“Part of the price of being the first is taking the body blows,” said Misty Copeland, the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.
On International Women’s Day, she addressed a room full of women who also know a thing or two about being “the first”. Copeland’s talk was part of the Forbes 30/50 Summit, held in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Among the other speakers were two Emirati women — Zahra Lari, the first hijab-wearing figure skater and Amna Al Qubaisi, the first Emirati woman to drive race cars.
Copeland first discovered ballet at her local community centre in California when she was 13. She took a class on a basketball court, an experience, she said, that “completely changed her life”.
“To have the ballet studio become this safe haven for me, a place where I felt protected for the first time in my life,” she said. "There was a lot of abuse in my household, we didn’t often have a home, I was living in a motel when I was 13, so that space became so sacred to me. It was a place where I could express myself. I started to develop the tools that I wasn’t getting in school, not everyone thrives in that environment and works in the same way.”
In 2014, during the American Ballet Theatre’s tour to Abu Dhabi, Copeland made her debut as principal dancer in Coppelia. The following year, she made history when she became the first black woman to be promoted to principal in the company’s history.
“I understand the impact that I have by being representation, I understand what it is to have people look at me and see themselves,” she said. “That was me for so many years looking up to so many incredible black and brown women who paved the way and have not been given their due respect and their flowers. I feel like it’s my responsibility to make them proud first and foremost, but also to carry their stories and tell their stories.”
Lari is the first figure skater from the Middle East to compete internationally and the first Arab woman to compete in a hijab at an Olympic qualifier, after falling in love with the sport at the age of 12.
“I didn’t realise I was the first from the region at that time,” she said. “I was just going out there and having fun. I was very passionate about it.
“I’m all about pushing myself and doing something out of my comfort zone, and I think since I was a kid, that’s what I have been doing.”
Lari is the founder of Emirates Skating Club, the first officially registered club in the region, which she set up to help offer the training and support that was not available to her when she was starting out.
“Finding a rink here was pretty easy, finding time on that rink was a challenge,” she said. “Everyone knows hockey takes priority and us figure skaters have to be there at 4.30 in the morning. The facilities were there but the coaches were not, that’s the reason we opened up Emirates Skating Club, to make sure we could offer the best training.”
She was joined on stage by Al Qubaisi, who has taken great pleasure in breaking gender stereotypes within her sport and the region.
“I trained in gymnastics, but there was only one competition a year or so for me, it was very boring,” she said. “My dad was racing cars, so at home, everything was all about racing and I was intrigued. I wanted to be a part of that conversation so I asked if I could start karting when I was nine years old. My brothers were never interested, so my dad was confused; he was like, ‘is something wrong with the DNA, did something get switched up’.”
In 2018, Al Qubaisi became the first Middle Eastern woman to take part in a motorsport test programme for Formula E after the Diriyah ePrix in Saudi Arabia, shortly after women were legally able to drive in the country.
However, her rise has not been easy, and she has even been driven off the track a few times by men who did not like being overtaken by a woman.
“People used to use ‘drive like a girl’ as an insult, so I wanted to change that perception,” she said. “When I was karting internationally, I would beat the guys, and they would come to me and say things like ‘oh your engine is way better than ours, that’s why you’re winning’ and I’d say ‘no, no, you should just drive like a girl, that’s how to win’.”
Scroll through the gallery below for more pictures from the Forbes 30/50 Summit