By Neil King
The chairwoman of the Sharjah Business Women Council says female entrepreneurs are asserting themselves on the emirate’s business landscape in greater and greater numbers
Sharjah’s female entrepreneurs are asserting themselves on the emirate’s business landscaper in greater and greater numbers, if figures from the Sharjah Business Women Council (SBWC) are anything to go by.
The council’s membership figures are creeping towards the 1,500 mark having launched in 2002 to support the integration of women into the global economy.
During the past 13 years it has made great strides in itself, and on behalf of Sharjah’s businesswomen, no doubt boosted by the 2010 granting of legal personality and the capacity to operate under the umbrella of the Executive Office of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the wife of the ruler of Sharjah.
As well as a range of support including legal advice, dispute resolution, business guidance, and more, the SBWC offers programmes such as Irthi - a platform for ethical lifestyle goods businesses and Bidwa - an initiative to capitalise on the traditional handicrafts of the Emirates.
What’s more, the council travels not just the region, but the globe in a bid to find ways to benefit their members. Recently a delegation visited luxury Italian fashion brand Gucci, based in Florence, Italy, to discuss cooperation and support. The SBWC also plays an active part in the Arab International Women’s Forum, which takes place every year.
As if that wasn’t enough, the council is also involved with two major projects - Souq Anwan, and Al Fisht, both forthcoming business developments managed by the SBWC which will provide opportunities to female entrepreneurs.
Leading the council is its chairwoman, Her Excellency Ameera Binkaram.
No stranger to business, Binkaram has been fully involved with her family’s manufacturing-based group of companies since 1997. Having started as director of human resources management at the Binkaram Group, she had gradually risen to the position of second vice president, and is responsible for managing the government construction projects on behalf of Karam General Construction.
On top of this, she is a founding member of Friends of Cancer Patients Society, chairperson for the Emirates Women Award, on the board of Education For Employment, a member of the Olave Baden-Powell Society, on the board of the Word Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and a philanthropist and social volunteer for a number of issues concerning animal rights, the environment, and social welfare.
All of which has given her a wealth of experience which she is putting to good use with the SBWC.
And it’s a role she clearly relishes: “As a council we give bespoke services in order to bring comfort to our members, working with them one-to-one, in a discreet and confidential way,” she says.
“We can help with things like disputes between two partners or two family members who have decided to start a business, but have fallen out. They’re stuck with the business, they go into legalities, and we act as the arbitrator. Really we try to avoid our women from going into the courts, but if needs be we go with them.
“And I’m so proud of certain members. I’ve seen them battle through court cases, lose the court cases, not give up, and go into another business.
“These are the ones you can really say ‘ok, I’ll bet on them and invest in them’.”
Sharjah, like the rest of the UAE, has no shortage of programmes and projects to aid and develop entrepreneurship and finding a place among the various organisations and initiatives isn’t a straightforward task, no matter how high profile your group may be.
But according to Binkaram, the wealth of support on offer to businessmen and women can only be seen as a good thing.
“If we look at Sharjah, there are different entities working on different programmes to support entrepreneurs,” she says.
“However as the Business Women Council we don’t see that as a threat. We feel the more the merrier.
“How much can you as one entity really do? The more entities there are supporting or servicing entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs, the merrier.
“What we do notice is that there are overlaps. If I’m going to do a programme and another entity is going to do a similar programme, it’s redundant. So rather than we spend from our budget and they spend from their budget, let’s talk, partner together and create a credible, sustainable programme together.
“People are open to doing that, but you have to go and knock on their doors, share your programme, get their buy-in, and then you can execute it together.
“We’ve actually worked with the Chamber on a programme and they are very supportive. Our main support is from the Sharjah Government and the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce.”
This governmental support has been backed up by the private sector, leading Binkaram to believe this is an exciting time for entrepreneurs in Sharjah and the wider UAE.
“It’s a very positive time,” she enthuses.
“Not only is Sharjah doing a lot to support entrepreneurs, but there are private sector players such as Crescent Petroleum, Gulftainer and Air Arabia, as well as NGOs such as Sharjah Tatweer Forum.
“The UAE as a whole is doing great things, especially with the announcement of the prime minister that the federal government will be investing in and promoting entrepreneurship, developing an entire entrepreneurship programme.”
“We hope this will regulate the processes, the procedures, and the legal aspect for entrepreneurs in the UAE,” Binkaram adds.
“We have high hopes for the policies and by-laws that they will be announcing very soon.”
She also singles out the role of the Ministry of Economy, which she believes is playing an important role in boosting entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.
She continues: “His Excellency [Sultan Bin Saeed] Al Mansouri, the minister of economy, has been promoting entrepreneurs by inviting them to go on official delegations with them when representing the UAE.
“You have young, budding entrepreneurs and they get to mix with well-established businessmen, macro-size companies like Microsoft, and so on. It adds to their wealth of knowledge and their networking opportunities, so I think that’s also a very positive step.
“There are certain individuals from the private sector and from the public sector who, in their public and private capacity, go about supporting local entrepreneurs. An example is Sheikha Lubna, who has adopted a local Emirati who has been creating new IT, robotic technologies.
“On an individual level you find the people of the UAE wanting to support and invest in upcoming entrepreneurs, and I think that’s the way to go about it.”
With so many expats living in the UAE (estimates vary but are usually more that 85 percent of the population), Binkaram explains that the council is open to entrepreneurs of all nationalities, aiming to support a wide range of women in their endeavours, while boosting the business landscape across Sharjah.
“Yes, we want to promote more Emirati entrepreneurs, but the logic says that you are 10-12 percent of your population,” she explains.
“So how effectively can you roll out an entrepreneurship programme which is solely to promote entrepreneurship among Emiratis?
“Yes we want them to be entrepreneurs, but what are we trying to promote? It’s about entrepreneurship in general, with processes and guidelines for entrepreneurs and how to go about starting your new business in the UAE.”
Having said that, she claims that the UAE has been smart in the way it has gone about developing its homegrown entrepreneurs in the past decade.
“The government has been very wise and clever in the past eight to 10 years,” she says.
“It has established funds with more than AED5 billion for entrepreneurs to acquire and start their businesses.
“And now the government has gone public to say ‘let’s start a new economy for entrepreneurs’. So things are progressing in a good way, building the right infrastructure, bylaws, policies, legalities, and so on.”
She adds that putting this framework together has not necessarily been an easy process because of the lack of drivers which have traditionally given impetus to entrepreneurs across the Middle East.
“Emiriati entrepreneurs have enthusiasm, but is there a financial need? That’s the main accelerator to success when it comes to entrepreneurs in other parts of the Middle East.
“Jordan is a hub of entrepreneurship because there’s a passion, there’s an interest, there’s a generation of young, striving entrepreneurs wanting to do something, but above all there’s that financial need accelerator.
“In the UAE the financial need is there, but it’s not as great as in other countries. It is still there though – living in the UAE has become comfortable and you have to work hard to acquire this comfortable living.
“But there are other things that spark Emiratis. Especially now with the the young generation. They have enthusiasm, they know what they want to do, and they are very passionate. What they need is a confidence boost - they really want that.”
The work of the SBWC aims to provide this confidence boost, and much more, commonly focusing on supporting its members through the various challenges they face on their entrepreneurial journey.
But rather than these challenges being specific to women, Binkaram says they are the same kinds of hurdles that men and women alike face.
“We are asked questions like ‘what do women entrepreneurs face?’,” she says.
“No, let’s go back to the root: What do entrepreneurs in Sharjah face? It’s not a gender issue, it’s a business issue.”
And the root of the issue for the chairwoman, before the SBWC even gets involved with the entrepreneurs, is education.
She explains: “Having sat with different organisations locally, regionally and internationally, who have been working on entrepreneurship successfully with programmes, start-ups, incubators, angel investors, seed investors, and so on, it all starts at grass roots level – in schools and universities.
“I feel that the private schools have sort of planted these seeds - you tend to see a few bazaars here and there, but there needs to be more focus there.
“Around six years ago, Sheikha Lubna said that ‘we have to encourage the graduates to delve into the private sector as soon as they graduate’. She said it’s key because unemployment in the GCC is on the rise. And this was even before the Arab Spring, so you can imagine what it’s like now.
“The only way to tackle the challenge of youth unemployment is really by promoting them to go into the private sector. And the easiest thing is entrepreneurship.
“It needs to start at school, then university, and then into the private sector.”
Another challenge that Binkaram cites for entrepreneurs in Sharjah and the UAE is funding. Not so much the existence of the money itself, but the chances for business owners to get hold of it.
She says: “If you look at the UAE, it’s a haven for entrepreneurs when it comes to funds. The challenge, however, is the access to these funds.
“The difference between a fund and a bank is very clear, but some funds are now lending like banks, and it defeats the purpose of why they were created by the local governments in the first place.
“We have four or five major funds in the UAE. They need to stop thinking that they should practise business lending as a bank because that’s not why they were created - there needs to be more flexibility, there needs to be one-to-one consultations, the funds need a bigger pool of consultants because retail is different to beauty, and so on. You need experts from each sector.”
The third challenge highlighted by Binkaram, and perhaps most vital for many of the region’s entrepreneurs, is mentorship, guidance and moral support.
She continues: “Encouragement is very important.
“We went to the Ruwad Fund, which is a fund for entrepreneurs in the Emirate of Sharjah, and we asked them the percentage of women who have come to them for funds to start up a business.
“They gave us their database and when we looked, we noticed that a lot of these women have actually applied for funding but, for whatever reason, were not successful.
“We understand that whoever is applying for the fund has to be financially sound or safe, but at the same time there must be working measures to ensure that even if the first attempt is not successful, there is encouragement or counselling sessions for whoever applied for the loan, so that they can continue and apply again, helping them make a few changes here or there.
“We find that missing.
“The other thing we’ve done is we asked them to give all the unsuccessful applicants back to us - it’s more than 70 percent. We started working with some of them who were interested, bettering their feasibilities and having them apply to more than one fund.”
Although Binkaram believes that the challenges faced by women are the challenges faced by all entrepreneurs, she does highlight one issue particular to females.
“For some women it all depends on the male support they get in the family. If they have the male buy-in to develop the woman of that particular family, then the government has opened doors towards supporting these women.
“We have to respect this challenge, and be very sensitive towards respecting culture and traditions.
“Having said that, there is trust between the people of Sharjah and the directions and initiatives of His Highness and Her Highness. So this is why we find women in Sharjah are really advancing, because there’s no resistance from their male family members.
“When His Highness advocates the development of women in Sharjah, the people listen.
“Her Highness is an international figure now too - she’s the eminent advocate for the UNHCR, she’s the global ambassador for the Union International Cancer Control, and she appears in the media. She’s leading by example, and this is a reason why you see more Emirati females appearing in the media, feeling confident, voicing themselves.
“You have to challenge yourself - here’s the car, here’s the petrol, now learn how to drive. I know some families can be difficult, but as a female you have to be clever with your family - you have to know how to speak to them.
“If you want it enough, you will get there.”
Despite the challenges, Binkaram believes women are enjoying a special time across the Emirates.
“When the prime minister made Sheikha Lubna the first female minister in 2004, he opened up the golden age for women in the UAE.
“Women have been developing since then.
“Women have no excuse to not develop during this era. In Sharjah we have His Highness the ruler of Sharjah, Her Highness the wife of the ruler, and Sheikha Boudour - they are promoting a female economic and professional environment on different fronts.”
Binkaram highlight’s HH Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi’s decrees regarding maternity leave and breast feeding policy, as well as HE Sheikha Bodour’s advocacy of breast-feeding rooms in every government entity, and her push to encourage the private sector to adopt these practices.
She adds that the SBWC has also been active in developing women’s roles in the workplace.
“For the past year Her Highness has assigned the Pearl Initiative and the SBWC to look into measures that should be adopted by the Sharjah Government and her organisations in order to promote women in senior positions.
“After we ran that research on a GCC level, Her Highness adopted the outcomes immediately, making numerous promotions in senior management. We had seven females in different departments being promoted to chairs or vice chairs.”
She adds that the stage has been set for women to develop on different fronts.
“There is access to funds, there is women empowerment economically, professionally, socially, and there is strong education,” she continues.
“We no longer call it women empowerment – the women of Sharjah are very empowered. Now we’re talking about the second level – women advancement. We never speak about gender equality; it’s a given in Sharjah. No board is formulated in Sharjah without the presence of at least two female individuals.”
The role of women in the emirate, and across the country, was emphasised in 2014 during the United Nation’s HeForShe event in New York.
Recalling the occasion, Binkaram says: “Her Highness was attending. She was the only Arab First Lady present there. They were talking about the different challenges women in the West go through: Unequal pay, gender parity, and discrimination.
“Her Highness looked around and she said she was very satisfied to know that we don’t have this in Sharjah.
“I felt so proud at the UN. Ban Ki Moon’s speech also mentioned our ambassador Lana Zaki Nusseibeh – a female from the UAE representing the UN. He said that ever since she came she had really brought about change with her.
“For that to come out from such a figure - it means a lot.
“We have so many untold and unheard of successful stories. So many that now as a business women’s council we’ve assigned an entire budget to identify these women, capture them on video and create an online library for journalists, for conference organisers to tap into. To let them hear them - let them see them.
“Women are now ready to lead on. For the past three decades, Her Highness has been working continuously on preparing women to advance in the society of Sharjah.
“Now we’re reaping the results of it.“
For information, tips and advice on setting up a new business or insights from those who have taken the leap into the world of entrepreneurship, click on the Arabian Business StartUp section.