May Habib’s start-up is simplifying technology so global companies can communicate in multiple languages on different platforms
May Habib is chasing a unicorn – not the mythical creature but the billion-dollar successes of Silicon Valley. The 30-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Qordoba is now in San Francisco to cement the company’s global status and in doing so, could nurture the first unicorn to have been born out of the Middle East.
Harvard-educated Habib founded Qordoba in 2011 in Dubai, providing software to companies to enable them to automate content publishing in multiple languages and channels.
Born in Lebanon, she began her career in New York, working as a software analyst in mergers and acquisitions for a global investment bank.
“There was an aspect to international living and causes that was completely missing from my day to day life,” she says.
Even though I found the work enjoyable and the company fascinating, I was not thinking outside a very narrow domain
An opportunity to work for Mubadala, the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, popped up for Habib who “jumped at it” and began a two year stint with Mubadala that led to travel across Singapore, London, Germany, the USA and UAE.
“I definitely hit my stride,” she says. “We were doing deals all over the world, with a small diverse team. It could not be more different than my experience in Wall Street.”
It was during that time that Habib was able to observe the differences between the developed and emerging markets. Both were moving online, but at varying speeds. Mobile adoption and mobile internet penetration has experienced exponential growth in emerging markets but one of the main issues is the lack of content online.
“The problem of online content was one I kept coming back to the most,” says Habib. “A lot of the motivation when we first started Qordoba was around the idea of information poverty. We’re enabling global access to products and services. There’s a massive push for universal Internet access by 2020 – but if there aren’t good products in those languages, we won’t get the development surplus we think we will by that kind of access,” says Habib.
It is thought that Arabic constitutes less than two per cent of all online content, a disparate figure considering native Arabic speakers constitute almost five per cent of the world’s population.
For a global company, translating and creating websites for each market they operate in can be an expensive endeavour, so Habib—along with her co-founder and current chief technology officer Waseem Alsheikh—decided to create a software that would enable firms to seamlessly manage and create content in several different languages.
“Essentially it is a software that helps companies manage and expand their multinational and multilingual presence, so if you have mobile apps or product marketing that needs to be in ten or fifteen languages, it is an immense challenge,” says Habib.
Qordoba’s technology allows firms to localise their content and optimise it for different markets without the trouble of creating that content from scratch.
Making use of her global contacts, Habib ran experiments with law firm Freshfields and advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi to develop multi-lingual content. Both were a success.
“We opened an office in Berlin the following year and we expanded to San Francisco last year, where we are now headquartered,” she says.
Today, Qordoba counts Cartier, Nestle and the World Bank among its clients and the company has now filed two patents in the US for its technology.
Habib’s experience in setting up her company was relatively trouble-free for a start-up. Nor did she find it hard establishing herself as a woman in a male-dominated market.
“It wasn’t hard to decide [to start a company], but I was also young. If I were making that choice now, it would be a little different. I was 26 when I quit my job, I’m 30 now and I spent most of the first year learning,” says Habib. “Making that kind of investment now would seem more daunting.”
A group of angel investors from the Middle East, Europe and the US funded Habib to begin with. The company underwent two rounds of investment in 2012 and 2015 and has raised $4m in total.
“It’s so inspiring to be located in the Valley now. We learnt more in a week here than we did in months before we moved. The density of smart people doing smart things in new and different ways is just off the charts,” says Habib.
Habib puts her success down to perseverance.
“Things that make us [women] successful are things that make anyone successful – the ability to see the forest from the trees, make incremental progress in a disciplined way and keep your eye on the prize. It is ten times harder than anyone says it is, and it gets harder because the milestones you set keep moving out.”
In her spare time, Habib maintains the link to her former university. She is also a World Economic Forum (WEF) ‘global shaper’, a network of young people showing exceptional potential and drive.
“The nice thing about WEF is that it’s very much people who are global actors working in local contexts—people who are trying to make a difference,” says Habib. And she should know.