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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

From the North Pole to an organic journey

Elham Al Qasimi is an Emirati entrepreneur with her sights set on saving the environment 

Elham Al Qasimi was the first Arab woman to conquer the North Pole. Courtesy: Claire Stafford Photography
Elham Al Qasimi was the first Arab woman to conquer the North Pole. Courtesy: Claire Stafford Photography

Conquering the North Pole was certainly a challenge, but compared to becoming a mother, it’s almost a walk in the park, says Elham Al Qasimi.

In April 2010, Al Qasimi became the first Emirati – and as such the first Arab woman – to conquer the icy expanse of the North Pole, when she successfully completed a three-week journey, which involved skiing cross-country for 14 hours a day and dragging her supplies on a sledge, to reach her destination completely unassisted.

And since then, Al Qasimi has not been idle. The investment manager, who lives in Dubai, but works in Abu Dhabi, manages a portfolio of investments in the tech sector, dealing with acquisitions and setting strategies on how to invest in technology. She gives motivational talks to students, young people and professionals across the UAE, maintains her full-time job and is a member of the GlobalFoundries Board of Directors, a California-based semiconductor company. She has three children age 5 and under, with the most recent – a baby boy – born just this past summer, it’s a busy time.

The combined life-changing experiences of trekking to the North Pole and then becoming a mum have inspired the entrepreneur to use her pregnancy to research the type of start-up she had always dreamt of leading, and then use her maternity leave to get the project started.

“The North Pole experience changed how I thought about the world; it pushed me to feel like whatever I do needs to come from a place of inspiration,” says the 35-year-old. “It made me aware of how important it was for me to feel that what I was spending my day and time doing was worthwhile. I felt like I needed to make a difference. I’ve always had a bit of an itch to do my own thing, but it needed to be fulfilling and meaningful, even if in a small way.”

For years, she explored start-up ideas, and searched for the right project to launch – one that would align with her values of tech-enabled sustainable solutions to everyday needs and make a difference to the world and environment we live in. Nothing quite clicked.

“A couple of years after the North Pole expedition, I was talking to the guys who took me and they said they didn’t have a single successful expedition since then,” she recalls. “Mainly because the ice was melting too fast due to global warming, so much faster than anyone anticipated.”

These type of environmental issues, she says, are always first and foremost on her mind. “So for example, even simply caring whether my children’s food is organic is, to me, a good way to spend my time. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it’s still worthwhile, still making a difference.”

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The birth of Al Qasimi’s first child provided the catalyst that would later trigger her choice to launch The Natural Laundry Company, a natural biodegradable alternative to traditional dry cleaning based on toxic, chemical solvents. Due to open in December, it will be Al Qasimi’s personal attempt to “make a difference”.

“My son was born with quite a few allergies, and for the first two years, we had to be very careful to manage those allergies. Doctors said that if we were careful those first two years, it’s possible he will overcome them, so we monitored everything from his food and the clothes he would wear to what he’s exposed to, his sleeping habits, everything,” she explains.

During that time, she had read an article about the realities of dry-cleaning, and “how the actual chemicals they use are petro chemicals, not too different from what you fuel your car with. The idea that all those toxins are in our house was very disturbing”. What followed was a period of intense research. “I started reading more and more, gathering facts, and was pretty horrified at the reality of what traditional drycleaning entailed. No alternatives existed in the UAE, but they were there in Europe and the US. So something in me clicked.

“I had always said, if I was going to do anything outside of work, it needed to be something that will leave our lives and environment and world at a better place than it is today.”

Al Qasimi became well versed in “green” laundering, which could clean garments from simples shirts to delicate evening wear and silk rugs simply by using an automated, intelligent process to combine water with biodegradable solvents in a process called wetcleaning. As a bonus, it uses 30 to 80 per cent less energy and water compared to dry-cleaning alternatives.

“One month before I gave birth, I felt this is a venture I could be proud of. I made countless calls to every wetcleaning laundry company I could find in the US and Europe, asking them everything: about the technology, problems, and if it was hard to set up. Then, just one week before giving birth, I made the decision to go ahead, I applied for the license, rented the location and ordered the equipment.”

Her “new baby” will be up and running next month in Dubai, and there are plans afoot for more to follow across the region.

“This is something I feel I’m meant to do, and when life lays something like this in your path, the only thing you can do really is see it through.”

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