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How to succeed as a female entrepreneur in Dubai

By Katerina Nicolopoulou - Posted on 11 September 2014

Senior Lecturer at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, Dr Katerina Nicolopoulou, discusses her research into attitudes towards women in business in Dubai and what it takes to become a successful female entrepreneur there.

My colleague Nada Kakabadse (Professor of Policy, Governance and Ethics at the University of Reading) and I have been talking to female entrepreneurs across Dubai to find out how easy it really is here for women to excel in business.  This is part of a bigger project on cosmopolitanism, global elites and entrepreneurship, which has been supported by Stanton Chase, Dubai.  We recently studied the nature of female entrepreneurs in the UAE, talking to both local and international entrepreneurs.  Our initial findings show that many women in Dubai are progressing rapidly away from stereotypes regarding skills, choices and identities.

With a thriving, fast-paced economy that is constantly changing, it can sometimes be difficult for start-ups to keep up.  The lack of taxes is sure to attract business-owners but the existence of several indirect costs can present a challenge for these businesses.  In addition to this, some women, in particular, can face significant hurdles due to their gender and long-standing cultural traditions.

A common belief among the entrepreneurs we interviewed was that receiving an international or global education was instrumental to their success, with one interviewee commenting that going to an international school was important for her – working with other cultures and being brought up in a ‘non-man-only’ zone being major contributing factors to her success.  Our research prompts us to believe that this sort of experience plays a crucial role in preparing young women for the day-to-day cultural existence entrepreneurs have to face when coping with a global market environment.

Another major theme that emerged was the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ for Dubai’s female entrepreneurs.  When it comes to excelling outside of more traditional work expectations, hard work and belief in what you are doing equal success.  Adding to this concept, the important starting point of making successful headway with business ambitions is the absolute necessity of financial independence.  Some participants defined this as having enough available funding to sustain their start-ups for a minimum of one-and-a-half years.

The aid of fresh government support for SMEs definitely nurtures the growth of female entrepreneurship in the UAE.  The Ro ‘Ya initiative, for example, run by MasterCard and the Dubai Business Women Council (DBWC) invited business-owners to present their proposals before a panel of judges, with the chance of receiving a year-long mentorship programme with networking opportunities - networking itself, being another key to establishing yourself in the marketplace - with one interviewee stating that you have to create your own opportunities.

Our research so far indicates that while there is an open environment for women to establish themselves and potentially thrive as entrepreneurs in Dubai, there are two cultures they must understand and confront. One is local, highly traditional and family-oriented. The other is more orientated towards the expatriate population and more in tune with the concept of individualism, having more in common with the culture of the United States where business often wins out over secondary family concerns.

Emiratis are open to and respect women in business. Those who are not curious or willing to learn about the culture they are working in are more likely to fail, and entrepreneurs – both male and female – cannot afford to stand still. Standing still could lead to stagnation and a lack of innovation and progress.

Adaptability, tolerance, open mindedness, strong communication skills and a good understanding of different cultures leads in turn to a receptiveness of what teams and clients need. Similarly, being tolerant of others and their beliefs can add huge value to entrepreneurial ambitions in Dubai.

Have you had to adapt your approach to work when operating in a dynamic, emergent and complex business environment where tradition and innovation meet? 

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