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Tue 14 Apr 2015 04:20 PM

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Leading lady: Meera Kaul interview

In an exclusive interview, Meera Kaul recalls her journey to success, and explains why she is supporting women in science and business.

Leading lady: Meera Kaul interview

Wherever you work, for somebody or your own thing, your self-respect is your biggest business,” says Meera Kaul, successful serial entrepreneur, investor and the founder of The Meera Kaul Foundation.

I meet Kaul at the headquarters of Optimus, one of her success stories in the region. And looking at the confident 41-year-old US citizen, who is very proud of her Indian descent, you could hardly recognise the girl who once “didn’t assert herself because of the fear of refusal,” when her father didn’t allow her to participate in a theatre workshop.

In a blog post on LinkedIn, titled ‘If I were 22’, Kaul wrote: “When things are not going in your favour, the only thing that matters is your persistence and attitude.

“Life is not about being accosted with disappointments, but the manner in which you overcome these disappointments. I wish I had been able to be a part of that theatre workshop even today.”

She starts our conversation by sharing one more story from her teenage years, explaining that her father used to give her 100 Indian Rupees (AED5.8) for a day at school saying: “You’re on your own”.

“That’s how I started depending on myself,” she says. “He taught me a very important principle in life which is whatever you do, you are responsible for your actions, and you have to bear the consequences.

“With that lesson early in my life I don’t believe that I ever had an opportunity when I hadn’t been able to do something.

“If I set my mind on doing something, I do it. That’s been possible only because he taught me to really rely on myself.”

That lesson has led to a long list of technology enabled ventures, of which around 15 are in the Middle East, which Kaul incubated, financed and promoted from Europe, North America, Asia and Africa.

Along the way, Kaul has been awarded the Channel Executive of the Year by Channel Middle East over consecutive years, and also voted one of the Top 50 women in telecom space in the MEA region by CommsMEA.

The multi-layered nature of her interests further spreads to her involvement with several start-ups around the world as an investor or in an advisory role. Lastly, she is the founder of the Meera Kaul Foundation, a non-profit entity which works on empowering women to utilise their economic, social and intellectual potential, especially in male-dominated industries such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Kaul’s academic achievements are of no less significance. A graduated lawyer from Delhi University, she went on to earn her masters in law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law and an MBA degree from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

However, the involvement in tech-based businesses stems from the fact that she learnt to code while she was still in school.

She says: “I love cooking, which is a huge de-stressor for me, and coding because I forget about business and get into the logic. I love logic.”

Before explaining why she opted for law education, she explains that she started her first business when she was only a 16-year-old school girl in India.

“I exited it to put myself through law school. I sold that one to a person who gave me my first project,” she says.

“I did law because I had so many businesses and didn’t know the rules. Also, I was going to those countries which didn’t have rules and laws. With that knowledge, nobody could mess with me.”

The next venture and the first on the US soil, was a San Francisco-based software development start-up. She quickly adds: “I exited that just before the dotcom bust happened. I made a lot of money and I moved with it to Europe.”

Having lived in Frankfurt for some time, she transferred to Rotterdam to establish a knowledge management company which had The United Nations among its list of customers. In 2003, after one more successful exit, she moved to Dubai with The Abraaj Group, one of the pioneers of the private equity industry in the region.

“I helped Abraaj set up their systems [here]. Private equity is fun, but that wasn’t for me because it wasn’t really entrepreneurial,” she says, adding that the post exposed her to understanding venture capital and private equity domains in more depth.

But, more importantly, at that time she heard the “I don’t think you’ll be able to make it” sentence when expressing her desire to start a business in Dubai. That caused an avalanche of successful business ventures she has been setting up across the region, employing 800 people at one point.

“That’s how I got started,” she says about the first DIFC-based company, Learning Zone, that she established in 2004.

“The first few years were a struggle because that was a time in Dubai when there were no laws, no corporate governance, but Learning Zone did very well,” she says.

“Then, I went to Qatar. In the end of 2005, I had a huge contract in Qatar. I’ve set up a new company both here and in Qatar which was called Momenta. We had the Asian Games contract which was pretty big and we did really well with it.

“By the time I was executing the Asian Games, I had around 300 employees. When the games were over, the government wanted to use the infrastructure and they gave us a contract [for various services]. The business just grew.”

While she politely declines to talk about financials of any of her businesses, she explains that Momenta has grown from acquisition and organic growth to establish offices in five countries while covering 26 different markets.

The company’s portfolio is wide and includes a few training companies, recruitment company, an online education company, a media company, an online portal and various apps she has invested in.

“I grew that business to 800 people before I came back to Dubai to start Optimus,” she says.

With the objective of filling value gaps in the regional channel market, Kaul founded Optimus Technology and Telecommunications in the spring of 2008. In addition to the ongoing financial crisis, she kept on encountering hurdles on this path – a year after founding the company she received an important call from her Dubai-based employees.

She reveals: “Apparently, my CEO was busy running the company down. I dropped everything that I had going on in the US, and I moved back here.

“I fired the CEO, cleaned everything up, led the company out of the crisis and grew the business. Today, we are a multi-million dollar company, a niche, pretty well established in the market, and we are growing.”

As a market enablement company that helps technology and telecom vendors develop and create business revenue streams, Optimus has grown to incorporate local sales offices and/or representatives in five countries, five distribution centres region wide, and serve 1,000-plus resellers in more than 17 countries.

Resting on the results of her incredible work ethic, in 2012 she felt that the stability of her businesses allowed her to shift her attention to encouraging entrepreneurship.

Currently, she is an investor in 13 start-ups founded in Hong Kong, Singapore, and India, but mainly in Silicon Valley and Europe. All of them operate in the only three areas she is interested in – mobility, Internet of Things (IoT) and big data analytics.

She says: “The first thing I look at is the viability of the business.

“Then, entrepreneurs need to have the right DNA. A lot of entrepreneurs may have a really good idea, but he may not be able to execute it. That’s not a business I want to be in.

“Success in a start-up is never about idea. It’s mostly about execution.

“What guarantees success is the way it’s executed, timely manner in which feedback is pivoted back into, especially, a technology start-up, and how it goes to market.

“A lot of entrepreneurs do not listen. They clump down feedback. I like entrepreneurs who have their own skin in the game, then those who have gone out to the customer and taken customer feedback.

“This is how I work. And if there’s no value I could provide to a start-up, I don’t invest in them. I actually think that the value of my money is proportional to the amount of effort I put in.

“There is so much money that the choice is with the entrepreneur and not with people with the money.

“The entrepreneurs you get is what can make or break a profile of an investor. I’m very careful about that. I work only with entrepreneurs who will add really positively to my profile.”

Although she points out that Dubai is the most entrepreneur-friendly community in the region, as an avid supporter of entrepreneurship and innovation, she is not shy to voice her opinion on what needs to be changed within the UAE’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

She says: “I am happy that there are methods that entrepreneurs can follow today, but I’m sad that if you follow a method, there’s no innovation. Because innovation means risk, and we are not in an environment that really appreciates risk.

“I’m still waiting for an entrepreneur to invest in here. There’s no innovation in copycat methods or in a methodology that has been done somewhere else. That’s not a start-up.

“As long as we are in a culture of not supporting failure we will not be able to create real entrepreneurs, we won’t be able to innovate. Failure is not only good, but necessary.

“But that mind-set will not come for a real estate economy. That needs to change. Every innovation system here is a real estate company. They are selling space. I’m sorry, but innovation in Silicon Valley happens differently.”

When asked about start-up investors in the region, she continues: “I call it fashion investing, and at some point in time they are going to start asking for their money back. A normal start-up cycle is seven to eight years.

“The ecosystem is built as a big boys club and big boys clubs always work. Not only here, but in Silicon Valley too. So, if you are a part of a big boys club even if it is the sand that you’ve invested in, the sand will turn into gold, and very soon.

“I know it’s controversial, but I don’t think that with any amount of fashionable hubs that we create or incubator, accelerator models that we have, we are not creating entrepreneurs if they are not failing.”

When our conversation turns to The Meera Kaul Foundation, she sets the background by explaining that in her family women have traditionally run their own businesses. “While my father is my inspiration, my mother is my grounding factor, a person who brings me back home,” she says.

She mentions Indira Gandhi, the second-longest serving prime minister of India – and the only woman to hold the office – to stress the importance of having a role model that young women can connect to.

“None of the girls in the family thought that we could do what she had done,” she says.

“It’s so important to have somebody do it around you, and that it’s not somebody you can’t reach. She was somebody from my community who could impact me, so that I could impact other women.”

The establishment of The Meera Kaul Foundation in 2012 came after numerous requests to help, support and mentor other women for which she couldn’t find the time to commit to.

She says: “I had to formalise it to give it time, money and resources, and to hire people to help me.

“Over time I realised, unless women made money, things will never change.

“We look at a viable idea and that by that idea a community around that woman will get affected.

“So, we invest to create role models, success stories within communities. She needs to become a role model for ten other women. It’s a chain reaction.”

Another important pillar of the foundation’s work is delivering a special programme for women aspiring to start careers in STEM.

In January 2015, over 300 women from around the world gathered in Dubai for the second The Women in STEM 2015 Conference and Awards.

On the importance of educating women to excel in STEM industries, Kaul opens a wider subject of women workplace participation.

On annual basis, various studies serve as arguments to increase the participation of women in the workforce, ensure their positions on senior management boards and equal pay, and similar. However, rare are those who make this point as compellingly as Kaul.

She says: “Hiring women doesn’t resolve our problem. How many of us are capable of doing the job well? Unless we do the job well, we will never be taken seriously. We will always be statistics.

“What 30 percent women are doing is important, how they are contributing, whether they are qualified, and so on. So, the problem is not [the lack of] women working for organisations, but [the lack of] qualified women who really can do the job, and focus on their careers.”

“Instead of pointing out what’s wrong, let’s correct.

“When a woman works as hard as a man, then it’s worth fighting for equality. So, it’s a two way process.”

Engaging in philanthropic activities is usually a nice finishing touch to a fruitful career, but for a committed problem-solver such as Kaul focusing on gender equality in business seems only as a beginning of a new chapter.

Since using entrepreneurship for solving problems is what she knows best, no wonder that the latest tool in her arsenal for empowering women in the corporate world is another app she has developed – Parity.

Little wonder also that the gender bias ranking app and web portal was recently dubbed by a US media outlet as the finest app to measure gender bias in workplaces.

True to her word, Kaul is relying on herself to make a difference, and no doubt becoming a strong role model for countless other women – not just in her community, but around the world.