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Michaela Ranaldi Bearden, Ed.D., and Katie Gilstrap are witnessing firsthand the progress women are making in Saudi Arabia. 

“To see the culture change right before your eyes is an incredible experience,” said Bearden, the senior director of the Center for Corporate Education in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. She and Gilstrap, an assistant professor of marketing, have been teaching entrepreneurial workshops to women at Effat University in Jeddah and Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh. The workshops are presented by the Henry Ford Entrepreneurship Academy at VCU.

“We can see how eager these women are to be involved with Saudi Arabia’s future. They are excited to have a voice and share that voice,” Bearden said.

Three workshops have been presented at each university since 2008. Bearden and Gilstrap finished their latest one in February.

When they started teaching the workshops in Saudi Arabia, women were limited in what they were allowed to do. They could not drive among other things. Now that the country has embraced Saudi Vision 2030 to create a vibrant society and bring economic reform to the country, women have more opportunities than ever. For example, they can now drive and acquire business licenses.

To know VCU is contributing to the tapestry of what is “changing for women, particularly through the workshop and ongoing mentorship, is such a privilege,” Gilstrap said.

“My goal for the participants is for them to become more confident and competent as they pursue their entrepreneurial vision,” Gilstrap said. “They are in a culture that for the first time is embracing that.”

Partnering with the Ford Fund

Bearden works with the Ford Fund — the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Co. — to run the Henry Ford Entrepreneurship Academy at VCU and pulls in faculty members such as Gilstrap to teach a variety of workshops. The initiative started in 2015 when VCU began a partnership with the Ford Fund to develop entrepreneurship workshops that could be delivered internationally.

The university’s involvement stems from adjunct professor David Berdish, a VCU graduate who retired from Ford Motor Co. in 2013 and is now executive-in-residence for VCU Supply Chain Management and Analytics. The academy launched in 2015 in Rabat, Morocco. To date, more than 1,000 students have participated in academy workshops, which have grown from one to nine a year. They have been taught in the United States, Egypt, Morocco, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. 

The Entrepreneur’s Journey, the workshop Gilstrap and Bearden presented last month in Saudi Arabia, equips entrepreneurs with the tools and know-how to move their idea or venture to the next level.

“We talk about understanding how your journey has prepared you for the next chapter of entrepreneurship and how it has helped shape your values. We talk about what makes you different and unique and how that creates value for your audience,” Gilstrap said.

Some women in the February workshop had already started an entrepreneurial venture — one sells jewelry and another works with women to create a shoe that tracks plantar fasciitis. 

“Other women are passionate about problems they want to solve, but they have not thought beyond that. They don’t have a real idea yet. The workshops provide a safe and collaborative environment where they can iterate,” Bearden said. 

Bearden and Gilstrap bring in guest speakers to share their personal stories with the class.

“In Saudi, our workshop provides participants access to female entrepreneurs; people they espouse to be like. There are women in Saudi Arabia who can look up to these women entrepreneurs and say, ‘That is what I want also,’” Bearden said. “They have access to women doing the work in the real world.”

Pitching ideas

The Entrepreneur’s Journey begins with an opening pitch where class members share their ideas. At the end of the workshop, participants pitch their refined ideas for a chance to work with a U.S.-based mentor.

The winning pitch in February came from Ruaa AlMohanna, the first Saudi woman to earn an exercise physiology degree, who wants to pursue her dream of opening a fitness studio to support women’s health in her community.

“She will start working with our mentor to create a business plan and move her idea forward,” Bearden said, noting there are many Saudi companies set up to help entrepreneurs. “A lot of firms have stepped up with funding for viable ideas.”

Continuing the momentum

This month, Bearden, Gilstrap and Berdish are traveling to South Africa to present a social impact workshop for men and women who have a business but can “only do so much because they don’t have access to resources they need to grow,” Bearden said. 

“We want to make sure they understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “We will also talk about sustainable business practices and how to measure the impact you have on a community.” 

Overseeing the Henry Ford Entrepreneurship Academy has meant a great deal to Bearden. “This is a rewarding experience for all involved,” she said. “Everybody wants to make their communities better and stronger. When they come together and share these needs, and work on them collaboratively, that is when change happens. We are out there to make a difference and this program is making a difference.”

She is grateful to Ford and VCU for having faculty engaged in the workshops, which also benefits VCU students in the classroom.

“Getting students involved by bringing these places to them in the classroom is cool,” Bearden said. “That’s instrumental in why this partnership is so important.”

Bearden and Gilstrap were happy to learn when they were at Princess Nourah University that two VCU graduates are on the faculty in Riyadh.

“They are VCU School of Business grads making a difference around the world,” Gilstrap said. “It’s a wonderful reminder of VCU’s footprint.”


Three women stand together, one holding a certificate.

Ruaa AlMohanna, left, with Gilstrap and Bearden. AlMohanna, who wants to open a fitness studio to support women’s health in her community, pitched the winning idea at February’s Entrepreneur’s Journey workshop. (Photo courtesy Katie Gilstrap)

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