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Emirati entrepreneur Sara Al Madani on social media and influencers, why some SMEs fail and dismissing the notion that women need a helping hand

Inside the world of entrepreneur Sara Al Madani

Al Madani – who says her peers have dubbed her ‘The Rebel’ – doesn’t have much time to spare. Image: ITP Media Group

Sara Al Madani is a woman of many hats: serial entrepreneur, advocate for women, fashion designer, brand ambassador, social media personality and board member of the UAE Ministry of Economy’s SME Council and of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

What she isn’t, she makes clear, is a woman who needs – or wants – to be “empowered”.

“I hate that word. Women aren’t weak. They don’t need empowering,” she tells us angrily. “I’ve never heard of a bunch of men sitting around, holding hands, talking about ‘men empowerment’.”

Al Madani aims to inspire women in the UAE to be more active and self confident in order to achieve business success

When one encounters the straight-shooting yet amiable 34-year old Emirati, ‘weak’ is the last word that comes to mind. Arabian Business meets up with her at her home in Dubai, where – wearing a colourful and flowing abaya of her own design – she gingerly steps over toys belonging to her four-year-old son before sitting down on a sofa and jumping straight into business.

It’s not hard to see why she doesn’t waste precious minutes with idle chitchat. Al Madani – who says her peers have dubbed her ‘The Rebel’ – doesn’t have much time to spare.

In addition to her work with the government and her own Sara Al Madani fashion design company, she’s founded and directed a number of businesses, including Social Fish, a marketing, branding and social media consultancy, and Proposal Cupid, an events company specialising in proposals, engagements and weddings.

“I love the word ‘influencer’, because it means you teach, help and nurture”

These companies, she says, have already proven successful. Social Fish, for example, was in December chosen to host, manage and produce a birthday party for Real Madrid and France international footballer Karim Benzema. But that’s not enough for her.

“Do I have more capacity to start more businesses? Hell yeah,” she says proudly. “I can go 10 more if I find the ideas.”

A busy 2020

In the short-term though, Al Madani has enough ideas to keep her busy. In the coming months, she already has plans to launch three new companies. Among them are meal prep company Fitbar and HalaHi, a company that allows celebrities to send personal video messages to fans – for which they receive between $50 and $200 a pop.

“It’s a way for celebrities to engage with their audience in a very organic, fun way. It’s [meant] to create a bridge between people and those they idolise, their role models,” she explains. “It also helps the role models be down to earth and engaged with their fan base – and to monetise it and make money.”

Social Fish produced a party for Karim Benzema

Al Madani’s third upcoming company, she says, hopes to address common issues she sees with ‘influencers’ in the region: mismanagement. It’s a subject near and dear to her heart. While she says she believes the term has been “destroyed” by overzealous marketing and advertising agencies, Al Madani is quick to admit she’s often called an ‘influencer’ in her own right as a result of the 224,000 Instagram and 260,000 LinkedIn followers she has.

“I’ve seen the way agencies manage talent. They take the influencer, and make them a money machine, but don’t teach them how to manage their finances,” she says between exasperated sighs. “Agencies kill talent, and give them an expiry date.”

The problem with social media influencers, she goes on, is that the term has been de-valued and over-commercialised.

“Women aren’t weak. They don’t need empowering. I’ve never heard of a bunch of men sitting around, holding hands, talking about ‘men empowerment’”

“I love the word ‘influencer’, because it means you teach, help and nurture,” she says. “But I don’t like it anymore because of how people have made the word look. It sounds like a person who does ads for money. [Agencies] teach them everything is money, and they become so commercial that their shelf life is short. If you’re commercial, someone is always going to come along who is better than you.”

Work left to be done

She may not like the term ‘influencer’ anymore, but Al Madani is acutely aware that she has a large audience and – unlike most – is in a position where people will listen to what she has to say. “To me, social media is part of my purpose,” she says of her massive fan following.

“I use it as a platform for education, to [try] inspire people.”

Often, Al Madani’s efforts to ‘educate’ revolve around the role of women in UAE society. While she says that attitudes toward women at work are “100  percent changing” in the country – particularly with the significant support of the government – there remains much left to be done.

Al Madani says that attitudes toward women at work are “100  percent changing” in the UAE

As an example, Al Madani points to the conspicuous absence of women on the boards of companies. Her concerns are backed up by statistics. As recently as 2016, only 1.5 percent of board members in the UAE were woman, well below the global average of 19.7 percent calculated by the Women on Boards organisation.

“It happens most in the finance sector,” she says. “The reason why women don’t sit on boards is because men think they are emotional, and therefore their decision making process is completely different. When you’re emotional, you tend to change your mind a lot.”

The reality that she sees during her many meetings with businesses across the country, she says, is often far different.

“Every board that has women, when I ask the men on the board, the differences [they mention] are that they fight less, are more respectful towards each other, even smile more,” she adds. “It’s like a splash of colour in a black and white room. They’re forced to act more civil.”

“They take the influencer, and make them a money machine, but don’t teach them how to manage their finances. Agencies kill talent, and give them an expiry date”

However, that isn’t to say that Al Madani hasn’t seen progress for women in her country. She’s more than happy to rattle off the names of women in the UAE’s Federal Cabinet and elsewhere in government, for example, or point out that the majority of Emirati university graduates – 70 percent, according to government statistics – are women.

But some sectors, particularly banking and finance, remain challenging places for women to advance. “It’s still a man’s world. Men believe that women aren’t good at finances, although [a majority] of the graduates with A-grades are women,” she says. “If they have the educational background, there’s no reason to think that they won’t be able to do the job. They just need a chance.”

The pitfalls of SMEs

Given her work with the SME Council – and her own history of starting companies of various kinds – it’s no surprise that Al Madani is almost as equally vocal about the ups and downs of start-ups as she is about women in business.

Al Madani is a board member of the SME Projects and Enterprise Council of the UAE Ministry of Economy

Launched in 2015, the UAE SME Council includes representatives from government entities related to small and medium-sized businesses – and is primarily concerned with developing strategic plans and policies for the country’s SMEs.

As a member of the council, Al Madani is brutally honest when it comes to the mistakes made by SMEs in the UAE. Among the main problems, she says, is “ego”, which in turn leads to a host of other painfully common mistakes such as failing to properly manage cash flow and scaling up too quickly.

“They don’t know how to manage their cash flow at all, and they burn money fast,” she adds. “Some of the people who start businesses here are ego-driven. They want to be called entrepreneurs. Instead of testing and trying slowly and growing in a steady way… they’ll just open a store, have 30 employees and burn their money when there is no demand for them to supply. They start too big.”

Among the main reasons that start-ups accelerate too quickly, she adds, is that many entrepreneurs are crippled by fear of what friends, family and the wider public will say about them if their company starts with a small staff, or isn’t particularly high profile.

Social media influencers have been over-commercialised, Al Madani believes

“I believe in starting small, learning and escalating,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what people say about you. If you’re there to satisfy someone else and doing this for the wrong reasons, then you aren’t an entrepreneur. This is not where you’re supposed to be.”

Using herself as an example, Al Madani notes that Social Fish has achieved success and caught the eye of global stars such as Karim Benzema with only three full-time employees.

“I outsource. Uber doesn’t own any cars. Airbnb doesn’t own any buildings. Why is success [considered to be] 30 to 100 employees with a huge space?” she says. “In the end, when someone is successful, people can’t deny that... how you do that, how you start it, is nobody’s business. Just focus on your work.”

A lesson in failure

Focussing on one’s work, Al Madani says, doesn’t necessarily just mean focussing on profitability or the standard metrics that businesses measure success by. It also means trying out new ventures and being ready to accept failure. “Failure is a step on the ladder to success,” she says, thinking back on previous business ventures which didn’t succeed. “I love failing.”

In Al Madani’s eyes, a fear of failure is a deeper issue that is pervasive in the UAE and the wider Middle East – particularly when it comes to women. Earlier in her career, she recalls, she was warned by family to not discuss her business failures publicly to avoid the loss of face that may bring.

“We were raised up, culturally, with our families, that if you fail it’s shameful. But the more I opened up about my failures, the more I learned from people,” she says. “When a woman does it, it’s more embarrassing. She’s already looked down upon, so when she does it [fails] it’s even worse. People say they told you so.”

Events company Proposal Cupid specialises in proposals, engagements and weddings

In her own case, Al Madani admits she often leaps quickly and then figures out the dynamics of the market as she goes along. Three months ago, she says, she had “no idea” she would be launching her three companies in 2020.

“If you don’t do it, someone else will. Then you’ll end up working for them. If you have a thought, put it in action, or let it go and don’t stress,” she advises.

So what’s her secret? What is it that allows her to start companies without fear of failing and despite the challenges?

When this question is posed to her, she responds without a moment’s hesitation.

“I love everything I do. This is fun,” she smiles. “I’m my own role model. I’ve never quit. I took criticism and failure, and I was there for me, all the time.”

UAE SME IPOs to boost the sector

In December 2019, Dr Adeeb Alafeefi, the director of the UAE Ministry of Economy’s National Programme for SMEs, announced that the programme is working with federal authorities to set the stage for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) owned by Emiratis to raise money through listings on local bourses. While Dr Alafeefi said that the talks were still at a very early stage, he said that “something” may be resolved in 2020.

Women in the UAE by the numbers

According to the UNDP Gender Equality index, the UAE is the highest ranked country in the Arab world. Government statistics show that 77 percent of Emirati women enrol in higher education after secondary school, as well as make up 70 percent of all university graduates. More than half – 56 percent – of UAE government university graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women.

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