Today’s show is about cultivating resilience. But before we get into Najla’s own path of navigating social norms and obstacles, we talk about her unusual job.
Najla is the CEO of Sheraa, a Govt entity that has been tasked to turn a cultural city into a bustling entrepreneurship hub. We discussed why Sharjah has chosen this strategy and what the critical elements are to create a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. Culture plays a huge role here, at a micro and macro level, as does the word “failure”.
We talked about the different needs that entrepreneurs have at various stages of their journey, and how that translates into programs at Sheraa (by the way, these are all free of charge). Finally, Najla shared her story of how she got onto the board of a bank, an entertaining and eye-opening mix of head, heart and hustle.
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Read the Transcript
Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Hello everyone. Today’s show is about cultivating resilience, but before we get into Najla’s own path of navigating social norms and obstacles, we talk about her unusual job. Najla is the CEO of Sheraa, a government entity that’s been tasked to turn a cultural city into a bustling entrepreneurship hub. We discussed why Sharjah has picked this strategy and what the critical elements are to create a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. Culture plays a huge role here at a macro and micro level, as does the word “failure.” We talked about the different needs that entrepreneurs have at various stages of their journey and how that translates into programs at Sheraa. And by the way, all these programs are free of charge. Finally, Najla shared her story of how she got onto the board of a bank. It was an entertaining and eye-opening mix of head, heart, and hustle. So let’s get into it. Najla, it is wonderful to have you on When Women Win. Thanks for taking the time.
Najla Al Midfa: (01:06)
Thank you, Rana. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Rana Nawas: (01:08)
Your job is to turn a city into a hive of entrepreneurial activity. Now, Sharjah, where I grew up by the way, is just North of Dubai and it’s not known for being business friendly, right? Let alone entrepreneur friendly. It’s always been the cultural hub of the UAE where it attracts artists and art lovers. Why the sudden interest in creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Najla Al Midfa: (01:32)
It’s a good question. So you’re right, Sharjah is very well known. If you ask most people, you know, “what is it that you know Sharjah for?” It would be art, it would be culture, it would be heritage. It’s got a lot of museums. It’s got a very well-known art Binali. So definitely Sharjah has cemented it’s positioning as a hub for art culture, and let’s say, publishing and literature. But the other thing it’s known for is that it is also a hub for education and a hub for talent and so the university city in Sharjah, which was established around 20 years ago, houses around almost 10 different educational institutions in its boundaries and has about 30,000 students studying there. These students are typically studying all sorts of disciplines, ranging from architecture, to engineering, through to business and so on. But most of them are graduating and looking for jobs. Not a lot of them have any sense of what it is to be an entrepreneur. They don’t have many role models who are entrepreneurs. Most of their role models are either, ministers in the government, for example, or CEOs of a private sector; big private sector companies. But they don’t really know what it is to be an entrepreneur and they don’t really know how to take their ideas and turn them into reality. And so this is where we came in as Sheraa and we thought, you know what, with all of this critical mass of talent, 30,000 young people, let alone of course the alums, 40,000 alums or so, that’s a lot of talent that we can tap into to create the companies of the future. As you know, the UAE is now moving towards an innovation or knowledge-based economy where it’s diversifying away from oil. That requires us to come up with new companies that will basically not only lead us into a knowledge-based economy but also create jobs of the future. And so this is where Sheraa came in. We are a platform that’s based at the American University of Sharjah and we have a second hub at the University of Sharjah and we’ll also be opening a third hub at the Research Park, which is coming up in Sharjah. And so Sharjah is really transitioning itself into an entrepreneurship ecosystem because it’s got that and that’s what, if you look globally at all entrepreneurship ecosystems, including Silicon Valley, typically revolves around a critical mass of talent; usually within an educational institution. So Silicon Valley obviously has Stanford, it has Berkeley around it and so you’ve got that talent there. So most of these ecosystems develop around that. So, because we had that talent we decided to then focus on building the ecosystem. Talent is one part of the ecosystem there. As you said, there are lots of different parts to the ecosystem. Sharjah may not be known as the most business friendly emirate but that’s our goal. Our goal is to actually make it a business friendly environment. It actually does house 55,000 SMEs at the moment. But there’s still obviously things that need to happen on the ease of business side, helping make, let’s say, licenses more affordable, easing regulation, helping get corporate more involved. In other words, giving entrepreneurs access to the market and providing funding. So there are a lot of parts to building an ecosystem. Talent is one of them. But because that talent was there, we thought, “we’ve got this, let’s build everything that’s required around it.”
Rana Nawas: (04:46)
Right. So use the talent as your anchor.
Najla Al Midfa: (04:47)
That’s the anchor. Exactly.
Rana Nawas: (04:49)
So, as you say, building an ecosystem has a lot of parts to it. Where did you start?
Najla Al Midfa: (04:54)
So it’s a really good question. When we first started, we thought, “you know what? It’s really simple. We’re going to come, we’re going to do this, bascially, accelerator program and entrepreneurship program that’s going to last three months. We’ll take in a batch of aspiring entrepreneurs with ideas. We’ll put them through this three month program. They graduate, we’ll have them present their ideas in front of a group of investors and have them get funded and so on.” But we quickly realized we were missing a couple of steps before we could even get to the point of doing these programs. One is culture and that’s one pillar that’s really important. As I said before, right now we don’t have a culture of entrepreneurship. We still very much have a fear of failure. People aren’t really willing to take risks and don’t really understand what it means to start a business. It’s difficult to start a business for a lot of people, especially young people because you need quite a bit, in terms of savings, if you’re going to focus on the business. And so the first thing we did was, when we opened Sheraa, we really focused on building a culture of entrepreneurship. How did we do that? We basically brought in a lot of role models; people like the founder of Fetcher, come almost, I would say, twice a week. We would bring them in and have them give talks and alongside that we do workshops. So, there were the talks and there was the upskilling. So those were actually practical workshops on, “okay, you want to be an entrepreneur, how do you actually come up with an idea that’s worth working on? What problem is it that you would be solving?” We wanted to get them away from the traditional idea. So most people will say “okay, I want to open a cafe.” There’s nothing wrong with opening a cafe, that’s fine, but that’s a fairly saturated market. You know, Gerry Visa, when he came to Sharjah earlier this year…this region has a lot of opportunities because there are a lot of challenges in the region. Conversely, there are a lot of opportunities. There are a lot of problems to be solved, which means there are a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs. So highlighting to them and aspiring entrepreneurs on the different problem areas that they could work on was was one of the areas that we started in. So, basically inspiring them and then providing them with the basic skills and those skills were both hard and soft skills, or as some people like to call them,”life skills.” And then basically helping them come up with ideas. And the way we help them come up with ideas was by partnering with some corporates. So for example, we partnered with Air Arabia on the aviation track. We partnered with Bee’ah, which is a waste management company based in Sharjah on the environment and sustainability track. We partnered with Crescent who wanted to support more social enterprises. We partnered with Shams, which is a media free-zone in Sharjah to help more creative start-ups like yourself. And so with each of our partners, we focused on a different track and our partners would come in, because they know the industry better than anyone, and say these are the gaps.
Rana Nawas: (07:43)
These are the problems that we’d like to solve.
Najla Al Midfa: (07:43)
Exactly! So you already have a captive customer because they’re saying that if you can solve these problems, we would be interested in working with you, investing in you and buying from you and so on. So that’s, for example, one of the start-ups that we have that’s actually currently in our pre-seed program. We can talk about the funnel later, but they’re called FendBid. They basically have come up with an autonomous vehicle. You were at the Sharjah entrepreneurship festivals, so you might have seen it outside. It was in a pool outside. So it’s an autonomous vehicle that basically works on the surface of water and picks up plastic waste.
Rana Nawas: (08:21)
Najla Al Midfa: (08:22)
Yeah. So it’s almost like a paddle boat, but it’s autonomous, so there’s nobody on it and it uses technology to detect waste and pick it up. And so being a waste management company with all of these bodies of water, for example, the lagoon in Sharjah has a lot of plastic waste that’s thrown there. So they are actually now using the prototype – they’re still at prototype stage. I was responsible for cleaning these bodies of water and now I am using this prototype as a way to clean this water. And so there’s a very direct link there with the entrepreneurs and providing them with access to the market.
Rana Nawas: (09:01)
Amazing! So they hit the ground running. They have a captive customer.
Najla Al Midfa: (09:04)
Rana Nawas: (09:05)
Great, and you’ve been doing this now for three years?
Najla Al Midfa: (09:08)
Rana Nawas: (09:08)
What are the biggest barriers you faced in this mission? I mean, you mentioned culture and you talked about how one aspect of tackling the culture is to expose the students to role models. What other work have you done?
Najla Al Midfa: (09:22)
So ,one was culture. The other one is very much the funnel, which I talked about. So, like I said at the beginning, we thought that it was just one program that will solve all the challenges that entrepreneurs went through. We quickly realized that at each stage of an entrepreneur’s growth, they go through different challenges. So at the ideation stage, someone comes up to you, they say they have an idea and they need help. And just trying to validate whether that’s a reasonable idea, whether it’s a reasonable problem to be solved, is a big enough problem to be solved. Are there other competitors already solving that problem? So we’ve come up with what we call the “Idea Lab.” We run in into a quarterly basis. It’s actually a two month program where you come in with an idea and we help you go through the process of validating that idea and deciding whether to proceed with it or whether to pivot and work on a different idea.
Rana Nawas: (10:11)
And this is entirely free of charge, right?
Najla Al Midfa: (10:14)
All our programs are free of charge. Actually, if anything, we actually give grants in the programs and those grants we receive from our partners who, as I mentioned were Air Arabia, Crescent, as well as Shams and Sandooq Al Watan. So we have various partners and we use their funding to basically provide grants directly to entrepreneurs.
Rana Nawas: (10:34)
So that was the “Idea Lab”.” What came next?
Najla Al Midfa: (10:37)
So after the Idea Lab came the Pre-Seed Program. Like I said before, there’s a life cycle that every start-up goes through. And in that life cycle, there’s typically a dip right at the beginning called “the valley of death;” where most start-ups are likely to fail or die. And what we wanted to do is create a program to help ensure that start-ups were making it across that valley of death, if you like. And so this program is quite a long program in the sense that it’s probably our longest program, almost four to four and a half months during which we, literally, help you figure out your product market fit, build your initial product, your MVP, go out there and test it with customers and get some initial market traction. So that requires a lot of experimentation. It’s not a linear process where, for example, in your case, you do the first podcast and then the second and you always learn from each experiment and you realize there are things that need to be tweaked. In the process, what we do is also upskill them. So there are a lot of, for example, nontechnical founders that don’t really understand how to communicate with developers – how to communicate their business requirements to a technical developer. So we teach them product management skills. Conversely, there are people who are very technical or engineers but don’t really understand how to talk about their business in a financial way. What are the financials of the business? And so we teach them financial skills. So, there is a lot of upskilling that happens in this program. I should also say, since there’s a misconception with Sheraa, that we talked about, yes, there is obviously a critical mass of talent and we’re based in the universities, but the average age in our programs is probably in the 30s and the oldest person who’s gone through our programs is closer to 50.
Rana Nawas: (12:20)
Najla Al Midfa: (12:21)
So it’s actually open to anybody of any nationality. Any age, can be based anywhere. You don’t need to set up your business in Sharjah. We of course provide benefits. We provide subsidized licenses in partnership with Shama, which makes it attractive to setup in Sharjah, but you’re not obliged to set up over there. So in that sense it’s quite an open program. So that’s the Pre-Seed Program. You then have the Seed Program, which is basically, you’ve been in the market for three to six months. You’ve got your, let’s say, first 20 episodes and now you need to figure out how do you scale this, you know? How do I optimize my marketing funnel to get more customers? So that’s the Seed Program. And then finally there’s a Series-A program, which is when you’ve raised a seed round, you’re getting ready to raise your series-A round and you’ve been in the market for a couple of years and. This actually offers you an opportunity to step back and really think about the culture that you’re building in the company; how you can grow your impact globally? What are your long-term strategies? Because obviously with the start-up, the last thing you actually think about is the strategy. So into the day to day operations, you don’t have a minute to step back and actually think about where this is going for the next three years. And so that’s what we focus on in the series-A program. And then from the series-A program, we’ve partnered with Endeavor. So technically, our ideal scenario is that we’d hand them off to Endeavor. So basically we are the pre-Endeavor Program. Since you interviewed Linda… She is focused on the scaleup side. We’re focused on the start-up side.
Rana Nawas: (13:51)
Excellent. Now Najla, you haven’t always been a CEO. You’re an Emirati girl from a traditional family and 20 years ago your parents wouldn’t let you leave home to attend university abroad. So let’s talk about that, if we may. What happened?
Najla Al Midfa: (14:07)
So at the age of 18, obviously when most people are applying for university… I should also say that this is giving away my age. But a lot of the top tier universities that are now in the UAE didn’t exist at the time. So AUSfor example, we’ve been talking about AUS, did not exist when I was about to go to university. On top of that, you know, at 18, I think your direction in life is very much set by where your friends are going. And as it turned out, a lot of my friends were going abroad. And so because they were going abroad, I wanted to go abroad and study as well. So, I remember applying to the universities. The initial discussion was quite simple in the sense of, you know, I’m going to apply to universities abroad. And I think we pushed the challenge down the road there; my parents were like, “well, why don’t you get in first?” And then we’ll have that conversation. So I ended up applying to various universities, got into a couple of universities in the UK, came back with the offers and said, “this is it. I’ve gotten the offer, I’m ready to go.” To be honest, it wasn’t my parents who gave me a tough time. My parents were fairly supportive. I’m the eldest of four girls. My dad has really been very supportive and my mom, as a woman, has always been a very strong role model. In any case, growing up, for example, we would watch her play bridge. Both my parents played bridge, but she was award winning in the sense that we had an entire room of just trophies, bridge trophies, that she had won. Yeah. And so obviously she would go and play bridge a couple of times a week. It was in a mixed environment. Even the interactions that she had were very much mixed. So we never really grew up with “this is for women, this is for men.” We went to Chouifat, obviously in the initial years of our life. And so that was a mixed school. And then the second half of High School, we went to a girls school, which was a little bit more sheltered. And as a society at the time, this is in the 90s, it still wasn’t as open as it is today. A lot of the things that we consider normal today were still considered, for some reason, taboo at that time. A girl going out alone to a mall, for example, usually have a chaperone. Now you see girls, you know, hanging out in their groups. And so things have changed. You know, speaking of culture change, it does take time. But in the last 20 years it’s changed a lot. Insane. I mean people can visit Dubai or Sharjah today and you sit there and you tell them that when we were growing up in Sharjah 20 years ago, you would never have a group of ladies going out for tea…
Rana Nawas: (16:51)
Absolutely. And now they are going out for shisha, for dinner…
Najla Al Midfa: (16:51)
And you know, things at the cities have completely changed. Our culture has changed a lot. Society has accepted a lot. So in those days when I applied, when I was 18, my parents were quite encouraging, I would say. But it was the extended family, I think, that had a tough time with accepting the idea of a single woman going abroad. And I still get asked that question. So I mentor a lot of young Emiratis and they often ask me, “I want to go abroad but I’m not really sure how to convince my family or my parents”” or “I want to work in this company, in the private sector, but that requires me to travel a lot for work. How do I convince them?” And I think it’s important to obviously first get to the point where it’s easy to debate this academically first. Make sure you get in. So have the offer, or you know, go for the interviews and so on. And then when you get to that point, make sure you also have someone in the family, or it might be a teacher, it might be a friend, who’s very supportive, who can help take your side and convince any members of the family who aren’t really sure that this is the right move. Like I said, we face this, I faced this, which Sheraa is trying to convince parents of these young entrepreneurs that this is a valid choice. I’ve been in the place of someone who is trying to convince their parents and I’ve been in the place of someone who is supporting someone who is trying to convince their parents. It’s very possible to make the change, but it does require determination and some very open conversations.
Rana Nawas: (18:21)
And when do you think people should push against the social norms? When should they and when shouldn’t they?
Najla Al Midfa: (18:28)
Okay. That’s a good question. If you’re talking age wise, I would certainly say 18 and above. I think you should start pushing for what you truly believe in, but you have to pick your battles. If you’re going to fight for every little thing, it’s unlikely that things are going to go your way. But so I think, in many ways, what I did was over time iI also picked my battles. For example, I always wanted to live and work in New York. I think if I had said that at 18, it never would have happened. It would have been impossible. But you know, it took one stepping stone at a time; initially going from my Bachelor’s to the UK, then working in the private sector and traveling a lot alone. Then going for my Master’s in the US and eventually ending up living and working in New York City. But that’s the thing, sometimes it’s stepping stones along the way. I don’t think anyone should have to give up on something that they’re truly, personally passionate about but be strategic about how you get there.
Rana Nawas: (19:26)
And this is resilience, fundamentally, because you want to be strategic and then you keep bumping against obstacles. So I would like to dive deeper into resilience because it is now deemed an extremely important trait in future proofing yourself in this rapidly changing job market world. So nobody is born resilient. I think that, you know, experiences make people. So can you tell us, because to me, you’re one of the most resilient women I’ve come across, about a couple of other experiences? You know, we talked about wanting to go to university abroad…etc. But what other experiences do you have that really developed your resilience?
Najla Al Midfa: (20:14)
I think there are endless. Even today, I continuously go through experiences where things just don’t go according to plan, things don’t go the way I had hoped they would go. And you learn, I never thought I would be quoting Rocky Balboa, that it’s not about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep going. And I think it’s so true. So in life, if I think back to my own examples, one of them was a Mckinsey. I graduated from university and one of the places that I really wanted to work at was Mckinsey as a firm. I was 21 when I graduated. They had just opened up their presence, their offices here in Dubai and I thought applying to Mckinsey is like applying to any other company, you know, fax them my resume.
Rana Nawas: (21:01)
You’re really giving away your age now, Najla!
Najla Al Midfa: (21:05)
I would like to be honest. I just got asked for our fax number a couple of days ago and that threw me off. But yes, I faxed my resume over and they invited me for an interview. But as you know, with consulting firms, the interviews are very specific. It’s a lot of case interviews and I had not prepared for them because I didn’t have a mentor or anyone to guide me in terms of saying “if you are interested in consulting, this is what you can expect and this is what the interviews are like.” And so I went for the interviews and I remember one of the questions was, “so how would you, for example, measure how many golf balls there are in the UAE?” You know, market sizing, market sites and questions. I had no idea. I was just guessing a number – a million, you know? But nobody had taught me the process of thinking through the problem out loud. So, I went through the interviews, the interviews themselves are a learning process, but I obviously didn’t get in at the end. And you know, they were very supportive and encouraging and they said, you know, ‘why don’t you go and get a few years of experience and re-apply in a few years.” I think a significant number of people would probably just take that as it wasn’t meant to be, saying that they will never apply there again. Whereas with me, that seed got planted. I need to prove it to myself It is not that my worth hinged on Mckinsey accepting me, but I really wanted to see it as a challenge. I didn’t take it personally. I just got really excited about the challenge. So, my career went in another direction. I started at PwC, worked at Chill, went on to do my MBA, and then re-applied to Mckinsey after my MBA, to work in New York, actually and I ended up getting in! And you know, it’s one of those things that, as you said, with resilience, if you take everything personally and your self-worth is going to be hurt every time, or your ego or whatever, it is going to be hurt every time someone says no or every time things don’t go your way. Life becomes really difficult. But if you actually see this as a challenge and not take it so personally, I find that it actually becomes really exciting. So every time things don’t work out, it’s like, let’s try harder. Let’s find another way to make this work.
Rana Nawas: (23:09)
And you’ve faced this a few times. I remember in one of our chats you talked about your first ever business trip abroad. Maybe you could tell the listeners a bit about that. I found that really fun.
Najla Al Midfa: (23:22)
So my first job ended up being at PwC. I was in the consulting arm, so it obviously required travel. And one of the first assignments I was put on was actually for a hospital in Egypt. And although I had studied in the UK for three years alone, I had never really traveled for work. So, I wasn’t really sure whether my parents, at 21, would accept this. Again, this was 20 years ago, so it was quite different. I thought about it and I thought, “okay, I don’t really have time to convince them because the trip is tomorrow.” If I had a longer period of time, we’d have discussions but there’s no time for these discussions and I needed to make a call. I remember calling my dad and saying, “I need a visa for Egypt.” And he said, “no, why?” I said, “no, I was just curious.” And I went to him, took out a suitcase, packed my clothes, my flight was the next morning and I decided, you know what? I’m not a kid anymore. I’m an adult. They are just going to have to accept things the way they are. And so I took my bag and was walking across the hall, and I remember my parents were sitting at a table having breakfast and they were like, “where are you going?” I said, I wanted to sound really confident, “I’m going to Egypt. I have work to do. I’ll be back in a week.” And their faces…you know, I think my mom’s jaw dropped. She was like almost ready to, you know, burst out crying. And my dad was like, “what do you mean Egypt? It’s not safe to go alone.’ And I said, “I’ve made up my mind. I have to go for work. I’ve decided that. ” And I just went to the airport, checked in and ended up in Egypt. I arrived in Egypt, and I think because of the panic on the other side, obviously you’re in the plane so you have no idea what they’re going through on the ground, I came on and there were like three different people waiting for me in the airport, three different cars. One from the company. My Dad had arranged another from a hotel. One was his friend. So, there was so much panic around me being in Egypt. Egypt is really close to my heart because it genuinely was my first trip abroad as a working woman. And it was fine. I was there for a week. They were calling me every couple of hours, but then they got used to it and by the time the second trip abroad came around, it was completely fine. It was like, “where are you going? Where are you going to be staying? Okay. That’s fine.” So it’s culture change. A part of it, I think, is exposure therapy as well.
Rana Nawas: (25:56)
Yes. That’s huge.
Najla Al Midfa: (25:58)
You just get used to it and suddenly you normalize it.
Rana Nawas: (26:02)
I had a similar experience in 1996 when I finished university. I was determined to learn Spanish and Salsa, in Cuba. And I joined McKinsey, actually straight out of University of McKinsey,London. And they gave us a stipend to use anywhere in the world to go and travel and learn the language. I decided to go to Cuba and I wasn’t sure what my parents were gonna think about this. I mean, that’s really far away. But I was determined to go before Fidel Castro died, and this is 23 years ago. He was ill at that time. And so I bought my ticket, I booked my school, I booked the home I was going to stay at, and I told my parents by phone. I called my parents and I said, “I’m going to Cuba. There’s a direct flight to Havana from London. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Najla Al Midfa: (26:58)
And they were fine with it?
Rana Nawas: (26:58)
You know, they initially reacted with shock, and then very soon after, with pride, immense pride; “my daughter is going to Cuba. I don’t know anyone on earth who’s been to Cuba, you know, and to learn Spanish and salsa.”
Najla Al Midfa: (27:16)
I completely agree. Because now that I think about it, whenever they’re talking about me or my accomplishments, none of it would have been possible had I… This is why I’m very grateful to them because I’m sure it wasn’t normal for them. I mean, if we’re saying the last 20 years have changed for us, you can only imagine, for them, in the last 60-70 years, how much the world has changed and how much societies have changed. I think you’re absolutely right. I think it ends up becoming something that they are really proud of.
Rana Nawas: (27:43)
Now resilience goes hand in hand with ambition. Would you call yourself an ambitious person?
Najla Al Midfa: (27:47)
Rana Nawas: (27:49)
Could you give us an example of whern you went after something that you really wanted?
Najla Al Midfa: (27:53)
So having come back from the US and working at Khalifa Fund at an executive level, I had achieved really what I wanted to achieve. But what I really wanted to learn was what it means to be on the board of a publicly listed organization. I really wanted to be on the board of a bank, to be honest, because the financial services sector over here is very strong. And one of the boards that I currently am on, the United Arab Bank board, was one that I decided I was going to basically have myself nominated for it. And I think this is where, as an ambitious person, you don’t wait for permission to be given to you, you don’t wait for someone to invite you to be on the board. You find ways to get yourself there. And so I realized that the process for actually being on the board is that you submit your candidacy and that you need to be elected onto the board at the annual general assembly, basically, by the shareholders of that organization. And so I submitted my documents and on the side did whatever I could to basically build the confidence of the major shareholders. So I spoke to the major shareholders and said, “you know, this is where I’ve been working for the last few years;I’ve got a background. I’ve done my MBA. This is the kind of value that I can add to the board. Would you please give me your vote?”
Rana Nawas: (29:21)
Oh, I love that! So you applied formally and then lobbied informally.
Najla Al Midfa: (29:23)
Rana Nawas: (29:23)
I love it! Super!
Najla Al Midfa: (29:23)
And then at the General Assembly, I got the votes and now I’ve been on the board. This is my third term on the board. So I’ve been there quite a few years now, 8 years, I think. And it’s been amazing. It’s very different. It’s an all male board and I’m probably one of the younger members of the board. So it’s amazing the kind of learning that you have when you’re looking at an organization from that level, where it’s different here. I mean, I’m used to looking at it from a CEO level. That’s what I do on a day-to-day basis. But to have to look at things from a board level, the governance that goes with that and the responsibilities that go with is a completely different experience.
Rana Nawas: (30:03)
And it must be a little intimidating when you’re on sort of an all male older board while you’re on a learning curve, but you also have to deliver value.
Najla Al Midfa: (30:16)
Absolutely. I completely agree with. I think with Sheryl Sandberg, you can choose to agree or disagree with her approach, but I completely agree with what she says about having a seat at the table. I didn’t shy away because I was the only woman or because I am the youngest. I was always there at the table and if I had an opinion, I wasn’t afraid to share it. And I think that’s why that takes courage the first few times because as you said, these are people who’ve been on the board much longer than I have. They’re older. There’s obviously a sense of respect there as well. So I absolutely work within that framework. There’s always respect there for the elders. But if I do have a point, I’ve learned as a board member, it’s my responsibility. This is a public organization and if I see that there is something that needs to be changed then the onus is on me, as a board member, to actually state that. Yes, it was difficult. I’ll admit. It’s a board of, you know, older men. It’s mainly Emiratis or men from the Gulf. And I wasn’t really used to working in that environment. But I have to admit, they also were very receptive. I mean, I don’t know if one can be completely gender blind, nor do I think that’s necessarily the right thing, but I never felt left out because I was a woman. I always felt included in the conversation. They all sought my opinions and they continue to do so. And we’ve actually built a very good relationship so now there’s a relationship of trust and of friendship as well. U.
Rana Nawas: (31:48)
How many board members are there?
Najla Al Midfa: (31:50)
There are, if I’m not mistaken, seven.
Rana Nawas: (31:54)
That’s a great and highly unusual situation. You know, because the data and the research…we know what happens in the course and we know what happens in a room when there’s less than 30% women.
Najla Al Midfa: (32:04)
Yeah, I think that’s the other responsibility that’s on me. And that’s what made me really happy. We had our elections a year ago or perhaps two years ago, I’m losing track of time now, but one of the things that the chairman told me specifically was ‘please try to get some of your other friends, women, to apply. We want to see more women on the board.” So they’re actively trying to increase the number of women on the board and act actively spoke to a few women to try and get them to submit their nominations. And it definitely helps. It would certainly help to not be the only woman in the room. I think it definitely gives you a lot more confidence when you know there’sat least one other woman in the room. But I was very proud when he asked me last year to try and get more women on the board. It showed that they had opened up their mind to that change.
Rana Nawas: (32:57)
Well, it showed that you are delivering value.
Najla Al Midfa: (32:59)
Rana Nawas: (33:01)
I’m going to come back now, if I may, to resilience because I’d like to drive it towards practical tips that you have for our listeners on how to cultivate resilience.
Najla Al Midfa: (33:10)
Yeah. So I think when it comes to cultivating resilience, I think whenever there’s a situation that doesn’t really go your way, being willing to step back and understand the learnings. So rather than taking it personally and letting that fester, use it to actually change. So not taking it personally and using it as a learning opportunity and to continuously look at these bumps along the road as opportunities to grow. So that’s one of the things. So I think, like I said, resilience is a mindset. And so to change that mindset, you need to change the way you actually perceive these bumps along the road.
Rana Nawas: (33:50)
And how you perceive failure.
Najla Al Midfa: (33:52)
Rana Nawas: (33:53)
Perceive when something takes a different turn.
Najla Al Midfa: (33:54)
That’s why I’m never really sure whether the word “failure” is the right word because things don’t always go your way, that’s life. But if you continue to see this as a failure and identify with that failure, you’ll never feel worthy. And I think that needs to change. You know, I think that sense of self-worth needs to be there. It needs to be strong and these bumps along the road should be seen as opportunities to just strengthen, learn and grow. These are opportunities for learning rather than failures.
Rana Nawas: (34:26)
Yeah, I think Oprah actually said something around “failures,” that they are just a way for life to tell you to go in different directions.
Najla Al Midfa: (34:34)
Exactly. Absolutely. So that’s definitely one of the things that I would suggest in terms of cultivating resilience. The other thing to cultivate resilience is also to have a growth mindset, to always, irrespective of what life throws at you, constantly look for ways to develop yourself and to improve yourself. This is one of the things, I think, that guides me as a person; I’m always looking for opportunities to learn more. The world, as we said, is constantly changing. And the ones that survive will not just be as the saying goes, “the survival of the fittest is actually those who will be able to adapt to those changes.”
Rana Nawas: (35:13)
Najla Al Midfa: (35:15)
Exactly. Adaptability. And so I think that goes hand-in-hand with resilience. If you can adapt yourself to the new realities, it helps build up the resilience required when things don’t really go your way.
Rana Nawas: (35:28)
So you’re talking about continuous education.
Najla Al Midfa: (35:29)
Upskilling yourself. One of the things that I really believe is that you are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with.
Rana Nawas: (35:37)
I always say that! I love that!
Najla Al Midfa: (35:39)
And I think that’s the learning; it doesn’t necessarily mean going and sitting through a course. But just surrounding yourself by people who you learn from. And by the way, when I say people who you will learn from, I don’t mean these are people who have higher IQs, you should be at a gym with someone who’s fitter than you and learn their tricks on how to get fitter. Or it could be someone who is more emotionally intelligent or even a child who has something to teach. So, there’s always something to learn from the people around you.
Rana Nawas: (36:06)
I love that. What a great place to end, Najla. Thank you so much. Where can listeners find you?
Najla Al Midfa: (36:11)
I think the best place to find me would either be on my Linkedin @NajlaAlMidfa or on Twitter as @Najla_AlMidfa
Rana Nawas: (36:16)
And of course through Sheraa.
Najla Al Midfa: (36:19)
Of course – Sheraa Sharjah.
Rana Nawas: (36:19)
Brilliant! Thank you so much for your time.
Najla Al Midfa: (36:23)
Thank you. Thank you, Rana.
Rana Nawas: (36:25)
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