Women Leaders: Ask Questions, Don't Be Afraid to Fail
Moza Saeed Al Otaiba
Moza Al Otaiba is an entrepreneur and social activist – the co-founder of M2 Artistic Productions; CEO and Founding Partner of Almenara Middle East, Social and Economic Studies; and CEO/Founder of the Al Otaiba Inmaa Group. She is one of the very few Arab Muslim women who have entered the world of entertainment media on the business side. CEO Kim Weichel and Board President Gail Montplaisir interviewed her together on June 23.
First, what is the UAE doing to foster women’s leadership and participation?
In 2005 the Emirates appointed our first woman cabinet minister, and now 4 of the 22 cabinet or council ministers are women. In 2006 a quota was put in place for women in parliament. Now there are 15 women―33% of the parliamentarians, because it is a small parliament. There was a strong determination that we must exceed the average number around the world.
Additionally, the vice president of the parliament, Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi, is a woman, and this is a first in the Arab world.
In December of 2012 a decree went out that women must be 30% of all corporate boards of directors, and there must be at least one woman on all boards in public and private sector organizations at different layers of the society.
The majority of our college graduates―65%―are women. In the UAE, women form two-thirds of government sector workers―one of the highest percentages in the world―and women hold three quarters of the positions in the education and health sectors. I myself am a member of the Abu Dhabi Women’s Business Committee in our Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Now, there are two sides to this story. A lot of men choose to go into the military and/or go to military school, and that’s not a proper higher education. And men have more courage to say they don’t want to go to school, but rather to open their own business right away. For lots of reasons, women feel it is important to finish college in order to further our careers.
Sounds like there’s a lot of opportunity. What challenges do you and other women face?
I’m one of the lucky ones. I started my business with a certain wealth because my father helped me. It’s wonderful when an Arab and Muslim man chooses to further the power of his daughter. Still, I faced the same challenges that any man or women would face. I had to set up the business, understand the business cycle. There’s a learning curve you have to go through. Fortunately, I was well educated, and I did my research. I feel sad for women who don’t have the proper education, the financial support and family support to be able to follow their passion.
Being a leader is a challenge, running an organization and dealing with employees. You want them to become leaders but it takes compassion; often you must treat them like kids to get them to grow. You say, This person has the talent but needs a lot of guidance. When you lose this investment, the person-hours you put into developing talent, you must ask yourself, What went wrong? Did I not guide them properly? Was I not assertive enough? It all leads to learning, but it is very tough.
You were out in the business arena very early on. What challenges did you have to overcome as a young woman business leader?
The fact is that I still come across as very young. In public pictures I make an effort to look older. I ran for elections a few years ago; it was a great experience, but looking young was one of my biggest challenges. People don’t always take me seriously when they meet me because I appear so young.
Also, because I come from a prominent family, I experience prejudice. My father’s business and my business are not at all similar. All of my achievements have been my own, not my father’s. People often give priority to other women who are not as fortunate as I am because they assume I am working for my father. I work very hard to put together all the experts and yet I’m not given the credit for my own work.
Who were your role models? Who inspired you, or supported you along the way?
In business, my role models are the achievements I want―the pictures of myself and where I want to be 10 years down the road. I have not yet found a woman who I look up to in that way because my ambition is far beyond that of anyone I have met or anyone around me.
In life and in values, my role model is my father. He is a very good man, and he has taught values and ethics to all of his children. He is also my biggest supporter. When ladies were not allowed to travel abroad and live by themselves, he encouraged me to do this. In 1936 my great grandfather built the first school in the UAE. My family was always much in the education field, from very early on.
My father was not a mentor but an enabler; he enabled me to be what I want. I had the curiosity, and I have never been afraid to ask questions and seek the answers. You must have a lot of humility to ask questions about what you don’t know. Today I call colleagues to find out answers to my questions. I am not afraid that people will think anything negative about me. You have to ask questions to get the answers that will help you advance in your work.
By the same token, I am ready for anyone who has the humility and courage to come to me and ask questions. I will help anyone who comes and asks for help. So far, it has not been a problem to have too many women coming to me as a woman leader. I answer all the questions I’m asked and refer the asker to someone else if I do not know the answer.
With my employees, I find myself providing a lot of help with their personal problems. Often it is not the business that is the problem but the personal aspects. So I spend time speaking with people, dealing with challenges. I tell them what I think. It is a part of being human and having humility.
I wonder sometimes: Will I reach a point when I try to reach a personality who is in a higher position than me, and they won’t reply? Will I ever be busy to the extent that I cannot help other people and I do not respond? I never want to be that busy. I should always be able to give two or three minutes of help to anyone. People have often grown so big that they no longer have time to be human.
What do you most want women in other parts of the world to know about the women of your country? About Arab and Muslim women overall?
They have to know that we are women like them who have the same challenges. A woman worker here has the same problem with earning a living and having a family. It’s the same story everywhere. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that in the US the majority of women are not covered and in the Muslim countries they are covered.
How can the accomplishments of women in the Gulf region be highlighted more clearly throughout the world? What form might that take?
It should be someone active. You? Me? We should be the main media sources who have the biggest outreach to the grassroots. And visual effects are the best. There must be some media program or network put toward addressing these issues. It must be on the news and highly distributed throughout the grassroots. In the Arab world and in the US, we need to reach the grassroots, not just the educated people who already get it.
And don’t just interview entertainers! We need to see the women on the ground doing the work and making the achievements in order to influence those programs on TV and the Search Engine Optimization Solutions. If you google-search Arab women, the first five hits are interviews with businesswomen. We need media partners.
From all you have learned, what advice would you give to a young women at the beginning of her career?
Never be put down because a certain project did not go ahead. For example, when I ran for election, I really wanted to win, and when I did not win I felt depressed for two months. My partner Michael in the US called and said, Welcome to the team. There were 113 men and women running for 4 chairs in the parliament. I was number 20 out of 113. I had the same number of votes as a very prominent businessman in Abu Dhabi who is 20 years my senior. My brother helped me to understand that this was a big achievement.
I was always media shy, but I had to put myself out there for the elections and I discovered that I can do it. I realized the importance of having media, and now I have a very complete media plan. I met a lot of people and learned a lot in this regard.
After the election campaign, people on the road started to recognize me. That’s important both socially and in business. Even more people reach out now to ask me for advice. I did not win, but in fact I was successful. I got something out of it.
There’s a great deal to learn from each experience, so don’t let the disappointments stop you!
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