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Emirati women leaders: how they did it – HE Dr Maryam Buti Alsuwaidi

[Aurora50 template] HE Maryam Alsuwaidi, chief executive officer of Emirates Securities and Commodities Authority (Esca/ SCA)
Suzanne Locke 23 August 2021
As Aurora50 works to help the UAE reach its target of one woman on each listed company board, we looked for inspiration to the women who have already reached the highest echelons of UAE business. How did they do it? Who championed them? Who inspired them? What was their career path and education? What would they say to the girl today who wants to become a CEO? Here, we speak to HE Dr Maryam Buti Alsuwaidi.
HE Dr Maryam was made chief executive officer (CEO) of Emirati markets regulator the Securities and Commodities Authority (ESCA) in October 2021, the same year ESCA made it law to put one woman on every listed board in the UAE.
With expertise in compliance, corporate governance and securities regulation, and a background in law, she is also still a registered lawyer at the UAE Ministry of Justice. She joined ESCA in 2002 as a legal advisor.

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

I was raised in a close-knit family and my aunt was very strict about education: she always encouraged us to study more. We were not allowed to skip school at all. I grew up understanding the importance of education, discipline and hard work – and graduated high school with a distinction.

Who most influenced you growing up?

From my family, my aunt. She was like a mother to me and, even though she was illiterate, she was a smart woman and handled her life and wealth efficiently. And Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, fondly known as mother of the nation, is the role model for all the women in the UAE – and so it is for me. 

Where and what did you study? 

I grew up in Dubai and graduated from Etihad High School. My favourite class was English. Then I went to the UAE University for my undergraduate degree in Sharia and law. It was my late father who forced me to study law, even though I wanted to take English literature – and he was right to; this was the perfect major for me. 
Besides gaining a wealth of legal knowledge, I learnt the key skill of how to identify and process information to reach a well-crafted conclusion. Critical thinking and discipline are skills I have put into practice in all domains of my life, while knowing how the law works is vital to the running of any business, no matter what sector.
Continuing higher education was always my plan so, when I started my second job, I won a partial scholarship from the UK government’s Chevening Scholarships to take my master’s degree in commercial law from the University of Wales. The scholarship only covered tuition fees but, thanks to my excellent job record, my employer also gave me a special exemption for study leave, even though their policy did not permit it at that time. 
More recently, getting my doctorate in law from the UK’s University of Leeds was a big challenge. I did it while working as deputy CEO at the SCA and mothering two children. I had to travel back and forth to the UK until I got my PhD – and surprised my family and colleagues. 
For me, learning has no limit or end. I have not only passed this dedication and passion for education to my sons, but also encouraged my subordinates and colleagues to pursue higher education.

What other training has been most useful to your career? 

My education has been in law and finance and I have done a multitude of training, conferences, seminars and workshop in these areas, most related to my field – capital markets and their regulation. 
I also recently got a diploma in anti-money laundering (AML) as, from 2018 until this August, I project-managed the UAE’s country-level mutual evaluation process in AML and CFT (counter-terrorist financing) procedures for the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global AML body. 
Now I’m interested in learning about new technologies in the sector, such as fintech, blockchain and virtual assets. 
I have also learned from being a board member: Al Etihad Credit Bureau since 2016; the Corporate Social Responsibility UAE Fund since 2020; the vice chair at Hawkamah Institute for Corporate Governance since 2012; and a board member at Abu Dhabi Corporate Governance Centre and the Boards of Insurance Authority from 2016-2020.

What was your first job?

I applied to a newspaper ad and got two offers: one as a teacher, the other as legal researcher. I chose the latter, and my first job was as a senior legal researcher at Dubai Educational Zone. I oversaw any administrative breaches of employees, as well as the teaching staff. 

Did you advocate for yourself from an early age?

I have always believed that I should invest in myself and my education, and the rest will follow. Work speaks for itself. Hard work, done intelligently, always gets recognised. 

Who has championed you along the way? 

I observe and learn from both colleagues and close friends. Sometimes I seek guidance from them, when I need to make major decisions. My role models have always inspired me to reach greater heights. Experience plays a big role – I believe we are in a continuous journey of learning in life.

Do you mentor people yourself? 

As we grow, learn and develop, it is natural to have the urge to share your experience. I have always shared my experiences while mentoring, both in my role as a mother and at work, with colleagues.

How has living in the UAE enabled you? 

As an Emirati woman, I must say that I am lucky. We are blessed to have country leadership which outright supports women in all ways possible. This support started with late Sheikh Zayed (may he rest in peace), the late president of the UAE. 
The state adopted a comprehensive vision to empower women in all roles, either as mothers or wives or students, to open the door for them in the fields of culture and science and to provide opportunities in public life to contribute to nation-building, and the support has since continued with HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. 

Which industries in the region do you think are doing the best at attracting women to senior roles? 

Women are well suited to jobs in the service economy, and the UAE is a country with a large developing service economy, be it media, healthcare, financial services or healthcare. In all these areas, women play an important role and will continue to enhance it further. 

What has been your most important life lesson?

In my view, the most important lesson is to be an avid learner, a student of life. We are living in fast changing times, at work and in life, so it is important to keep the learning gears open. It helps you understand the pulse of a subject faster, makes adapting easier and gives confidence in your work and personality. 
If you fail at something, it is never a full stop but a comma. Such instances provide you with the necessary pause to reflect and re-engage. To give an example, at an early stage in my career I applied for a job and didn’t get it. At the time, I thought it a failure. But now I am happy about the steps I took afterwards: they have changed my career path and lead me to my current position and work and to all the learning journeys that I have embarked.

What are your life or career highlights? Any regrets? 

I was listed in Forbes’ Top 100 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen in 2016 – 2018, and I was among Forbes’ Top 10 Women Heading Government Departments in 2018. I have also appeared on the screen of the Nasdaq stock exchange building in New York in 2016, as part of their two-week women in technology campaign.
I was also leader of the SCA international competitiveness team, which achieved top rank at both the board of directors’ effectiveness indicator at the Institute for Management Development (IMD) world competitiveness yearbook , and the investor protection indicator in the World Bank’s ease of doing business report for the Mena region. 
And I was appointed by HE the Minister of State and Financial Affairs, ex-chairman of the higher committee for supervising the mutual evaluation, as manager for the UAE’s project management office (PMO) for FATF Mutual Evaluation from 2018 until 2020 and to be the point of contact with the FATF Secretariat throughout the evaluation until the UAE’s FATF mutual evaluation report (MER) was published in 2020.
As such, I do not have any regrets. God has been very kind to me. 

What is your next career goal? 

I do not believe in setting goals for particular positions. One should seize all opportunities to work and contribute.
If you are alert, aware and focused, and can make a difference to everyone with whom you interact personally and professionally, while maintaining a great work/ life balance as both a family member and corporate head – that to me defines success.

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

The pandemic has affected us all, making us realise the momentariness of life and reminding us not to take for granted even our normal routine, which can get severely compromised. However, the opportunity to work from home allowed me to put in more hours and it highlights the importance of using electronic means to facilitate working anytime and from anywhere.

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

I have two grown-up sons who have both finished university, one specialising in infrastructure engineering and the other one in information technology.  
For a woman, work and family are both critical and need to be delicately balanced. I have been able to manage by prioritising one over the other at different times, depending on how critical my presence and inputs are to each then. At times, work takes precedence; at others, I need to be there for my sons.

What’s your motto in life?

Invest in yourself and never give up. I like Nelson Mandela’s saying: “I never lose. I either win or learn.”

What will your legacy be? 

Hopefully to be the first woman CEO of a financial supervisory authority in the GCC and to effectively lead the UAE’s capital market sector through these turbulent but innovative times.

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

Nothing is impossible; follow your dreams. Being a woman should never be a constraint. Rather, it is a natural strength of perseverance and dedication. Being patient, having professional conduct and discipline, with tangible achievements – these things lead women to success. 
This is what has kept me going. It is not easy, but it is all about you and your belief in yourself, your capabilities and the passion for what you are doing.
It is crucial for women to create a support system, whether with family members, friends or colleagues. Women also need to proactively take on challenges and risks to stand apart from others. Experiment and try new challenges. It is refreshing to see and inspires other women to follow.

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

You can find out what’s going on at the SCA via Facebook , LinkedIn and Twitter .

How will you be spending your National Day?

The UAE National Day day means a lot to me, as it is the day of the establishment of the Union of the Emirates, under the leadership of our beloved Father of the Nation, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. On this day, we pay our respect to all the visionary leaders of our country who have always strived to bring untold happiness for their people. To me this day is a reminder of the enormous hardships and struggles our leaders and forefathers.
Read other interviews with Emirati women leaders: