Merging Passion With Business Savvy: Reem BinKaram, Director, NAMA

Reem BinKaram, Director, NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, on what it takes to make a meaningful impact on the world.

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Reem BinKaram, Director of NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, is a leading light in the region’s social responsibility movement, which has moved from the margins to the mainstream, from being a bullet point on a PR strategy, to becoming a CEO’s top priority. Those living in the UAE will know that the government itself has been consistently raising the bar of paying-it-forward initiatives in the country, fostering and strengthening a sense of social responsibility across the public and private sectors. BinKaram manages different entities under the NAMA umbrella, like Sharjah Business Women Council, Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, and NAMA’s educational and development arm Badiri Academy, with an overarching goal to empower women and shape an equitable world for them.


She is open and pragmatic about the fact that the Sharjah government has embraced NAMA eagerly– H.H. Sheikh Dr Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, has offered unwavering support, while his wife, H.H. Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammad Al Qasimi chairs the organization. However, this support, along with BinKaram’s passion, drive, and motivation to help advance women, required a plan of action. “Due to the unique operational structure of this umbrella, and the fact that we are supported by the government, we consider ourselves a hybrid organization, adapting international standards of global NGOs, corporations, and government to meet our needs and strategies,” BinKaram explains. “However, we had taken on a massive challenge when NAMA was created. Our affiliates, the Sharjah Business Women Council and Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council were already operational, and needed to be brought under NAMA’s umbrella. At one point, we had four entities that needed to work in line with each other.”

Reem BinKaram, Director of NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, taking part in the 73rd United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York.
Source: NAMA

The first step she took was to align the entities’ visions, mission statements, and objectives, and then build a harmonious team across the four entities that understood the big picture, and how the whole organization could work together to achieve their goals, and ultimately NAMA’s vision of shaping an equitable world for women. BinKaram adds, “It was a great challenge that we overcame, keeping in mind that these entities still have their own unique and specialized services and offerings as well. Today, what we have is a group of four organizations that provide a holistic approach to women’s advancement, through comprehensive support systems that help women excel professionally and economically.”

When it comes to the UAE's NGO and philanthropic sectors, BinKaram is a woman to watch. Besides NAMA, she is a member of the new board of Directors of the Sharjah Tatweer Forum (STF), an organization committed to youth empowerment; a member of the board of Rubu Qarn (RQ), a foundation that supports UAE future leaders and innovators, and chairs the Pink Caravan Ride for Breast Cancer prevention and awareness. Previously, she served as Director of Sharjah Children’s Centers (SCC) overseeing development of children with talent and a desire to realize their potential. For each of these projects, and a family business in which she also takes part, BinKaram adjusts her management styles. “The exposure I have had, and my experiences in the field of NGOs, as well as running a family business, results in a mixed management style influenced by both experiences. My business background helps when setting a strategic action plan that has a clear objective, and measurable results to help drive the entities I manage to sustainable growth and continued success. However, my management style is not set in stone. I adapt quickly in order to keep the wheels moving in the right direction towards our defined goals.” NAMA’s unique organizational structure combines different entities, each with their own teams, BinKaram explains, making teamwork and effective collaboration key to success within the teams and across entities. “The amount of work we do, and the achievements we have had are a result of consolidated efforts of only 70 staff members across the organizations,” she adds. “And to be a great leader, you need to empower your cadre to be leaders. Give them the space and freedom within their functions to perform and be creative. Being accessible to them is also key. Open communication channels, and support on macro and micro levels is paramount. For this, the leader needs to be aware of every little detail in the grand structure of the organization.” 

The biggest challenge to the NGO sector across the GCC region, according to BinKaram, is red tape. “I would say one of the main challenges NGOs focusing on development and social impact in the GCC face is the complicated process of registration, mainly because they don’t fall under ‘government’ nor ‘private’ nor are they traditional charities,” she says. “Therefore, when applying to register officially, they don’t find a category that fits their line of work, so they opt to choose the closest option in order to become a legal entity, and start their operations. Another struggle for these entities is to secure and sustain funds. Traditionally, they base their fiscal projects and goals according to the secured, or anticipated funding. This needs to be changed in order to self-sustain. This is where the social enterprise model comes in.”

Globally, BinKaram adds, the sector has evolved, and that change has been noticed in the region as well. She explains that, previously, the majority of NGOs operating in the GCC region were charity organizations that carried their work both locally and across the world, providing financial or relief humanitarian aid. However, in the past decade, a new wave of NGOs has sprung to life that has broken the traditional mandate. Today, those organizations are focused on development work and social impact, providing support services and creating platforms to enable people to enhance their lives, and develop on a personal and professional level. This is needed especially for the younger generations, she says and adds, “NGOs around the world should not only focus on aid and relief efforts, but also work towards development, as some segments of society need more than financial support. They need training, capacity-building, or access to opportunities.”

Women entrepreneurs, she believes, face double the amount of challenges as men face. “They are constantly challenging the stereotypes to prove they can succeed,” she says. “Additionally, social norms and expectations can hinder women’s full integration into the economy. The lack of full support in terms of investment schemes, banking products, access to assets and property, and rules and regulations are among the prime factors that hinder women entrepreneurs.”

Reem BinKaram, Director of NAMA Women Advancement Establishment, launching NAMA's Badiri E-Academy.
Source: NAMA

However, the UAE leadership paved the way by believing in the capabilities of women and their leadership skills, she says. “As long as there are equitable opportunities, we believe women can be outstanding mothers and successful professionals, just like men can be great fathers and successful professionals. This will allow men and women to work together, completing each other and supporting one another. In 2019, I hope to see more changes in the private sector geared towards creating a more enabling working environment for women by amending their regulations even further, so women can be the professionals they want to be, innovate and help build the future of this great country. More importantly, I would like to see more women taking a step forward to realize their dreams and aspirations. Venture out, and be entrepreneurs. Every journey starts with a step, and NAMA is here to empower and provide all that is necessary to hone their skills and guide them towards a successful future.” Looking at the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as a whole, BinKaram opines that the region is still a fertile ground for businesses with the right mindset and approach, while the challenge remains in seizing opportunities, identifying gaps in the market, and providing the services or products to fill that gap. “The main considerations, in my opinion, are having the right business idea, and market willingness to embrace it. Startups might have a unique offering, the first-of-its-kind product; however, if it’s irrelevant to the market, the entrepreneur goes bust. Therefore, market research is paramount when it comes to business positioning. The hardest step for a startup is when they take their idea and go to market. They need to gauge prospective clients and get feedback, to assess, and tweak their ideas accordingly in order to penetrate the market. Most importantly, they need to not give up. Try and try again. That’s the essence of entrepreneurship.”

Given such comments, once again I realize what is so different about BinKaram from other not-for-profit executives: it is that she is idealistic but pragmatic, big-hearted but with a keen eye for detail, and thus her advice for those looking for entrepreneurial direction in 2019 is that ‘emerging sectors and untapped fields are plenty and worth exploring.’ She adds, “This includes the technology, energy, finance, artificial intelligence, and the environment sectors. I see an opportunity in identifying the crossroads among these sectors.” As our conversation comes to an end, BinKaram reiterates that education is at the core of progress. “My advice would be to invest in knowledge and skills development,” BinKaram concludes. “Entrepreneurs need to expand their knowledge and stay up-to-date on all things related to their business in order to have an edge to compete. Skills development should be a habit, in order to grow personally and professionally.”

Reem BinKaram's Tips For Women Entrepreneurs

1. Be a leader, not a manager.
A leader inspires his/her following by setting an example and provides the needed support and backup to move the organization forward.

2. Know that your position and skills define you, not your gender.
You earned your position because you deserved it.

3. Support other women to grow professionally, and reach their potential.
You know what is needed to make their journey easier.

4. Keep learning.
Stay up-to-date constantly about your sector, relevant industries and key players.

5. Know your organization and team.
The more you know, the better you can steer and utilize their skills, using the available resources.

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