Dubai: Ghada Sawalmah is a trailblazer for women
A hospital CEO, she says the UAE’s support encourages women like her to break the traditional glass ceiling
Over a year since it first struck, the Covid pandemic has affected people around the world in different ways and presented challenges unlike any that have been encountered in recent history. In times like these medical and frontline workers who are at the forefront of the battle against Covid-19 have risen to the challenge and are helping us stay safe through their dedication and hard work.
As the CEO of a hospital that was just about to have a grand launch in Dubai when the pandemic struck, Ghada Sawalmah knows only too well the difficulties and challenges of planning new strategies and leading frontline staff in the wake of this devastating virus.
In an interview with City Times, Ghada, who has been working in the healthcare space for over nine years and has extensive experience and knowledge of hospital management, talks about how she dealt with the onset of the pandemic and how heading a hospital means setting an example for women entrepreneurs and achievers in the region.
Gargash Hospital has the distinction of being the first female-owned, multi-specialty, tertiary care hospital in the UAE with primary focus on women and childcare and it launched in the difficult time of the Covid pandemic. What were some of the challenges that you encountered as CEO and what are the lessons you have taken away from the pandemic, both personal and professional?
After becoming operational in October 2019, we were fine-tuning our internal processes and gearing up for the grand launch in the first quarter of 2020. That is when the pandemic struck.
It was a truly unprecedented and uncertain time. Being an upcoming hospital, we had to make a lot of adjustments to our patient flow management, employee management as well as facility management. Though we were short on resources, we still rose up to the challenge of accepting Covid patients and successfully treating them.
The staff had to keep abreast of the treatment guidelines which were being updated almost every other day. The PPEs were in high demand, but short in supply; so, usage of PPEs had to be optimised and sourcing had to be intensified. With all these changes happening around them, the frontline staff were under tremendous pressure and stress. They not only had to worry about the care of the patient, but also that of themselves and their families.
It was a collective effort and the determination to overcome the hurdle that got us through these difficult times. All the staff rose to the challenge by taking extra workload, stretching beyond the typical working hours, and often going beyond the call of duty. When the revenue graph did not follow the projected path, the stakeholders stepped in to offer support.
It’s the testing times that bring out the best in us, not only individually but also collectively. The experience during the pandemic reinforced my belief in my strengths and ability to lead a team as large as mine and to provide support to them. I’m very proud of the way we handled such a curve ball thrown at us as a new healthcare provider on the block. And I’m excited to see what more is to come.
As someone with so many years of professional experience in the healthcare sector what were your thoughts on taking up this position?
Gargash Hospital is the realization of a dream that my mother, Dr. Husnia Gargash, had. It was born out of our deep desire to extend the same world-class care and support given to her patients at the IVF Centre in Sharjah to a wider community in Dubai.
Transitioning from leading a clinic to leading a multi-specialty hospital was definitely not easy. Apart from the difference in the scale of operations, the multiple disciplines (Projects, Bio-medical, HR, Finance, Medical, Operations, Marketing, Business Development, Facility, etc.) that demanded your attention, time and energy seemed daunting and exhausting in the beginning. Equally challenging was managing the trust and expectations the customers, the vendors, the whole team and most importantly, the Board.
But I was up for the challenge. My past experiences have taught me that with hard work and perseverance, anything is achievable. Being involved in the project right from the planning and construction phase brought in a great sense of ownership and accountability, which was carried forward when the hospital went operational.
One of your roles is maintaining effective and collaborative relationships with staff that inspire loyalty and good work. In your experience what is the importance of establishing a good equation with staff and what are some of the qualities required to see this through?
There’s a big difference between being a boss and being a leader. To be a successful leader you must be with your team and hear them out and support them wherever and whenever they need your support. Having one-on-one relationships with them so that you are aware of what they are, how they contribute and how you could contribute to their individual growth is the kind of practice with which you can build a reliable and loyal team. It’s not only about your growth; it’s also about their growth. It’s all about growing together.
As a woman one always has harder battles to fight in the professional world as compared to men. The UAE is known to be a haven for women entrepreneurs and professionals with encouragement and support given in every way possible. How has the country shaped your growth and what are your thoughts on the UAE?
Being an Emirati, I feel very proud of the UAE. The kind of support that the government has given to women in the UAE to achieve their dreams and goals is really outstanding. Thanks to the visionary leaders of the UAE, today the country provides women with the best-in-class education, amenities and growth opportunities, which still remain a distant dream for many women around the world. The recent amendment empowering women to play a greater role in listed companies as board members is truly commendable, and is something that other countries can emulate. This would encourage more women to break the traditional glass ceiling and aim for higher echelons in the business world.
Medical professionals have come into the spotlight even more than before with the onset of the pandemic and we have seen some inspiring stories of frontline workers doing what they can to keep us safe. How do you feel about being part of the healthcare sector, that people are relying on now more than ever to get them through this difficult time?
The healthcare sector has always been a part of my life to an extent. With both of my parents being doctors, I know the kind of sacrifices that the medical profession demands. Once you realise that these sacrifices make a patient smile, or bring joy to a family, or help life flourish, there is nothing more gratifying. This has always pulled me closer to wanting to be a part of this world and helping in whatever capacity I can.
Respect for healthcare workers has increased. We are here for the patients and their needs and support them in times that may seem stressful and dire. We are the comforting arms that they trust their health with.
Who are some of the people who have been sources of inspiration for you throughout your life, both personally and professionally?
My mother, Dr. Husnia Gargash, is my biggest inspiration – both personally and professionally. She is an amazing leader and a phenomenal mother. She recognised my potential and always pushed me to go further and for that I will always be grateful.
As someone who is fond of reading is there any book in particular that you revisit from time to time, one that is your favourite?
With the onset of the pandemic and still leading a relatively young hospital, my time has mainly been consumed with work. But when I do get a chance to read, I like escaping into fiction to take away from the stress, although the last book I read was more biographical, The Oil King: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich. It’s a book that I found intriguing and quite relevant for different aspects of life especially since I have taken on my role as CEO. It lets you look at the world from multiple facets and assess them individually.
We read an interesting piece in a fashion magazine about your interest in jewellery which you referred to as ‘portable art’. When did this interest begin and what are some of the favourite pieces that you own?
I’ve always been a lover of jewellery. The fascination started when as a young girl I used to go with my grandmother to the Gold Souk every Friday. She taught me the nuances of the trade — the value of the jewellery item, the details to look for, and how to assess each piece’s value. I have quite a few favourite pieces, and it changes according to my mood. The stones speak to you, and the piece speaks to me when I choose to wear it, it adds to how I’m feeling that day.
One of your interests is racing fast cars which is quite fascinating. How do you explore this hobby in the UAE?
I’m a part of the Arabian Gazelles ladies supercar club, which is an elite club of like-minded strong women, who share the same passion for cars as I do. I always enjoyed fast cars and engines, and when I found this club, we connected instantly. I could now have track days and be in a safe environment racing with different cars. We meet every now and then, either on race tracks or outside for some special events.
Lastly, what message would you like to give aspiring women entrepreneurs in the UAE about following their dreams?
There is no better time than now to explore your dreams in the UAE. Your dreams are yours and yours alone; only you can achieve them. The nerves and anxiety should be thought of as fuel for what you can achieve and will help you feel even more accomplished once you have attained your goal. Work hard and persevere, and the fruits that you will reap will be well worth the hardships and hurdles you may find on the way to your goal.