WOMEN IN FINANCE STILL PRESSURED TO PROVE THEMSELVES MORE THAN MEN, SAYS KEY FEMALE UAE ENTREPRENEURJanuary 3rd, 2017
BY HEBA HASHEM, in Dubai Her Excellency Sara Al Madani ventured into the business world at a time when very few Emirati women dared to do so. Defying gender and cultural norms, she started her fashion label Rouge Couture at the age of 15.
EAGER to give a new twist to the abaya (the robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women), she went on to create dozens of unconventional designs of the traditional garment and opened three branches of her boutique in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
By 2014 and following her success as a young businesswoman, Al Madani, 30, was selected by Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi, Ruler of the UAE emirate of Sharjah, as board member of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCI). As a result, she now is known by the honorific Her Excellency (HE).
Today, the entrepreneur travels throughout the UAE and beyond to share her story and inspire women to pursue their dreams: “You can see drastic change happening and women are stepping up to make a difference,” HE Al Madani told Accounting & Business in an interview at the chamber’s offices.
“Women don’t need empowering; they are already strong. They just need inspiring – someone to help them find their passions, then let them go and watch wonders happen,” she said.
The problem, in her opinion, is that women are talking to other groups of women about how female entrepreneurs and financial professionals within the UAE are making insufficient headway. “When that happens, it becomes a gossip session- not much gets solved. We need to involve more men in these discussions,” said Al Madani, who recently participated in a women’s empowerment conference organised by The Human Design and supported by Hope India, both non-profit organisations, and staged in the city of Faridabad, north India, last November (2016).
“I believe when you want to be a leader, you need to inspire by setting examples. I started my business when I was 15 and it was a man’s world; nobody helped me.” With many facilities and initiatives available nowadays for Emirati women, there is no excuse, she added.
“When an expat woman succeeds here, she sets an example for locals. I use these case studies to motivate local women,” said Al Madani. “I tell them: ‘Look, they left their hometowns and came to a different country; they have a lot of risk to take and yet they’re doing something. You are in your own country and you have it easier. Do something. Take a risk.’”
Al Madani recently forayed into food and beverage with the opening of a British restaurant Shabarbush, in Dubai – its name reflects how many Arabs pronounce the name of the London district Shepherd’s Bush, which is popular with Emiratis). At the same time, she runs a creative consultancy called Social Fish alongside her fashion line, all while representing Nivea and Natura Bissé in the Middle East as a brand ambassador.
So how does she manage to juggle all these roles? “A lot of people start their day by doing random things, but you need to prioritise what’s more important to finish. If there’s anything that will stop you, it’s you. You are your own wall.”
Moreover, women are natural multitaskers as numerous studies have shown over the years, she stressed. This ability should give women an edge over men, she said: “I’m always out and about and I take my child with me. I even gave a speech once with my son in my hand – nothing stops me.”
For Al Madani, there’s no single formula for success, although there are qualities that are common among high achievers.
She told Accounting & Business: “I’m very stubborn and don’t take no for an answer. I need reasons for why things don’t work and I’m not afraid of failing. It’s also important to be open to suggestions and adapt if necessary.”
Inspiration is also essential, even though it is sometimes downplayed and seen as purely artistic. “The source of inspiration should be your vision and goal. The reason I wake up every day and do all these tasks is because I have a goal and want to get there.”
As a board member for the UAE SME Council for small-and-medium-sized businesses and the Sharjah Economic Excellence Network (ShjSEEN), an initiative created by the SCCI to incubate and recognise startups, Al Madani regularly meets with financial institutions to discuss new small business rules and regulations. On one occasion, she was told by a bank that their finance and accounting department did better when it was managed by women.
Yet some UAE companies are still reluctant to place women on their corporate boards. Data from the Arab Women Organisation shows that women account for just under 2% of board members of publicly listed companies in the UAE. This is compared with a global average of 16%, according to accounting network Grant Thornton.
Al Madani believes that such corporations falsely assume women are more emotional and less realistic than men: “This is very wrong. Women can add a lot of value to any sector and are more disciplined with money; they naturally manage households so they’re always thinking ahead and planning.”
An electronic poll of delegates at the 10th Annual Corporate Governance Conference staged in November by Hawkamah, the Dubai-based Institute for Corporate Governance identified cultural biases as the biggest obstacle to greater female board membership within the Gulf region.
Nearly two thirds of participating senior executives felt that women needed to work harder than men to prove themselves, UAE daily newspaper The National has reported.
“Many companies in the financial sector make women feel that men should be in their place. There’s still pressure on them when they take on ‘male roles’. Even with all the success a woman might have achieved, they expect her to prove herself in different ways,” noted Al Madani.
Moreover, some women perceive their femininity as a weakness, an idea which limits their careers to female-oriented fields, she said. “Even as entrepreneurs, you see them opening bakeries and sweets shops. I want to tell these women ‘don’t be intimated and believe in yourselves’.”
One way women can give themselves a head start in UAE business is by having a financial professional background, she said. According to Al Madani, the most common reason behind the failure of startups in the region is their lack of financial understanding. “Accounting and finance are subjects everybody needs to know about, because money is in everything,” she said, stressing how book-keeping and business finance courses have been invaluable (she is not a qualified accountant). “If I didn’t have a financial background, my businesses would’ve probably died within three to four years of operation,” she said.
“You have so many minutes in your day and so many months in your life, so you need to be selective in what you invest in and find your true passion. It’s a self-discovery journey.”
Her Excellency Sara Al Madani became the youngest board member at Sharjah Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCI) in 2014. She also serves as a board member at the UAE SME Council and the Sharjah Economic Excellence Network.
Apart from her governmental positions, Al Madani runs three businesses in the UAE: an innovative abaya fashion house, a British restaurant, and a creative consultancy. She is also brand ambassador for Nivea and Natura Bissé in the Middle East and for She’s Mercedes Abu Dhabi – a networking event that addresses the challenges of balancing business and private life.
A recipient of multiple awards, Al Madani was recently conferred with the Ecosystem Influencer title at the Enterprise Agility Awards 2016, organised by the magazine Entrepreneur Middle East, for inspiring entrepreneurs and playing a key role in raising the profile of Sharjah.
*This article was first published in Accounting and Business, the member magazine of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) www.accaglobal.com/AB