Given the UAE’s continued push towards empowering its female citizens in the past decades, we have seen many women rise up to achieve and excel, untethered and unimpeded.
Under the leadership of HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, we’ve seen exceptional development on this side of the country’s population, with literacy rates reaching 95.8%. Today, 95% of female high-school graduates pursue further education at tertiary-level institutions, compared with 80 per cent of males, and many are going on to create impactful innovations and businesses.
Among these changemakers has been HE Alia Al Mazrouei, CEO of the Enablement Sector at the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development (KFED), and an entrepreneur with multiple successful ventures behind her. With varied experiences spanning both the public and private sector, in a myriad of industries including consulting, F&B, education, and more, HE has always had a bold outlook from the onset, adamant about plotting her own course through life, one that would help her achieve her ambitions.
HE Alia Al Mazrouei speaks with the Abu Dhabi SME Hub to discuss her personal entrepreneurial journey and the available support mechanisms in the UAE, as well as offer advice to entrepreneurs looking to succeed in Abu Dhabi and beyond.
How did your past experiences shape who you are today? How did it lead you to become an entrepreneur?
It all started when I saw my father start his own venture in the private sector. It inspired me to look at entrepreneurship as something that I could do. There weren't many women in business at the time (in the UAE). And I really wanted to see how this could pan out for me. I started my first business in 2007. I clearly remember what my father said to me when I told him I wanted to open a restaurant business. He said, “You must first learn how to do business.”
It was a great piece of advice and truly set me up for success. Instead of having someone else do all the work for me when I started the business, I took charge of it and that process helped me learn a lot.
Initially, when I was still in the planning phases of my first business, I thought I only needed a commercial license to operate the business and that’s all. What I didn’t know (and wasn’t ready for) were all the challenges that came my way. I had to go through the municipalities for paperwork, get approvals from the Food Control Authority, Civil Defence and more and found the entire process very difficult. But now I understand that if I hadn’t gone through that journey, I would never have been able to understand the struggles of starting, operating, and scaling a successful business.
Looking back on your journey as an entrepreneur, what have been the key lessons? Is there anything that you would change or do differently?
I personally can't take no for an answer. And just as is the case with almost all new businesses, my journey has also been rife with challenges. Sometimes, as you venture into entrepreneurship, there are a lot of procedures that can appear as resistance and things can take much longer than initially anticipated.
The first lesson is to never shy away from asking for help. I always tell this to my friends and family members who want to start businesses. When you make an investment in a business, every day counts. Delays only accrue costs. “Time equals money”, as they say.
The other key lesson, I would say, is the ability to commit to your goal and not allow anyone to put you down. A personal example is one with my daughter, who wanted to start a business. She came up with the idea and [prepared] all the branding but one of her friends told her that the business would never succeed. She came to me and said my friend was telling me it wouldn’t work, and I told her: ‘Have you even tried?’ She [then] completed the branding and launched her business online, which by the way, is doing great!
If you were to start as an entrepreneur today, what industry/business model would you focus on?
Number 1: I would do more investments in existing businesses rather than trying to start a business from scratch. If you believe in an industry and its potential and have the right partners, that is all you need to make sound investment decisions. I've recently invested in a logistics company. I knew there was great potential within the industry and that the business I chose was also thriving – I’m not a logistic person by trade or expertise, but I understand the metrics of how to evaluate a good investment opportunity and I could see that this was one.
Number 2: I would say when starting your own business from scratch, pick an industry or field that you know a lot about. You may have a much harder time succeeding when you start a business within an industry you are not knowledgeable about. Also, if you have a passion for your business or industry, you will try to learn and make things work.
Where do you see the biggest opportunity in Abu Dhabi/UAE today?
Opportunities can arise at any time. It's how you seek an opportunity that matters. Every sector is different. As an investor, I would say that if an opportunity arises, just take it, whether that’s in Abu Dhabi or any other Emirate.
The MENA region has changed quite a bit in the past 20 years. In your opinion, what are the main challenges that remain for female entrepreneurs in the region, and how can they be addressed? How can we create opportunities for female entrepreneurs and support their growth in Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and beyond?
Thanks to Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak and her initiatives, support for women in general and more specifically for female entrepreneurs has been great for over 40 years. It extends to supporting women in acquiring relevant education and better enabling them to assume leadership positions across all sectors.
There are female businesswoman councils in every Emirate that support each other. Specific licenses are issued to women establishing businesses from home. A few years ago, we realized that women don't always have the financial backup required to grow a business or may prefer to stay at home while building their businesses.
Licenses were issued to them under specific business categories so they could continue to provide services from home. But we did not stop there. What we also tried to do was to see how we could help develop these business owners’ skill sets so they could grow their businesses and shift them into retail or commercial spaces.
To answer the second part of your question, businesses owned by men and women face the same set of challenges. There is great gender equity in the UAE, and I personally never felt discriminated against as a female business owner. Women entrepreneurs may require financial support, but overall, the government, semi-government entities, and even the private sector provide extensive support.
Finally, how can we encourage an entrepreneurial mindset in the youth and women of today, from high school and university students, to young professionals and individuals looking to switch careers and become entrepreneurs full-time?
Creating and launching great entrepreneurship-focused programmes can be a good starting point for this rapid transformation. One of the programmes we are running at Khalifa Fund today is the CEO programme. It supports public sector employees in starting their own businesses. We're also trying to work on a policy at the governmental level to support such initiatives and help inculcate the spirit of entrepreneurship in individuals so they can venture towards the private sector and be self-employed.
Venturist is another programme run by the Khalifa Fund that focuses on developing an entrepreneurial mindset within the youth. As a young graduate, you may not think about starting a business. But getting acquainted with the business world at a young age can help create that mindset, give young people the confidence, and equip them with the necessary skills required to pursue entrepreneurship. In this regard, Venturist helps a lot.
She Means Business is another entrepreneurial education programme that has been developed as a collaboration between the Khalifa Fund and Facebook. The programme was aimed at strengthening the role of women in tech and in its third round, trained 1300 women entrepreneurs to develop skills to support the marketing and e-commerce aspect of their businesses.
All of these programmes are helping to create an ecosystem where more and more people, especially women, can confidently venture towards entrepreneurship and become role models for others to follow suit.