Dr. eng Suaad Al Shamsi defied the odds when she became the first Emirati woman to work as an Aviation Engineer. After graduating from University in the UK, Al Shamsi returned to the UAE to begin a career in Aviation.
She soon joined Emirates as the first female Emirati aircraft engineer in the UAE and continued her growth in the industry, defying the odds and inspiring other women to do the same. After almost fifteen years in the field Al Shamsi now works as a senior manager and technical advisor for one of the biggest aviation projects in UAE, the Midfield Terminal Project, in Abu Dhabi, with Etihad airways.
A member of the Emirates Association in the UK and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Al Shamsi is one of the founders of the Women in Aviation organisation’s Middle East chapter. She is also CEO of L2L (learn to live), a consultation company that inspires other women to achieve their dreams and help them along the way. Al Shamsi is a mother of two and balances a hectic work schedule with bringing up her two young boys, as well as taking time to share her journey with other young women. She has received many awards and high-level recognitions, for her work and her role and for being a creative woman in her field, and has been acknowledged by Sheikha Fatima bint Khalid Al Qasimi for her work. We discover more about Al Shamsi’ journey to achieving her dreams and why she hopes her story inspires many other women to do the same.
What first inspired you to follow a path in aircraft engineering?
Firstly, I wanted to show the world that a woman can work in any field, no matter the environment, the place, the timing, the conditions or the workload, as long as she is passionate about it. I always loved to play with aircraft and cars and honestly, I preferred them to toys, dolls and makeup! I did try, but I could never get as excited and happy as I was playing with aircraft so I decided to pursue a career in the aviation industry.
What were some of the challenges you faced wanting to pursue a career in this industry and what support did you have from those around you?
I faced a lot of challenges. It was an industry with less than 5% women, and at first no organisation would accept me to study aeronautical engineering with them. I was told “you are dreaming”, “no way”, “it’s impossible” – it was so negative. But I had a lot of support from my family, especially after they saw how badly I wanted it. I joined The American University of Dubai and I remember one particular man who helped me and I knew then that my dream was to be an aircraft engineer. He helped me to reach out to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and I joined his Headship Development Program “Creating Leaders for Tomorrow.” I travelled to The UK to study Aeronautical Engineering and Aviation Management, plus I did a degree in Aerospace. I remember His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum telling me; “in the UAE, nothing is impossible”. That was the biggest support I got.
Talk us through a day in your life.
A day in my life never stops! I am on the go from 5 am until 10 or 11 pm at night. I am a working mother with two children but I have great support from my partner, as well as my sister and incredible mother – who have played the roles of both a mother and father after my father passed away when I was just one year old. She taught me to understand my responsibilities of praying, preparing my son’s breakfast and lunch box before going to school, drinking coffee while driving to work and calling her every morning.
After working as an aircraft engineer and advisor for fifteen years, I am now part of a huge project working on Abu Dhabi’s new airport terminal as a Technical Advisor. My day starts with meetings with external or internal stakeholders, followed by a site visit. Then I have to prepare and review documents, etc. It’s a very busy time working to complete the project. Then when I get home, I help my son Yousef with his homework, and play with my other son Sultan and then we all eat dinner together.
Additionally, I run a consultation company; L2L Learn to Live which helps women to progress in their careers and supports the young generation on their path within the aviation industry. I also make sure to keep up to date with all my emails and comments I receive from my followers and readers and make sure to answer them as much as I can.
In a male-dominated industry, how do you ensure your voice is heard?
By having confidence in my own value. Knowing that there are chances in any opportunity or meeting, and not being afraid to ask questions and speak up for others and for myself. I continue to develop my skills and to embrace innovative ideas and challenges and make sure everyone knows what I am capable of.
There must have been some setbacks along the way – how do you overcome them and stay motivated?
Setbacks are a natural part of life, especially when you are juggling many things. I give myself time to understand what causes them and I try to persevere and stay strong and motivated. Sometimes it’s important to take a break and take care of ourselves. Health comes first, mental health, physical health and emotional health. By building new healthy habits I aim to overcome the feeling of setbacks. I rest, change my food habits, exercise to get the adrenaline running and I try to figure out what caused the setback and work on a timeline to overcome it, as well as assessing how I can avoid them in the future.
Every day I try to do something positive to ensure I am enjoying my life. I put one positive thing every day into my busy schedule and I try to make it different. Sometimes I’ll go jogging with my boys, sometimes it can be cooking a different type of food, changing the way I start my day rather than having breakfast in the office, I have it at home, for example, or I drink my coffee from a different, colourful cup to make me smile and feel positive. Yes, it’s hard to get back up after a fall, but developing a positive system has helped me with my wellbeing and allows me to get back on track a lot easier.
The UAE is a country with two of the best airlines in the world – what opportunities has living in the UAE offered you in your career?
I am proud to not just be living in the UAE but to be from this country. I’m proud of my country, myself, the people that live here and every company in the aviation industry that is now well-known globally. As I mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to study abroad thanks to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This included the full coverage of expenses, which gave me the chance to start my education and ultimately, my career. Opportunities within the country from financial income as well as global exposure allowed me to continue working in this field for 15 years. Each company I have worked for has given me training and the real knowledge I need.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love just doing what I love. I’m very passionate about aircraft. I love to fly in them and I also love getting up and going to work on them! My career comes with a lot of benefits. As a person, I don’t like to be stuck behind a desk and this job allows me to be out and about. No two days are ever the same. Getting to work with my hands and use my brain makes my work exciting because every maintenance task can be different. I get to work with some great people and I have made so many friends. In my free time, I like to be outside in the fresh air out on the sea, or in the park.
How do you hope to inspire other women with your journey?
I always love to see women supporting and encouraging each other to love what they do, but first to love themselves. I hope to inspire any woman or girl, it doesn’t matter who or where they are, everyone has a story to tell. I hope to inspire them to believe that nothing is impossible if you have faith, passion, and the encouragement to follow your dream.
I have been asked many times why I like to give speeches or dedicate my time to conferences with women and I tell them: When I was young no women were working in this field and now it’s my time to be there for others. So I take the responsibility of being a role model very seriously and I hope to inspire other women to work in aviation. Being an inspiration for women to pursue and follow their dreams is an amazing job I don’t do it for money, a smile and good words enough for me.
What makes you feel empowered?
I don’t believe women need empowering, I believe all women are born to be leaders. I feel empowered when I remind myself of my journey. Being independent at a young age and committing to my dreams. Taking care of myself makes me feel empowered, being compassionate towards others, accepting and understanding myself as well as other people. I commit to learning one lesson every day and this has helped me to realise how incredible and powerful I am and helped me to feel empowered by connecting my brain, my heart and body in order to stay passionate, healthy and positive.
Who is a woman that inspires you?
The first woman in my life is my mother; she inspires me to this day. She made me what I am today. She shows me how to love my life no matter the challenges. When my father passed away she was alone at the age of just 26. She inspired me a lot. She taught me to always treat others as I would want to be treated, to stand up for those who need it, especially women, and to stay strong in the face of adversity. She taught me how to be motivated even in hard times, to keep smiling even when I am crying, and to believe in myself even if there is no one to believe in me expect her. She is my role model and my inspiration every day.
Someone else who inspired me is Sheikha Fatima bint Khalid Al Qasimi who is known for being the voice of women in the UAE. She is a supporter of women’s rights and has spent decades working towards the development of women. She taught us how to be empowered and inspired without forgetting our faith, culture or gender.
What does success mean to you?
The definition of success differs from a person to another, but for me, it is making the world a better place by pursuing goals that I find meaningful and that I’m passionate about. As well as making a difference in the lives of others and to be recognised as one of the most successful in my field. Plus having the love and respect of family, friends and colleagues. And most importantly; doing what I love.
What are the biggest challenges you face in what you do today?
The biggest challenge I face is the constant need to multitask and find a work/life balance.
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
My biggest achievement is first that I am persistent and have worked in the aviation field for 15 years. At first, no one expected me to last more than a couple of months or years. I have continued educating myself. I completed my DBA in Aviation Management as part of my plan to teach the new generation who dream to enter the field and I published my first research paper this year called “The Impact of COVID-19 in the Aviation Industry and Future Career. “
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to be the first Arab researcher in the aviation industry and also to teach in a university.
How do you deal with criticism?
For me, criticism can be good or bad. It is something that happens and we should be able to evaluate the reason for it. So firstly I listen and then decide if I should give my feedback or not. Sometimes I just smile and say thank you to avoid any confrontation. Silencing the critic can leave me with enough headspace to work on and care for myself. If the criticism is coming from my manager or leaders I evaluate what they have said and assess the feedback and show ways of how I can solve it and also control my emotions, especially if is it related to work.
How would you feel if your children wanted to follow in your career footsteps?
I would be happy, but I’ll be happy with any career they choose to pursue and I’ll always support them to follow their dreams.
How do you balance a demanding career with being a mother?
Having a demanding job and being a working mum of two boys is tough. Being fully committed to work and family is an impossible task for many working mums and it can also be exhausting. I have learnt over the years not to feel guilty and focus on the positive things in life and the ways that my work is contributing to my family. They know how much I love my job and how passionate I am. I try to make the best of every day for the whole family, including my children and myself and I try to extend my love to them us much as I can throughout my day. I schedule my whole week in advance, and maintain commitments with my kids as using calendars, list and plan ahead and connect with other working moms helped a lot and I feel am not alone.
What is the motto that you live by?
One motto we should all live by is “No regrets”. Don’t let life pass you by, waiting for things to happen, remind yourself constantly that you have dreams. And you are going to see them happen.