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In times of great uncertainty, inspiring people have an important part to play in the cohesion of society. Their personal success stories can provide both food for thought and motivation at the same time. At the age of just 34, Sara Al Madani has already carved out quite the reputation as a fashion designer, serial entrepreneur and inspirational role model. Hailing from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Al Madani’s drive, confidence and fierce independent streak stood out from a young age. She set up her own fashion brand at 15 with the aim of changing how Arab women dress, and her unique, modern take on the abaya has attracted fans across the Middle East and Africa.
But success in fashion was never enough for Al Madani. She has also founded a diverse range of other businesses. There’s Social Fish, a marketing and social media consultancy, and Proposal Cupid, an events business for all things wedding-related. Al Madani is also involved with a medical device supplier and a restaurant in Dubai, while her most recent venture is a platform for personalized video messages from celebrities. In recognition of her efforts, Al Madani has served as a board member of the UAE Ministry of Economy’s SME Council and the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In our interview, Sara Al Madani discusses her desire to stand out, why she strives to break down gender stereotypes and how motherhood has transformed her business as well as her private life.
Sara Al Madani, you were only 15 when you set up your fashion business – not exactly your typical teenage hobby. What was your motivation?
Sara Al Madani: It’s difficult to say. I think it’s maybe because I wanted to be financially independent. Every time I wanted something, my dad would tell me that I had to work hard to earn it. So I thought, okay, but why should I work hard for my dad to earn it from him? Why can’t I just earn it myself? Then one day I was in the car with my parents and we drove past a huge sign advertising a shop for rent. I just looked at it and thought, ‘I want this’. I kept on visiting it over and over again until I actually got the deal. I took several jobs behind my parents’ back: I modeled, I sold soft drinks in the mall, I did so many things to collect the money I needed to pay for the shop.
What was it like – did people understand what you were trying to do?
Sara Al Madani: Starting to work at a young age in this region definitely went against cultural norms. I know people do it in other countries, but the UAE was pretty young when I started. It was definitely not normal or familiar but I loved it because it made me different. I had a story to tell that was different to all the kids around me. And I always knew that I never wanted to blend in. You stand out when you love how different you are. If you ask me what I want from this life, I always say, “I never want to be forgotten.”
Free yourself from the stereotypes, they only chain you to the ground. Just keep going.
Is that what success is for you – doing something that means you won’t be forgotten?
Sara Al Madani: Success to me is about doing things for myself and then using that to do things for others. We rise by lifting other people. If you find your passion, your path, then you can become successful. You can obtain knowledge from life. But what are you doing with that for others? It's important for me to be successful, to involve other people and to give something back to them.
What tools do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?
Sara Al Madani: One of the most important ones is personality, which a lot of people forget about. They think entrepreneurship is about having a great idea or a lot of money. But if you don't have the right personality, then you won’t last. To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to mend and bend your personality; evolve it in a way to fit. An entrepreneur is someone who’s willing to do anything and everything to reach their goal. It takes a lot. Entrepreneurship really isn’t easy.
How do you deal with adversity and difficult circumstances when they arise?
Sara Al Madani: First of all, I give myself 48 hours to physically take it out of my body. That might mean going to the beach or going up a mountain to just scream and let it out. We need to understand that anger is a physical energy in your body. You need to let it go physically. So I give myself a green card for 48 hours. After that it's all about discipline. I sit down and analyze where I went wrong. That’s how I change, grow and evolve. I feel like I've learned so much because I dived into things I didn't know how to swim in. I make sure it’s about me, though. I don’t focus on other people or what they've done to me and victimize myself. That's where failure either breaks you or makes you: you decide.
Every risk is well worth it, whether it works or not, because everything in life is a lesson.
Would you say you’re a risk-taker?
Sara Al Madani: Yes. Every risk is well worth it, whether it works or not, because everything in life is a lesson. If the risk I took didn’t serve me – lesson learned. If the risk I took served me – amazing. I don't overthink a lot. Look at it this way: When you do something, there's a 50:50 chance it will work out. Why does everyone in society cling to the 50 percent it won’t? I’m someone who clings to the 50 percent it will.
After starting out in fashion, you’ve become increasingly involved in technology. What’s behind that shift?
Sara Al Madani: I was at a conference once when someone said that the tech world was made for men. My immediate thought was, ‘Well, I’ve got to get involved in this.’ So I went diving into the tech industry and now two thirds of my companies are tech-related. I want to be in tech because I want to be an ethical tech entrepreneur. I keep hearing about how tech is going to replace people. But this is removing the element of humanity. I don't want to do that. I want to be a tech entrepreneur that sticks to their ethics.
You’re a big advocate of breaking down gender stereotypes.
Sara Al Madani: The number one thing that I've done is that I freed myself from the stereotype of what I should or shouldn’t be doing as a woman: how a woman should only be working in feminine fields; how a woman should just be at home raising kids. None of that resonated with me. I believe in gender equality and I believe that you go out there and get whatever life's giving you. We all deserve a chance.
How has motherhood impacted your career and the way you work?
Sara Al Madani: Ever since becoming a mother, I’ve become a better leader because my empathy and sympathy switches are turned on for life. I have a better balance between my emotions and my rationality. When I was pregnant, a lot of people told me – many of them women – that once you become a mom you can forget your dreams and your goals: your main job becomes being a mom. But then I realized that a child doesn’t just need a mom, a child needs a happy mom. How is a mom happy if she's not living her dreams or striving for her goals? Since giving birth to my son, I now have seven companies. Before my son, when I was alone and had nothing but myself in this world, I had one company. Motherhood inspired me to try and build a legacy for my children.
Photos: CNN; Author: Geoff Poulton; Video: CNN