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Why the time is right for UAE women to start their own businesses

The decree stipulating equal pay for men and women, recently issued by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, shows how far businesswomen in the region have come and how far they still have to go.

Speaking to Arabian Business in an interview before the launch of SheLeads accelerator program, Nadine Halabi, business development manager at Dubai Business Women Council (DBWC) says more support and collaboration are needed among women themselves to push them up the career ladder and into leadership positions.

AB: What do you think are unique challenges for women entrepreneurs?

NH: Challenges don't have any gender. If it's a challenge in the business world, it applies for a women-led business or a male-led one. The UAE in general is one of the best places in the world to do business regardless of your gender because the leadership of the UAE government does not judge anyone based on gender but their capabilities.

But I feel the biggest challenge for women is the fact they do not support each other enough. I feel that if we women stuck together more, we would have a better effect on each other.

Women are phenomenal: they are fighters, they are survivors, creative, multitaskers, and they can do a lot of things, all in one package. So can you imagine the impact if more than one woman came together? I think it would be more resourceful, more productive, more efficient, more everything.

AB: How has the landscape for female entrepreneurship in the UAE evolved over the past ten years?

NH: It all happened out of necessity kind of. Women realised they were spending so much time in their corporate jobs away from their homes and families and getting involved in more of a mundane routine life. They worked for so long in these companies, and they had the experience, so they felt ready to actually move out of that and set up their own business.

The problem was that 10 years ago there weren't that many female entrepreneurs because there were barriers and challenges. To begin with, they did not have enough self-confidence to actually leave the workplace and venture into their own business.

Second of all, they did not have access to information on how to start their own business and third, there wasn't enough access to capital, which is the most important thing if you want to set up a business.


AB: What were the solutions to these challenges?

NH: The confidence is linked to having a solid skillset and so platforms like ours started to support these budding entrepreneurs by providing workshops, seminars and trainings related to how to set up a business.

Access to information could also be resolved through councils and business communities. We started to see a lot of multi-nationals set up their women-only networks where they really invested a lot of time and knowledge in their women employees. Banks also created programs that were specifically tailored to women in business.

All three components started to show more and it drove women to venture into entrepreneurship and setting up their own business. We started to see a gradual increase and then a surge in the number of women leaving the workforce to set up their own business. And by setting up their own business, they had a little more time to better manage their work-life balance.

AB: In what ways is DBWC supporting businesswomen in the UAE to reach leadership positions?

NH: We do a lot of sessions, now we call them webinars, around leadership. Leadership should be the language of inclusivity. If we include each other more, if we mentor each other and help train each other, then it would definitely help push women up the career ladder.

You see that in institutions where women are in leadership positions and do that with their team, that's where you find the best results.

AB: How far are we in the UAE from it being normal for women to be in senior positions instead of something celebrated and rare?

NH: I think in order for us in the UAE to achieve that, I think there should be less of a call for women-only events and seminars and instead having them be for both men and women. This is something we started to incorporate at the DBWC many years ago where we started opening up a lot of our big conferences to a male and female audience.

We believe we can't change society by focusing on 50 percent of it so why eliminate the men when they are counterparts? For more women to be introduced on boards and in senior management positions, you need to also involve the men in these organisations and shift the mind-set of the men as well. So it has to be a collaborative process and only then will we start seeing more of an impact.

AB: In what ways has coronavirus impacted the way you work in DBWC and female entrepreneurs in general?

NH: For the Dubai business women council, it impacted us in the sense that 90 percent of our activities were done face to face but with COVID 19 all of that moved into the digital space. In the beginning, it was a little bit of a challenge because we were all getting into something that we are not accustomed to: the Zoom calls, the Microsoft team calls, speaking to a screen rather than being physically in contact with the business world, etc.

But we are creatures of habit and so we got accustomed to the new norm. I think it is the same for everyone. But at the same time, it managed to bring out the creative element in a lot of us because you have to survive as a business owner and as an entrepreneur.

It is amazing to see that so many women in our council chose to find creative ways to enhance their businesses and keep them afloat. It did not stop us, it did not stop them and it goes to show you that at the end of the day, women are amazing warriors.


AB: Can you give me some examples of how these women adapted to the Covid situation?

NH: Shifting from a physical business to a digital one, for example. We did have a couple of our members telling us that at the beginning they were struggling but later on, they found a way to navigate the digital space. They shifted things within their business model that would actually go in line with the current situation and so by tweaking their business plan a little bit, they did manage to create more sales.

View the interview on Arabian Business Website HERE

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