ABU DHABI // When it comes to career aspirations, 24-year-old Salama al Romaithi has big dreams.
A media and communications graduate from Zayed University, Ms al Romaithi's ambition is to launch a website and encyclopaedia collection dedicated to a matter close to her heart: the heritage of the UAE.
But while the help and support of her family is invaluable, nothing can rival the guidance of a professional who has already made it in a similar field.
This is where Mahasen al Mahasneh, a career development co-ordinator at Al Hosn University, comes in. Ms al Mahasneh, 58, has been assigned as Ms al Romaithi's mentor as part of the Big Sister/Little Sisters programme, which was launched yesterday by the Women's Excellence Group and the Abu Dhabi International Centre for Organisational Excellence.
The cross-cultural programme, the first of its kind in the emirate, brings together women of different backgrounds, and pairs them up based on their professional experience and career aspirations.
Yesterday's icebreaker at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi allowed the women to meet, interact and participate in a series of bonding activities. So far, about 100 women have registered for the programme, and 45 pairs have been matched.
Big sisters, or mentors, already established in their careers at a senior management level, must be good listeners who can offer their little sister advice on how to progress through precisely the issues and challenges they have overcome themselves.
Ms al Mahasneh said she was so compatible with her little sister that it was almost as though they were "meant to be".
Her job in career counselling, coupled with her experience as a former cultural counsellor at the Jordanian embassy in Greece, made her the perfect candidate to mentor Ms al Romaithi, she said.
"I've accumulated so much expertise and resources that I feel it's time to share this knowledge with someone who can benefit from it," she said.
And the benefits of the relationship were reciprocal, she said. "It's not only me who'll be sharing the information. I'm also sure that I'll learn a lot from Salama. She's already helping me with my impatience by teaching me how to be quiet and listen."
Sheikha Shamma al Nahyan, patron of the project and granddaughter of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, said the initiative would provide young women with an invaluable opportunity to learn from the experience of the previous generation in their chosen profession. "It's always easy to seek advice," said Sheikha Shamma.
"It's seeking advice from the right people that's the challenge. This gives women the chance to boost their confidence and have a voice. It's an important step towards developing women leaders."
Sisters must devote at least four hours a month to the programme, and must sign a code of conduct to guarantee confidentiality, reliability and integrity in the process.
Projects like this were particularly important for Emirati women, and provided access to the resources they need, said Ms al Mahasneh. "International exposure is extremely important for local women and it's right here at their doorstep. They don't need to travel to get it," she said.
While a good mentor uses coaching skills, the roles of mentor and coach were distinct, said Ailsa Bernard, a coach and mentor based in Abu Dhabi.
"A coach would usually ask generic questions and encourage people to think for themselves," she said.
"However, mentoring requires an element of experience, knowledge and expertise - valuable insight you can share with the person."
And women are not the only ones in need of a mentorship programme, said Maha Wadad Mroue, the regional director at the marketing research consultants Martpoint, and another mentor in the programme.
"In fact, men need mentoring just as much as women do," she said. "Women may need to fight more in order to be heard, but they are much more flexible, understanding, and open to feedback. Men also have insecurities, but their egos stand in the way of them accepting help."
Though Amal al Hammadi and Narjess al Hammadi are not related, they have become "sisters" through the programme. The former is a project devlopment director, while her new-found "little sister" is a secretary at the Federal Demographic Council.
Being a good listener, staying objective and always being there are characteristics that define a good "sister", they agreed. "While I consider my close friends my sisters, I don't have any in my family," Amal al Hammadi, 37, said. "I always used to tell my friends you're very lucky to have a sister. Now, I will."
Narjess al Hammadi said she hoped the programme would provide her with some focus in determining her future career direction.
"I want a change but I don't know what I want," she said. "I hope that this programme will help me decide."