Sara Al Madani is adding strings to her bow by the minute.
It’s hard to believe Sara Al Madani would ever doubt her purpose in life, or worry there was something else that she should be doing.
The 31-year-old Emirati entrepreneur is not only bursting with confidence, but the very definition of an entrepreneurial whirlwind. Al Madani has a multiple ventures on the go, including the eponymous fashion house (formerly Rouge Couture) she launched when she was just 15, a new tech company, a creative consultancy, a restaurant opened last year and the 2018 12 Emirates calendar, which she dreamed up with two friends.
But it wasn’t until she spoke at the Global Citizen Forum in Montenegro last year that it hit her. “My purpose is to serve,” she says. “Basically to get involved with refugees, homeless kids, women who are abused and raped and all that.”
In the meantime, while she works towards those bigger goals, she has another big project on the go: despite being dyslexic, she is writing a book – title still in the works – with the aim of publishing it later this year.
After making up her own quotes for years, Al Madani plans to organise each chapter around her favourites, intending the result to be “an emotional toolbox” for others.
“This book teaches you to become a better version of you, how to upgrade your soul, your spirit,” she explains. Ten years ago, while thinking everything was fine with the four branches and 79 employees at her fashion house, she found out the business was in bankruptcy.
The sudden decline can be explained by a bad partnership, but Al Madani blames herself for not being more careful. “This was my breaking point,” she explains. “Should I quit and just go crying to people so they can save me? Or go crying to the government so they can take me out of this? Or do I just fight for this because this is my baby, my passion and my dream?”
And so that’s exactly what she did. She closed all stores bar one that remains in Sharjah, eventually focusing on selling online, and forged ahead. In writing a book, she wants to pass that fighting spirit on to anyone else who might be struggling.
“It’s not letting short-term traumas have long-lasting impressions,” she says, “because I know that this is just something that is going to happen for a while and then it’s going to go away, so why should I let it affect me? Why should I let it affect my health and wellbeing, when I know this is just temporary and I’m going to get out of it soon.”
That spirit is behind the new 12 Emirates calendar for 2018, a collaboration between Al Madani, her Polish friend Kate Siuda, who runs a logistics company, and her business partner in the restaurant, Haleema Al Owais. It came about after Siuda revealed she had initially viewed Emirati women as spoiled and unproductive.
“And then when she became friends with me and Haleema, she realised that she had it all wrong,” Al Madani explains. “That the women in the UAE are the most productive women she’s met in her whole life, and she’s travelled all over the world.”
Each month the calendar highlights one of 12 Emirati women, each chosen for their inspiring story. There is a parkour athlete who overcame surgery, an artist who overcame tradition and a woman who had to learn to walk again after a terrible accident. The trio plans to produce more such calendars in the years to come.
Al Madani, who was born to a Bahraini father and Emirati mother and is now a single mum to two-year-old Maktoum, is the youngest board member of Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and is also a board member at the UAE SME and Enterprise Council.
Fashion was always her calling, with Al Madani setting out to transform the abaya 16 years ago, when it was still mostly black and largely shapeless.
“I wanted to have more definition to it, more edge to it,” she explains of her motivation as a teenager. “So they can show the woman is strong in her traditional wear, without her having to take it off.”
She is mostly self-taught, other than learning through some internships or on the sly, watching designers work on modeling gigs. After designing thousands of abayas, and keeping one from each year she has been in business, Al Madani says she can see “the evolution of a woman” since she first set out. “I can’t explain it verbally,” she says laughing. “I go from flowers to leather to metal…”
These days Al Madani is run off her feet – just the way she likes it – tending to her various business interests. Last year she and Al Owais opened the Mamzar-based English cafe Sharbarbush, named to conjure up the Arab-favourite section of London, Shepherd’s Bush.
Ten months ago she also partnered in a new tech and production company in Los Angeles, which has 15 employees, some of them from Disney and Universal Studios. The company produces apps, games, software, hardware and robotics, on a large scale. She and her Greek business partner in the venture are planning to move the bulk of the company’s work to Abu Dhabi this year. Then there is her local creative consultancy, Social Fish, which advises other businesses.
Al Madani credits her father with instilling a strict work ethic in her and her two siblings. “My dad brought us up knowing we have to work so hard to get what we want,” she explains. “And in the end we should not let money be a priority. It is a necessity, but not a priority.” No matter what happens, Al Madani plans to keep taking risks and speaking out. As her motto goes, even if you fail, you learn.
Words: Ann Marie McQueen