The business landscape in the country is changing. Women are stepping out of the cultural mould to start businesses and lead companies in the male-dominated private sector.
When women take the helm
In times of crisis when finding or keeping a job becomes tougher, especially for women, why not open your own business? While most businesses are started by men, more women are becoming entrepreneurs. Souad al Hosani, an Emirati who grew up in Abu Dhabi, is one of them. At 22, Ms al Hosani opened her own company, which assists foreigners establishing their business in the capital, a few weeks ago with a British partner. "Nexus is my first business," she says. "Twenty-two is young, but for me it was the right time to set up a business because the market is down now. Everything is getting cheaper and opportunities are available in Abu Dhabi. "Yes, we are affected by the crisis, but it is much better than other places in the world and Abu Dhabi is a growing economy." Ms al Hosani's first customer was a French businessman in the financial sector but she believes a good deal of her clientele will come from the health-care and clean-energy sectors, especially after the capital won the right to host the headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). "Now with IRENA coming up, people are looking at energy opportunities," she says. "I will help in getting companies to come in from abroad and set up a branch in Abu Dhabi, and join Masdar and their programs, for instance." According to the UAE Yearbook 2007, the country registers the highest rate of women in higher education in the world, at 77 per cent. But they make up only 4 per cent of private-sector employees, mostly in financial firms, compared with 20 per cent of women in the public sector. In a survey last year, Lynda Moore, a professor in the College of Business Sciences at Zayed University, found few women start businesses and lead young companies. Ms al Hosani may be new at owning a business but she is already planning to start two more companies. "I would always prefer to work in my own business because I feel that I am an entrepreneur," she says. "I cannot be a typical government employee. I can only be my own boss. It makes me energetic." Despite her age, Ms al Hosani has already worked at the British embassy in Abu Dhabi, the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank and has served in several business groups. The other key factor is the support of her family. "My dad owns a company and I used to work with him in the beginning. My family supported me a lot. They are very happy with me." But one of the challenges for women such as Ms al Hosani is that there are few senior women they can look to for mentoring. "The lack of role models for these women is one of the big challenges," says Dr Katty Marmenout, a researcher at the INSEAD business school in Abu Dhabi. None of the women she interviewed for her research had a working mother, which means that they need to define their own paths, she says. Ms al Hosani says she created her own environment of role models. "I like to meet people. Any event that happens in Abu Dhabi, you will find me there," she says. "When you are around people, you must introduce yourself, look at their different cultures, broader perspectives - it helps you understand the world better," Ms al Hosani says. "I meet a lot of people who are creative, CEOs, owners of big companies who are travelling around the world. And I think, 'Why not me'?" Ms al Hosani advises similar-minded women to finish their education whether they marry or not. And they should know any limits that their families might impose, such as whether their husbands will allow them to be in a mixed environment or if they prefer them to work from home. "You have people who work from home, selling perfume, doing handicraft," she says. "It depends on the woman herself and the culture she is in." Ms al Hosani's 28-year-old cousin, Neera, for instance, makes and sells traditional gift boxes in fabric and paper, handbags made of palm leaves and oil paintings. "I took advantage of a programme launched by the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called Mubdi'ah. You can get your own licence and work from home," Ms al Hosani says. "I know that our culture is very sensitive but if you stop, you will never go ahead in life. You should always push and then you can reach your [goals]. "But you need to know your limits and respect your culture." firstname.lastname@example.org