Female Entrepreneur on Achieving Success in Dubai/Middle East

Preeya Malik is an entrepreneur, U.S. licensed attorney, immigration rights advocate and Co-Founder of investment immigration firm STEP America. At STEP America, she helped expand the firm’s reach to Dubai, Qatar, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Singapore, as well as securing the building and development of several Hilton and Marriott Hotel properties across the U.S., a number of private charter schools, and cutting-edge government infrastructure and technology projects. As a businesswoman who built a successful company from the ground up, Preeya is also an expert on  navigating the entrepreneurial landscape in the UAE and the Middle East.

I had the privilege of interviewing Preeya.

Faten Abdallah (FA): How'd you get to Dubai?  What makes Dubai a unique place?

Preeya Malik (PM): When I was thinking about starting my own investment immigration firm, I wanted to enter a market that was new and untouched. Dubai seemed like the perfect place with its close proximity to the rest of the emerging markets, and the fact that people have been saving a tax free income here which would make it all the more possible for them to invest in an investment immigration program, like the EB-5 Program. Finally, Dubai is only a stepping stone for most people. Residents cannot gain a passport even if they live here for a number of years, and eventually have to move on. All of this combined made Dubai the perfect place to start up Step America!

Dubai is unique in its mix of west and east. I think that is why you find so many people here from all over the world. You get the best of the western world: restaurants, entertainment, infrastructure and technology combined with the more traditional and conservative elements of the eastern world by virtue of this being the Middle East. It makes it a special place to live in and work, not to mention a unique learning experience.

FA: What is the status of female entrepreneurs in Dubai?

PM: Female entrepreneurs in Dubai can be found everywhere and are increasingly accepted. It is an absolute misconception that women cannot work equally, own businesses in the Middle East and be successful in the same right. Many of my friends here in Dubai are female entrepreneurs in a variety of fields including: technology, philanthropy, retail, design, and business services. 

You will also find more and more mentors and female-centric groups for women in business as time goes on. I think Dubai has opened its arms to female entrepreneurs, which I think is perfect, because I believe the more exposure a community has to women in positions of power the more accepted and “normal” the concept will become and is becoming. 

FA: How can women take advantage when doing a startup?

PM: When launching a startup, women can take advantage of the sheer concept of equality. It is true that being a woman opens doors. There is so much support given to female entrepreneurs, whether we are talking about support groups, mentorship on work/life balance, special private or public sector programs which provide funding for startups or training for women in business. For example, the Dubai Women’s Business Council has programs which train women in business through the MENA region and provide funding for notable female lead startups. For these reasons, women in business are being bolstered into a position of equality with male entrepreneurs, if not being given more opportunity than their male counterparts. It is unfair to say there is any lack of opportunity for women in the MENA region when it comes to starting up a business, and therefore there is a lot to take advantage of. 

FA: What have you learned about yourself living and working in Dubai?

PM: I’ve learned that I’m a risk taker, but for good reason. The most important lessons I have taken away from living and working in Dubai is that you really can do anything with a vision and success is a direct result of the work you are willing to put into that vision. When I first moved to Dubai, it was experimental for me. I had never lived this far from home, or in a country where the culture was so different from what I was used to. I was testing the market, but was unsure as to whether an investment immigration business would be accepted, let alone succeed. The thought crossed my mind on several occasions that there must be a reason why no one else was doing this in the Middle East and we were one of the first companies to be marketing the EB-5 program.

Putting all of those doubts aside was the best thing I could do. The success we have had here, I truly believe, we could not have had anywhere else in this specific industry. It also taught me to believe in my vision, believe in what I know to be true, and work toward that (despite any external negativity) and I absolutely will reach my goals. 

FA: Compare and contrast the business world of Dubai with the US.

PM: The business culture in Dubai is largely different from that of the U.S. I am speaking from experience as I had also been a partner in my own law firm in the U.S. prior to coming to Dubai. In the Middle East, business is based on two things: (1) reputation and (2) relationships. The best business efforts in the UAE are made when networking and building relationships, because if you can even get one credible or reputable individual to vouch for you or your company, it can take you a long way within the community. 

Consumers in the Middle East exhibit a crowd mentality. For them, speaking to previous clients or hearing good things about your company from another person in the community (even if t’s someone not personally known to them) means a lot and the best marketing here is word of mouth. That is why building a good reputation and strong relationships matter in the business world in the MENA region.

I think in the U.S., although networks and reputation matter to a certain extent, it is less so. You can still build a good foundation for your business based on finances, spending on marketing, and just having a good product. Individuals make their decisions more based on personal research and not on a community movement. This makes information, advertising, and getting the word about your company out to the community as a whole rather than individuals networks, key.

FA: Tips for women in starting businesses in Dubai.

PM: Come prepared. This means mentally and financially. Starting a business in Dubai is expensive from licensing to living to marketing. Therefore, it is important to have enough money tucked away to give yourself a strong start and to get everything organized in a timely manner. The laws here are important and proper licensing for your business is even more important. 

Don’t back down when faced with adversity. At the end of the day, we are in the Middle East. Just like anywhere in the world, you will find people who are not necessarily keen on working with a woman or taking the advice of a woman. Especially in sectors like finance and legal. This simply comes from one’s own mindset and the belief system. It is important not to take it personally and to continue moving forward. A few people refusing to work with you because of your gender, has no bearing on your capabilities and there are plenty of people who will appreciate your skills set whether you are a woman or not.

Take Advantage of PR. Since Dubai is still a growing market, concepts like women in business are also still gaining traction. Because of this, many people will be willing to give you great PR and to tell your story or the story of your start up. 

Network and Join Groups. There are so many groups in Dubai which have the focus of supporting female entrepreneurs and women in business. Join these groups and network. In Dubai, it is important to build relationships in getting the name and purpose of your company out in the community, and groups like these are a great way to do so. 

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