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Building solid foundations: Emirates Foundation’s Maytha Al Habsi

Building solid foundations: Emirates Foundation’s Maytha Al Habsi

Maytha Al Habsi, CEO of Emirates Foundation, discusses how the organisation is helping young people become leaders of the future


The word ‘change’ has become synonymous with the UAE since the union was formed more than 46 years ago.

The country’s rapid growth and development has seen the seven emirates change beyond all recognition since the 1970s, and that change is still evident around us today as we enter into a new era for its governments, residents and businesses.

Among the most important changes at the present time are those based upon diversification and Emiratisation. Finding new ways to drive economic growth, and encouraging more Emiratis into the private sector are two key strategies for the long-term success of the UAE, requiring new ways of thinking and placing a huge reliance on the country’s youth population.

One group looking to prepare young people for this future is Emirates Foundation – an independent philanthropic organisation set up by the Government of Abu Dhabi to facilitate public-private funded initiatives to boost youth development and welfare across the UAE.

Part of its mission is to help young people bring positive change and a sustainable future to the country through a variety of means including volunteering, education and developing enterprise.
In December last year, the foundation appointed a new CEO, Maytha Al Habsi, who follows in the successful footsteps of previous incumbent Clare Woodcraft.

Having been with the organisation since its launch in 2005, Al Habsi has been party to the many changes throughout the UAE, and understands the challenges facing young people.

“Today more than ever, as we enter this new era of diversification and Emiratisation, young people need a lot of support to make sure they have, for example, analytical competencies,” she says.

“They need to be able to think systematically and long-term, challenge the norms, find good solutions and be good leaders who can lead in a crisis and manage the difficult times along with the good ones.

“These are skills that young people need at a personal as well as professional level, yet they are not necessarily things that are taught directly in the formal education.

“Education is changing globally and in the region, but it is not a quick process and the results don’t show overnight. However, a lot more can be done to make sure we equip young people with the skills they need to navigate the complexities of the 21st century.

“We consider ourselves lucky having leadership that strives to place UAE education at the global forefront. Our chairman, HE Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, told the World Government Summit last month that the UAE will revamp the education system to produce bright young graduates that are ready for the age of artificial intelligence and the next industrial revolution.

“There is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done to help young people have the self-confidence, self-mastery, support networks, peers and mentors that they can use to help them thrive professionally and personally and that is exactly the kind of skill sets that we are trying to offer to young people through our programmes.”

With 13 years of helping young people in this way, Al Habsi says that the foundation has engaged directly with more than 120,000 young people in the UAE – always keeping youth development at its core in a bid to address social and economic challenges faced by young people.

“We apply a ‘market-based’ approach to youth development,” she explains.

“Our six key programmes operate as social enterprises, deploying business principles for the creation of social value. Rather than surmising the needs of youth, we listen to them. We undertake market research and respond to the targeted needs and challenges of youth between the ages of 15 and 35. Based on this we develop solutions to real problems with a focused operational portfolio.”

The organisation’s programmes include Esref Sah, which helps develop financial literacy; Think Science, which provides young people with solid science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills; Kayani, aimed at supporting disadvantaged and unemployed Emiratis; Kafa’at, which teaches leadership skills and encourages social entrepreneurship; Takatof, a volunteering programme to engage youth with their community; and the SANID emergency volunteer response programme.

And while the tangible social benefits are clear to see, there are also plenty of advantages to those looking to flourish in the private sector and wider world of work.

“We deliver many well-structured programmes to help prepare and equip youth to not only access private sector, but also gain the skills and confidence to start their own social enterprises,” says Al Habsi.

“For example, we have created an internship portal as part of Kafa’at, through which we offer young people the opportunity to work with multinationals and large organisations, thereby gaining hands-on experience and knowledge within different sectors.”

Other beneficial initiatives include a three-month mentoring programme which has connected 67 mentors to more than 180 mentees since 2015, and the 100 Youth Club, with instructs 100 young Emiratis to become trainers and peer mentors in the field of personal financial management.

A key aspect of Emirates Foundation’s success in these areas and others has been its extensive list of high-level partnerships.

Rather than work in isolation, the organisation has teamed up with more than 30 public and private sector partners including the likes of Etihad Airways, Shell, ADIB, du, Waha Capital, ADNOC, Aldar, Al Gurg Group, PepsiCo, and many more household names.

Al Habsi admits that “partnerships with the public and private sector will always be a key strength and strategy of the organisation in terms of driving social impact,” and explains that there are also many benefits for private entities looking to join forces.

“Partnership is based on a two-way win-win approach whereby we work on creating new compelling partnership opportunities for the private sector that will not only deliver social value to the country and community, but will provide a direct return on their businesses within the UAE,” she says.

“This will mainly be done through providing top talent, locally trained and skilled youth for the labour force, providing new innovations within specific industries … and providing up to date insights, data and information about UAE social economic changes and requirements across the board that will inform business decisions.”

Al Habsi emphasises the “need to collectively collaborate as a nation” through such partnerships, especially when it comes to areas of national interest such as the take-up of STEM subjects – an important focus for Emirates Foundation.

“The Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy adopted in 2015 by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, was a turning point in the country’s march towards progress, economic diversification and prosperity, and aims mainly to prepare the UAE for a post-oil era,” says the CEO.

“What we are trying to do through Think Science is highlight the relevance of science and technology to the daily lives of the youth, and give them a glimpse into its infinite possibilities for the future.

“We need to start planting these seeds today so that young people embrace STI, which will be essential to their careers and to their future.”

Under the Think Science banner, a nationwide competition and fair is staged annually to encourage young people to develop breakthrough science-based innovations in areas key to the UAE’s sustainable development. So far 12,000 people have been engaged, with a record 1,880 projects submitted for its 2018 edition – an increase of 36 per cent over last year.

This kind of innovative thinking is also encouraged through the foundation’s entrepreneurship-angled initiatives. And with entrepreneurship long being encouraged by the UAE’s leadership, Al Habsi is pleased to see a growth in young people’s willingness to start their own companies.

“Social entrepreneurship is still in its infancy in the Arab world. However, over the past decade it has gained a lot of momentum and we have seen its potential emerge, driven by young social entrepreneurs’ socially responsible mind-sets and impact on socio-economic growth.

“We have seen an increasing number of young people move into the direction of social enterprises, with innovative ideas to many of the region’s complex social problems. And today, young people are much more interested than the older generation in establishing start-ups. If you ask young people whether they would rather be a bureaucrat or an entrepreneur, most would choose the latter.

“At Emirates Foundation we have been heavily engaged in promoting this interest, not only through our programmes but also specific initiatives such as our social enterprise week, engagement with the Hult Prize, and our Emirates Awards of Arabian Gulf Youth.

“We have also restructured our Kafa’at programme in an effort to help youth become more entrepreneurial and develop business ideas – specifically in the field of social enterprise.

“Moreover, as part of our commitment to further developing a cohesive ecosystem to support social entrepreneurs, we have launched the Youth SME Network, targeting young Emirati innovators who are looking to create social impact at scale. The purpose of this network is to identify potential social enterprise ideas in the UAE and incubate or accelerate them through an entrepreneurial ecosystem that will include mentorship, training, coaching and other services such as business development assistance, marketing links and legal and funding support.”

This social element reflects an ethic that is at the crux of Emirates Foundations’ efforts – volunteering.
Citing the influence of the UAE’s founding father, Al Habsi says: “Volunteerism is at heart of our mission at Emirates Foundation, which was established to pursue the legacy of our founding father, His Highness Sheikh Zayed and his unwavering commitment to philanthropy.

“We believe that volunteering provides the ideal platform to build a strong foundation of high ethics, values and integrity amongst youth which is the basis of a not just a cohesive society but a strong economy and nation.

“Through our volunteering initiatives we provide young people with the skills they need for a changing world, empowering them through trainings to adopt volunteerism as a way of life, and allowing them the opportunity to give with a sense of purpose that is disconnected from paid employment on their path towards achieving their highest potential.”

Driving the foundation’s volunteering cause is the programme, launched in 2017 – the country’s largest youth volunteering network, with thousands of young people taking part.
And after a debut year of success, the initiative will develop throughout 2018.

“Building on the huge success the platform has achieved in such a short period of time, we launched this February ‘Pioneers of Volunteering – Our Youth on Legacy of Zayed’,” says Al Habsi.

“This is part of the Takatof programme for social volunteering and a unique addition to that supports youth’s creative ideas and potential incubation.

“ will also be launching new specialised volunteering opportunities to serve people of determination, engaging unemployed youth, and youth who live in rural communities, allowing them
the opportunity to volunteer and serve their communities.”

Outside of volunteerism, Al Habsi has a clear strategy in place for the next three years up to 2021.
She identifies four key areas that she and her team will focus on, the first of which is to empower young people to contribute directly to the National Agenda for Youth and the UAE Vision 2021.

The second point is to digitise programme delivery to elevate the participation of youth across all Emirates Foundation programmes, while the third is to engage the private sector in youth
development through compelling partnership opportunities that create business and social value.

Finally, Al Habsi aims to establish a research and knowledge data hub to identify and measure youth needs and challenges.

But there is more for 2018 in particular.

“As part of our vision for the Year of Zayed, our plan is to upgrade Emirates Foundation’s youth leadership strategy to be executed across all programmes,” Al Habsi says.

“Having already established youth at the forefront of leadership across our programmes – from volunteering and emergency response to financial literacy, and from entrepreneurship and job readiness to science and technology – our plan is to take this to another level.

“No one knows the needs of youth better than themselves. Therefore it is our responsibility to provide youth with the right platforms and empower them with the right tools to access these platforms and realise their aspirations as the country’s future leaders. It’s time for young people to take these opportunities to the next level.

“My vision is to create a ‘pay it forward’ culture where youth not only take on leadership roles within the community, but also share the knowledge and skills they acquired to empower their peers to take on more leadership roles.

“These are the seeds for truly sustainable development.”


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