Amira Sajwani General Manager of Sales and Development at DAMAC discusses why women should not be afraid to chase their dreams.
Amira Sajwani has been outnumbered by men for her entire life. However, growing up with three male siblings she was always treated equally to her brothers and she has her parents to thank for that. Her father Hussain Sajwani is the founder of DAMAC Properties and has always encouraged his children along with her mother, to be treated as equals, regardless of gender.
Like her brother Amira has joined the family business, and today, she holds the position of General Manager of Sales and Development at the real estate company; the most senior female position at the company. Amira leads a team of over 500 people and is always on a mission to keep furthering her skills and lead the company to continue to be a market leader when it comes to innovation and development.
DAMAC is one of the leading real estate companies in the UAE and the Middle East and it truly does seem like the opportunities are endless. Their most recent developments feature ground-breaking architectural projects that some may have never imagined in their wildest dreams. But this is in the DNA of the Sajwani family. They have always strived to further themselves as people and as a business and their entrepreneurial mindset which comes from their father, allows The Sajwanis to believe anything is possible.
Despite the success Amira continues to be humble and modest, taking it all in her stride. While she rarely makes media appearances or agrees to interviews, she is starting to realise the influence she may have on young women who already see her as a role model. As we approach International Women’s Day we talked to Amira about how she hopes to inspire aspiring young businesswomen as well as the latest developments at the UAE-based company.
Tell us what you are working on currently and what are the latest projects for DAMAC?
In my current role at DAMAC, I am General Manager of Sales and Development. So under me falls the responsibility of everything from the point of the acquisition of the land, up to the point of sale with a client. And that’s super exciting because as you may have heard we acquired a huge area of land very recently and we launched a new project; Lagoons, and so we have been going through the design functionality of that and we’re still working on the master planning and designing of the amenities and the types of villas, the views, the angles, etc. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been a huge learning curve. Another big project is our Cavalli Tower which launched a few months ago and we definitely have a few more very interesting things coming up in the market very soon but I can’t disclose too much yet. What I can tell you is that we do have a very prime plot close to Safa Park that we are looking to launch very soon and that will be a very interesting project and one of our trademark launches that will shine across our entire portfolio.
With a company like DAMAC it really does feel like anything is possible – would you say that is a fair assessment and where does this passion come from?
I think that this ethos comes from my father and his vision for the company and his ability to drive others around him. He will never accept anything on a first draft. Even if it’s a beautiful draft he won’t accept it and this is because he believes that you can always push for more creativity or sales or effort. So I think this belief is reflected in the ethos of the company.
In addition to that, he has always had a vision for DAMAC to be a global hospitality and real estate lifestyle brand and to achieve global status, we have to always be innovating and pushing ourselves to what might not be possible to the regular eye. And I think that’s what mainly drives this huge push behind us trying to come up with innovative and new ideas in the market.
Do you think you and your siblings have inherited this same attitude from your father?
Definitely! Unfortunately for our teams under us, we have inherited the same culture! But I must say we have a very strong team that ultimately won’t accept anything below stellar at this point.
What are some of the changes you have seen in the real estate sector, particularly in the UAE since the beginning of the global pandemic?
Surprisingly for us, the pandemic did wonders for the real estate community in Dubai. Pre-pandemic we were actually in a low point of the market where there was a slight slump after the boom that happened a few years ago. But the pandemic actually allowed the market to pick up. We saw a huge inflow of investment coming into the city and that was purely due to the way that the government handled the COVID situation by creating a safe haven when other countries were shutting down for a long time. So we need to give credit to the government for the way they handled the pandemic and we genuinely have so much appreciation for this.
The trends that we see post-pandemic are very interesting. Obviously and expectedly we saw a huge shift in demand towards villas during the pandemic and post-pandemic and of course, that comes from the fact that many people were stuck at home and wanted more space. There’s also been a huge shift in technology. This has allowed a lot of people to continue to work from home and this has pushed them to want bigger living spaces. Our smaller units that used to sell well because of a lower ticket price have much less demand now, while the demand on larger units has taken off drastically.
The trend in technology also allowed us to push a lot of our internal technological systems that help in the industry. So a lot of our applications that are user-friendly for our clients, allowing them to access their services etc. progressed massively during and post-pandemic. Another big shift in trends has been the type of investment that has started to enter Dubai. Because of the way Dubai handled the pandemic and created itself as a safe haven, as well the new laws and regulations that were set by the government throughout the pandemic have encouraged an influx of luxury demand. So we saw a lot of very wealthy people starting to buy first and second homes in Dubai with the intention of moving their families here. Our luxury segment has picked up very heavily in the last six to eight months and the recent announcement of the weekend shifting has also helped because we have people who are now more confident to move their families or businesses and still be aligned with the global market timings.
Tell us a little about your relationship with your father and your brothers and how you balance family/work life?
We are a very close-knit family and as the family expands we continue to be very close. Our weekends are spent fully together and we usually take two or three group trips a year. How we balance our work and personal lives; I’ll let you know when we figure that out! There is definitely no balance! All of our dinners and lunches are mostly revolved around business. Not necessarily what we do in the office, but more about our family business, where we want to grow, what our strategy is, what our next steps are, different endeavours that we want to enter into. We discuss all of this as a family and the great thing is that all of us are very entrepreneurial which is something we have inherited from our father, we enjoy and love the passion for work. Even my younger brother who is fourteen has his own tennis academy! We are all on the same page and our spouses are very understanding as well. So yes, we are very close and we’re able to disconnect when we need to disconnect, but it’s not that we’re forced to do this, it’s actually a passion for everyone.
This month we celebrate International Women’s Day, what does it mean to you for women to be recognised for their achievements in business?
International Women’s Day is very special to me for two reasons. The first is that it is the birthday of my firstborn and it will be her 1st birthday this year. For me to have my daughter on International Women’s Day was very special. I’m one girl amongst three boys, so growing up, especially in a culture that people can assume is not so open to women, International Women’s Day is a very special day. I would love for women to actually believe that their gender shouldn’t stop them from achieving anything. And my father believed that from day one. Growing up, there was never a differentiation between me and my brothers, we had the same rules at home, we had the same discipline as children and we were never treated differently according to gender. I think International Women’s Day is a day when we need to remind women and more importantly, young girls, that there is no difference between men and women and it’s nice to have a day in the year that reinforces and recognises this.
As a woman in a prominent position in a predominantly male-dominated world, how do you ensure your voice is heard?
I think it takes a balance between being strong and confident and actually knowing when you are educated enough to make sure that your voice should be heard. It’s a matter of knowing when your voice should be heard and when it’s a situation where you’re just trying to get your voice to be heard for the sake of it. Being a woman in the working environment does require you to earn a lot more respect at the beginning that men don’t have to earn. I do think a man can come in and demand a certain level of respect, not as in to be treated respectfully, but to be heard. Women need to earn and show that they know what they’re doing and show that they are in a position because of their knowledge and experience and that they add value to that situation. Prove yourself in the beginning and know when to pick up a battle that needs your voice. That is tough in the beginning but I think that’s OK. And I’ve been able to do that. So once you earn the respect of your colleagues or your bosses and you show them your dedication and hard work, they will listen. I think there is sometimes the misunderstanding in a work environment that a woman is not necessarily as dedicated or as hardworking because she has other responsibilities outside of the office that a man does not. And that’s OK. I make it a point to be home by 7pm every day to put my daughter to bed and if I need to come back to the office at 8pm, that is Ok too. So I think it’s about understanding and finding your balance and it doesn’t have to be the same for everyone.
In terms of women’s empowerment and gender balance, how have you seen things progress in the UAE over the past few years?
I think there has been a drastic change in the last few years. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has done a fantastic job in pushing female engagement in the workforce. In 2020 we had one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce in the world at 57.5%, and honestly, as a woman and a local citizen, I think it’s very inspiring that you see ministers today such as HE Reem Al Hashimi, HE Noura Al Kaabi, in places of power and you see them having earnt those positions. You see Emirates incubators encouraging women in the workforce, you see programmes that are dedicated to getting women into the workplace, scholarships that are being given to women to further their education. (I personally studied for five years on a full scholarship which was given to me by the government.) So I think we have come a very long way in not distinguishing between a man and a woman. I think that the UAE’s government genuinely has a vision of a very integrated community that is a global city and country and that’s amazing. It’s very inspiring for someone like me and I’m very happy that my daughter will grow up in an environment like this where she will be supported with whatever future she decides.
How do you think you can use your platform to empower and inspire others?
I am a very casual person and sometimes I don’t even keep in mind that people might recognise me, it’s not something that I think about but it is something that I’m trying to recalibrate and I’m trying to work on my social media presence to see how I can inspire other women as I have come to realise that there are women who look up to me without me even knowing.
But honestly, as a new mum, a way that I would love to inspire women is to show them that their lives don’t have to stop with their family life. I have a one year old, I love her to bits, I spend as much time as I can with her, but that doesn’t stop me from achieving my ambitions and my goals and passion at all. So I think getting that message across would be more important than any other message. It’s OK to have both, you just have to work harder at it and find your balance.
What is something you would still like to do that you haven’t done yet?
I am a big advocate of education for women in developing nations. I spent some time on this while I was at university and I’m invested in a platform that is dedicated to creating programmes in developing nations for students that can’t afford degrees. The way the platform works is that it takes a look at what the job opportunities in that country are in the next five years and it reverse engineers courses that cater to the skill set needed for these jobs. It’s called Nexford and it’s a very interesting platform.
I would also love to at some point in the future have the opportunity to mentor young girls who are in high school and still don’t know or have guidance on what they would like to do or how they would like to pursue things. That’s something I would like to do but again it’s about finding the time as any extra time I have right now goes to my daughter.
What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do?
There will always be operational challenges in what I do but I think the biggest challenge I face is actually being able to take a step back, which is something I’ve actually become better at now that I have a child. I am a slight perfectionist, as are my brothers and my father, so we all spend a lot of time making sure things are exactly the way we want them. I have learnt to try to accept that it’s OK for things to go in a slightly different direction but it is a challenge. And of course, another big challenge is managing my time. I have many different departments so dedicating and splitting my time across different priorities is definitely a challenge. I have a very strong team under me that I have built over the last two years and that helps as I know I can rely on them without having to meet them on a daily basis.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
It is a phrase from my favourite book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. The phrase is “maktoob” which essentially means “it is destined”. Although that doesn’t sound professional, I think it’s very important. As a family, we are quite religious so we do believe that things that are meant to be will be. This is one of my favourite phrases because you need to realise that yes, you need to work as hard as you can but at some point, what’s meant to be will be and everything will fall into place, so there shouldn’t be any disappointment when things don’t go the way you want then too, you just have to keep picking yourself up and doing what you have to do and let whatever flows flow and whatever doesn’t, pivot it elsewhere. This is a phrase that keeps me going.
Who is a woman that has inspired you throughout your life and career?
I don’t know if I can answer this question because there have been many women in my life who have inspired me in different ways and I have taken different aspects from them and that’s been great because it’s allowed me to reach out to a lot of different people at different times.
What is a final message you would like to send to our readers?
Like I said International Women’s Day is a very special day to me and I think that it is a day that resonates with me on so many levels because I did grow up in a house that was all boys and I work in an industry that’s all men and I don’t mind it at all! In fact, I think it’s amazing! So what I would say is that women should not be discouraged by any industry that’s male-dominated because the amount you learn from those around you is really incredible. So just learn as much as you can.