Raja Al Mazrouei: A role model for Emirati women empowerment

The mother of two has been powering Dubai's innovation with DIFC's Fintech Hive, which has accelerated more than 200 startups since its inception



Photos by Shihab
Photos by Shihab

By Joydeep Sen Gupta

Published: Wed 14 Sep 2022, 11:12 PM

Last updated: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 2:12 PM

Raja Al Mazrouei, Executive Vice-President, DIFC Fintech Hive, is a role model for Emirati women empowerment in the 21st century as the young nation leapfrogs towards the Next 50.

The unassuming Al Mazrouei, a doting mother of two young boys, Ali and Omar, has consistently figured among the 100 Power Businesswomen in The Middle East according to Forbes, one of the top 50 Most Influential Women in the Middle East Finance according to Dow Jones, and has even been named Mena Fintech Leader of the Year by Entrepreneur magazine.

She reflected on her formative years at Al Karamah in Abu Dhabi city. “It's a blessing to be born in the UAE and grow up in a country that has been evolving every single day", she said.

"Our nation is an inspiration for the rest of the world because the UAE is a young country that has achieved so much in such a short span of time – and the same applies to us, the Emiratis. We were born in a culture and in a community that supports creativity, innovation, progress and quick development.

Though we faced several challenges, we’ve always overcome them with our sheer grit, determination and dedication because of the great leadership. Our visionary leaders have enabled us to understand how to make the best use of infinite opportunities to hone our skills and develop as a community, and build a strong and resilient nation in a fast-changing world,” she said.

Her brush with technology in the 1990s — fuelled by her “curious mind about this new science” — set her a class apart among her peers. “I was one of the first Emirati women to specialise in technology in the 1990s", she said.

Technology wasn’t the in-thing those days as many of my peers were involved either in the field of education or business management. Initially, I started my career as a computer programmer. I started taking on more complex roles in technology and infrastructure management, and the implementation of network systems after I moved to Dubai from my native Abu Dhabi,” she said.

In retrospect, 2014 was a watershed year.

“That year, I got the opportunity to join Harvard Business School in an advanced management executive education programme, and there I was exposed to more advanced options,” she added.

Fortunately, she was exposed to infinite possibilities and probabilities for leveraging her education, and launched DIFC Fintech Hive three years later in 2017.

“We launched DIFC FinTech Hive to enable financial institutions to tap into technology, and co-create opportunities with entrepreneurs and fintech startups that were interested in coming to the region from all over the world. I leveraged my relationships and networks to promote the entity,” she said.

The figures speak for themselves about the coming-of-age of the fledgling entity under her able leadership.

“So far, we’ve accelerated more than 200 startups through our different programmes. Our startups raised more than $500 (Dh1,836.50) million in funding; we’ve launched more than 100 products in the MENA region through these startups.

In 2019, we launched AccelerateHer, a female-focused career mentorship accelerator that aims to equip young aspiring executives with the necessary tools and experience to broaden their knowledge and reach in the industry, and play a more active role in shaping the future of the financial landscape.”

Data showed that more than 80 women were accelerated through this programme, of which around 20 per cent are Emiratis.

Al Mazrouei, who loves travelling around the world and imbibing global cultural traditions and social mores, attributed her stellar career path to her “supportive family”, who encouraged her to persist with academics to quench her thirst for knowledge.

However, she chooses not to single out her own family, but “the Emirati culture at large”.

She said: “We are by and large caring and supportive of each other. Inclusiveness is a hallmark, which is evident from the fact that the UAE is a home-away-from-home from over 200 diverse nationalities."

Travelling has widened Al Mazrouei’s horizons, and her learning experience is being constantly enriched through people, books, videos and films.

“Critical thinking is the key. Perhaps the only way to hone this skill is by exploring new topics and seizing opportunities in a brave new world driven by robotics, artificial intelligence, Web 3.0 and innovation,” she said.

Al Mazrouei is optimistic about the next generation of Emiratis. “I’m hopeful for the next generation, who will remain connected to our glorious culture. I encourage my young sons — Ali and Omar — to learn technology, which has changed the world.

They remain open to other options of learning, and I'm not pushing them towards one or the other. But I can see that the future holds tremendous opportunities for the youth in technology as well as financial services and economics, because that's what contributes to the overall GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and will shape unique opportunities for the next generation,” she signed off.

A stellar career

Al Mazrouei encapsulates the breakneck growth and development of her eponymous ethnic Arab origin — the main Bedouin section of the Bani Yas, who lived in the settlements of Liwa in the UAE’s largest emirate, Abu Dhabi.

Till the first half of the 20th century, the Bedouin livelihood largely depended on camels and pearling boats amid the decline of the breeding of camels and date plantations.

In less than half a century, Al Mazrouei showcased her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for progression, which have been the driving force behind her achievements and continue to fuel her ambition to further the UAE’s position as an innovation destination on the global stage.

She has held senior positions in the information technology sector, operations, and marketing teams at various organisations, including Dubai Holding, the National Bonds Corporation, and the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).

Her marketing and communications expertise has enabled her to bring brands to life and foster communities to create business opportunities, and societal impac,t for the growing fintech sector.

Al Mazrouei has more than a decade of experience in the financial services sector; she has developed the FinTech Hive, an ecosystem for fintech entrepreneurs and stakeholders in Dubai. It is the primary contributor in the Emirates and has ranked amongst the Top 10 global FinTech hubs.

She has been instrumental in bringing together leading financial institutions, government entities, technology partners, venture capitals, and entrepreneurs to realise the common goal of driving the UAE’s innovation agenda and shaping the future of financial services. Al Mazrouei has contributed significantly in building a vibrant and dynamic community of over 350 startups operating in DIFC.

She is an executive graduate of the Harvard Business School (HBS), serves as a member of the Harvard Business School MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Advisory Board, and is Vice President of the HBS Club for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.

She also holds positions on the boards of Dubai FinTech Ventures and Al Masraf Arab Bank for Investment and Foreign Trade. Lastly, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government.

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