Eid is a time for the family and celebrations. It is also a time to catch up with our older relatives, who, for reasons unknown, love to ask us personal questions, especially related to work lives. “How much do you exactly make in a month?” an elderly family member asked me out of the blue when we met over tea this past Eid.
But the most interesting conversation I had was with an elder male relative, a very old school public-sector veteran. As we gathered in our family majlis, he looked up and asked me what I did for a living now that I had left the government sector?
"I run my own consultancy, which I established four years ago,” I answered proudly.
He didn’t seem very impressed with my response and asked: “so you left your high-ranking post at a government entity, and your good [salary] cheque, opting for a risky route”.
I can’t say that I was surprised either by his question or the comments that followed. I’ve been getting similar queries from people who encouraged me to keep my business, which they look at as a hobby and hold on to something “solid” and “prestigious”, such as a government job.
Entrepreneurship as a chosen career path is still something that some of the Emiratis, especially the older generation, are not very fond of. Some of my relatives in the past have even labelled me as unemployed as they do not consider my work to be equal to a traditional eight-hour job.
"I don’t know why you do this to yourself, always on the go, always on your computer,” said an old aunt of mine.
I am not the only one facing this dilemma. A close friend of mine is also going through a similar situation. After graduating from university, she established a digital agency, and two years into it, her mother still considers her unemployed because she works from home, even though she’s making a substantial income.
The UAE’s government has been a strong advocate of entrepreneurship through the establishment of funds such as the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, and via many free zones established across the country, such as Twofour54, which helps in encouraging entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.
But we need more than that -- I believe that the real change will come with more awareness, through schools and the media in the country.
If we want the future generation to consider entrepreneurship as a career route, then we have to tell them more about it; we have to expose them to it, for it to become a norm in their view.
When I was a kid, career choices we were exposed to were doctor, teacher, or engineer. Rarely did any of my classmates said that they wanted to be an entrepreneur. Why, because we weren’t made aware of real-life examples of people who are doing well for themselves in the community. Even the storybooks we read highlighted doctors or teacher figures.
Mind you, this is not to discount these careers, but to state that we need a wider variety of role models for our children.
I strongly believe that this should start at an elementary level, where it should be mandatory for every school to host a “career day” and the focus should be, among other things, on entrepreneurs who have established successful businesses in the UAE.
Entrepreneurs from every sphere of life, be it F&B, media, or the construction sector, should be brought to these career days to share their experiences.
Media houses, funding organizations, or entrepreneurship centres could also publish children's books to be distributed at schools, that highlight local success stories of entrepreneurs. This should be the part of the social responsibility efforts of these orgranisations.
Many of our thoughts and aspirations are formed at a young age and a report launched by Education and Employers confirms that, putting the age at as young as seven years. The report also revealed that 36 per cent of children base their future career aspirations on people they know, while others were influenced by the media.
In exposing children to role models from their community, perhaps 36 per cent of those children will be aspired to pursue entrepreneurship as a career choice.
Campaigns conducted across social media in the forms of short video clips, and powerful messages demonstrating successful figures from the community could also play a huge role in influencing a more positive outlook to entrepreneurship.
If we want to see change in how people view entrepreneurship as a career path, then we have to start early. It's time to give our next generation, wider career options.
Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati writer who manages her creative consultancy in Abu Dhabi