“We don’t have the culture of saving in the UAE, we have the culture of spending. We have to learn to save,” says Huda Abdalla, Executive VP, Head of Emirati Customer Propositions, First Gulf Bank. Her day starts at 5 am and ends by 10 pm daily – commuting between Sharjah and Abu Dhabi driving about 160 kilometers. She is proof and a shining example that women from the region work tirelessly to enhance their own career and the future of the UAE. No wonder she is counted among the top 50 influential leaders in the GCC. Manju Ramanan speaks to the woman who is determined to convert the region’s saving habits and by 2030 help in making the UAE a financially literate country
My family always stressed on the importance of education. I wanted to do more than enjoying my life. I wanted to move ahead,” says Huda when I meet her in her plush office at SZR Dubai. She has just arrived from Sharjah and doesn’t seem ruffled at all despite the long drive. “I work from 7- 7 and if someone tells you that women of the UAE have it easy, please introduce them to me,” she laughs.
Huda grew up in Sharjah with two siblings, a brother and a sister. Her father passed away when she was eight years old and her mother kept the family together. “She was the candle who lit up our paths. She was very religious and was respected and regarded highly by the community. She was very particular that we all never missed school. If we ever missed the school bus, we were not allowed to be home.”
Huda studied Mass Communication at Al Ain University with a specialization in radio and television and did a project on live entertainment filming too. It was the year of 1995 and jobs were scarce in the region. “My first job was a part time job at a broker company that sold and bought stocks. I learnt a lot in that job especially how the international markets function,” she states. At the same time, one of her friends joined Mashreq Bank and asked her to try her luck there. “What I thought was a two month stint went on to become my career. My banking career was starting then and I didn’t know. Today it is 15 years old and I firmly believe that your career chooses you and not necessarily the other way around,” she states.
Huda then moved to ABN Amro and grew rapidly in her career. “I loved communicating with people. I understood that my strong point was that I could convince people. It is not easy to convince people to invest money – I could do that and I worked very hard at my job,” she admits. “I set an example that a woman from the UAE could work from 7 am to 7 pm and were not employees who came to work at 8 am and wanted to go home by 2 pm. I believe that the key to success is to be more than ordinary. You have to struggle and then you will shine.”
Huda excelled in her work and soon her career took another high – from customer service, her department changed to being the Acting Branch Manager. “I aimed higher. I asked myself, why can’t I become the regional manager. I worked hard and focused on my goal and it came true.”
That was the position she earned when she moved jobs and joined First Gulf Bank. “The manager, Amit Wanchoo, supported me a lot. He told me that I had the energy and the passion and that I will be a star in retail banking. A year later, I was heading another branch. In the third year of my joining I was heading 12 branches and today I have 23 branches under me. I had to move from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi – but my family wanted me and so I commute the two cities today,” she adds. “ I have spent three years of my life on the road if you take an average,” she smiles.
Huda believes that a lot of what you do in your career is a direct reflection on the way you have been brought up. “When I was growing up, me and my siblings were not exactly handed out everything we demanded. In fact we never got anything we wanted – but that helps you postpone your desire. Something we all learnt early in life.”
But does all that travel exhaust her? “I like to be positive. I head a branch and a whole lot of people are looking to me for energy and how can I let them down? They have to see that energy in me. I wake up at 5 am and wind up by 10:30 pm. The commitment takes from you age, body and soul as well. But at the end of the day I have the satisfaction of having put my heart and soul into my work. I want Emirati women to feel the same high about work as I do,” she adds.
Huda is now on the board of empowering Emirati women towards banking. She is on the Women Advisory Committee that looks after Emirati women in the banking sector. “We try and identify what the Emirati woman needs in terms of banking. We want to encourage more local women to join the private sector. As for the number of women employees in the banks, more than 60 percent are in lower positions. The trend is to work a couple of years in lower positions and then move towards jobs in the government sector – that is the mindset.”
In Abu Dhabi for instance, with support from the Youth Foundation, they have encouraged women to move towards the private sector and show them what their careers will look like if they take their private sector jobs seriously. “When you are motivating young professionals, lectures don’t work, we need live examples and my story comes handy,” she smiles.
Huda is all praise for her mentor Amit who encouraged her abilities. “In most banks the sales culture among Emiratis is not there. Amit made sure that whenever I cracked a deal it was mentioned out. ‘She’s
the one who booked one million or two million’ I implant this in the people I work with – to change the culture of people from being customer service driven to selling driven,” the challenges are many. “To be a business head is not easy. It makes you sweat. You have to motivate your team to see what you see,” she adds.
But a hectic schedule like this needs unwinding time as well. On weekends her day starts at 11 am, a visit to the gym and then lunch with friends and a coffee and shopping while Saturdays she reads and
watches television. As for vacations she takes breaks a few times every year. “I take breaks where I do nothing but lie down in the sun, get a sun tan and am absolutely idle. I lost my mother and my sister but I have friends who accompany me on my short vacations. I love the Kiri islands and Sanova Six Senses that has an open bar for chocolate and ice cream. I have been there thrice a year.”
Five years from now where does she see herself? “ I want to be known as a voice for women in the UAE. I want to motivate women to think for themselves and take their financial decisions. There are three
women ministers in the UAE. If given a chance I want to be there too,” she states.
Parents have to learn to save first. We encourage Emirati women to save. If she controls her expenditure she inculcates that in her kids. Even if 5 % of the income is put aside, it is a good beginning.
Don’t opt for loans. Lower your expenses instead. The UAE government is very benevolent. There is support in the form of free land, zero percent interest on loans for 25 years, marriage funds, medical treatments and much more. Avail your advantages that the country’s leadership has given you!