trust that the government knows what they're doing. So I don't want to, you know, be mean to anyone, but I don't feel I've gained anything from activists. These changes would have come even with them or without them.
AMOS: Zahid aims to change Saudi culture, too, by introducing the kingdom's first app for recycling in a pitch to investors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ZAHID: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Heba Zahid. So 10 years ago, I traveled to Australia with my husband to study my master and my Ph.D.
AMOS: She came home with a passion for recycling.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ZAHID: I even had a small chicken I called Brownie to help me...
ZAHID: ...Reduce the waste and eat the leftovers.
AMOS: In her two weeks at Halcyon, she's learned to refine her project, her pitch, and she's trained to negotiate multimillion-dollar deals.
Have you ever negotiated anything before?
ZAHID: Well, I always negotiate with my kids (laughter).
AMOS: That's not the same.
AMOS: Is it hard when it's about money?
ZAHID: I don't think so, no. It just - you need to learn, and you need to be careful, and you need to know your limits.
AMOS: Limits are changing rapidly in the kingdom. The Middle East already has more female tech entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the world. Saudi women are racing to catch up. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS SONG, "TOO MUCH BIRTHDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.