A highly successful businesswoman and philantrophist, Dr Shaikha Al Masksari’s has a 'can-do' attitude few can match
When Dr Shaikha Al Maskari, one of the UAE’s most successful female entrepreneurs, visited St Petersburg, Russia in 1993, a number of Russian soldiers shivering in the biting cold of Grand Station, caught her eye. Veterans of the Afghan war, the soldiers were homeless and starving after the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of them were amputees.
Dr Al Maskari was there as part of a US Federation of the Chambers of Commerce delegation to size up business opportunities. But she was shocked by the sight of the starving men.
“I saw these people sleeping in Grand Station in St Petersburg, where it’s very cold,” she recalls. “I looked around and there was nowhere for them to eat. So I asked who was in charge and if they had ever heard of the Salvation Army – ‘No’ I was told.”
While some would have put the upsetting image out of their head and carried on with their own business, Dr Al Maskari was moved to action. Just one month later, she had a Salvation Army-type restaurant up and running in the centre of St Petersburg, feeding approximately 220 people a day. “It served soup, chicken casserole, tuna and beef, all of which was shipped to St Petersburg from the United States,” she says proudly, adding that the Russian soup kitchen continued to operate for a few years afterwards and only closed when Yelstin came to power.
This is just one example of the philanthropy of Dr Al Maskari whose charitable achievements are matched only by her success in business. A geophysicist by profession, she took over her family’s company, Tricon Energy Operations in 1989.
In doing so she pioneered the way for other UAE businesswomen. However her first hurdle was gaining sole ownership of the business, something only men were allowed by law to do at the time.
“They told me a woman could not legally own a contracting company,” she says. “But I didn’t accept that. I pushed for what I wanted. I argued my way right to the top and I broke the glass ceiling,” she adds. “I was the first woman in the UAE to be granted a general contracting license as the 100 per cent owner of a company.”
Not only did the Emirati businesswoman become the Chairman of Tricon however, she transformed it into the highly successful conglomerate it is today – Al Maskari Holding, comprising 20 multinational firms – all of which have strong international partnerships – six with government linked corporations in Singapore, Oman, Qatar and Portugal.
So what is her advice for other women who want to succeed in business? “Firstly, don’t be discouraged by failures, they are part of life. From failing we learn how to succeed. Secondly, don’t be intimidated by challenges that are gender-related, and lastly if you believe in what you are pursuing but the legislature is against you, then push for change”.
Despite her many business achievements, it’s her philanthropic projects that she’s most proud of. In 1993, Dr Al Maskari set up a charity titled ‘The United Mercy Foundation’ which had the motto: “Mercy has no geographical, ethnic, cultural or religious affiliations’. The UMF gives financial support to hundreds of orphans in the Arab Gulf States, East Africa and India, and runs an orphanage and a home for elderly people in Kerala, India. “Why did I found the United Mercy Foundation? she says.” My dear husband, may God bless his soul, passed away in 1990 and I wanted to leave something in his memory,” she says explaining that she has two sons, a daughter, and now six grandchildren.
The doctor is also responsible for the training of paramedics in the UAE. “A few years ago I realised that my country did not have a properly trained emergency response unit, so I decided to create one,” she says. “I went to the Ministry of the Interior and presented a proposal to create a paramedic academy here. Then I contacted the Justice Institute of British Columbia in Vancouver and they provided a number of very experienced instructors to train people here.”
Today her Global Institute of Justice and Technology and the Global Paramedic and Rescue Academy provides training to the UAE Ministry of Interior in law enforcement and security. “We work together with the United Nations, and when I see UAE paramedics on TV, it’s like a dream come true for me,” she smiles.
Dr Al Maskari’s powerful work ethic stems both from her mother, who founded a number of orphanages in the region during her lifetime and who she describes as ‘dynamic’, and her education in the UK. The late Sheikh Zayed sent her to school in England when she was aged 11 and this international education has also helped her to realise her potential, despite the fact that she grew up in an environment where few women had careers.
However these days she says the future is bright for Emirati women. “Today we’re blessed. The government goes out of its way to empower women here. Yes, there are challenges, but I’ve never encountered problems simply because I’m a woman. We don’t have 100 per cent gender equality yet, but we’re working towards that goal”.
In fact she points out that being a woman in business can work to your advantage – in the sense that she is more likely to retain an ethical attitude. “As women, we’ve been endowed with ’the milk of human kindness’. Therefore we also look at everything from a philanthropic point of view. That way, you not only succeed and make money, you feel good inside.”
She also points out that she strives to maintain a balance between her personal and professional lives. “I’ve always been aware of the need to be vigilant in maintaining a sense of equilibrium between different aspects of my daily life,” she says. “I’m conscious for example of my duties to my family, which include my immediate family and my staff, partners and business associates and their families, my adopted children and my friends. And in return, I rejoice in the deep gratification of unquestionable family endearment.”
So how does she manage to do it all? “In business I avoid the trap of micro-managing. My company recruits, trains, retains and motivates our staff and they reciprocate with dedication. All of us are prone to making mistakes and so I try not fuss over small stuff whether at home or in the office. The only aspects of business I deem unpardonable are dishonesty and corruption.”
She’s aware too that life is short and so aims to enjoy every moment. “Unavoidably, everything we do is against a ticking clock,” she says. “But paradoxically, our capacity for love is infinite and we should savour every experience of living. This is what I try to do.”