Motivational Factors for Female Entrepreneurs in the United Arab Emirates
By Husam Omar and Monica Gallant
The contention that economic growth is being fueled and energized by entrepreneurs is no longer an issue that is subject to speculation – it is a fact. Proof of this fact is accentuated by the shift from large government-owned conglomerates to small and medium size enterprises1. The true measure of a country’s economic progress and success depends on its ability to capitalize on its natural endowment to achieve its economic goals2.
The contribution of women entrepreneurs to this economic phenomenon has indeed been substantial although for a number of reasons not fully recognized3. In developing countries, the growth rate of jobs and Gross National Product are heavily contingent on the small business sector; and micro and small sized enterprises (SME’s) are known to be vital components of the economy and vital to the growth of a country, its social stability, and household income4. However, many policy makers worldwide assert the role of women entrepreneurs as a main factor in boosting economic development.
Women in the Middle East are eager and in fact show a great degree of readiness when it comes to work, either as self-employed or as employees in either governmental or private organizations. According to a recent study conducted by the Bahrain Institute of Public Administration, women are ostensibly more equipped than their male counterparts when it comes to dealing with the increased challenges that the GCC labor market has faced in recent years. According to the same study, women in the GCC countries are keen on being active and ready to join the workforce and seemingly report no significant differences between their status at home and at their place of work compared to their male colleagues, implying that they are coping just as well, if not better, in managing their various societal roles.
The increasing role of women in the GCC region has put governments on notice in all the six countries that comprise the GCC block to encourage new ways of thinking and to devise innovative initiatives that will ultimately help and encourage women to play a larger role in economic, social and even political activities. Women, who are in business, enjoy being in business and thrive on the fact that they are doing something for themselves. According to a study, which was done in the MENA region, 80% of women in business in the UAE are looking for ways to expand and enhance their business opportunities by increasing jobs and revenues5.
Who is an entrepreneur?
A historical survey provides many definitions for the term “entrepreneur” and the description of his or her responsibilities and obligations6. While there is no commonly agreed upon and accepted definition for an entrepreneur, historically, and according to the French economist J.B. Say ; an “entrepreneur” is someone who shifts economic resources out of an area of lower an into an area of higher productivity and greater yield. Since Say coined this term more than two hundred years ago, there have been different and numerous definitions and interpretations of an entrepreneur and entrepreneurship7. Some economists have identified entrepreneurship as an “economic function” within the field of business. Based on a study of entrepreneurs whose firms were included on the Inc. 500 list of the fastest growing firms in the US, Amar Bhidé concluded that an entrepreneur is a person that has an unlimited tolerance of ambiguity – a personality trait that allowed entrepreneurs to create firms that would later become very successful like Apple and Amazon, to name just two8.
A qualitative research approach was used to conduct this study. Qualitative research covers several forms of inquiry that help us understand and explain the meaning of social phenomena with as little destruction to the natural setting as possible9. The collection of primary data for this research focused on the need to capture the richness, experience, and uniqueness of Emirati female entrepreneurs in relation to their motivation for being entrepreneurs. The participants were Emirati women who have been in business for at least two years and can speak with a certain degree of authority and knowledge about their experiences as entrepreneurs.
One-to-one open-ended, semi-structured interviews were conducted between the period of February and June of 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Questions were carefully worded to obtain pertinent information10. The researchers recognized that interviews in qualitative investigations should be open-ended, and that the less-structured format assumes that the individual respondents define the world in unique ways.
All of the research participants have been engaged in entrepreneurial activities for at least five years in Dubai. All of them are college graduates and they all stressed the fact that their formal college education was instrumental in their business success. The questions regarding motivation for starting their own businesses were open-ended questions, which gave the participants the chance to list as many factors deemed relevant in their decision to start their businesses. This brief study’s main goal and objective is to find out motivational factors behind these Emirati women’s drive to set up their own businesses.
Women’s reasons for venturing into self-employment can be defined as either “push factors”, which are factors that compel women to escape from their negative surroundings; or “pull factors”, which are the vast and attractive opportunities that entice women to invest their time and money, because they see and envision a bright and attractive outcome – an outcome that is worth the investment and hardship11. Family’s low income, lack of employment opportunities, and dissatisfaction with their current position are just some examples of what might be considered as push factors12. Pull factors tend to satisfy higher needs in a person like self-fulfillment, the craving for achievement, or the desire for challenge13.
The literature on women entrepreneurs shows that motivation is very much influenced by social and economic factors, which in turn suggest that the presence and the intensity of pull and push factors varies from one country to another depending on socio-economic conditions14. Moreover, research on the subject shows that women from industrialized nations repeatedly suggest that their need for achievement is the primary motive for setting up businesses – a pull factor. Meanwhile women from less developed coutries suggest a combination of motivational factors such as grim financial situations and boredom with the traditional role of a housewife – push factors.. Two factors emerged from the interviews as primary themes, which strongly indicates that the factors influencing young Emirati entrepreneurs are primarily pull factors. The reason why we see no push factors is that neither the participants nor their families come from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds; on the contrary, they come from middle to upper class families. In addition, two of the three participants in this study come from families who have been running businesses for the past forty years, and where where business is considered a family. The two motivational themes that emerged from the interviews are: (1) The need for achievement, (2) the desire for independent and autonomy.
(1) The need for achievement: Among the many needs that a person might have, the need for achievement is the most powerful driving force to achieve high performance. Several studies have shown that the need for achievement is defined as the temperament that energizes a person to face certain challenges for the sole purpose of attaining excellence or distinction16. The need to achieve excellence motivates individuals to overcome obstacles, rebel against the norm, strive to do something challenging, demanding, and extraordinary, and to do something better by innovating new ways of doing it17. Any person who is high on achievement motivation is more likely to pursue professions that allow for more control over results, provide more direct and immediate feedback on performance, and offer reasonable levels of risk18. All of the participants asserted that the main reason that they wanted to become entrepreneurs, was the need to achieve something remarkable on their own and not just live in the shadow of somebody else, whether it be a father or a husband. One of the participants, Fatma, who has owned a Patisserie & Bakery business for the last five years, said:
“Ever since I can remember, I have been involved in our family owned businesses, and once I graduated from college, I wanted to do something on my own and step out my father’s shadow. I fully realize how grueling and demanding a small business can be, but I was ready. A small business requires time, dedication, and the investment of both money and time, and I was willing to pay the price, because I think it is worth it.”
Another participant, Alia, talked about the pressure she felt growing up as the youngest in a family of three sisters and two brothers, all successful in their careers.
“I felt the need to accomplish just like my siblings did before me. I had to contend with tremendous pressure. I felt that the expectations were high. I received a lot of advice and suggestions especially from my older brother, who is very progressive and forward in his thinking on women’s issues. One of my sisters was also very helpful; she even offered to be my partner and I ended up borrowing money from her. She really helped me get on my feet. At times, she even helped me physically in my business.”
“Khadija, the wife of the prophet Muhammad, started her own business and became known as one of the best business people in what is now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
For the past 6 years Alia owned and operated a successful small company that designs customized hand-made t-shirts for women and children. Alia talked at length about culture and incorrect perceptions of religion as obstacles that limit her imagination and put strains on her business activities. ”Quite the contrary”, she said, “my biggest hero is a Muslim woman who lived more than 1400 years ago, and was quite a successful business woman. Khadija, the wife of the prophet Muhammad, started her own business and became quite successful and known as one of the best business people in what is now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. In support of her argument, Alia mentioned that the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce in Saudi Arabia is the home of the Sayedah Khadija Bin Khawailid Business Women and Lobby Center, named after the Prophet wife’s. She was proud to note that she visited the center once when she was doing the Ummra in Mecca.
My third participant, Muna, comes from an upper class family. Her father came to Dubai from another Arab country as an English teacher back in the 1960’s, when Dubai was still an underdeveloped fishing town with high prospects for business growth and prosperity. Over the years, her father developed a strong network that led him to leave the teaching profession and become a business manager for a prominent Emirati family that owned multiple businesses. Muna received a good education in Dubai; she is fluent in English and she has a good working- knowledge of French. Muna asserted that money is not her main objective; while money motivates, it is not the goal. Money is a big issue when you do not have any, but if you grow up in an affluent environment, then money is not a motivator.
“I have received a good education and in college I majored in Human Resources. I loved my business classes. A few of my friends went to college but decided not to work after graduation because they said they did not need to. I disagree with that line of thinking. Why get all that education if you not going to use it? I wanted to use my education and I actually worked for a government agency for three years, but the routine killed me. Doing the same thing all over again on a daily basis can be a career killer. But I did not quit, because I have the drive. People who knew me told me that I have the drive, but I did not know what that meant at the beginning. I wanted to be successful at all costs (well, not really). There are a few women entrepreneurs in the UAE and in the GCC countries that come from prominent families, and they are successful on their own. They inspired me.”
Muna is the only female in a family of four boys. She said, that she loves what she is doing right now. She established her catering business in 2007, and now she boasts of having 15 employees. She loves food and knows how to cook, but she leaves that to the professionals while she concentrates on marketing her small business and monitoring the quality of her products. She also attends trade shows in and outside of the UAE. She says “those shows offer great ideas and can be very instrumental in showing me tools for new lines that would help me expand my business”. Muna seems very content and happy where she is now, but she says that was not always the case. “When I first started, I did not realize that the challenges were that great, and the sacrifices were greater, but I did it with the support of my family and also because I was terrified of failure”. Now she wants to achieve more. She says that success puts pressure on you to do more, and she wants to do more. “My family is behind me 100%, particularly my mother who is growing old, and wants to see me married and have children. She is constantly encouraging me and telling me not to be intimidated by anything. She wants me to be successful for her as well. My mother told me that she would never have done this herself; she has neither the courage nor the stamina for such a project.”
(2) The desire for independence and autonomy: This theme arose clearly in the participants’ responses. This theme varied in its intensity among the participants; Muna’s responses appeared more forceful than the other two participants’ because of her tone of voice and body language. When talking about the issue of independence, Muna seemed very passionate and zealous in her responses.
“I had what some of my friends called (excessive) desire for independence when I was in school. This manifested itself in the way I expressed my opinions in the classroom which appeared to rattle the feathers of my teachers at times, although some of them (the female teachers) encouraged me to voice my opinion. Maybe they wanted me to say what was on their mind or speak because they couldn’t. In some families this was not allowed; a woman is expected to be a follower and just do what she is told, well, not in my family. I mean, in some families a woman is not allowed to step out of her house unless she is accompanied by a male sibling. I do not know if it is for protection or to make sure she stays in line? Things are changing in that regard, but not fast enough. Also, some women would not even dream of getting an education because of the objections of the male members of their families.”
Muna gave me the impression that she was talking about an experience that is close to her heart, and that was the source of her zeal and intensity. She made it clear that a woman has to be independent in her way of thinking and have some kind of financial independence in order for her to participate in the society as a full human being. I thought her ideas seemed progressive and unconventional for an average Emirati woman.
The other two participants, Fatma and Alia, also stressed their strong desire to be independent. It is one of the main reasons, why they started on the path of self-employment and entrepreneurship. Fatma spoke with a sense of gratification about how her life is fulfilled financially, but nevertheless, her greatest source of happiness as a businesswoman stems from the fact that her business offers her the opportunity to make decisions independently of others. When she is faced with tough situations, she consults others, but the final decision is hers alone and that gives her a sense of control over her destiny. She would not change that for anything, “My proudest moment is when I make a decision, a business decision, and not knowing how it is going to impact my business until I find out later I made the right decision. It just feels awesome!” she elaborated. She further declared,
“I was supposed to get married when I was younger, 17 to be precise, but I resisted and I received support from my mother and I was able to get away with it. Attending college was great for me; it opened my eyes to the world. There is so much to do and learn. After college, 3 of my closest friends and I went to work for a local bank. After three years I could not stand it anymore and I had to do something. I felt that somebody else was in charge of my destiny and my future. I saw people who worked there for 20 years and they were miserable. The bank was like a military camp; you’re being monitored all the time. I see my business as the ticket to some of my independence. It keeps my mind clear, it makes me feel great about myself, and it builds my personally.”
In response to my follow-up question about whether she meant financial independence, she made it clear that independence for her meant being financially independent as well.
Fatma’s confidence in running her business and her ability to make the right decisions developed and matured a few months after she founded the business. This new-found confidence also helped in her private life. Fatma declared that “running a business really makes me think deeply about who am I. I am faced with tough decisions all the time, and I am used to running to my family for advice. As I grow more independent, I still go to my family for advice, but I find myself very comfortable in making my own decisions, myself ”.
Alia talked about independence with passion; she is almost fanatical when it comes to women’s issues in the UAE. She welcomes and appreciates all the advancement that women have made. ,”All those advancements were only possible because we have such visionary leaders”, Alia said. She said that although many positive changes have taken place in the last 10 years or so, more changes are due and new doors have to be opened to women. Alia wanted to make it clear that she did not go into business for financial reasons.
“I like to have more money just as everybody else, but it was not the main reason for going into business. We have money, I mean my family, but I just wanted to fulfill something deep inside of me. Money is not everything and I really mean that. The only person, who feels with me when it comes to being independent, is the person who has been in my shoes. I can tell you that many Emirati women feel that way.”
Alia’s economic affluence and her secured financial future did not fulfill her; she needed more. In her way of thinking, the only avenue to offer her more is through the business venture that she envisioned for herself. While she had the desire to be successful and wanted to enjoy success, she especially wanted to have independence and autonomy. Alia feels a sense of pride in her accomplishment and is very appreciative of the assistance she received from both her family and the Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Foundation. “The foundation helped me with my business plan and also a loan that I paid back fully after only two years” she declared. She did not think that she could do it at the beginning, but after she started, she felt that she had the determination to grow and sustain her business.
The women profiled in this paper are leaders in their business community; they overcame so many obstacles to get to where they are right now. Their willingness to start businesses and go against the tide is commendable. This paper focused on the motivation that prompted three Emirati entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. This research found that although there are always a number of reasons why people start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs, in this case these particular Emirati women wanted to be entrepreneurs for two main reasons: the desire to achieve success and the desire to attain autonomy and independence. Other less significant motivational factors were also identified – factors such as the desire to help the community, accumulation of money and wealth, the need to participate in the expansion of the economy of a young, dynamic country, and the desire to gain business experience. All of our participants talked about the importance of the support they received, which enabled them to succeed and prosper. Family was the main source of support, particularly emotional support and encouragement. Help also came from a number of UAE based governmental, non-governmental entities, and women’s organizations that provide technical help such as writing a business plan and providing financial support. The limitation of this research is the small sample size, the Dubai location and the focus on women with a higher socio-economic status. Women from other emirates in the UAE and women with lower socio-economic status may be motivated by other factors. We believe that research is needed to include a broader sample of female entrepreneurs in various geographic areas of the UAE to fully understand the factors that motivate Emirati women to become entrepreneurs. A similar study with male Emirati entrepreneurs may help to identify gender differences in motivational factors.
About the Authors
Dr. Husam Omar spent the last 4 years teaching business administration at Dubai Women’s College in the Dubai. Prior to that, Dr. Omar taught business and economics at A.R. Sanchez School of business at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas. For a period of 15 years, Husam was involved in a number of entrepreneurial activities in Texas including a stint as a Franchisee for a nationally recognized company. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Husam shows a great interest in the study of women and minority entrepreneurs, and has published on the subject in Emerald Journal.
Dr. Monica Gallant originally qualified as a Chartered Accountant in Canada before embarking on a career in education. She has spent the past 15 years at Dubai Women’s College as a Business professor and now as Chair of the Business Department. She has completed a Doctorate in Education and her research has been published as a book entitled “Emirati Women in Dubai: Navigating Cultural Change”. Monica contributes regularly to the Emerald Journal, “Education, Business and Society: Contemporary Middle Eastern Issues” and has recently become a certified Intercultural Intelligence trainer and has presented research on the link between leadership and Intercultural Intelligence.
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