Stop Swiping and Start Connecting: Meet Huggle


Have you ever gone out with someone that you met through a social app and ended up disappointed because the connection didn’t go much further than physical attraction? If yes, that is the scenario that Valerie Stark and Stina Sanders were looking to overcome when creating the Huggle app.

Huggle is a social app that connects you with people based on places you go, rather than physical appearance. The app uses hyper local technology to check you into your favorite places, your current location or places nearby and allows you to see who else has been there and what other locations you share with them – say goodbye to swiping! According to the founders, it is a mix of Instagram and Foursquare and can be used to find platonic or romantic connections – or simply to be nosey. It is the perfect app to use if you are traveling or new to an area – which is exactly how the idea for the app came about.

Huggle – which suggests a friendly hug - emerged when Valerie moved from Moscow to London and was struggling to make friends so she would often search her own Instagram geo-tags to see who else had gone to the same places and would occasionally reach out to people and initiate conversation. According to her, she started to build a small network through her own geo-tags and one day discovered Stina through a mutual yoga location. Upon scanning Stina's Instagram page, Valerie discovered that the two had a lot of interests in common and both frequented at a lot of the same locations so she decided to message Stina and after a short while, the two met and became friends.

After meeting and establishing a friendship in 2014, the duo agreed that since social media apps at the time lacked depth and didn’t provide a good common ground for people to meet combined with their shared desire to meet people that they had things in common with, left a big white-space in the market. Ultimately leading to the start of Huggle in the beginning of 2015.

In a world of Tinders, Grindrs, Hinges, Bumbles and OKCupids, it is refreshing to learn of an experience provided by a social app where romantic or sexual relationships aren’t the assumed end result. "Huggle is a bespoke app and you can use it how you wish" offers Sanders. She explains that there is absolutely no bias when it comes to their target market – man, woman, single, taken, whether you're in search of platonic friendships or romance, all users are welcome.

Valerie Stark and Stina Sanders, founders of Huggle app

The app officially launched in the UK in June 2016 and the U.S. launch is in the works. Huggle has received investment by Andrey Andreev, a Russian entrepreneur who also invested in Bumble, reasserting the market's need for an unbias and platonic social media app.

When asked about challenges faced thus far, the duo share their favorite motivational quote "If it was easy, everybody would be doing it." Their shared interests and ideas brought them together and keep them going day to day but their very diverse backgrounds have also played a large part in the success of the app. Stark, a certified yoga instructor whose background includes a managerial position at one of the largest restaurant businesses in Moscow where she was a key player in their UK and European expansion, combined with Sanders, a model and social media personality who partakes in online TV documentaries and public speaking to highlight social media safety and expectations, make a great team. According to Sanders, "We have very different backgrounds in the tech world, which has been a blessing in disguise."



1. What app do you most use?

Huggle :) and Instagram.

2. Name a business mogul you admire.

Val: Victoria Beckham - she knows what she’s doing and I like how she moved away from her pop-star perception to a high brow fashion designer. She created the Beckham brand and I admire that.

Stina: Richard Branson. I’ve read all of his books and I personally think he is a PR genius.

3. What product do you wish you had invented?

V: Memes!

S: Any idea that is so simple and almost pointless - like the selfie stick.

4. What is your life motto?

V: Her success is not your failure.

S: The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has been before.

5. Desert island. Three things, go.

V: Resistance bands, book and intimate wash.

S: Music, coconut oil and a hair tie!

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.