Business publications all too often overlook the fact that the medicine and healthcare sectors are among the very greatest areas of true entrepreneurship – and the UAE is home to one of the Arab world’s most prodigious and honoured medical innovators, Her Excellency Dr. Maryam Matar. Listed as one of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women, she is Founder and Chaiman of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association, and was previously Founder and Director-General of the Community Development Authority. Here, she speaks exclusively to SME Advisor…
Your Excellency, we think of Emirati women entrepreneurs coming from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah – but what about the other emirates? Are there cultural obstacles?
“You know, traditionally, the majority of Government ministers actually come from the northern emirates. Yet it’s easy to understand why there might be this emphasis on the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, because of course, there’s much more chance of being recognized there, with the highly developed business infrastructure.
Importantly, this also gives you the ‘wish’ to make a name for yourself and make an impact on a broader stage. So it’ not really the case that there are cultural obstacles, but rather that entrepreneurs are more likely to emerge in an environment where they have their interest stimulated.
“Yet it also works in a different way, too: I would add that in emirates like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there is a demand for something that people feel familiar with, and the large expatriate communities won’t necessarily find it easier to relate to local entrepreneurs. So if you aspire to a successful career there, you will have to pay attention to your ability to communicate and network across communities.”
You’ve said several times that Emirati men can suffer from a number of genetic challenges. Is this why Emirati women are increasingly the powerhouse of entrepreneurship?
“The role of Emirati women is a simple result of what was built by our leaders. Women are empowered by the right skills. With an Emirati woman, the whole community works together to support her – and if the woman succeeds as an entrepreneur, she can do so within a strong framework of Islamic and local values.”
Your own background is fascinating. Do you think it can be an inspiration for other Emirati women?
“Yes, I do think it can be an inspiration for them, but not for the reasons you might think. Although I overcame the fact that I wasn’t from an affluent background, I won’t say that was because I was in some way naturally gifted, or had more of this, or more of that. It was because I learned how to relate to people and communicate, understanding their point of view, their needs and their interests. For example, I always make sure that I’m very hands-on and knowledgeable about my subjects before I comment. I won’t rush in on the basis of an assumption, or because of what I’ve heard from someone else. This approach is always important for me, and I hope it’s the aspect that can be a powerful motivation for other Emirati women. Tolerance and understanding of the people you are dealing with is the first step in communicating and building success.”
About 67 percent of all Emirati students studying business and management are women. Does this reflect mere population slant or are there other reasons for female dominance?
“This statistic is true, but I find it a little bit scary! You need a fair share of both genders for business and development. Also, let’s not look at quantity, but rather, let’s focus on quality. It’s very important to remember this, especially if we want to ensure we can build the right educational platform for the nation to perform well, and set new benchmarks in challenging areas such as medicine and science.
In your opinion, how should a woman overcome family or community challenges to her taking on a business role?
“Now, this is much easier than you might think! It’s not difficult to overcome opposition to starting a business – you have to understand the boundaries. So, analyse the way that your community works and the values it has: how can your business and your opportunity best align with them? You also have to do things one step at a time, always looking to build support both from your community and the business sector you are entering. There may come a time when you just have to take a leap and do it anyway – but by then, you’ll have built up a lot of awareness that you understand the community and its expectations and your way of working will have influenced many people closest to you.”
As a leading scientist, are your interests purely in the areas of research and community medicine, or will we see you one day head up a variety of commercial organisations?
“Actually, I’ve already become a business entrepreneur – eg, I go and give my services to business on a consultancy basis, and this is proving to be a powerful and rapidly-growing second career. I want to mention here, though, that the strategy of how you go about doing this is very important. When I work with these companies and help them get good results, I don’t steal all the glory for myself; instead, I make sure that others are in the limelight – and I will then get indirect credit. Use this strategy and it will make you indispensable, because everyone benefits as a result of your involvement. Also, I believe that as you build a business, create it from the perspective of Sustainability. Too often, when we talk about entrepreneurs, we talk about doing things quickly, or in a dramatic way – but that’s wasted unless what you’re doing is sustainable.”
What do you think of the infrastructure and support mechanisms that young entrepreneurs can enjoy when setting up a business in the UAE?
“I believe the support is fair, but more needs to be done. This is especially true at the level of governance. Start-up businesses and entrepreneurs cannot thrive without the right infrastructure. A key part of the role of Government in its dealings with business is making sure that this infrastructure is consistent and conducive to growing your SME. I learned a lot from my extensive journeys around the region, and I saw first-hand just how vital this aspect really is. Creating the right infrastructure platform will help ensure a level playing field and the availability of key aspects such a funding, IT, access to good staff resources and the right environment to settle and grow your business in.”
You are very widely travelled: what lessons do the SME and start-up sectors in other countries have for the local scene here in the GCC?
“Actually, I feel that what makes the UAE such a successful model is that we take on board the best examples from other environments. In reality, what makes our leaders themselves so different is the fact that they are good listeners. For example, the clear process of decision-making that took the UAE away from its established fossil fuel model to having one of the world’s best diversified economies is a classic example of being able to observe and follow the successes of states that were the economic pioneers.”
Which one of your many awards do you feel best reflects your role as Emirati woman entrepreneur and ambassador?
“I value them all hugely but there’s no doubt that the one I treasure most is the Humanitarian Award I received at the Emirates Woman ‘Woman of the Year’ Awards in 2014. This meant a huge amount to me, especially since the work I do with children and underprivileged communities is closest to my heart. In fact, back in 2012, the Arab League Scientific and Humanitarian Development Program had made me Ambassador of Goodwill for Women and Children in the Arab World – another huge honour.”
What is your greatest ambition – and when will you make it come true?
“Well, I hate to admit it, but when I was really young I already had a personal plan set for 2050! All of the dreams I had have come true – and many of them in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined! I don’t just believe the sky’s the limit – I believe the UNIVERSE is the limit!
“My mission is huge – but what gives me such an optimistic attitude is that I really believe in the role of risk assessment. You have to do a risk audit on all the factors that can go wrong, and then take proactive action, knowing the worst possible scenario. This is why you will rarely see me panicking – my motto is that if you put some realism into your strategy, you’ll be able to do your best day to day and that path to the universe will keep open for you!”
Rushika Bhatia Editor
Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.