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Startup Spotlight: UAE-Based Social Enterprise Aurora50's Accelerator Program Encourages Greater Country-Wide Boardroom Gender Diversity Built with the aim of educating future female board of director members, Aurora50 was launched in early 2020 by Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and Wilde.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed Edited by Aby Sam Thomas

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If the sole underlying reason behind the creation of social enterprise Aurora50 had to be encapsulated in a singular statement, it would be this one by its co-founder and CEO Diana Wilde. "When it comes to diversity in boardrooms, there is a clear link between female representation on corporate boards and better financial results, yet very few boards in the GCC have achieved gender balance."

Located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and built with the aim of educating future female board of director members, Aurora50 was launched in early 2020 by Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and Wilde. "Our purpose is to enable ecosystems to change by breaking down barriers for stakeholders, and to bring the benefits of gender-balanced leadership to the bottom lines of businesses across the region," adds Wilde.

The launch of this social enterprise comes at a tipping point in the Middle East's race towards gender equality. In the Gender Inequality Index of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report 2020, the UAE's advancements in gender equality ensured the country a top spot in the Arab world and eighteenth globally. It is a particularly encouraging statistic during a time when the discourse on the need for more female board members is gaining momentum worldwide. And the UAE government seems to only want to build further on this facet of the business ecosystem- in March this year, the Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA), a legal entity established in 2000 under the country's jurisdiction, passed a mandate that required all listed companies to appoint at least one woman to their boards of directors. But according to Wilde, the buck doesn't stop here. "Whilst the UAE leads the Arab World when it comes to diverse boards, it still lags far behind the rest of the world, with just 3.5% of listed board seats held by women in 2020," she explains. "The challenge in achieving gender balance on boards is rooted in the ecosystem itself, with female executives not getting enough visibility and access to grow in comparison to their male counterparts."

And it was with this distinct vision in mind that Wilde and her team launched a flagship program, Pathway20, catered towards solving the many tangential issues that arise under the umbrella term of "gender parity". Created with the aim of providing a distinctive framework in order to support women in their early board careers, Pathway20 is a 12-month accelerator program with a holistic approach towards honing business skills and enabling female empowerment. "Pathway20 offers a multi-disciplinary learning environment addressing board-specific issues, and the framework involves working collaboratively with our corporate partners to accelerate change," explains Wilde. "We identify key areas of growth for each participant, developing soft and hard skills required for board roles. We expose Pathway20 talent to peer-to-peer learning and connecting with mentors from the program's onset. When this talent gets appointed to listed boards, which may happen during or after the program, they join Manarat- Aurora50's Women on Listed Boards Network- and give back by helping develop and connect future talent."

What is apparent here is the goal to create a sisterhood within the Aurora50 community, and ensure that women who successfully make it to the boardroom can then pave the way for more deserving women to have the same opportunities. And while increasing awareness is one primary goal of the social enterprise, increased media and public chatter around the topic, in and of itself, will not ensure greater boardroom diversity, explains Wilde. "We are not just raising awareness about how diverse boards are performing better on their balance sheets, but we are also taking the steps needed to make these changes happen," she adds. "Our USP is our approach to solving gender parity challenges at board level, by mobilizing the entire ecosystem to collaborate and co-create solutions to effect change. We are strengthening the pipeline of competent female leaders needed for high-performing gender-balanced boardrooms by working with leading organizations through our various initiatives."

The Aurora50 Team. Source: Aurora50

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One such initiative is Aurora50's Board Summit, an annual event that brings together UAE ministers, policy makers, regulators, chairpersons, board members and C-suite executives to discuss the economic benefits of increased boardroom diversity. The second edition of the Board Summit was held in September this year, over three days, as a hybrid event. "The event provides listed and private sector boards with access to women who are currently serving on boards and those aspiring to become board directors," explains Wilde. "Over the course of the three days the boards were able to take on the most important issues facing today's boardroom including innovation, ESG (environmental, social and governance) and diversity while collectively discovering the future of exemplary board leadership."

With so many initiatives and programs on its plate, it is interesting to note that Aurora50's team currently comprises only six full-time members, two part-time staff, and a few interns. "We have self-funded the business and kept it lean to date, and are also actively recruiting to expand our core team," adds Wilde. And for a small team such as this, the COVID-19 crisis posed its fair share of challenges too. But Wilde looks back at how it all started with a sense of gratitude. "We pitched our initiative of being a change accelerator in January 2020 and soon after established the Abu Dhabi office as we signed with our anchor partner ADNOC," she recalls. "Despite the pandemic slowing down our momentum, we next signed our founding partner Mubadala and our first corporate partners FAB and Abu Dhabi Ports, and set up our Dubai office in February 2021. What really helped us throughout is the UAE government's response to handling the pandemic and providing an economic environment that supports business continuity!"


Why did you choose your startup to be a part of in5? What has been the biggest benefit that you personally experienced being a part of in5?

When you leave the corporate world, you might not have the network you need to set up a business. We received great support from in5 in terms of licensing and organizing our initial business set-up. They helped us manage our visas and medical which can be quite confusing when you are a start-up. The other great thing about in5 is office space. Upfront costs for office rentals can be high which can limit the chance for entrepreneurs to prototype new ideas. In5 offers great office spaces enabling you to expand as the business does.

What would be your advice to get entrepreneurs ready for their journey ahead?

Have a concrete plan Don't leave your day job before you have validated your idea and have commitments from clients. Keep costs down but try to stay flexible so that you can grow when the opportunity arises.

Hire slowly It can be tempting to hire fast. Spend time making sure you are hiring for cultural fit as well as skills.

Stay vigilant Whilst you should listen to your clients and iterate to improve, don't lose sight of your North star. You started for a reason.

Aim to have a team as diverse as possible By diversity, I don't just refer to gender, but also nationality. A balanced team brings a variety of different perspectives, creativity and critical thinking which will ultimately drive your business success

Related: Startup Spotlight: Dubai-Based Agritech Startup Alesca Life Technologies Is On A Mission To Ensure Sustainable Farming Practices In The UAE

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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