x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Team spirit carries the day

The Life: It had been a gruelling final day for the nine teams of UAE university students battling to be named Best Student Company of the Year.

Amal Al Mutawa, right, one of the volunteer mentors for the Injaz initiative, congratulates members of the winning team. Delores Johnson / The National
Amal Al Mutawa, right, one of the volunteer mentors for the Injaz initiative, congratulates members of the winning team. Delores Johnson / The National

It had been a gruelling final day - the culmination of 15 weeks of hard graft - for the nine teams of UAE university students battling to be named Best Student Company of the Year.

The morning session started with each team making a five-minute pitch to a panel of four judges. The students then set up their booths, showcasing their company's products and services. In the afternoon, each company was summoned to the boardroom and grilled for seven minutes by the panel of judges about their business model.

After much deliberation, the judges decided that Mark The Date, an events company run by nine female students from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, was the top business.

Abdullah Al Qassab, a petroleum industry executive and the winning group's mentor, leapt to his feet and punched the air in triumph.

"Paying back really pays back," he says, clearly as thrilled as the students about winning.

This is the first time the Injaz Junior Achievement Company Programme has been run for university students in the UAE. The scheme puts students in touch with volunteers to learn business and entrepreneurial skills.

Back in May, when they first heard about the scheme, the Zayed University group members cast around for a knockout idea. They quickly realised that social events held at the university lacked pizzazz, so they created Mark The Date to provide unforgettable occasions.

"Events are customised and personalised based on your wishes," says Aamna Seddeeq Al Ahmad, the chief executive of Mark The Date.

Mark The Date pursues an active social-media strategy (the company also won the best marketing award). And it scored a massive coup after spotting a potential client on Twitter, putting together a proposal and winning a Dh40,000 (US$10,890) contract to host the launch party for a new magazine. For Maha Yaqoot, the company's vice president of communications, involvement paid off on a more personal basis. The management experience she gained from working on the start-up convinced Boeing to hire her as one of three students from the UAE to participate in a six-month internship in Seattle, in the United States.

"I didn't have much management experience, so at the beginning I was perhaps a weak candidate," says Ms Yaqoot. "Being involved really helped me to be selected."

Their mentor, Mr Al Qassab, says he was impressed from the outset by how hard the team worked. His job was to channel their energy in the right direction and to work on their presentation skills.

"If you sound smart, you're good," he says.

The Mark The Date team is now working on growing the business by attracting loyal clients.

The day's other coveted prize was that of top chief executive, which went to Hessa Qabanji of E-go. The company designs and produces reusable garbage bags for car travel.

Ms Qabanji was magnanimous in victory, insisting her entire team accompany her on stage to collect the prize.

"They are the ones who encouraged me to the max, who really were with me," she says.

Ms Qabanji wanted the company to have an environmental focus after seeing animals that had choked on plastic bags in the desert.

"We want to help Emiratis to adopt new healthy ways of recycling and decreasing the amount of plastic use," she says. "We wanted to go environmental; we want to go green."

Awards recognising innovation and social impact were won by a company that uses the 15th letter in the Arabic alphabet (pronounced daad) as its name, which, its executives say, is best described as an "Arabised Hallmark".

All the winning companies were led by women.

"It's not surprising that women are achieving, but it's surprising that there are no [winning] men," says Mr Al Qassab. "There are men as mentors and men as judges, so the older generation is OK. The new generation is fading some way and I am worried about this. The next time I asked to mentor a guys' group to see what would happen."

Mark The Date will head to Qatar next month to compete against 14 other regional winners for the title of best student company in the Middle East.

lgutcher@thenational.ae