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After conquering the North Pole, Elham al Qasimi's next goal is to establish a venture philanthropy programme in the UAE.
After conquering the North Pole, Elham al Qasimi's next goal is to establish a venture philanthropy programme in the UAE.

It takes hard work to get to the top

The first Arab woman to reach the North Pole has an ambitious set of financial goals now that she's back in the Emirates.

I felt very humbled and very grateful that I had the chance to try and reach the North Pole and to actually make it. The cost financially and on my time was much greater than I had expected. I was forced out of my comfort zone, but I had so much support from family, sponsors and friends that when I stood at the pole I didn't feel alone. I felt the presence of everyone who assisted.

The original target was to raise ?70,000 (Dh332,425), including a provision for a charitable donation. I haven't done the final calculation yet, but it was a lot more than estimated. There were so many unexpected costs. Raising the money for this venture was little different than putting together a business plan for a venture capital fund. I used the skills I had gained in my career as an investment planner: attention to detail, the ability to think on my feet and the courage to follow my convictions.

My father instituted the saving discipline early. He instilled in us the awareness that you can't assume there is a free flow of money so you have to be prepared if you want to fund fun things. My mother was more concerned with teaching us to budget. If I did end up being a housewife, she wanted to make sure I could manage the household budget even if my husband was not able to provide the same way my father had.

She understood that you don't know what your future will hold. I've always been a careful saver and made sure I had hidden a stash somewhere, but when I went to graduate school at the London School of Economics in the UK I realised how much more there was to managing money. Living at home is an illusion of the reality of having to provide. When I set myself up in an apartment, I had to pay close attention to make sure I could meet all my responsibilities like rent, utility bills and the television licence.

I was determined from the beginning that I would never pick up the phone and ask my father to bail me out. It would feel like failing. And I never have. After graduate school, I joined JPMorgan. There I saw a whole new approach to money. It wasn't just a matter of saving. Everyone around me was actively investing their money. Before working there I knew how to save and meet obligations, but I never really felt seriously about saving for my future.

It's a cultural thing. In our country, women feel they will be provided for by their father or husband. But times are changing and we really don't know what our future will be. Working at JPMorgan I gained amazing skills, but there was a price to pay and every year I valued what I was earning and learning against what I was giving up. I was working between 100 and 140 hours a week. In three years, I never once made it home for dinner. It's a high price for a job but it forced me to be ambitious.

Eventually, the opportunity costs became less appealing and after three years it was time to leave. I thought about coming home to the UAE, but there were no opportunities here at the time that would take advantage of all the skills I had gained. Also, I wanted a job in social development. After five months, I joined Impetus Trust. It's a company that invests people's philanthropic funds with the same rigour it would invest their personal wealth and with the same desire for outcome. People want to make sure the money they put into charities will get the best return for investment. I hate to see money wasted. With charities, I have a very demanding and unforgiving sense of how money is spent.

I don't think we should go cheap in helping society, but I believe in getting results. We don't have a history of forcing charities to answer questions about how money is spent. Venture philanthropy is still a young industry, but it's something I'd like to look at setting up in the Middle East - later, much later. Right now I am working with Mubadala, a UAE investment company that manages sovereign wealth with a focus on creating jobs and industries.

For me, it has always been important to have my own personal financial cushion. If I didn't have that cushion then last November I would have found myself without the means to meet the immediate costs of the expedition and maybe risked getting to the North Pole. I think there's nothing wrong with having an element of enjoyment in life if you can afford to. But that element has been skewed so much. I find it difficult to reconcile how much people will spend on, say, a car compared to the enjoyment they get out of it.

If I saw a dress I liked when I was younger, I would buy it. Now I look at the price tag and say, that's absurd. I think this change comes from the combination of having to raise funds and having to look after myself. * As told to Jane Williams

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