Women business leaders offer vision with no excuses
Surrounded by gold, marble and sparkling chandeliers, dozens of executives sit at long boardroom tables in a circular ballroom. Mobile phones are placed on silent beside glasses of water and stacks of business cards.
A speaker takes the stage and stares down at her audience. Almost every executive in attendance is a woman, but for these business leaders, the issue of the day isn't gender or fairness in the workplace - it's how they will take over as the leaders of tomorrow.
"Gender issues are an outdated term," says Sheikha Hessa Bint Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, a director for Bahrain's Ministry of Interior and a member of the royal family. "Anyone who says we cannot advance because of men is making excuses. What couldn't a woman be today?"
The potential is limitless, according delegates at the 14th Global Women Leaders Summit, held this month at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.
The two-day event - coinciding with the landmark centennial anniversary of International Women's Day - brought together leaders from more than 15 countries to discuss the growing wealth, influence and leadership of women in the modern business world.
Sheikha Hessa, who spent two years with the United Nations Development Programme specialising in women's empowerment, served as the VIP speaker to kick off the summit, which included a variety of speakers, awards and panel discussions.
"If we look at the world today, the world is not what it was 10 years ago, five years ago, or one year ago," she says. "It has changed so much."
Sheikha Hessa's convictions are well founded. In a study released last year by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), based on a survey of 500 women and 70 interviews with private-banking specialists worldwide, it found that women controlled 27 per cent of the world's wealth in 2009, or about US$20 trillion (Dh73,462tn).
Women's wealth soared by 16 per cent in 2009, the report said, and it's expected grow by an average rate of 8 per cent over the next several years.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the role and influence of women is also growing by leaps and bounds, as powerful matriarchs amass great fortunes both through enterprise and inheritance.
Raja Al Gurg, the president of the Dubai Businesswoman's Council, has been a senior member of the UAE's corporate community for more than 22 years. She remembers when she could count "on half a hand" the number of women in the business world in the UAE.
Today, she places that number at more than 13,000.
"The money is there," she says. "But how to direct it and shape it in the right way is the challenge. Through the years, influence develops and the vision will develop."
The vision, she says, is taking women and business to the next level by cultivating the right kind of leaders.
Mrs Al Gurg, who is the managing director of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, a conglomerate that owns 22 companies that are involved in a variety of sectors, says the willingness to learn and acknowledge mistakes is the secret to her success.
"Over the years, I have learnt a lot from my mistakes," she says. "The successful person is the one who makes mistakes. If you don't make mistakes, you don't learn."
With businesswomen now in so many different sectors, such as brokerages, banking, property and hotels, she estimates women control about Dh12 billion in the UAE economy. Although they still don't make up enough high-level positions, the fact that women are also opening small businesses is encouraging, Ms Al Gurg says.
Hajia Salamatu Garba, who travelled from Nigeria to attend the summit, is one woman with modest business ambitions but enormous dreams.
Mrs Garba is the executive director of the Women Farmers Advancement Network (Wofan; www.wofan-ng.org), a non-government organisation that promotes economic and political empowerment for women in rural areas. The grass-roots programme, she says, co-ordinates with hundreds of local groups that boast thousands of members.
Mrs Garba hopes her work will help to fashion female leaders in her country.
"In Nigeria, we have made some progress when you compare to 10 years ago, but there is still so much to be done," she says. "Exposing them to finance and making them aware of resources can be such a challenge. So many women are just not aware. All of this is not business as it should be, but I think we are making progress."
HIV-awareness programmes, counselling, education and providing loans for businesses and agricultural equipment are just a few of the services offered through Wofan.
When it comes to women and leadership, she agrees with Sheikha Hessa that the time for gender comparisons has passed.
"It is a little different to complain about what men have or haven't done," she says. "We are interested in the energy to push and make progress for women to scale up."
While her approach might be different, Liesa Euton, the director of Corporate Publishing International (CPI) in Dubai, has a similar vision to her Nigerian counterpart.
She moved from St Martin in the Caribbean to the UAE two years ago, and since then has firmly established herself as a strong advocate in the female business community. She is an active member of several UAE institutions, including Heels and Deals (www.heelsanddeals.org) and the Dubai Businesswomen's Council (www.dbwc.ae).
In St Martin, she became the first woman to serve on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and was the first female president of the island's Hotel Tourism Association.
"At this point in my life, I would like to empower women to get up and go in terms of what they can do in the community," Ms Euton says.
And now, with more than 20 publications under the CPI banner, her next project is the launch of Achieve, a women's empowerment magazine that aims to uplift women and share their local stories.
Ms Euton says she has lived and worked around the world, from the US, to the UK, to the Netherlands and the Caribbean. She sees her time in the UAE as a new challenge in terms of promoting the involvement of women in the world of commerce.
"In this region, in my experience so far, attitudes are changing in terms of what roles women can play," she says. "You are dealing with ingrained cultural differences in this region and that can be challenging. But I'm really seeing some amazing changes."
Whether they came from Nigeria, St Martin, the UAE, or any of the 15 nations represented at the summit, these ambassadors of influence know the best is yet to come.
"If someone else can do it, nothing should stop you," Mrs Garba says.
"She should never be afraid of starting small because, with every journey, you started it with a single step."
Updated: March 20, 2011 04:00 AM