Rewriting the rules: building a business on the talents of women working from home

Nour Al Hassan, CEO of translation agency Tarjama on providing women with a route to work
By Eddie Taylor
Thu 01 Mar 2018 04:09 PM

There is a lot of talk around International Women’s Day about empowerment and opportunity, the kind of lofty statements corporations tend to make to show the world they are full participants in the societies of the 21st century.

Looking at the statistics of female seniority in the “C” suite, though, such pronouncements are all too rarely matched by management and structural realities.

For Nour Al Hassan, though, providing women with a route to – or in many cases back to – work became the backbone of Tarjama, a translation services and content company headquartered in Abu Dhabi. Recognising the talents and capabilities of women wasn’t an HR-driven paragraph on a corporate brochure, it was a defining characteristic, a definitive USP that enabled her company to deliver timely, high-quality solutions.

Al Hassan realised that the combination of self-discipline, motivation and flexibility of her part-time network of freelance women, often stay-at-home mothers, was the ideal fit for her business. The ability to deliver a round-the-clock service while also empowering and enhancing the skills of a greatly under-utilised resource – in this region in particular – provided a win-win scenario that continues to propel Nour’s businesses forward.

Today, Tarjama is a pan-regional translation and content company with 70-plus employees, offices in three countries and a portfolio of clients from governments to multinationals – and that is the strongest testament to the workforce who have helped build it.

“Women and stay-at-home women in particular became part of our DNA but it wasn’t by design,” says Al Hassan, sitting in the company’s Dubai office. “At the very beginning, I worked with one or two women working from home and they started introducing their friends and neighbours to the company, and it grew like that, totally organically.

“I quickly understood that this is a very lean model, that I didn’t need a huge amount of office space or HR infrastructure, so it was quite cost-effective. But I also knew that I was tapping into an under-used resource. Nobody wants to hire people part-time or who want flexible hours to fit around their families, but there are so many talented women who are desperate to work and have the skills and discipline to offer their services in a freelance capacity.”

Now, the company offers a range of working options to suit the availability of women who still take on the lion’s share of duties in the home. Flexible shift patterns, multiple offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah and Riyadh that are open to any of the translators or editors whenever they need them and bonuses based on delivery that can often double their basic salary in a month, all contribute to an environment that recognises their lifestyles and other responsibilities.

“Honestly, we have women who wait until their kids go to bed and then work until 1am to meet a deadline,” says Al Hassan. “I even know of women who will do the school run, park up and complete a task on the laptop before going home again. With all due respect, I’m not sure many men would do that.”

Financial independence

The main benefit to Tarjama’s network of translators is, of course, financial but there’s also intangible benefits such as identity, independence and an individual sense of purpose. In territories such as Jordan, where Al Hassan was born, raised and educated and where many of her team live, there’s a huge disconnect between literacy rates and employment of women; while 99 percent of women in the kingdom can read and write, just 22 percent are in the labour force – the result of a combination of societal attitudes and gender bias in the workplace.

Tarjama’s working practices, though, recognise this and offer their teams a legitimate lifeline to a more secure future – and usually better health and education outcomes for their children. “The women tell us that the money they make allows them to have a summer vacation or do something special with their kids – or even to hire help at home,” says Al Hassan. “We’ve now trained more than 200 women in Saudi, and they are so eager. They don’t want to sit at home and do nothing.”

The opportunities for women wanting work have now been increased with the launch of Al Hassan’s latest venture, Ureed. It is, she says, an Uber model for translation, content creation or copywriting, where an online platform can pair freelancers with customers for jobs, particularly from SMEs or start-ups for small-scale projects that might not require the scale of an agency like Tarjama.

“Again, we knew there is a huge number of talented women at home who would welcome the flexibility of these kind of skilled service jobs. So, we were able to expand our network and attract new clients without having to scale. We’ve already attracted Reuters and delivered projects for large e-commerce sites.”

A woman’s place

In terms of her own entrepreneurial journey in the Middle East, first in Jordan, then Abu Dhabi and then into servicing major government contracts in Saudi Arabia, Al Hassan says she has faced precious few obstacles as a woman. Indeed, she insists, it’s the exact opposite.

“Honestly, it’s helped me,” she says. “I really believe that. Whenever women say that it’s very difficult doing business in the region, I honestly find it weird. I don’t really know what they mean. In the UAE, the leadership here push women in every way, they put them in leadership roles, empower them. Since I moved to Abu Dhabi, I’ve found that people here wanted to help me because I’m woman.

“That was also my experience in Saudi. I started doing business there around the time of the announcement of Vision 2020 and they’ve highlighted female empowerment in every project I’ve worked on. I don’t know how it used to be, but I have never found it a problem. And I have never had any issue from the men on my team about having a female boss. Not once.”

It seems clear that change is coming to the region. As it begins to blow through the corporate world with ever greater force, more companies and communities will feel the benefit of the talent they will unlock. As Al Hassan is experiencing, this really is just the beginning.

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