x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Five women, five careers, one goal: having their cake and eating it, too

These successful women at every stage of their lives share their journeys of perseverance and self-discovery to attain the jobs they love.

Mira Feghali is continuing her family's baking traditions with great success. Delores Johnson / The National
Mira Feghali is continuing her family's baking traditions with great success. Delores Johnson / The National

Five successful women of the UAE share the stories of how they reached the pinnacle of their careers and give credit to those who influenced and supported them as they themselves become role models for other young women.

Women in the Workplace: From pushing against the glass ceiling to balancing a career and home life


Sales at the family business Arlequin Bakery and Patisserie have doubled since Mira Feghali, 31, took over three years ago. Last year she launched the bespoke cake service Diva, and she plans to franchise the brand across the region.

My first memory of Arlequin is of putting on a chef's hat and helping my father behind the counter. I must have been about seven years old.

But it was never taken for granted I would run it one day.

My grandfather, Fares, along with his three brothers, started the first Arlequin in Beirut in 1951. He came to Abu Dhabi with his family in 1977 and this has always been my home. My father, Raja, eventually took over and the business grew and grew.

At one point we had four shops in Abu Dhabi and one in Dubai. We were one of Abu Dhabi's most famous bakeries. But it got a bit overwhelming and eventually my father sold them off.

It was a difficult time as you can imagine. I moved to Beirut for university and my mother joined me as there was no way she was going to let me move to Beirut and live by myself. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated. Eventually I worked for DHL. It was a well-paid job. But there was always something in me that said: "Girl, you can do much more."

I spoke to my older brother, Rabih, about it. He said: "Mira, leave everything now and join Dad in the shop."

At first it was difficult. The shop had seen better days, but with the growth Abu Dhabi was experiencing I knew I could take it to the next level. I had 25 chefs - some of them had worked there for 20 years - and gaining their respect was not easy. But it helped that Dad trusted me.

I wanted Arlequin to be a place where women would be comfortable - to bring it up to date but keep the tradition.

I painted the walls chocolate brown and pink. I got new display cabinets. I researched trends. I contacted people. I created a website. I got on Facebook.

It was trial and error but I discovered a passion and talent I didn't know I had when a friend asked me to make a cake for her birthday.

She showed me a picture and said: "Can you do it?" I said: "Yes." It was nerve-wracking but in life you have to jump in.

Of the 50 people who went to the party, 40 got in touch wanting me to do their cakes. The chefs make them, I decorate them.

Right now I am single. I'm not ready to split my energies and I feel I have a mission to complete here.

Nobody forced me into this. I wouldn't force any child of mine but I'd like them to believe in it like I do. Before, I was a bit lost. Now I know who I am and what I want.

* As told to Laura Collins


Tala Badri is the founder and executive director of the Centre for Musical Arts, the first non-profit community music centre owned and managed by Emiratis. She has two bachelor degrees in music and business from the University of London and lives in Dubai with her Emirati husband and their two children who are 10 and five years old.

There is a story my mother loves to tell about how when she asked me when I was five years old what I wanted to be when I grew up my instant response was "the Queen of England". Although that story is often told in jest, I think from that moment, my mother knew that I had ambition.

Education has always been important in our family. Both my parents are university graduates with a western bilingual education. My own schooling at both DESS (Dubai English Speaking School) and Latifa School for Girls gave me access to both cultural diversity and a wealth of inspiring teachers. But ultimately it was my mother who was my biggest influence. She continually encouraged me to achieve, despite the limitations set on young females that she must have seen around her.

It was only when I went abroad to university to study music in the UK that I really came into my own. For the first time I had to take control of my own life and be fully independent. In those days the UAE was a very sheltered environment. It was a fantastic growth curve for me and I was determined to be successful. The Dubai Government had granted me a fully paid scholarship and I remember feeling the weight of the responsibility of living up to their expectations.

When I completed my first degree, I made a decision to do a second bachelor's degree in business as I had very quickly anticipated that my first challenge after graduation and return to the UAE would be to find a job that allowed me to fully exploit my talent and passion for music.

I entered the corporate world with a job at Barclays Bank and subsequently at Mars confectionery company. During this period I met my husband, who has always been encouraging of my career. This wasn't usual for my peer group. I feel incredibly fortunate for the family I come from and the man I married. He recognised that it had always been ingrained in me to work.

The second challenge, as it is for many women, came after the birth of my first child. I resigned from my full-time position but I still wanted to keep working so I started teaching music part time. Eventually it was the push that I needed to combine my passion and business sense and start my first music studio in DUCTAC (Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre). After only a year, we had a huge waiting list. I had hit on a real need in the community and began to see how I could play a role. I took the risk and started a second branch in the Gold and Diamond Park. This centre has now been open for four years and in that time it has grown from 150 students to 1,300.

My biggest motivation has always been to contribute to my community and the country I'm helping to grow. When I was given my university scholarship I made a promise to Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum (may he rest in peace) that I would come back and do something good for this country. I always intended to fulfill that promise.

My career means so much to me. My family is important but I need my career for my own personal growth. My children get so much more from me as a working mother as I hope I inspire them. My marriage also benefits as my husband and I have so much to talk about; we discuss business, life, and our work. We see things in life from so many different angles. He values my opinion and me as his wife.

It has not, however, always been smooth sailing. Although women are held in high regard in our culture, the barriers are still obvious and are especially evident when I go into business meetings and nine times out of 10 I'm the only woman.

Though there are many advantages in being Emirati, from a business perspective I have the same challenges as everyone else. I battle with the red tape of visas and immigration and it's especially bad as a woman. When I went to apply for my first bank loan, despite the fact that the bank loved my business plan and believed it to be financially sound they still put forward the condition that I had to have a guarantee from my husband. It is disheartening that there are still obstacles, such as this, that do not facilitate women pursuing their ambitions.

One of the biggest lessons I have learnt is to never give up. My advice to young career-driven women here in the UAE is to have the self-confidence that you can do anything you put your mind to. Most importantly, do what you believe in and are passionate about.

* As told to Jemma Nicholls


After earning her master's degree in maritime law at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Shurooq Zainal became the only Emirati associate at the law firm Clyde & Co in Dubai in 2007.

I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer; as a child I was fascinated with murder mysteries, especially the TV show Murder, She Wrote.

My family has always encouraged me to have ambition. They taught me that if you wanted something, you had to earn it. I went to Government schools here in the UAE so I certainly wasn't spoiled. When I told my father I wanted to get my master's degree he said I had to apply for a scholarship. So I did.

I was based in London for one and a half years. This in itself taught me the skills to function in a tough professional world. Law is an intensive course plus it was the first time I was ever taught in English. I'm also dyslexic so this was a very taxing time for me. I had to tape my lectures and replay them back in slow speed when I got home. Looking back I don't know how I did it; I was often on the verge of quitting. But my proudest moment was gaining my master's degree with merit.

Law is a very masculine area, so apart from my mother it's very difficult to find a female that has inspired me. But I had an excellent professor in London; he taught me to think outside the box. I remember him clearly as I later discovered that he taught lectures at the university for free - he was that passionate about his subject. His dedication really made an impact on me.

I remember my first day at Clyde & Co, I was terrified. I knew it was an international law firm with a high calibre of internationally trained staff. I found it challenging during my first year and it took me a while to get up to speed. But I have a huge sense of drive. Whenever I come to work I say to myself, "I want to be treated as an individual. I shouldn't get any advantages for being Emirati." And I don't. This is important to me as I want to reach the same professional level that my colleagues are at. I love my job and hope other Emiratis will join the company in the future.

My career is a reflection of who I am. It's to show myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. I have always been a high achiever and my goal is to climb the ladder at Clyde & Co and become the first Emirati partner in an international law firm.

If you are a woman, you definitely have to make an extra effort to feel acknowledged. When I'm in meetings dominated by men, I know I have to stand up and make myself heard.

* As told to Jemma Nicholls


Hala Badri, 35, is the executive vice president, brand and communications at du. She joined the company at its launch in January 2006. She graduated from Dubai Women's College and earned an MBA in managing e-business from Zayed University. She has three children: Mahra, seven; Abdulla, five; and Meera, three. She lives in Dubai with her husband, Faber Al Rafi, the senior development manager at Dubai Airports.

I think one of the most important things to know is that there is no such thing as the perfect life/work balance. I get worried when I go to talk to girls at universities and they say, "I want to work, I want to be married, I want to be a mother... it's impossible, it's too much!"

I tell them, "What's the big deal?" Be focussed and also know when to let things go a little. You don't have to give 110 per cent at work and 110 per cent at home. If you make a little mistake or something goes a little bit wrong in either it will be OK. If one day you give 98 per cent at work rather than 100 per cent it will still be there tomorrow. You don't have to be perfect at work and excel at home every day. As long as you are meeting expectations it's OK.

Women put huge pressure on themselves. They make the mistake that they have to be better than a man to do as well as a man. They think they have to spend more hours in the office and never have to ask for help. But that's wrong. It's not a competition any more and ability is sexless.

Basically I plan ahead because otherwise it's a disaster. I have a huge responsibility and in a telecoms and technology company things are changing all the time. You are always learning and adapting.

I'm at my desk between 8.15 and 8.30am. Our policy is a nine-hour day with one hour for lunch and I have made it very clear to my PA and team that I am in early and try to leave on time. There have to be boundaries or else you are lost. If I stay late one day I try to compensate by spending more time with my children the next.

When I was younger I imagined I would get married, have children and stay at home. My family is open-minded but conservative. My father comes from a trading family. My mother's family is very traditional. She was married at 16 and finished her education afterwards. I was the first of six children and was born when she was 18.

My father taught principles like punctuality and honouring your word and from my mother I learned religious and family values.

Both of them were very strong on the importance of education. I grew up in Dubai and went to Latifa School for Girls. It teaches you to be a rounded person, not just to learn from books. I'd always loved art and I chose the Communication Technology Programme at college because graphic design was part of it.

I discovered there were a lot of things I could do. I felt I could make a difference, a contribution and I didn't want to stop there.

I volunteered at the college for a year then got a job at Emirates National Oil Company. I went in at the bottom in 1998 and was corporate communications manager by the time I left in 2005.

The day before I got my first job I had my melcha where you sign a document so you're married on paper but it's not a consummated marriage yet. My aunts suggested me when they heard that my husband was looking to get married. He and I met and we talked for an hour together before we agreed to marry.

We spoke on the phone, too. My family is open-minded like that. A few days before the melcha my father called my husband to the house because he wanted him to know that we are a family who support women. I was about to start work and my father didn't want my marriage to be a limiting factor. But I am so lucky my husband is supportive. We were married three months after the melcha.

I'm blessed because we had time to know each other, and I had time to study for my MBA, before we had our three children. It's a cliché but having children really does change the way you see things. Work is very important but family is the priority.

I do feel the pressure of being a role model and I want to be a woman who is heard and a woman who people can approach for support in any way.

* As told to Laura Collins


Her Excellency Hafsa Abdulla al Ulama was appointed UAE ambassador to Montenegro in October last year. Prior to that she held a variety of positions in the private and public sectors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. She is one of three female ambassadors representing the UAE abroad.

The first job I had was a researcher at the Ministry of Economy, Dubai office. It was in 1989 and I was the only woman there. Actually they didn't know where to keep me, so I had a whole room to myself. At first I didn't do much, but then they discovered that I spoke English and that I knew about these new things called computers, so they gave me more and more responsibility. I think being a woman for me was a positive thing at the Ministry. After me they hired lots of women, but before me they just weren't used to us.

I went into the private sector after a year at the ministry and it was at Citibank in Dubai that I received what I consider my real training. I feel I was always supported in my wish to pursue an education and a career. The government tells you: "Study more, take more; be anything you want from a pilot to a judge to a Government minister." In my view any discrimination comes from ourselves or our families. I remember when I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro one of my relations called and said: "Why do you want to do that? You're a woman." But when I had achieved my aim I got a call from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself congratulating me. He is very supportive of women. At the meeting of the UAE ambassadors last Ramadan he said that "next time I want to see more black clothes and less white!" So in terms of women at work, it is not the government that has inhibitions.

I chair the UAE women's football committee and I see the support we get there from the government, too, especially His Highness Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, head of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council.

I would say that my career highlight has definitely been being made an ambassador. It is an honour to represent my country. It was a real surprise for me when I heard I had been nominated, I was thrilled. I go back and forth to Montenegro, I'm not needed there all the time, it is a young country, just like ours.

Work defines my character, who I am. It has given me independence (financially and spiritually) and the ability to be an active member in society, to share my knowledge with family and people that I interact with. Also, working in a multinational environment that we live in has enabled me to appreciate others and learn from them. Actually, work allows me to enjoy life.

I think some of the lack of chauvinism comes from us being so young. I remember in the 1970s the drive to educate applied to all. I went to school and my aunt who was over 50 went to literacy camps and we would sit and study in the evenings, learning to read together.

The founder of our nation, Sheikh Zayed, understood that he had to educate everyone, that you couldn't just paralyse half of society and get somewhere. He instilled a will to achieve and to perform right from the early days of the nation and that is still with us now.

Of course there is still a long way to go for women, not just here, but all over the world. We need to get to the next level where high-powered women in companies and Government are the norm, not the exception. But a lot of the time it is just ourselves stopping our own progress. The path is paved but it is still to be trodden.

* As told to Helena Frith Powell