Breaking stereotypes and misconceptions is the Abu Dhabi-based investment manager, an emotional wellness consultant who is giving women in the region a fighting chance

The Sofia University, formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, is located smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley. Founded back in 1975, you’d imagine that this university would have already witnessed nationalities from nearly every country across the world studying in its corridors. But you’re wrong.

Back in 2012, when Asma Al Hamiz – an Abu Dhabi-based investment manager – enrolled there for a Masters of Arts in Psychology, she was the very first Emirati to do so.

Doing so, meant that she had to challenge perceptions and stereotypes about the region she came from in the otherwise progressive Palo Alto community that’s fostered tech giants from Tesla and Facebook to Pinterest and Hewlett Packard. “Many people who met me were surprised because they see Dubai and the UAE only on screens and I was bridging that gap between reality and fantasy. They would say, ‘Are there people who are actually natives of the UAE?’”

But it worked the other way around too. The Emirati student also needed to shatter some of her own pre-conceived ideas about westerners. “It was an eye-opening experience for me despite my exposure to the West from my extensive travels, despite the UAE being a melting pot of cultures, despite my work in the hedge fund world. Going to California which is one of the most progressive states and also to a school which attracted creative exceptional students who are looking for transformative education experiences was an eye-opener.”

The Finance Whiz

Asma comes from a family that was already well-intertwined with the local investment field in the UAE. “My dad until very recently, he retired this year, was the assistant governor of banking supervision in the Central Bank of the UAE. He was always keen on my academic and professional development.” Meanwhile, her mother, the eldest of four women siblings, is responsible for her family business after she retired from her job as a teacher.

Asma began her investment career in 2004 and was hired as the assistant vice president in the hedge funds department of the Abu Dhabi Investment Company shortly after she completed her bachelor’s in business administration. But to move up the ranks, she quickly realised that she needed to tool herself with additional qualifications. In 2009, she enrolled herself into an executive MBA programme at the London Business School. “I did a 16-month executive MBA course from the London Business School. My boss at that time at the Abu Dhabi Investment Council would say to me, ‘You’re a part-time student, but a full- time employee.’ But I managed both worlds. The studies were very intense.” Here too, she was again a torchbearer for women from the UAE breaking their own glass ceilings. “I am one of the first few Emirati women who graduated from the London Business School.”

The gamble to go back to her books paid off and Asma quickly found herself not long after that appointed as the director of the national bank of Abu Dhabi global multi-strategy fund. Having reached a new peak in her financial career, she decided to take a two-year sabbatical and go to San Francisco where she could study psychology.

Psychology and the UAE

While the UAE has made remarkable strides in the areas of infrastructure and technological advancements, there are areas that are only recently gaining traction – chief among them is the requirement for locally trained and qualified psychologists who can additionally recognise and cater to the need to create a greater awareness among people seeking help. “You must appreciate the UAE is 46 years old and this field was underrepresented. I was fortunate to have my parents who studied and lived abroad and had the necessary awareness. Ten-twenty years ago there wasn’t much awareness of mental health or self-development. It’s surprising how quickly we’ve caught up though with what the West is doing in this field.”

In San Francisco, Asma began conducting community workshops where she counselled homeless communities and children diagnosed with Autism. She fulfilled over 360-hours of one-on-one counselling and community development work that she required to earn her degree. Equipped with a freshly-minted professional set of skills in psychology, Asma decided to return to the UAE and conduct ‘self- development’ workshops here.

She prefers the term ‘self-development’ over ‘mental health’ not so much because of the stigma surrounding the latter term, but because the former is more inclusive to the course content of her workshops titled ‘Creative Expression’. “Mental health taps the emotions and behaviour. Self-development is specifically focused on interpersonal and intrapersonal relations and focused on the development of self.”

“My workshops focus on reinforcing one’s own sense of self, asserting one’s own personality, understanding all aspects the character especially the less pretty ones, and offering guidance and support. Creative expression is tapping into a non-verbal message of success in yourself. It can be through movement meditation, painting, drawing or writing.”

These workshops, as Asma explains, serve three main purposes: assembling a like-minded community, helping participants to set goals and focus on what they want to achieve and thirdly help them to learn more about themselves during the course itself.

Interestingly, ever since Asma began conducting her workshops here in the UAE, all the participants have been women. “So far it’s been 100 per cent Arab women who have attended my workshop. Of these, around 90 per cent are Emiratis. I’m actually quite surprised how open and ready and encouraged these women already are,” says Asma.

While committing herself to one-on-one- counselling sessions and group workshops, Asma has continued to pursue her finance career. She’s now an investment banker with the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund. “I’m part of the asset management and treasury team. It’s my responsibility to recommend high performance managers, monitor the existing funds, do investment diligence on new funds, and to maintain relationships with fund managers.” As a woman who has broken many firsts in the field of finance and psychology, Asma remains optimistic about the future of women in finance in the region. “Emirati women are blessed to have the opportunity to join investment banks in the UAE. And we have all the support we need whether its training or exposure from our leaders and our management.

“The cultural aspect is very important. Us Arab women have gone beyond the cultural hurdle. There are some families in a few regions where it’s difficult for women to work or enter the workplace. But this is changing quickly and I’ve seen the drive and motivation of women change a lot.”

Through her workshops, Asma is driving that change rather than passively waiting on the sidelines and expecting the change to happen, one woman at a time. Props.