LONDON: Businesswoman Zainab Al-Farhan Al-Imam is a truly inspirational figure.
The founder and director of the Women’s Growth and Success Foundation (WGSF), she is a champion for the advancement and promotion of women in the Middle East in business and the arts.
Al-Imam, the owner of import-export business A&Z Traders Ltd, is from the UAE and now lives in London. She is passionate about helping women to realize their dreams and ambitions, using her own drive to succeed and the vision behind her successful business career as an example and motivation.
What first strikes you about Al-Imam is her positive energy – you cannot help but be inspired by her positive can-do attitude and enthusiasm for turning dreams into reality.
This outlook was forged very early on in her family life. She acknowledges the vital role played by her parents in encouraging creativity, responsibility, resilience, driving ambition and respect for the principles underpinning the family business.
She credits her father for his support, her mother for inspiration, her husband for strength and her brothers and children for providing motivation.
“Being brought up in a business atmosphere, I learnt that success does not come easy,” she said. “It comes after hard work and good planning. You go step by step – no need to jump.”
She is grateful to her father for giving her the opportunity to work alongside him in the family business in Sharjah, in the UAE, after she completed a BA in Business Management at Richmond University in London. This, she said, was a great opportunity to learn and to understand that business is not only about money and profit but about adding value to the community and supporting people in need. It was not long before she spotted an opportunity to make her own mark.
“The idea came to me around 1995 when I noticed there was a gap in the sector catering to people with special needs or, to use the much more positive term now used in the UAE, ‘People of Determination’,” she said.
“I started building up a trading company, Al Taheal Medical Equipment, focusing on products for special-needs children and adults. These included items such as medical beds and mattresses, wheelchairs, trolleys and standing frames – everything that a special-needs person might need from birth through to old age.
“A lot of people did not take me seriously as they couldn’t see the need and demand. This was because people with special needs were kept invisible at that time.
“I set up a big showroom and store and forged an international network with agents from all over the world: Taiwan, China, the US, Spain, Germany and the UK. This required a big investment because every item I imported had a multitude of specifications. For example, I had to have a range of wheelchairs to cater to all ages and sizes, from junior to adult and extra large, not forgetting the importance of having suitable wheelchair colors. I became the first and only female supplier of such products in the Middle East who could guarantee delivery within three days of an order being placed.”
This business proved very successful and Al-Imam found that with her growing reputation she was in demand, particularly among women’s organizations, associations and councils. Within this growing network of contacts she became a key driver of initiatives to promote and help women achieve career success.
When she and her husband moved to London with their young family, she discovered that the successes of Middle East businesswomen and entrepreneurs were largely unknown outside the region. She resolved to change this state of affairs.
“I spoke to my friends and said: ‘We have to do something’. Yes, we are working very hard locally but are we noticeable globally? I set about working to build our networks and raise our profiles by establishing WGSF in 2010.
“I invited pioneering business women from the MENA region and the Far East to London to expose them to the global market. The UK was the best place to start, being a key investment destination for Arabs.”
This strategy has proved highly effective, as evidenced through the success of major events Al-Imam has organized, such as WGSF forums, Ziryab fashion shows and Konooz Fine Art Auctions. The quality of the participants, coupled with high-profile venues, attract considerable media attention and big VIP audiences. Events have been staged at the stunning riverside HQ of the Lord Mayor of London, at the city’s Westfield shopping center, and leading hotels such as The Lanesborough and Jumeirah Carlton Tower.
The creative achievements of women in the Middle East are just as important to showcase as their business acumen.
“Konooz Fine Art Auction, with the kind participation of Christie’s and Bonhams, provides a platform for emerging and established artists to show their work under one roof while also raising money for worthwhile charities,” said Al-Imam. With Ziryab Fashion Show, my aim was to showcase the designers’ work in public venues.
“I believe there is a need to change global perceptions of Middle East women in particular, who are often totally misrepresented in the media. We are talking about talented, educated, creative fashion designers. I also wanted to widen their network by arranging meetings with fashion consultant and bankers, buyers.”
The fifth Ziryab fashion show, to be held at the Westfield in July 2018, will pay tribute to the UAE’s groundbreaking initiative, “People of Determination”, which turns the concept of disability into one of ability.
People of Determination is the brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, as part of his national strategy for empowering people with disabilities.
“Disability is in fact the inability to make progress and achievements,” Sheikh Mohammed said. “The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals.”
Al-Imam has no doubt about what it takes to achieve success in business.
“Hard work,” she said. “Success is not easy. For women, with all their responsibilities of home and children, there is a lot of additional pressure and they can easily lose their focus. They need to have a strong concentration on the business in order to make it. No woman can do it alone without support.”
However, she also emphasized the importance of valuing and fully experiencing every chapter of life.
“You can never get time back, so you had better make the best of every phase,” she said. “Life goes in stages and it is important to enjoy each stage. Enjoy being a teenager, enjoy being a wife and a mother.
“It is very tough combining a business with a family. I was very lucky to have my mother so close – our life in the Gulf is so much easier with help in the house – but in London, for many women, it is so difficult. So I support women in their efforts to build an environment that allows them to fulfill their multiple roles within both the family and workplace.”
Faced with the challenges, many women give up too easily she added.
“You need a strong will,” she said. “If you want to do it then do it. I did not achieve success by wishing for it or hoping for it but by working for it. Good time management is the secret of success. Learn to manage your time. For example. if you must achieve your target and there is no plan B, wake up earlier to do it.”
The qualities Al-Imam values most in her employees include respect for others, respect for the business and a willingness to constantly improve.
“I know how to draw out the special abilities in each of my staff,” she said. “They have been with me for a long time – we are like a family. For me it is very important that my staff show respect for everyone they interact with. This is something I value very highly. Whatever their skill set is, I expect them to be capable of working independently. I trust them to do the work, and most important is that I appreciate their work and am so happy to have them around me.
“My father taught me how to respect our employees and how to conduct business, mostly how to work hard. He also advised me to attend family-business forums, which educated me in how to deal with issues that might arise in the family and how to deal with different opinions and obstacles. One of the rules was that we were not allowed to leave the meeting room until we had concluded a satisfactory outcome for all parties – even if that took the whole day.
“I know how to make a business out of nothing. There is always a gap in the market or a demand in a certain sector.”
Al-Imam is disappointed that the achievements of women in the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia in particular, are so often ignored or downplayed in western media.
“Saudi Arabian women have achieved so much already in business and the professions,” she said. “They are successful but they are not represented accurately in the media. As the regulations have changed in the country these women have become more visible, but the fact is they have been there, contributing their skills for a long time – just not in a public way.”
She also believes strongly that it is misguided to depict men as “holding women back”.
What, then, does she hope will be the greatest achievement resulting from her work in the years to come?
“It is my hope that the women I am supporting and championing now in their businesses will go on to support the next generation of young women,” she said.