The Boss: ‘No woman in the UAE has an excuse not to start a business’

Sara Al Madani started her own business aged just 15. And it’s easier than ever for other women to follow in her footsteps given the UAE’s pro-business climate, says the Emirati entrepreneur, speaking to Ben Flanagan

Sara Al Madani certainly knows a few things about doing business in the UAE, given she started her own fashion label aged just 15, and plans to open a London-themed restaurant in Dubai later this month.

But the Emirati entrepreneur says there is nothing stopping other women following in her footsteps, given the rich opportunities on the table in the UAE for nationals and expats alike.

Ms Al Madani, 30, is founder of Rouge Couture, now known as Sara Al Madani Fashion Design, and is about to launch a restaurant in Dubai called Shabarbush – named after, she says, the Arab pronunciation of ‘Shepherd’s Bush’, a popular area in the UK capital.

She is also a board member at the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the SME council, as well as the new ‘shjSEEN’ initiative, which runs an incubator programme with the aim of boosting the number of start-ups setting up shop in Sharjah.

Ms Al Madani says there is a wealth of opportunities for people in the UAE to set up their own businesses – with fewer barriers than ever for women.

“No woman has an excuse for not expressing herself and becoming an entrepreneur nowadays,” she told Benchmark from Los Angeles.

“I know a lot of foreigners who have moved from different countries to the UAE – women –  because it was easier to start a business here than back home.”

Here Al Madani explains her own business background and the opportunities out there for women in the UAE.

Tell us about starting your own business aged just 15

I always had a bigger mind than my age. I’ve been in the fashion industry for almost 15 years. My brand used to be called Rouge Couture, but now I changed it and it’s now called Sara Al Madani Fashion Design. What I do is I modernise traditional clothes. And I’ve just entered the food and beverage sector, so I’m opening a restaurant. The more you grow, you realise that you have a lot of energy, and you want to put this energy into use. And being just in one sector, the fashion sector, didn’t make sense to me. I needed something new.

What is the concept behind your restaurant?

Emirati people are fascinated by London. Shepherd’s Bush in London is where all the Arabs go – but the Arabs don’t call it Shepherd’s Bush, they call it ‘Shabarbush’… So the restaurant is called Shabarbush, and it’s a nostalgic experience for Emiratis to feel, eat, touch and smell London in Dubai. It’s just like taking them back in time, making them feel like they’re in London.

Sharjah’s shjSEEN initiative, on which you are on the board, is still accepting applications for its start-up incubator. What participation of women have you seen so far?

I hate the word ‘empower women’ because I makes me feel like women are weak. So I always tell people, ‘don’t empower women, inspire women’. Because they are already powerful, they don’t need anyone to empower them. Just inspire them and show them the way, give them a chance to prove themselves.

So at shjSEEN we don’t have a special category for women, because we believe women and men are equal. So a woman needs to work as hard as a man to get into shjSEEN, to get into the incubator. We’re not saying ‘women have this much and men have that much’. No, they are all equal. And whoever applies gets a chance and they both need to work hard for it.

We had 300 applicants [to take part in the shjSEEN incubator programme], and 70 percent of them were women. Of the ones that got accepted [so far], 16 were women. We had a lot of women approaching us – more than men.

You’re clearly doing a lot to inspire women in the UAE to set up their own businesses and be successful in business. What are the challenges there?

Everything in the UAE is pushing women into doing their own business and expressing themselves. Women in the UAE became ministers, they are in good positions in government. So the country is supporting them in every way. So I don’t think that any woman in the UAE has an excuse not to start a business. It’s very easy. If they don’t have the knowledge, it’s available. If they don’t have the access, it’s available. The license, the procedures are made easier. Even if they’re short on money there are so many funds in the UAE that give you funds in the easiest forms ever.

But there’s still a big ‘gender gap’ in the UAE, with far more men in work than women. Why is that, and is that something that can be overcome?

The UAE has been empowering women for a very long time. But it became stronger in the past few years… The country is still a bit male-dominant. But trust me, it is changing. The Chamber of Commerce in Sharjah has a staff of 80 percent women. In a few years you will see that there is a balance… in government, in the private sector. Me being part of the Chamber of Commerce, I’ve seen numbers change drastically. So in a few years – I’m saying six or seven years – you will see an equal balance between females and males in the working sector.

A lot of women here are housewives… And we are trying to motivate them, by telling them that ‘you can be a housewife, be a working woman, you can also still be a businesswoman’. You can do that, because a lot of women are doing that, and we are motivating them through our work. I’m a mother – I have a son – and I run two businesses, I’m a board member in three government [entities]. I do so many things. But you can balance if you want to, and if you learn how to. So what I’m trying to do through my work is show women that they can do it, and they’re not just meant for one job, which is to be a housewife.

And what are some of your tips to achieve that balance?

Doing a lot of things at once is not a gift. You need to learn how to do that. People ask me, ‘how much time do you spend at home with your son, and how much time do you spend with your business?’ And I tell them, ‘I do as much as I can’. But women here think that, if you cannot give 50 percent or more, you’re a failure. It’s not true – it’s a myth. Whatever you can give and contribute to your house and your business is good. Whether it’s 20, 30, 40 percent, it doesn’t matter. You can give as much as you can. So women need to understand that this stereotyping of time, and this myth about having a balanced life is not true.