Maha Al-Farhan is a pioneer in bringing clinical research to the Middle East. Recently named Entrepreneur of the Year at the third annual Women in Business Forum in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), she founded her company ClinArt International in 2001. Her company conducts medical and clinical research at both the early and late phase. The first of its kind in the Middle East, she came up with idea came while studying and working in the United Kingdom. After completing her Masters in Pharmacology at King’s College and a MBA at Imperial College in the U.K., her first job was at a clinical research organization in London.
When she returned to the UAE in 2000, there were no clinical trials being done at international standards. Since she had the expertise, Al-Farhan started approaching ministries and health authorities as well as the pharmaceutical industry to raise awareness of clinical research. "What I was saying was very new to people, quite a number thought I was inventing it," Al-Farhan recalls. "A few understood and were actually looking for people at my caliber."
She got her first contract with German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingleheim conducting a landmark clinical trial in the UAE. To this day, Al-Farhan says it remains the first and best experience she’s had. Today ClinArt has 23 employees and Al-Farhan says the many of her best employees are women. "When their children are sick for example and they work from home, I find women to multitask better and be productive as compared to male employees when in similar situations," she notes. She speaks to Arabic Knowledge at Wharton on how her passion for innovation is the driving force behind her success. Al-Farhan also provides advice to women on balancing family life and running a company.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Was it against the norm being a woman from your generation to go abroad to pursue an education?
Maha Al-Farhan: I come from a family that has very strong women. The culture in my family is that there’s no difference between a boy and girl, everyone is equal and everyone deserves a good education and career. My aunts all traveled out of their homes and went to other countries to study. So it wasn’t something new for me to leave home and go to the United Kingdom, it was kind of in the culture of my family.
The difference is that I liked innovations. I was always thinking about innovation, research and new things even in grade school. So I went to the U.K. to finish my high school, and afterwards I studied pharmacology. It’s a research degree in pharmaceuticals, not pharmacy. Some of my family friends asked why I was studying pharmacology since it’s not recognized here and told me I wouldn’t have a career in the Middle East. But I continued because it was a research subject I really liked. I wanted to combine research and business. You can’t do research without having the business background and you can’t do business without having a technical capability and that really helped me.
After my studies, I started working at a clinical research organization in the U.K. Basically I was observing everything. I enjoyed the experience and learned so much over there. When I came back to the UAE, I worked with (Ras Al Khaimah-based drug manufacturer) Julphar on a few research projects and then started my own company. I wasn’t business-minded at that time; wanted to do what I liked to do and not what generates profit. But Alhumdulillah it worked out well, it’s profitable and a new industry. I believe I’m recognized now as a leader in this industry here.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How have you maintained a competitive advantage when new companies try to copy your business?
Al-Farhan: When you have the passion, you can never stop innovating. You don’t stop at one point and say that’s it, I’m stable I’m not going to change. You have a passion and you’re going to evolve and have new ideas all the time. I was the first one to establish a clinical research organization; a few other people did the same after me. I established a chapter for the Association of Clinical Research Professionals, which is a U.S.-based society association. The main aim of the chapter was to develop more talent and educate clients, government authorities on clinical research. But for us it was genuinely an association for the benefit of all. So the competitive edge is always visible there. And then I started to train my members of staff to make sure they’re all accredited and certified in clinical research. My competitors starting doing the same a few years later which is a pleasure to me because it means we have a higher caliber of talent in the region and that’s what we need. So it’s a process, everyday you have to do something new. You have to evolve and as long as you concentrate and focus, you’ll be evolving all the time.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You said when you initially applied for a license, people assumed your business was in fashion or a beauty salon. Did you see yourself as a pioneer for women in the scientific field, especially in the MENA region?
Al-Farhan: I didn’t think about it that way. I went to the Department of Economic Development and there wasn’t any category to recognize our business activity because we were the first. So I went to the manager at the time and explained this is a research company and I can’t find us anywhere in the category of activities.
He was actually very understanding and said that this is one of the focus areas for the UAE and I’m gong to issue a category for you right away. That was such a pro-active manager, the way he dealt with our application was wonderful, he understood it and I was very pleased to hear that. It can be a process but as long as you are convinced and have the power to convince others you shouldn’t have a problem.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see the benefits in teenagers in UAE having part-time jobs in order to develop business acumen early on?
Al-Farhan: To me I think this is the way forward. It’s about teaching them the value of hard work. I think children usually like to copy parents and if their parents are hard-working, the child will most likely grow up to be a hard-working person as well. Being independent and thrown into the deep end is healthy for teenagers as long as they are in a protective environment.
Whether other Emirati families will accept that, I’m not sure, but I know that when it comes to boys usually fathers will take their sons with them to work and put them in a different department every time just to observe, hoping this will get them to learn about business and so on. But being too close to parents isn’t always healthy; they sometimes need to be on their own.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What advice do you have for women trying to balance having a family and running a business?
Al-Farhan: Wake up early really, I’m serious. If you don’t wake up early, you can’t get anything done. You can’t even look after a child if you don’t wake up early and this is something I criticize the unemployed women for, many stay up late and they don’t do much. Wake up early, from the time you pray Fajr, stay awake. You’re day will be so different and transformed. Pray Fajr, get your children up and ready for school. Right after that you’ll feel the energy in you to do everything. When you dress up and go to work, you’re already up and active you don’t need time to be activated.
Some people go to work and it takes them an hour just to wake up, you would have finished all of that early on. You can plan ahead and be home by the time your children are back from school. That is enough; they don’t need you when they’re in school. The only thing is your social life might suffer but then you have Friday and Saturday for that. I think it can be balanced as long as you keep your workload suitable enough for you.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You scaled outside of UAE, do you plan to expand more?
Al-Farhan: From 2008, when we moved our company to Dubai Healthcare City, the idea was to be a regional company. So we started to branch out to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, these are the major markets for us. But as the workload became higher, I started thinking about having more time for my family and at that time the Kuwait Life Science Company, approached me. It was in their agenda to have a clinical research organization as part of their portfolio so that was a good fit to us. I needed them to manage the company and they needed this type of well-established company. As for me as a mother, I am giving my children all the care they need. As a businesswoman, I built a very good company and I think now my life is in balance until I find my next venture.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What does UAE do that supports women entrepreneurs and what could they do better?
Al-Farhan: The UAE is a very woman friendly environment. The environment supports innovation, new ideas and in particular it supports women. I don’t feel any challenges being a woman. It’s on the contrary.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Are women taking full advantages of these opportunities in UAE?
Al-Farhan: No, they aren’t. A very small percentage is taking advantage of it, they need to know what advantages they have and grab it. They don’t know and now that I have more time to socialize, after every event I go to, one of my friends will go and establish a company. They talk to me about their passions and what they want to do; I say okay go and follow these steps and you can create a company.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are the steps to follow?
Al-Farhan: Have your idea clear in your head, know who are your clients, and what budget you need to start your company. Visit the Department of Economic Development and as an Emirati woman you can get a license within no time. It takes a maximum of one week, even for an expat.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Where do you see the UAE a decade from now?
Al-Farhan: Women are doing very well, those that have the can do spirit, and they really can do it.