Follow The Leader: Dr. Hibah Shata, Founder, Maharat Learning Center
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"I believe that when you have a mission that involves children and creates a new future for them, good things happen all the time,” says Dr. Hibah Shata, founder and Managing Director of Maharat Learning Center, a learning center for children and young adults with special needs. “I felt I was a piece of a larger puzzle, and everyone who came onboard played a role in bringing all the pieces together. I was lucky, because I had people who believed in me and my vision at every stage of my organization’s development, my husband and immediate family who stood by me, and my employees, who were amazingly supportive of my daughter. The key to success is to be humble, to listen and learn from others, and to be generous, and not withhold the information from sharing, allowing people to give you feedback, and seeing that as an opportunity to improve and be positive all the time.”
In 2005, Dr. Shata was a successful dentist, with a degree from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, a master’s from the University of London, and a fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. She owned and managed a fully operational dental clinic, Dr Hibah Shata Specialized Dental Clinic, in Dubai. However, she was soon faced with a difficult choice– either to move abroad in search of a special nursery for her autistic child, or to start up the first medical center providing services to children and young adults with special needs in Dubai.
At that time, there was a lot of stigma and fear associated with having a child with autism, and Dr. Shata set out to change that by founding the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre in Dubai in 2008. “As a startup, it was difficult to know how to hire the right people, especially that we were the first center to provide Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy in the UAE, and there were no university graduates in this field yet, so we knew from the beginning that we needed to develop people skills in this new field,” she remembers.
“So, we developed a very structured onboarding and training program that included monthly mentorship meetings to support the development of people skills, and built a communication platform for employees, a performance management system, an online kaizen platform, and a reward system to recognize their achievements, and keep them inspired and motivated. Today, I would advise entrepreneurs to hire the person with the right fit for the organization, and not just fill a skills gap. If you hire the right people, you can train them to fit into any role that you need, and it is important to empower them to make decisions and take risks, coach them and let them learn from their mistakes, keep them motivated, and grow them with you, so that they can support you all the way to the top.”
What followed was an expansion of her enterprise: in 2010, Dr. Shata founded the Child Learning and Enrichment Medical Centre to offer a learning day program for children who were not yet in mainstream schools, and in 2017, her third center, Maharat Learning Centre, was established as a behavioral intervention and school inclusion support service provider to help children succeed in mainstream education.
“The challenges I have faced are also being faced by many other women entrepreneurs, from the lack of funding, difficulties in networking with men, the inability to market your business with a limited budget, but the most important challenge for us was to change the policies and regulations in order to support children and adults with special needs to claim their rights for education, health, and share of the job market, and thus, to create a real impact,” Dr. Shata says.
“It took eight years, but we were successful in achieving our goals, and engaging the community of educators, healthcare professionals, social care providers and the government officials through workshops, symposiums, conferences, participation in events, advocacy and awareness campaigns.”
Dr. Hibah Shata is the founder and Managing Director of Maharat Learning Center.
Having said that, Dr. Shata considers herself fortunate for having started up and grown her business in the UAE. “I was lucky to start my business in Dubai at a time when the entire country is supporting women to become entrepreneurs, and to reach their best potential,” she says.
“In the UAE, it is easy to be part of many networks and business development and social impact hubs, and this has helped me in developing my managerial and leadership skills, finding like-minded entrepreneurs, and connecting with the right people. I see that happening again today in Saudi Arabia, and many other GCC countries, where women are supported to be part of business boards, or reach high government positions.”
Today, Dr. Shata herself is a recipient of several awards, including Dubai Healthcare City Authority’s Award for the Best Pediatric Rehabilitation Centre in 2017, Dubai Health Authority’s Excellence Award in 2018 and its Female Leader of the Year title in 2018, and, more recently, the global Cartier Women's Initiative Award in 2019.
“I have learnt a lot from watching our [autistic] children grow before my eyes that they are strong and capable, that their abilities are hidden under layers of the lack of selfconfidence, lack of support, poor programs, and their difficulties in socializing and communicating,” Dr. Shata says.
“I myself have changed and no longer underestimate their brains, but see their potential and strengths. I try to help parents to see that, instead of focusing on their children’s difficulties. Today, I am dedicating all my work to see how we can innovate to have an impact on millions of children suffering around the world, so my work is focused on creating a model that combines quality, innovation, and scalability, to reach as many children as we can.”
'TREP TALK: Dr. Hibah Shata's Tips For Entrepreneurs
1. HAVE A USP
“Have a unique model or idea or service that solves a big problem.”
2. LEAD WITH PASSION
“Be passionate about what you do, and encourage others to follow your vision.”
3. GET THE BEST PEOPLE ONBOARD
“Hire the best you can afford, and motivate them to be your future leaders.”
4. STAY AGILE AND INNOVATE
“Avail the resources to support business development, innovation, and creativity.”
5. APPRECIATE YOUR TEAM (AND YOURSELF TOO)
“Reward and recognize your team, and don’t forget yourself, as you need to reward yourself for your achievements too.”