Why being an Emirati businesswoman means looking to my ancestors

An exercise at a recent leadership programme reminded me of the strength of my grandmothers

An Emirati woman picks dates from a palm tree during the annual Liwa Date Festival in the western region of Liwa, south of Abu Dhabi on July 18, 2019.  The Liwa Date Festival aims to preserve Emirati heritage, specifically palm trees and half-ripe dates, knows as "ratab", which are deep-rooted in the Gulf country's traditions. / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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I was recently enrolled in a leadership programme and as part of it, we did a hurricane survival exercise. Divided into groups, we were to assess and plan how we would survive an upcoming hurricane on a deserted, sunny island with very limited resources. Some group members discussed how hard it would be to survive the heat, and going days without having access to fresh water and food. They didn’t think that we would all make it.

While that may have been just an exercise, it was the norm for our ancestors and not a very long time ago. My late aunt told me how at times of hardship, and when men left their families for months to go pearl-diving, a woman’s role was to manage everything related to her household from finances, her husband’s business, to raising the children. At some times she explained, people had nothing to eat but dates for months. Hunger would hit some people so badly that they were unable to walk or leave their homes. Poultry and meat were a luxury that could only be enjoyed on special occasions such as Eid and wedding celebrations. Water was an element never to be taken for granted.

As we celebrate Emirati Women's Day on Wednesday, I know that I am who I am today because of the perseverance and determination instilled in me by my grandmothers, and their mothers before that. The valuable business skills I learned by listening to elderly women speak and learning from the stories of my ancestors are the foundation to what being an Emirati businesswoman means to me.

From my ancestors, I learned the importance of patience. Just as they patiently waited for the rain, I learned that good things take time. A business will not magically grow overnight, and if I was serious about my venture, then I will give it the time it needs to flourish. I will not give up on it, just like how my ancestors never gave up on the rain. They strongly believed that after the hottest days, the coolest rain came to wash away their sorrows.

As men left their women for months on end to go on pearl diving journeys, I learned that it’s not so different for modern-day business. Your business partner may need to take an urgent break, or things may shift for a few months, and you will need to adjust. Just like how my great grandmothers managed different responsibilities at difficult times, I know the importance of being able to juggle different tasks and that no task is too small. From learning basic accounting, to graphic design and web development, we need to learn different skills in order to understand our business’s development needs and be able to expand it.

The valuable business skills I learned by listening to elderly women speak and learning from the stories of my ancestors are the foundation to what being an Emirati businesswoman means to me.

I learned that one of the most important skills we can arm ourselves with is resourcefulness. Our ancestors lived in harsh climates with limited resources. Yet they made the most of them. The palm tree was used for multiple purposes. Dates were a main source of nourishment, the palm fronds were used as a building material for settlements on the coast and the trunks were used as fire wood.

But the most valuable lesson I learned from my ancestors is to share and help others even when you don’t have much to begin with. Our ancestors were generous, and they believed in sharing even when were financially constrained. They believed that we were all in this together. Neighbours would share their food with each other, and it was the norm for society members to financially support grooms and brides as they embarked on the next chapter of their lives. When applying that to my business, I came to see that sharing knowledge and helping others, would not only help elevate them, but also me and my business. Sharing opens doors, and other acts of reciprocity creates more kindness. Doing good attracts more good back to you.

Today, I feel extra grateful for the valuable, timeless lessons passed down to me by my ancestors. I am extra grateful to be from a country that is built on the values of our forefathers. If there is one thing that I am confident in, it’s that Emirati women will continue to make great strides as we build and develop our nation.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati journalist and entrepreneur, who manages her marketing and communications company in Abu Dhabi