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Emirati women leaders: how they did it – Dr Noura Al Dhaheri

[Aurora50 template] Dr Noura Al Dhaheri, head of the Digital Cluster at Abu Dhabi Ports and CEO of Maqta Gateway
Suzanne Locke 23 August 2021
Ms Al Dhaheri is the head of the Digital Cluster at Abu Dhabi Ports and has also been CEO of Maqta Gateway (Abu Dhabi Ports’ digital subsidiary and the developer and operator of the first purpose-built port community system (PCS) in the UAE) since its inception in 2014. 
She was the first woman in the Middle East to receive a doctoral degree in Seaside Operations and is one of the founders of the Emirates Digital Women Association , having also served as its vice president. She was chosen by Abu Dhabi Ports as one of the first women to take part in Aurora50’s Pathway20 board accelerator programme.
She sits on the boards of several Abu Dhabi Ports subsidiaries, including the Logistics Cluster, Abu Dhabi Maritime and the Abu Dhabi Maritime Academy.

Can you tell us a bit about how you were raised, and your family values? 

I was raised in Al Ain in a very loving family. Education was a priority, even from an early age. One of my family’s core values was that you should learn and be prepared to give back to your country and your people. 
Sadly, my father passed away while I was still young, which meant my mother took on the primary role in our household. She gave me a strong example of an independent female figure, self-reliant and devoted to the care and growth of her family. 

Who most influenced you growing up? 

My mother was the earliest influence, as was my elder sister. I was also inspired by HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak , chairwoman of the General Women’s Union (GWU), president of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood and supreme chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation (FDF), for her work in inspiring, educating and championing women across the UAE.

Where and what did you study? 

I graduated from the Al Sarooj High School in the scientific stream; my favourite classes were biology, chemistry, computer science and geology. I went on to the United Arab Emirates University for my bachelor’s degree, starting in healthcare but then moving into software engineering. I was always fascinated by robotics, e-commerce and system engineering. I entered programming competitions, was selected as a Microsoft partner for the region and ultimately become a Microsoft intern. I even met Bill Gates as a reward for developing an award-winning advanced software system application.
  I chose software engineering because I felt it was a challenge in a male-dominated field. I enjoy challenging norms and breaking barriers. I was the first woman in the Middle East to receive a doctoral degree in Seaside Operations and have a master’s in engineering and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Engineering from Masdar/ MIT. These three qualifications have proved to be the cornerstones of my career.

What other training has been most useful to your career? 

I’ve had the privilege of participating in a range of initiatives, including the first Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed scholars’ programme at New York University Abu Dhabi in 2009. I also worked on the project to build the first Arabic-speaking robot, and have had training in critical thinking, media training, presentation skills, public speaking and negotiation. I had the privilege to be invited by the International Maritime Organization to present our experience in the single window and present to the audience the importance of it.
In 2018, I received the Entrepreneur of the Year award from International Bulk Journal (IBJ), and the Seatrade Maritime Award for integration of women in maritime. In 2019 I received the Seatrade Award for the young personality of the year, and the Emirates Women Award for Leadership. My port community system project was also awarded in the resilient infrastructure category at the World Port Sustainability Awards by the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH).

What was your first job? 

My first role was with Abu Dhabi Ports: my PhD research became a project that led to an internship there. In turn, this led to the opportunity of establishing Maqta Gateway, the developer and operator of the first port community system (PCS) in the UAE, and the Advanced Trade and Logistics Platform (ATLP) in Abu Dhabi.

Did you advocate for yourself from an early age? And who has championed you along the way? 

I’ve always believed you need to be your own strongest advocate. I was a student ambassador at university, and have always been comfortable and confident taking on public engagements. There have always been mentors in my life – I’ve been lucky to have people like teachers and professors on my side throughout my career. At primary school, it was Dr Aisha Dismal, at United Arab Emirates University it was Dr Saeed Al Nafar. My mentor at Masdar was HE Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and my advisor Dr. Ali Diabat . In Abu Dhabi Ports, my main mentor during my internship and my career is Captain Mohamed Al Shamisi , the Group CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports.

Do you mentor people yourself?

I motivate my team, and push them to always give their best. At university, I supported young researchers with their projects, helped them to find their way around campus and to balance their social, research and family requirements. During my career and academic life, I have mentored over 25 professionals in my network. It is something that is dear to my heart as an educator, and something that I always enjoy doing.

How has living in the UAE enabled you?

Our leadership is a primary supporter and creator of opportunities for women at all levels of society. I often think that women in the UAE are the luckiest in the world because of the opportunities at hand and the resources available. Despite the young age of UAE as a country, we are always at the forefront of innovation and global advancement. This is something that made me always think of developing my skills and completing with my self to do better, because my country aspire and deserve only the best. 

What is your next career goal? 

  My immediate priority is to continue expanding Maqta Gateway. In addition to that, I see myself in a board capacity across a range of enterprises, which will enable me to add more value across multiple capacities. I always welcome opportunities to educate in well recognized universities, as this is something that I have always loved. 

How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way you work?

The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, and made us realise that digital is essential rather than a luxury. It has enabled us to continue operations without missing a beat despite the global disruption and boosted productivity through connectivity. Abu Dhabi Ports really benefited from being an early adopter of technology, as it enabled us to have a highly agile response to the pandemic. 

How do you negotiate the work-life-family juggle? 

The idea of having a work-life balance is not a concern to me. When I’m with my family, or at my work, I always give it all. 

What’s your motto in life? 

Believe that you can, and you’re half a way there. 

What do you tell the girl who wants to be a CEO today? 

Learn, gather information, create a network and build and work with a great team. Your passion as a female is your strength, and that is what makes your team a family. Women are prime examples of transformational leadership, and with care, passion, decisiveness, and commitment they are driving their team as a family towards their goals.

Where can we find out what you’re up to online? 

For me personally, LinkedIn and Google Scholar and of course all Abu Dhabi Ports social media channels .
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