Positive change: Interview with Raja Al Gurg

Raja Al Gurg is one of the UAE’s most successful and best known business women. She spoke to StartUp to explain how her work with the Dubai Business Women’s council is helping to develop the role of female entrepreneurs in the region, and why encouragement is the key
By Neil King
Tue 02 Sep 2014 10:23 AM

There is no escaping Raja Al Gurg’s success.

Not only does she excel as managing director of the East Saleh Al Gurg Group, but the high profile business woman sits as a board member of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, president of the Dubai Business Women’s Council, and board member of the Dubai Women Association.

And it doesn’t stop there. Her list of positions also includes member of the Dubai Government’s Economic Council, Federation of the UAE Chambers of Commerce and Industry Business Women’s Committee, Arab International Women’s Forum, and of the National Advisory Council for Zayed University’s College of Business Sciences. She is also deputy chairperson of the Dubai Medical Authority and Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Al Jalila Foundation.

To say her energy levels must be high would be staggeringly short of the mark, especially when you note that the above is just the tip of the iceberg, and that she holds membership at many other groups, forums, councils, and organisations.

Regularly, and rightfully, named by Arabian Business as one of the most powerful Arabic women, her influence is evident not only in the UAE, or across the region, but across the world.

As you will likely already know, Al Gurg is a keen advocate for women in business, advancing the cause at every given opportunity.

Among her most active roles is that with the Dubai Business Women’s Council (DBWC), which was established in 2002 under the umbrella of the Dubai Chamber.

Designed to help build awareness, education, opportunities and positive change for the UAE’s businesswomen, the DBWC aims to empower women and encourage them to be active and valued members of society.

More than a decade on, Al Gurg believes the council has made significant ground, proudly highlighting its achievements.

“The biggest positive change we have noticed over the last decade is the increase of female participation in the UAE labour force, and further afield in the MENA region,” she says.

 “UAE women of today have assumed prominent roles as decision-makers, bankers, journalists, judges, lawyers, media figures and scientific researchers. We also applaud those women who have taken ministerial-level positions and those who have established or headed companies.

“According the Arab Women Leadership Outlook report, a little over one in every eight firms in the region is female-owned, while the UAE Ministry of Economy mentions that about half of the SMEs in the country are handled by women.

“The region has also made significant progress in terms of women’s education. The UAE boasts an adult female literacy rate of more than 90 per cent.”

Much credit must go to the DBWC, a non-profit organisation which invites women to become members in order to take advantage of its networking, business showcasing events, forums, personalised guidance, workshops, and more.

But despite its impact, Al Gurg believes there is still a long way to go before women break through the long-established glass ceiling.

She says: “There are many changes that need to happen as women in business still face several challenges in the work force.

“Women in the region, even in the UAE, face gender apathy. For example, family codes such as head-of-household laws, permission to work, could constrain a woman’s decision-making capacity.

“Access to capital remains an issue as men are far more likely than women to secure funding as they do not form a part of the same social and business networks as men.”

Pointing to an International Finance Corporation (IFC) survey, the businesswoman highlights research which found a majority of female business owners meet their capital needs through personal resources, such as personal savings and loans from family and friends.

“Lending conditions can be restrictive,” she asserts, before explaining further barriers in the legal framework.

“Outdated labour laws also hinder woman participation since these have limited the opportunities available to women. For example, insufficient maternity leave and childcare amenities also play a role in limiting their options.”

The DBWC, she explains, was created to fill the gap in the Dubai economy that these hindrances have created.

“The organisation aims to offer a platform for likeminded business women to interact and engage in educational and innovative activities,” she says.

“To provide guidance to their businesses and meet industry experts, to discuss new business opportunities and create mutually beneficial relations.

“Our support structure also connects members which opens opportunities for collaborations and partnerships. Often, members help each other solve intricate matters and work together to reach success.

“The Network Majlis events are hosted monthly by the DBWC in order to provide information about the latest knowledge, skills and best practices for women entrepreneurs and leaders.

“We are invested in strengthening the bond between business and professional women in the UAE. We aim to encourage leadership and advocate responsible action, while identifying key issues, offering information, and pooling our resources to ensure the well-being of women as entrepreneurs and members of the workforce.”

The role and reputation of female entrepreneurs and business leaders in the UAE is certainly on the rise, but it’s not just confined to the country’s borders.

Through trade missions and visits to other parts of the world, such as a recent trip to the UK, the group expands the experiences and business operations of its members, which in turn develops the success of the UAE’s economy.

Al Gurg says: “We reach out to these countries to demonstrate the great business opportunities in Dubai which, thanks to its leadership, is now competing on an international scale.

“I think nowadays any female entrepreneur enjoys a high level of recognition and respect. And from our partnerships across the world we are convinced that in Dubai, we are very much on par with the rest of the world.

“I do applaud every female entrepreneur in Dubai, the greater UAE and the rest of the region for their courage, ability to adapt to challenging markets and the strength to pursue their biggest dreams.”

Within the DBWC, entrepreneurs enjoy a specific programme to help develop their skills – Ro’Ya.

A collaboration between the group and MasterCard, Ro’Ya is focused on providing support, guidance and mentorship to help female entrepreneurs establish their fledgling businesses.

The programme culminates an a pitching competition in front of a panel of judges, where participants can win prizes up to $50,000 as well as personalised coaching from MasterCard.

“It’s not just a competition,” says Al Gurg. “It’s an opportunity to motivate women to become active members of the society by presenting their unique business ideas. In return this provides them with coaching and mentorship required to develop their expertise in presenting ideas, and empowered enough to establish their business.”

Support is something Al Gurg is particularly passionate about given her own experiences in business.

She explains that her own illustrious career, within the business her father started in 1960, owes a lot to the support and encouragement her family, peers and colleagues gave her.

While admitting that “the growth of the UAE and the opportunities that came with it have immensely contributed to this success,” she says that “every challenge I faced was treated as an opportunity to find innovative solutions for the better of our community.

“My father was, and still is, my biggest mentor in both my personal and professional life. I thank him for always encouraging me to become the best I could be.”

Now, in numerous positions of power and influence, Al Gurg is passing that level of encouragement on to the next generations of business women.

Highlighting the responsibility she feels to achieve the long-term goals of the UAE’s leadership, she says: “In nurturing the female entrepreneur population, we are contributing to economic growth, while encouraging the betterment of our community and creating job opportunities in exciting new businesses.

“There is unlimited potential to be found among the women living in the UAE, and we must unlock it, for the benefit of all.

“It is our goal to support, guide and mentor the dreams of our women entrepreneurs and I am extremely enthusiastic to see how we will develop and nurture this talent pool over the coming years.”

The coming years will be unique for entrepreneurs and business owners in Dubai, with Expo 2020 on the horizon, bringing with it a wealth of possibilities, and a renewed fervour for developing fresh and novel ideas.

Despite the emirate heading towards this relative unknown, Al Gurg believes Expo 2020 is symbolic of what Dubai has long represented.

“Dubai has always been full of opportunities, and has proven its ability to be an international business leader on many occasions,” she says.

“Dubai Expo 2020 will provide a lucrative opportunity for many business and female entrepreneurs in Dubai to grow and further strengthen their offerings.

“New businesses will also enter the market to reap the rewards of such a prestigious international event. Experts have forecast that more than 277,000 new jobs will be available over the next six to seven years, which will aid in the overall growth of the UAE.

“Furthermore, new job opportunities also welcome new talent and expertise which will again compliment Dubai’s existing plethora of offerings and definitely strengthen its economic landscape, not just for 2020, but the years leading towards and after it.”

The legacy of Expo 2020 run parallel with how Al Gurg views the legacy of the DBWC – enhancing the business landscape and improving the chances for women to thrive in their careers, whatever their chosen industry.

She explains: “A networking group of like-minded women is beneficial for several reasons, including inspiration, motivation, learning from other’s experiences, and willingness to support each other.

“Our strategy is to build awareness, educate, promote opportunities and enhance positive change in the community towards the acceptance of women in business.

“This is at the heart of the DBWC’s belief in empowering women and motivating them to be productive members of the society and economy.

“We will continue to support women in their business goals and will endeavour to increase our membership numbers in order to provide and support a diverse network of members from all backgrounds and specialisations.”

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