Emirates Foundation executive blazes a trail all of her own

The Life: It would be churlish to argue that Khuloud Al Nuwais, the chief sustainability officer of the Emirates Foundation, has had anything but an illustrious career.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 28, 2013:    Chief Sustainability Officer of Emirates Foundation Khuloud Al Nuwais speaks during the Emirati Youth Forum at the Rocco Forte Hotel in Abu Dhabi on January 28, 2013. Christopher Pike / The National
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It would be churlish to argue that Khuloud Al Nuwais, the chief sustainability officer of the Emirates Foundation, has had anything but an illustrious career. Or rather, an illustrious career so far. She is still a youthful thirtysomething.

But she would be the first to admit there have been obstacles along the way.

"My career path has thrown up many challenges," she told young students at the Emirati Youth Forum on Monday. "But I believe if you want something hard enough, you will get it."

The students were making their first foray into the job market. The forum offered an opportunity to explore the pros and cons of public versus private sector employment. Ms Al Nuwais is well placed to speak about both.

Her first challenges when starting out as a 17-year-old were family-related. She had to convince her parents to let her study abroad and then, on her return, to let her learn how to drive. Even these small personal advances have given her confidence that the Emirati professional environment can change and is changing.

"We have a strong [new] generation," she reflects. "I don't think that it is as difficult with the new generation as it was with my generation. If I could do it, then I think they can. I was able to convince my family. I stood by what I wanted."

Ms Al Nuwais's first job was at Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

"Analysis of the oil market is a very dry subject job for a young female," she said. "But I took it on."

She quickly became an expert analyst of the crude oil market, attending international conferences including Opec meetings. She often stood out as a 22 and then 23-year-old among senior oil executives sometimes four decades her senior.

"Working culture is so important," she said. "We come from a conservative culture but we are evolving very fast. I remember 10 years ago we [women] didn't drive, go to malls, go out to dine. We are privileged to be in an evolving country and have support from our leadership to see women participate across the board."

At the age of 24, Ms Al Nuwais represented Adnoc at a conference in Thailand. The feedback that she got from the other delegates - that it was great to see the UAE had such talent - was heartening. So she thought about her next move and was advised to consider the gas industry. After six or seven years at Adnoc, she moved to Dolphin Energy.

At the interview for the job, the four most senior people at Dolphin knew who she was and had printouts of her Thailand presentation. She got the job, in strategic development, which provided her with a first taste of the private sector.

She refused to coast along on her reputation.

"I feel that wherever you are, you have to work very hard and prove yourself," she said. "Then other opportunities will come your way."

Which, in time, they did. Although perhaps not in the way she expected. She got a phone call offering her a job to help set up the Emirates Foundation, an organisation that helps young people achieve their potential. Only there was no actual job title. And the benefits package was vague to non-existent. And she was given 48 hours to decide whether to accept.

"I was told, 'We want you to start work on developing the foundation and when the structure is formed there will be an opportunity for you'," she recalled: "I thought, 'Well, it's a new industry I know nothing about. I will be doing something rewarding … community work." So she went for it.

Ms Al Nuwais and a couple of colleagues set up the Emirates Foundation from scratch. As of last year, she became the chief sustainability officer covering research and marketing, communications and monitoring and evaluation of projects.

She told her young audience that working in the private sector may offer many more opportunities to grow and develop skills. After gaining those, returning to government work is an option.

"Young people abroad, they don't think of the Government in the way we do," she said. "They think of working for big corporations like BP and Morgan Stanley because that is where they think they can gain the experience to allow them to grow and open doors for them."