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Champions Of Change: Today's Emirati Female Achievers Are Building On The Strong Foundations Of Their Forebears I strongly believe that, if implemented across the different parts of the world today, intergenerational collaboration could be a powerful tool that helps builds safe, sustainable, and thriving societies of tomorrow.

By Nihal Shaikh

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The Emirati Women Achievers campaign, organized by Tamkeen and startAD, along with the US Mission to the UAE, and the Arab International Women's Forum.

In the UAE, we take for granted that life never stands still, but that doesn't make its progress any less remarkable. Consider that less than a third of Emirati women were literate in the years after the UAE was founded in 1971, whereas 77% of Emirati women now enrol in higher education, and account for 39.4% of the labor force among nationals.

What is most astonishing about these statistics is the smoothness of this transition. Periods of rapid generational change can be difficult to manage. Established tradition tends to emphasize interdependence, family solidarity, and the preservation of traditional practices, while modern culture is characterized by increased autonomy and self-expression. All are prerequisites for a successful society; yet, balancing these seemingly contradictory forces requires careful handling.

I would argue that intergenerational dialogue has been vital to this process. The transfer of learning and experience in both directions has helped propel the UAE's women to success- and it could also help solve some of the world's biggest challenges today. So, how did it happen?

The first point to note is that it had some important proponents from the outset. H.H. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the UAE's Mother of the Nation, has been a constant bridge between the generations of women who have helped drive the country's progress. With the support of her late husband, the Founding Father of the UAE, H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, himself a passionate believer in women's empowerment, she has been the glue that has bound these forces together.

Sheikha Fatima recognized the vital role that women would play in society. From the beginning of the UAE's story, she encouraged learning and collaboration between generations. The education system she promoted in the 1970s saw the establishment of schools that were attended by grandmothers, mothers, and their daughters, breaking barriers, and allowing for intergenerational knowledge exchange.

It was upon these foundations that female Emirati innovators played a crucial role in the nation's pioneering development in subsequent decades. The number of females in the labor force rapidly grew, from 5% in 1980, to 13% in 2004, crossing 30% in 2013. In 2006, just 0.29% of women, compared to 5.87% of men, were involved with startups and young businesses in the UAE. Today, 25,000 Emirati businesswomen manage projects with a total value of over AED60 billion, and almost half (47.5%) of SMEs are owned by women.

Related: Follow The Leader: Alizar Tawil, Founder, Ruuq

Honoring success

To celebrate this remarkable trajectory, this year's Emirati Women Achievers campaign, organized by Tamkeen and startAD, the Abu Dhabi-based startup accelerator powered by Tamkeen and anchored at New York University Abu Dhabi, along with the US Mission to the UAE, and the Arab International Women's Forum, reflect three generations of women.

The list of 23 women includes impressive young entrepreneurs like Sharifah Alhinai, who established Khaleeji Art Museum, the first digital museum dedicated to art of the Arab Gulf States, in 2020, while still a student. A graduate of the University of Oxford and London's School of Oriental and African Studies, she is also the co-founder of the Sekka magazine.

The 2023 Emirati Women Achievers campaign, organized by Tamkeen and startAD. Source: startAD

Another honoree is Mariam Al Awadhi, Director of Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) and Head of Sustainability in Dubai Police HQ, who also raises the quality of education for primary school students by implementing projects that nurture creativity and innovation, and also champions the role of peacekeepers.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Shaikha Obaid Altunaiji, a member of the UAE's Federal National Council and Assistant Professor Head of the Department of Foundations of Education.

There is also Tala Badri, founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Musical Arts, who studied music at Royal Holloway, University of London, making her the first female Emirati music graduate of that school. Armed with a second degree in Management and Languages in 1995, Tala worked for ten years in the financial sector.

This mixture of women -from all ages and across many different disciplines- is profoundly moving. It speaks to the vibrant diversity of the UAE, and it also serves as a blueprint for future generations to emulate. From their many experiences, new ideas will surely emerge that continue to shape our nation.

Leading by example

I strongly believe that, if implemented across the different parts of the world today, intergenerational collaboration could be a powerful tool that helps builds safe, sustainable, and thriving societies of tomorrow.

According to the United Nations, fairness between generations is embedded in the concept of sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda goals recognize the importance of intergenerational equity, and it acknowledges that the future of humanity lies not only in our hands, but also in the hands of today's younger generation. Fostering entrepreneurship in this scenario will contribute to sustainable development, based on premises such as education in values, integrating knowledge, and addressing social problems.

It would also unlock tremendous economic value. Research shows that the global economy could grow by US$20 trillion by 2050 as more women enter the workforce. In emerging markets alone, roughly one-third (8-10 million) of all SMEs are owned by women. Most of all, women have been shown to be more effective at creating social impact, and spreading positive ideas that change societies for the better.

So, as we think about the theme for this year's Emirati Women's Day, "We Collaborate for Tomorrow," I think of the vital role that previous generations played in allowing today's women to shine. The skills needed to successfully manage this dizzying transformation -of empathy, negotiation, the ability to think outside the box, and to be creative– have served today's entrepreneurs and business owners well. And they have also helped shape the dynamic yet cohesive society that we all enjoy today.

Related: Lessons On Leadership: Smita Prabhakar, Founder And Director, AMS International

Nihal Shaikh is the Assistant Director of Communications and Strategic Projects at startAD, the Abu Dhabi-based startup accelerator powered by Tamkeen and anchored at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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