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Mon 21 Dec 2015 10:08 AM

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Balancing business and babies: the challenge of being a mompreneur in the UAE

Motherhood and entrepreneurship often requires a similar mindset, but working women also need a supportive safety net in order to achieve their goals and juggle two very demanding roles

Balancing business and babies: the challenge of being a mompreneur in the UAE

Being a business owner can be full of tough challenges.

Starting it, funding it, growing it, and many more things besides are no easy feats for any entrepreneur, but add motherhood to the mix, and the story can get even more complicated.

Take a look at funding as a prime example. Many investors consider a female entrepreneur’s pregnancy or motherhood a major factor in deciding whether or not to invest in their start-up.

It’s just one part of a picture that can make the art of ‘mompreneurship’ especially difficult to balance.

According to Mona Tavassoli, founder of MomSouq and Mompreneurs Middle East, however, for women in the Middle East that narrative unfolds quite differently.

“I asked an investor once: ‘if there’s a woman entrepreneur who you know is getting pregnant, would that be a reason why you wouldn’t invest?’” she says as we meet to discuss mother entrepreneurs. “He said ‘absolutely not’ because one of the best people he invested in has three kids. So it’s like if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

“When she is very busy and she has found ways to handle, she’ll find different ways to handle even more. When you do a lot, the energy level is higher versus when you are doing nothing.”

The 33-year-old Iranian launched MomSouq, an online classified for baby and children’s products, in 2012 as a side project within her husband’s advertising agency, Polo Creative.

It was a decision inspired by motherhood.

Less than a year later, she launched Mompreneurs Middle East, a business-to-business platform to help female entrepreneurs promote each other and grow their businesses.

“With the small initiative of MomSouq, I entered the community of mothers and realised there were so many inspirational moms who are entrepreneurs, bloggers, and similar,” explains Tavassoli.

“The community of Mompreneurs is huge and the idea is that it is a start-up helping other start-ups to promote each other.

“Our slogan is ‘bigger circle collectively’. Individually, maybe we are small companies, but together we have a huge community of Mompreneurs who support each other.”

From a one-stop information portal, Mompreneurs Middle East has quickly become an educational forum offering the ‘Entrepreneur Rising’ programme, an eight-week training on entrepreneurship, and many networking events.

All of the 500 Dubai-based mothers and female entrepreneurs in their network help each other make the juggling act between entrepreneurship and motherhood more viable.

“There can be a misconception that working mothers will lack focus or be distracted by having had a child,” points out Marie-Christine Luijckx, managing director at Fruitful Day, a Dubai-based fruit box delivery company, who left a successful career in banking in 2013 when she gave birth to her first child.

“I felt quite the contrary – mothers are used to multi-tasking and work incredibly hard and fast. They’re motivated to support their family and get the job done in the most efficient and effective way possible.”

Many mothers have chosen entrepreneurship as an avenue that will allow them to spend enough time with their children while still using their skills and feeling career satisfaction.

A mother of four, Alexis Martin, the founder of Petit Gourmet, a delivery of home-cooked baby food, started testing her business idea among Dubai residents in 2013.

The demand from busy working parents was such that she eventually started up her business and went on to win the third place at the inaugural Ro’Ya programme, the Dubai Business Women Council’s initiative to support female entrepreneurs launched in 2014.

“Now I’m happy to be working for myself,” Martin says remembering her pre-entrepreneurship days when she used to get turned down for jobs due to motherhood.

“I’ve also had friends lose their jobs the minute they told their bosses they were pregnant,” she adds. “They’ve been given different reasons for losing their jobs, but we all knew it was because they were pregnant.”

The UAE Labour Law grants 45 days maternity leave with full pay to a working woman in the private sector after one year in service. If she has been employed for less than a year, the new mother will be entitled to 45 days of half-pay maternity leave.

Women working in the public sector are allowed to spend a slightly longer time with their newborns - 60 calendar days.

An extension of up to 100 of consecutive days or calendar days of unpaid leave is allowed only for medical reasons.

Upon return to work, the new mother is entitled to a 30-minute breastfeeding break twice a day for a period up to and not exceeding 18 months after the birth.

“We’ve been approached a number of times by women complaining that they suspect that they were dismissed because they were either pregnant or became pregnant or when they wanted to extend the maternity leave, and similar,” explains Ludmila Yamalova, a US-qualified attorney who has managed her Dubai-based law firm, HPL Yamalova & Plewka JLT, since 2010.

“We’ve been approached with questions on whether there was a case of discrimination,” she says.

“However, in the UAE there is no such law that would protect these sort of cases. The new anti-discrimination law [The Anti-Discriminatory Law issued in July 2015] doesn’t relate to these kind of cases, [there’s] not much about labour rights.

“So if a company wanted to terminate an employee because she’s pregnant, they could and what they would be required to pay her is what’s called arbitrary dismissal.

“So any termination without cause would require arbitrary dismissal which is three months of full pay plus notice period. That’s the maximum that a woman could request from an employer for being terminated prematurely.

“So there isn’t much flexibility or much protection here, but it is up to a company. A company can hire somebody half time and they can also allow [them] to extend the maternity leave on no pay basis.”

MediaCom MENA, a marketing agency with branches across the GCC, has taken the lead on that front by offering new mothers a new six-month maternity leave agreement from the beginning of this year.

It includes a leave on full pay for the first 10 weeks, half pay for the next six and the final eight weeks of maternity leave is unpaid. It has also introduced seven days paid paternity leave.

Similarly, a female employee who has worked for at least 12 consecutive months at twofour54, the commercial arm of the media zone authority in Abu Dhabi, is allowed to take 60 days off on full pay, a further 60 days on half pay, and additional 60 days of leave can then be taken without pay.

Not leaving much to the discretion of potential employers, Yamalova timed her motherhood after developing a successful legal practice in the UAE. With her son Leopold sitting in her lap, she tells StartUp that she is now weighing a new set of challenges.

“The biggest challenge that mothers face with their employers is that the employers are not flexible. Because I am my own employer, I’m flexible with myself,” she says.

“The challenge is how to prioritise now. What I cannot do now is attend business networking events. And because this is my own business, these networking opportunities are important, but I can’t really go to those for now.”

Tavassoli agrees that being self-employed allows mother entrepreneurs to conduct their work around school hours, but also points out to a few benefits enjoyed by mothers employed in the corporate world.

She says: “I have no working hours. I go to the office from 9am to 1.30pm, and then I go pick up my son. The flexibility is very important for me, especially with a small child.

“When you are in the corporate world the good thing is that a lot of times your work finishes at a certain time. It’s not the same for an entrepreneur. I have no weekends, I have no vacations. People ask me how long my maternity leave was. I say that I never stopped.

“I didn’t have to go back to the office, but I still had the responsibility of running my own business.

“So the flexibility is with the entrepreneurs and also the responsibility. They have to find the balance between these two.”

Yamalova explains that the reality of a mother who runs her own business is even more complex when other issues, such as the costs of setting up a business in the UAE, including costs of trade licences or visas for employees, are factored in.

Nevertheless, she points out that entrepreneurs are often willing to offer flexibility to mothers working for them. “Better four hours than zero hours, that’s the mindset,” she says.

“My philosophy is that if you want to get the most from your employees, you have to give them the best conditions in which they thrive. If you try to lock them in certain kind of schedule, you’re not going to get the best of them because we are not machines.”

The forward-looking mindset of start-up founders, she says, is a reason why tech companies in Silicon Valley have been announcing increasingly generous paid both maternal and parental leave programmes.

As in many other cases, their intention is to challenge the status quo. The Family and Medical Leave Act in the US envisages that pregnant women there are entitled to up to 12 weeks unpaid annual leave.

According to the UN International Labour Organisation, Papua New Guinea, Oman and the US are the only three countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave.

“So this is why there is that new trend in the US that is developing because the workforce is losing all these otherwise valuable talent who are women and who are mothers, who have a lot of experience and knowledge and who want to work and enjoy their work but they need flexibility,” explains Yamalova.

Speaking specifically about the start-up community in the UAE, she adds: “Start-ups have different mindset. Legally, things will not change because legally there is no part-time visa, but I can see how they will offer their employees more flexibility because of that start-up mentality.”

The paternity leave trend has been booming around the world, with Netflix, a California-based Internet television network, offering to a certain number of eligible employees an unlimited and paid paternity leave in the first year.

When asked about the possibility of introducing a statutory paternity leave in the UAE, Yamalova is hesitant. “This is more speculative, but I think the law is drafted the way it is, is because we are here to work. This is not our country and we are not entitled to social benefits as in our home countries,” she says.

“So the introduction of paternity leave contradicts the very premise of expatriates being here and the conditions that are linked to our employment status here. [As an expat] visa is a cost you don’t pay in your country as an employer while here it’s quite expensive to employ somebody.

“That’s why I don’t see when the maternity leave would be extended or paternity introduced.”

With a family-focused culture being prevalent in the Arab world, Luijckx belives that the UAE is well-positioned to explore these possibilities and be a pioneer of paternity leave in the region.

“The UAE is so forward thinking in many areas,” she says. “We trail blaze and pride ourselves on ambition and making things happen. I would love to see us lead the way in paternity and maternity leave and make more positive changes to support parents to raise their families.”

A range of academic research indicates that paternity leave helps mothers in various ways. The so-called ‘mother guilt’ is what Martin identifies as the biggest hurdle women entrepreneurs face.

“The idea that by working they are letting their families down,” she explains. “When my husband travels, no one says anything to me, but if I have to travel, everyone compliments him on being a good dad and husband as if he is doing something unusual by looking after the family.

“Family responsibilities need to be shared 50-50 and that includes looking after the children when moms are busy building their own careers.”

A recent working paper by Family and Changing Gender Roles by Kathleen McGinn, a Harvard Business School professor, found that working mothers are more likely to raise successful daughters and caring, empathetic sons.

“This is how important a mother is,” says Tavassoli. “She is not just sitting at home, she is raising the next generation.

“I don’t understand the term work-life balance because for me everything is happening at the same time. It’s all your life and you have to make the most out of it. You have to find the reason why you are living and that’s the driving force that shows through everything that you do.

“For me, my driving force is to empower women and socially empower moms through education so that they can raise the next generation with love, leading to a more peaceful world.

“And that’s why the wellbeing and happiness of the mother is important, so empowering mothers so that they can raise empowered children.”

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