The serial entrepreneur discusses startups, women in the workforce, and why raising awareness on entrepreneurship at a young age is imperative
Sara Al Madani is best defined as a bold, fearless risk-taker. “My soul feeds on risk, it’s my bowl of cereal in the morning,” she tells us. I met Sara at her newly opened café Shabarbush in Mamzar, and was instantly struck by the rebellious beauty with brains sat across the table. Sara isn’t like most Emirati women we’ve come across. Yes, she has the ambition, drive and elegance, but that element of edginess is what sets her apart. That, and her piercings.
Sara is fierce, almost in the way Beyoncé Knowles is too young women. Although, while they are both leaders in a league of their own, their views on women empowerment are poles apart. “The term ‘women empowerment’ makes us feel weak, as though we’re waiting for someone to empower us. Women raise children, take care of the household, they are good at managing finances and taking care of literally everything. We do not need empowerment,” she says.
You may have heard of, or come across, Sara through her appearances at conferences and events, where for the last seven years she has dedicated her time, pro-bono, to educate younger women on several entrepreneurship topics. She’s a serial entrepreneur and by title, is the founder of Shabarbush, Sara Al Madani Fashion Designs, and Social Fish – a creative concepts company in LA. It doesn’t stop there. She is the youngest Board Member at Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, at UAE SME and enterprise council, and ShjSEEN. And, a single mother of a two-year-old son.
How does she do it? “If you are an entrepreneur and have the will and passion, you can do anything. Believe you can and you will. It’s as simple as that. We tell ourselves I can’t do that and the minute you say that, your mind refuses to take it. Plus, women can multitask, right?” she adds in. The road to success hasn’t been an easy one for Sara, and despite what most may think, she didn’t get to her position due to Emirati privilege. At nine, Sara chose to massage family members for cash. At ten, she bought candy from far away stores, slapped on an export candy mark on it, and sold it to her cousins for a pro t. At 15, Sara walked up to her father and told him she didn’t need financial support. He laughed and told her mother she would come back. She prides herself in telling me that she hasn’t gone back for financial aid ever since that day. While her friends were hanging out at malls, Sara chose to work promotion jobs selling juice – obviously not the norm for local girls. “It’s funny, I don’t remember much about these days, but there are videos and photos as evidence. I guess I always had that ambitious side and independency.”
After eight months of hard work, she gathered Dhs25,000 and launched her fashion brand, known then as Rouge Couture. Sara says it was affordable to be in business back in the day. Her funds took her through three years of operations. And while it took hard work to get there, it didn’t deter her from proceeding with other gruelling ventures. “Hard work pays off. There’s always someone, somewhere out there watching. That’s why you should never stop,” she says.
This testimony stands true as she reveals the moment she was chosen to be a board member. “I woke up one day with everyone calling me, telling me to check H.H. Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi’s Instagram. A list of names was published on a screenshot that said it was the names of the Board Members chosen. I kept scrolling and read my name and was like whoa!” says Sara. As board member of the government, she has to make sure she isn’t biased towards herself, and has no conflict of interest. “You should purely want the best for the city, its commerce, growth and the economy. You are basically taking financial and board decisions to enable the city to grow. I had to learn plenty, but the Chamber of Commerce taught us a lot too. They trained us on everything from how to talk, to networking and dining,” she says. Sara is currently in her second cycle – each cycle is three years.
We re-visit the topic of women in the workforce and Sara’s notion on gender bias. “We love to sugar-coat things and say ‘Yes, we’ve made it’ but it’s a man’s world and we are changing everything. It needs time,” she says. That said, she believes that women are the reason women aren’t succeeding. “Men are not the problem. The thing is a woman at a senior seat in the office worked hard to get there and now she’s worried someone else will take it away. They tend to block the chances for other women and don’t hire them, and this is a huge problem. Men have surrendered. When women understand that we aren’t competing, we are completing, only then there will be notable changes.”
Of late, the UAE is seeing women taking on leadership-and senior management-roles, which is a major inspiration for other women. “It’s all about educating people and trying to change their mindset. Imagine if our leaders push all the women, but at home the family is against it, there’s a conflict in the direction,” she tells us. As a young board member, she understands the need for awareness and educating children at a younger age, for them to inspire, be inspired and influence their families.
When it comes to future endeavours, Sara surprises herself. She doesn’t know what it entails but always goes the extra mile to find out what hidden talents she has. Success is a two- way stream for this ambitious woman, with her definition of success being, “what have I done for myself and to help others?” As for now, she plays catch-up with friends at venues she holds meetings at, and allows herself to make the most of her free time by travelling. “When you explore different cultures, meet people, and see new things it just opens your mind,” she tells me as we chat about growing up in the UAE.