Partnership by Design: Introducing WiN

WiN, The Women’s Innovation Network, is the culmination of a powerful set of ideas and beliefs focused on certain fundamental forces; the power, drive and grit that women in professional roles bring to the world of business. WiN is the brainchild of the international leadership at Shaw, having realized the power that women in key roles bring to their business model, and have embraced the idea of empowering women to become influencers within their respective regions.

“WiN was founded with the intention to play a key role as a powerful influencer in this traditionally male dominated design and construction industry,  and to bring about the change we wish to see”, says Emma Burdett,  Regional Director of Global and Strategic Accounts at Shaw and founder of WiN Middle East. She’s brought together a group of people with one goal in mind: to support the development of women in the local design and construction industry through resources and opportunities that help them drive successful careers.

The key group driving this initiative includes Diane Thorsen, Elaine O’Connor, Anne Barron, Yullianna Porter, Meher Fazal, Kristin Lee, Annamaria Lambri Reem Habib, Carly Dubery, Grace Van Beusekom, and Najoa Hishmeh. This unique panel of women will influence, innovate and inspire. It’s a deliberate mix of women from different industries pertaining to a design scenario: “Our thinking is rooted in a noble desire to support each other to be the best that we can be, and then collectively influence and inspire all women in the region and expand this globally. We generate ideas to affect change and through these ideas, we prosper as individuals and holistically, so do the families and communities to which we belong.”

Within the local design industry, women are often faced with an unexpected awareness of their gender and the challenges that come with this realization. WiN is of the opinion that although these moments can be potentially uncomfortable, they don’t hold back a woman’s chance of success within a traditionally male dominated industry. In the long run, they hope to provide educational resources, career focused training, volunteerism and networking opportunities, with the help of an accomplished network. More importantly, it also serves to offer insights from their peers, thereby creating a much needed opportunity for young women to be guided by these role models. In essence, they are hoping to make a real impact at the grassroots level by partnering with the American University of Dubai (AUD) by actively engaging with students, as well as by presenting a bi-monthly lecture series which would encourage public participation.

Not just another Networking Group

WiN - Women's Innovation Network
From the Left: Diane Thorsen, Yullianna Porter, Elaine O’Connor, and Anne Barron

WiN isn’t another networking group. It’s a unique opportunity for women to connect with real power and purpose to inspire rising stars within the local context. The intention is clear and focused – to discuss ideas and then engage with the wider community to shape and influence the industry.  WiN understands that positive interactions and discussions between focused individuals not only inspire new ideas, but also raise awareness of where they can shape and influence for the benefit of all women.  Through these interactions, the members constructively assess challenges within the region and formulate ideas to reach the wider community for all to realize their full potential.

According to Grace van Beusekom, Humanscale MENA’s Country Manager for Dubai, Qatar and Oman, WiN provides a much needed platform catering for women from all sectors within the design industry. “This is exactly what I was missing in this market. A platform for women to connect, collaborate, and to have in-depth discussions about meaningful topics… where you leave every meeting feeling inspired and empowered. WiN allows us to come together and with our shared knowledge and experience make a real difference for the women in this region.”

Yullianna Porter, Associate Director at Allen Architecture Interiors Design (AAID), echoes a similar sentiment. She points out that, for her, WiN began as a place for women to network; however, it has grown to become so much more than that. “I am grateful to be amongst so many talented females that welcome and support each other. In the future, not only I hope we can continue to grow and expand as a group, but I also aspire to build and strengthen the community around us.”

Supporting Yullianna’s take on WiN, Meher Fazal (Portfolio Manager for Microsoft Saudi Arabia, as well as Central and Eastern Europe), sees WiN as giving like minded business women within the design industry a safe space where they can reflect and grow both on a collective and personal level. “WiN sessions are exactly what this region needs – a common platform where career woman, who are compassionate individuals yet strongly focused on their roles, can come together and share common experiences, learn from one another without feeling subdued or inferior in any way.”

On the path to change the Status Quo

Gender inequality is a global issue, and the Middle East and Africa are no exception. While it’s worth mentioning the government’s efforts to champion the cause of women’s empowerment, especially in the workplace, there’s the deeply rooted influence of tradition and society that can’t be ignored. The stats speak for themselves: 23% of young educated women are not a part of the labour force, compared to 5% of men. In the Middle East, conservative societal norms often push women to a subordinate status. Women in this region are significantly underrepresented in senior positions in the private sector, and in some countries they are virtually absent.

According to WiN, the best tool with which to correct this issue is education. Women in the ME region see education as a gateway to attaining status and assuming higher positions, thus liberating themselves from stereotypical roles. The group has charted a roadmap of events that intend to serve as a preliminary step to a greater cause. The WiN process is to build knowledge, discuss ideas and then act on these. Their first event with the American University of Dubai led by Perkins + Will to raise awareness was on creative thinking. “Interconnectedness is what we are interested in,” says Diane Thorsen, Principal Design Director P+W.  “As employers, when searching for new talent, we consider skill sets that can’t be replicated by machines and embrace creative thinking and emotional intelligence. By engaging with universities, as our first initiative, we have the knowledge and ability to influence the thinking of young women entering the working world. Together with educators at various institutions, we look to shape the future of women in the creative workspace.” From the A+D perspective, the overarching goal is to engage the design community 100% of the time, be it through internships, seminars or other knowledge sharing activities.

Coach More, Instruct Less

Emma Burdett and Mehar Fazal

A key tenet of WiN is its belief in quality education and impactful coaching of young women in the industry. The group points out an evident gap between theory and practical knowledge; what is taught at school or university level often does not translate well to skills that can be applied to a real world job.

Understanding the root of this problem is the first step. By engaging top universities in the region in an open conversation on what is being taught, WiN seeks to constructively challenge the seemingly accepted notion that the current curriculum is good enough for students looking to excel at their jobs.

As seasoned professionals in their respective industries, the ladies of WiN as mentors are able to offer insights into the very roles that women see themselves playing post graduation. Industry leaders the likes of Perkins+Will, Humanscale, Orangebox, Shaw and JLL have offered to conduct workshops that do just this. The purpose is to engage young women, and impart a first-hand understanding of the ethos, pathos and logos of the roles and cultures of their respective companies. The intended consequence is for young women to be able to enter the workforce with a practical outlook and a focused game plan.

In regards to the more difficult conversation of setting aside tradition for careers, the ladies of WiN comprehend the sensitivity of the matter, as well as the need for a delicate approach. The first step is a simple one, to make themselves easily and readily available for young women in need of a guiding hand. The group is also committed to reaching out to local talent and helping them balance their desires for a successful career as well as family life.

Emma is thoroughly delighted at how WiN is taking shape, and the direction it’s heading towards. “When Shaw asked me if I wanted to start a regional Women’s network I had no idea where this would lead. I had a vision of how this would shape and this has surpassed all expectation. WiN has quickly become a powerful and compelling network where like minded women from the interiors sector can engage, connect and empower one another. The roadmap grows by the month. I am excited about the journey ahead and grateful for the unwavering support from both the network and the business. Our recent collaboration with the AUD is enabling this group to influence and inspire the future of the industry, coupled with giving back to the local community. That, in itself,makes WiN a differentiating concept and one I am proud to pioneer.”

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