It is no surprise that behind many of Dubai’s family-run businesses, a female director is running the show.
But while women leaders can be key to the firm’s success, the firm’s public face is often still that of her husband or father.
Now Anna Sebastian, the brain behind the Dubai-based female empowerment platform Kaasdir, wants to change that.
The 42-year-old started working for her Indian family’s conglomerate, AMASCO and SABI group of companies in Kerala, India in 2008, in the automobile and hospitality sectors.
“The engineering and industrial business is male-dominant, and I found it very challenging,” she says. “I thought ‘there have to be more women who face the same issues that I do’.”
But among her female acquaintances, it was not the norm to discuss work matters.
“When we sit around for coffee and chat, women talk about kids and many other things, but we don’t talk shop,” she says.
So, when she began noticing other women, like herself, attending conferences on behalf of their own family business, she had an idea. “It occurred to me – why not bring together a group of women who are running their own businesses to share notes? This way we could help each other to grow,” says Ms Sebastian, now director of her family’s companies – Sebastian Holdings, India and the Dubai-based J&J Marine Engineering Services.
She then found three other Dubai-based Indian female directors to help her launch the empowerment forum: Gomathy Ramaswamy, managing director of Concord Ventures Group, Madhu Goel Arora, managing director of Saffron Media Works, and Anvita Kapoor, director of MiDCOM Group.
Together they launched Kaasdir in September 2013, organising twice-monthly meetings ever since to discuss themes such as intuitive mentoring, Feng Shui and its relevance in business and women in the boardroom.
Kaasdir members are charged a yearly fee of Dh6,500. The group currently has 15 members – several have recently moved overseas – and the founders are keen to expand.
Ms Kapoor, 44, says Kaasdir is predominantly Indian in its membership. “It started with our own social contacts. But we are keen to reach out to other nationalities,” she says.
The group plans to do this via a new platform called Meet and Connect for female start-up entrepreneurs to learn from successful businesswomen.
“Its powerful women giving presentations on how they started their businesses, when they tended to get stuck and how they got out of it”, says Ms Arora, 43, who launched her PR company five years ago.
It will be a step away from the group’s main member base, which Ms Arora describes as “very strong women who are probably running businesses for their fathers or husbands”.
The initiative is one of several new platforms offering a space for high-flying businesswomen to nurture each other’s talents. In February 2014, the first female Emirati leadership platform – Qiyadiyat – was launched by four Emirati women who wanted to see more females in board positions.
The Facebook group Female Fusion – fearless in Business Dubai provides free networking for female entrepreneurs, as does the International Business Women’s Group with chapters in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
So why are these platforms gaining popularity?
“When women go into entrepreneurship, whether it is managing their husband’s or father’s business or their own, often they find themselves pretty lost”, explains Ms Arora. “Women are juggling many roles. They are a wife, a daughter, often a mother, and then also an entrepreneur. Your own focus on yourself gets lost along the way.”
Ms Kapoor, 44, agrees. She has been building up the MiDCOM group, which has interests in milk production, retailing, construction, schools, and telecommunication, with her husband since they married 20 years ago. “In the past I shared my business-thinking with my husband but no one else,” she says. “To look to the perspective of another woman never struck me.”
Then Ms Kapoor realised she wanted more out of life.
“ I felt I needed to be a part of something with like-minded women. There are so many businesswomen who want to speak about their issues but don’t have an open forum. When Sheri [Ms Sebastian], who I had just met at a party, told me about her idea of Kaasdir, I just grabbed it.”
Gomathy Ramaswamy, the managing director of a firm that manufactures clothes and exports them to retailers such as Top Shop and Miss Selfridges, said: “Ninety per cent of our factory workers are women. I have constant interaction with the women in our factories in Dubai, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka,” says the 39-year-old. “ I have found pleasure in enriching theme. Kaasdir was just a natural extension of what I was already doing.”
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter