Women face entrepreneurship challenges but leadership programmes help

We speak to female entrepreneurs about the issues they face and how the Mind Cloud Academy, itself a startup, is helping more women find their feet in business.

Sagarika Khalkho is announced as the winner of a 5 week intensive Academy Entrepreneurship programme by Mind Cloud, Sagarika Khalkho is announced as the winner today. Reem Mohammed / The National
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A lack of capital, male dominance and a fear of failure are among a series of challenges facing women who want to set up their own business in the UAE, female entrepreneurs have said. 
Managing a balance between work and family life is also a major hurdle when setting up a business, said women finishing a course with Mind Cloud Academy, a newly established business leadership programme that is the first in Dubai to be KHDA-approved.  
However, despite the challenges, women who take the plunge are pleased with the decision. 
"There is nothing worse than having to wake up every morning to mindlessly go work for a job you do not care about. However, there is never a dull moment when you are passionate about what you do for a living," said Mahnaz Liaghat, owner of interior design company MDP Interior. 
"Male prejudice and stereotyping are among the challenges that I fight constantly. Some of the people I am competing with are not qualified in the interior design field or might have only financial backgrounds and nothing else but I feel completely responsible and passionate about any project I work on." 
The UAE is keen to encourage more women like Ms Liaghat, from Bahrain, and formed the Gender Balance Council in 2015 as it aims to become one of the world's top countries for gender equality by 2021. 
Of course, there is work to be done as the UAE ranks 85 out of 122 countries in the Gender Progress Index but it tops the GCC and, in a country where more than 60 per cent of Emirati graduates are women, there is significant hope that even more women will delve into the business world. 
Sagarika Khalkho set up her online company commerce connect in 2014 after spotting a gap in the market. 
"After gaining experience in the business and commerce fields, I found there was a need for companies to develop business-to-business connections, so I help companies outside the UAE that want to do trade here to connect with companies located here, or vice versa," said the Indian. 
Ms Khalkho, who has lived in Dubai since 2003, said that the Mind Cloud programme has affected how she runs her business. 
"I totally changed the way I run the business after joining the academy programme. It provided me with connections and a business platform," she said. "One of the topics that I believe will incredibly affect my business is what Expo 2020 is expecting from business owners." 
For Mrs Liaghat, 57, the Mind Cloud course was also beneficial. "The programme was like a wake-up call. It helped me to understand and overcome many of the challenges, find solutions and know where to go to get help," she said. 
Najia Maqsood, a Pakistani who has lived in Dubai for 10 years, believes that women need to step out of their comfort zones to be a success. 
"I believe women should take up more intellectually demanding roles and not just softer parts of the business, such as jobs related to human resources or more back-end jobs where they get minimal customer or external market exposure," she said.
"Another factor I have noticed very clearly is that women fear sounding aggressive or not lady-like when they negotiate or demand equal, fair salaries." 
Ms Maqsood, who worked in the banking sector for five years, joined Mind Cloud as she wants to set up a humanitarian association that tackles the problem of educating refugee children. 
She said she is facing challenges with her business, " including the financial support, regulations and the approvals required" but that being part of an entrepreneur project helps. 
"There is a major education crisis in the Middle East and I worked with online technologies that made me think about providing education through an online platform. For example, teaching refugee children online by using Skype." 
Genny Ghanimeh, the chief executive and founder of Mind Cloud Academy, set up her enterprise last year as a means to help other entrepreneurs like herself face the challenges of business ownership. 
"Lack of financial and business skills, access to networks and mentors and a lack of self-belief in their power and talent are among the major challenges faced by female entrepreneurs," Mrs Ghanimeh said.
There are four groups of people who join the Mind Cloud programme - aspiring entrepreneurs who want to open their own new venture; small business owners struggling with finding new growth channels or wanting to test their existing business model; the corporate employees who want to learn to be more entrepreneurial, understand new market trends and insights; and fresh graduates interested in figuring out their passion. 
"Mind Cloud Academy is an initiative that seeks to provide the tool sets required by small and medium enterprise owners to scale up their businesses," Mrs Ghanimeh said. 
"The programme that was introduced recently consists of 10 courses, designed specifically to address the challenges with a focus on business entrepreneurship and mindful self-development." 
For more information, visit mindcloudacademy.com.