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What does it take to be assured of one’s own grit, talent, and resilience as an entrepreneur? “I think you only realize it after you’ve enjoyed the first taste of success in business,” replies H.E. Alia Al Mazrouei, CEO of the Abu Dhabi-based Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development (KFED). “I also believe that the number one thing that stops people from ever stepping into entrepreneurship is their aversion to taking risks. I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker. This does not mean one should be reckless. But entrepreneurship does require that you are able to handle a certain level of calculated risk. And if you persist for long enough, resilience is an ability that one certainly develops.”
Al Mazrouei is clearly no stranger to the perils and pleasures of running one’s own business. Having tapped into a plethora of sectors over the years, Al Mazrouei’s very first entrepreneurial project, in 2007, saw her foray into the F&B space. “I started my first venture with my childhood friend who shared my passion and a deep-seated desire to make a difference,” Al Mazrouei recalls. “Naturally, as friends, we also trusted each other fully. That definitely helped. I believe that a good starting point for any business is when you’re able to get a realistic understanding of your own needs and talents, combine them with a relevant market need, and then build your business around that. It increases your chances of success.”
Having thus had her first taste of entrepreneurship, Al Mazrouei later ventured into the education sector in 2014 by launching Little Haven Nursery, an Abu Dhabi-based enterprise that offers daycare services for infants and toddlers, a Montessori-model preschool and private kindergarten, as well as after-hours care and tutoring programs. Along with her entrepreneurial pursuits, Al Mazrouei’s business prowess has also been felt in the UAE’s public and private corporate sectors. She was the Group Chief Operating Officer at her family business, Mazrui International, for nearly six years up until 2018, the Director General at Abu Dhabi’s Human Resources Authority until 2021, and an advisor for the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development until February this year.
Curious to know her secret behind balancing so many different roles, I pose the following question to Al Mazrouei: does multitasking work, or is one-task-at-a-time the way to go? “There are two elements that have helped me venture into different industries and successfully build multiple businesses,” she reveals. “The first is always knowing my priorities, so that I can give my undivided attention to one thing at a time, and the second is having the right team behind me that can support me where needed.”
Al Mazrouei’s ability to seamlessly juggle many tasks also blends into one other value she holds very close to her heart: ensuring that a sense of community is fostered within everything she does. “There’s an ancient piece of advice that has been my guide: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together,'” she explains. “Keeping community at the heart of my ventures has made a huge difference in the amount of success I’ve enjoyed along with my team. It just wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Building a business is like creating a family, and instilling the right values in your business is very important, and it should be done from the start.” In her opinion, this is something that all entrepreneurs should strive to build in their businesses. “Individual excellence and team success go hand in hand,” Al Mazrouei says. “As a leader at the helm of a business enterprise, when you are committed to growing as a person, then you create that same spirit within your team. Their growth directly impacts the growth and well-being of your business.”
Al Mazrouei’s mindset on this matter hasn’t changed in her current role at KFED as well. With a vision to transform the UAE’s capital into a haven of entrepreneurship and innovation, KFED has been instrumental in supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through funding, digital education services, and awareness campaigns, among other initiatives. And in her role as the CEO of KFED, Al Mazrouei aims to create further opportunities for young entrepreneurs. “At KFED, we always strive to develop a vast array of initiatives, training workshops, knowledge-based resources and partnerships, that are rooted in longevity and long-lasting impact for this generation of entrepreneurs and the ones to follow,” she says. “By developing a diverse range of projects that spans and serves across sectors, we well equip our entrepreneurial ecosystem to be optimal as a whole, and help all levels of entrepreneurship.”
A big part of Al Mazrouei’s vision at KFED is also to align with the UAE’s march towards gender equity, whose progress she has seen first-hand as an Emirati businesswoman. “The country’s gender equity is highlighted in the fact that both male and female business owners face the same set of challenges,” she says. “In other words, the challenges that women owners face are not unique to them, and they are similar to what any business owner -regardless of gender- has to overcome. Throughout my 15-year career as an entrepreneur, I never felt discriminated against as a female business owner. On the contrary, women in the UAE get more support when they step into entrepreneurship- from getting the necessary funding, to the government issuing specific licenses, so women can continue to grow their businesses from home.”
But despite the UAE proving to be a stable launchpad for many female entrepreneurs, there are many who still remain unsure about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. Plus, the ones who do dive in are sometimes halted by feelings of ineptitude or self-doubt. “I think it’s normal and even natural to feel some of these feelings, especially as you step into entrepreneurship for the first time,” assures Al Mazrouei. “It’s a time when you are questioning your own ability to pull things off. But it’s also important to remember that our minds tend to play tricks on us and give us reasons to quit and stay within our comfort zones. My recommendation is to feel these ‘feelings’ and go ahead and do your thing anyway. When we have a vision for something bigger and better, we also have what it takes to make it a reality. We just need to overcome the mental roadblocks and take the first few steps.”
In her entrepreneurial journey thus far, Al Mazrouei’s impressive list of accomplishments is certainly one that many women may aspire towards. But, from a personal perspective, Al Mazrouei considers motherhood as having been her single biggest feat. “Being a mother is my number one priority and also my greatest and most fulfilling achievement in life!” Al Mazrouei reveals. “I think motherhood has taught me a lot of the attributes of successful entrepreneurship; perseverance, patience, collaboration, team building, and tenacity. Also, as a mother, you become more conservative with your time and make sure that every minute counts. I’m proud of my ability to wear three hats at once: personal life, public office, and private businesses.”
But it is in her reminder that female leaders must learn to fully own their accomplishments, that Al Mazrouei imparts her most important advice. “Women sometimes tend to explain their success away by ascribing them to things like luck, hard work, or help from others, rather than their innate ability or intelligence,” she says. “They need to own the roles they play in their success. They need to practice saying these words out loud: “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.” As you step into the business world and even life in general, always be true to yourself, and treat people with your manners, not theirs.”