Her Excellency Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi is a leader in the publishing space.

From being the founder and CEO of Kalimat Group to being the first Arab woman to become president of the International Publishers Association, Sheikha Bodour is leading the way for women both in the region and on a global scale.

Talk us through your career.

I first began working in publishing 15 years ago. In 2017 I set up Kalimat Publishing Group, initially to create high-quality Arabic children’s books. I then established the Emirates Publishers Association with some Emirati publishers, which started my journey into the regional publishing sector, leading eventually to international work across many committees in the International Publishers Association (IPA). Two years ago, I became the President of the IPA, and only the second woman-up until now. Throughout my career, my focus has been to support women professionally and socially. So, in 2019, I set up PublisHer, a platform dedicated to helping women succeed in the publishing sector and senior positions based on merit.

What inspired you to enter the world of publishing?

As your readers may know, my father is a big champion of reading and culture. He developed Sharjah around the idea that culture and reading are essential to healthy and vibrant societies, so books were a huge part of my life from an early age. In this context, I had an eye-opening conversation with my firstborn daughter, who complained that the Arabic children’s books I was reading to her were boring and old-fashioned. She was much more attracted to English books then, with modern stories with beautiful or fun illustrations. It was a wake-up call for me as a mother, and I decided to do something to change this situation. That’s how I entered the world of publishing.


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You’re the CEO and founder of Kalimat Publishing Group. What made you want to become an entrepreneur?

I think when a powerful idea drives you, something else almost takes over, so I didn’t think necessarily I wanted or planned to become an entrepreneur. I just knew I had to create attractive Arabic children’s books. When I began to follow my instinct, the process unfolded. I believe when you have a passion for something, it’s an exciting pro- cess to make that idea a reality. I always encourage people to listen to their callings and live outside their comfort zone from time to time, as amazing things could happen. My publishing career is a living example of this philosophy.

How did your childhood/growing up shape your outlook on life and approach to business?

My upbringing has had a profound influence on my life. My parents instilled in me and my siblings the love of books and the values of understanding and respect. Books and learn- ing allow people to live in other people’s shoes and take a deep dive into their contexts, which is a vital step toward acceptance and tolerance of differences. More importantly, it leads to an appreciation of the richness of the human experience, no matter what the language or colour of people. These values have in- influenced my approach to business. I am deeply rooted in my culture, but I am always open to listening to new ideas, I empathize with the challenges of others, and I accept differences. This has helped me to develop a balanced view of the world and allowed me to work successfully at a global level.

You’re a trailblazer in the publishing world. What’s the key to success?

Focus and determination. Throughout my 15 years in publishing, I thought of stopping and moving on to something else because the hurdles were not only complicated, but they didn’t need to be there in the first place. But my determination to continue and focus on the mission helped me deal with those moments and keep moving forward.

In terms of books, what are the most special reads you have collected over the years?

I have eclectic tastes, but to summarize, I would include some of the Kalimat Group titles, which I am proud we published. I also love reading new young Arab writers and sometimes discovering old texts that have only been recently uncovered and published. Elif Shafak is a good friend and someone I admire deeply, so I always read her books. There are also some excellent young writers coming out of Africa too. I love reading their perspectives and about their lives through books. There is a real drive now in the publishing industry to have a much wider variety of voices, so I am very much drawn to reading about different cultures, female writers, and other perspectives. I’m also very interested in spiritual matters and books that try to help us understand ourselves and the planet, so new thinking and ideas always appeal to me.

You founded PublisHer in 2019. Talk us through this concept.

The seeds of PublisHer first began when I started travelling internationally on behalf of the International Publishers Association. I was often quite shocked to be the only woman at senior-level meetings. That’s quite something for a woman coming from what is perceived to be a male-dominated culture. When I spoke to my female peers from different parts of the world, I realized we had similar stories. There was and still is a great deal of frustration because women made up most of the publishing workforce, but the picture at the senior management level told a completely different story. So, we began to meet, at the sidelines of book fairs, to see how we could help each other as women in the industry. It evolved into PublisHer, a movement and a platform that continues to go from strength to strength in empowering female publishers throughout their careers. We launched a few initiatives to address the main challenges facing female publishers. For example, we launched the diversity and inclusion practices tool kit, which helps publishing businesses assess their hiring and HR practices to implement a more inclusive approach. We also launched a mentoring and a reverse mentoring programme, through which leading female publishers and young talent learn from one another through a structured mentoring programme.

A major milestone for you was being appointed to lead the International Publishers Association (IPA).

It’s an incredible achievement for yourself and for the region. Would you agree? I was delighted to be elected as President of the IPA. For me, it is a testament to the strength of my upbringing and my roots in Sharjah and the UAE. I do feel a sense of achievement, even more so because I was only the second woman in this role and the first Arab Muslim in 125 years. I sincerely hope to inspire other women in publishing or elsewhere to strive to achieve their ambitions or make the best of their gifts and talents.

“The Arab world has some incredible women achieving great things, so it’s time to get the message out there and continue creating a truly diverse and inclusive international community in all sectors.”

Through this role, how do you hope to represent Arab women on an international scale?

I think what is important to me is to send out the message that it’s okay to be yourself and to have a successful international career. If I can be a role model for others or just inspire one single woman to step forward and find her place on the international stage, then I would be so proud. We are a global family, and there are room enough for other points of view, opinions, and beliefs – the most important thing is that we respect and try to understand one another. The Arab world has some incredible women achieving great things, so it’s time to get the message out there and continue creating a truly diverse and inclusive international community in all sectors.

As well as being a businesswoman, you’re also an avid philanthropist. What causes have you been involved in over the years?

I focus most of my philanthropic work on literacy and book accessibility. Through the Kalimat Foundation, which we established in 2016, we bring Arabic language books into the hands of children who have been the victims of war or forced displacement. We also pay particular attention to visually impaired children by including books in accessible formats such as braille or audiobooks. I am happy to say that our work has brought a smile to the faces of thousands of children in the region and other parts of the world. Most importantly, we gave them the powerful tool of literacy, so they have a fair chance to turn around their lives in the future.

Would you agree the UAE really is pioneering women in business and other organisations?

Absolutely. Over the past ten years, we have seen a great deal of change with female ministers and ambassadors appointed and pioneering businesswomen in all sectors emerging on the scene. The UAE has successfully created an environment where women are accepted and welcomed in these roles while ensuring a healthy balance with our culture and values. This is why UAE has become an example now in the region and why others are looking at our story to inspire positive change and progress in their communities.

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