Najla al Midfa: Emirati entrepreneurs and youth set to take the workplace, and the world, by storm
Najla al Midfa is the founder of Khayarat, a social enterprise that assists young Emiratis in
making informed career choices, and the General Manager of Sheraa – Sharjah
Entrepreneurship Center – a government entity that aims to inspire the next generation of
Her involvement in both organizations is fuelled by her unwavering confidence in the
potential of the Emirati workforce of tomorrow, and the entrepreneurial spirit found
throughout the MENA region.
Milestone Magazine spoke with Najla Al Midfa to gain some insight into the programs
nurturing Emirati entrepreneurs and youth, the bright future of these groups and how the
private and public sectors are set to benefit.
What motivated you to set up Sheraa and Khayarat?
The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center – Sheraa was conceived by Her Excellency Sheikha
Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, Chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development
Authority – Shurooq, and Chairperson of Sheraa. In 2015, Sheikha Bodour and I had
discussed the need to empower and support the region’s youth. It was during this
discussion that Sheikha Bodour spoke of her vision to create a platform – Sheraa – to harness the massive talent and skills in MENA through entrepreneurship, helping to build businesses that serve as engines for socio-economic development. Its alignment with my own values made it a project I knew I would be proud to be involved in, and I have had the honor of heading Sheraa as General Manager since its official launch in January 2016.
The mission behind Khayarat stems from my own experiences working in the private sector
and witnessing first-hand the exciting career prospects it offers. It therefore came as a shock to realize that less than one percent of Emiratis worked in the private sector. During my time in Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, I was part of a mentoring project for
young Emiratis. Meeting and speaking with such ambitious, talented young men and women awakened a need to bridge that gap between Emiratis and the private sector, through one-to-one career guidance and job preparation. Thus Khayarat (Arabic for “Options”), was born, helping Emirati graduates find fulfilling jobs in the private sector.
What would you say are the main challenges Emirati youth are facing today?
Emirati youth face the same challenges that youth around the world do. A rapidly changing
job market and the accompanying lack of job preparation and guidance, the need to learn
21st century skills… these are global challenges. With that being said, a notable Emirati-
specific challenge is a reluctance to enter the world of entrepreneurship, mainly due to the
stigma still attached to failure. Emirati youth also need to see more role models from the
private sector, but these are currently not highlighted enough. Sharing the stories of fellow
Emiratis, whether they are entrepreneurs or employees, will go a long way towards
encouraging the younger generation to pursue their own ambitions and fulfil their potential.
What are your hopes for the Emirati youth, and generations to come? Do you see them as strengthening the local offering, or being perceived as more valuable in workplaces internationally?
I hope to see them do both. Through the combined efforts of government initiatives, better
education opportunities, and platforms like Sheraa and Khayarat, Emirati youth are already
more engaged and doing their part for society. Young Emiratis are finding ways to channel
their ambitions, whether through entrepreneurship or careers in the private sector. With
their vast potential, I am certain that they will become just as invaluable to workplaces
How do Khayarat and Sheraa equip Emirati youth to deal with these challenges?
Khayarat does more than just help place Emiratis in private sector jobs. We work with each
individual candidate to help them figure out what they are passionate about, and what
sector they wish to help shape the most. It is this guidance and emphasis on self-awareness – the core of Khayarat’s offering – that teaches Emiratis to deal with both current and future challenges.
At Sheraa, our goal is to build a generation of job creators – entrepreneurs who have the
skills and the know-how to solve local and global problems. We have programs that are
tailored to every stage of the entrepreneurial journey. The Ideathon focuses exclusively on
validating ideas, and to date, we have helped develop over 130 of them.
Sheraa’s 6-month Incubator program helps young companies build their first product, get
licensed, and start making early sales. Our top three performers last year made over 80
thousand dollars in sales revenue.
For those who already have a business that is up and running, and are ready to grow their
start-up to new heights, there is the Accelerator. We have had over 30 start-ups go through
the three-month program, which includes benefits such intensive mentorship, access to
Sheraa’s network of investors and industry experts, and access to the market through
exclusive introductions to private sector and government entities who may be interested in
Our Supplier Matchmaking Day is one way that we provide this access, with resounding
success thus far. We held our first event this April, under the Arab Supply Chain Impact
Initiative, and had 16 MOUs between participating start-ups and government and corporate
entities signed on the day.
We are also proud to have partnered with Sandooq Al Watan to launch an Emirati
Innovators track – a special grant awarded to Emiratis who have a unique, high-potential
Is there a particular niche for Emirati youth in the UAE’s crowded expat workforce?
Emirati youth would flourish in any industry across the UAE, because like all their fellow
graduates, they have a lot to offer. They are talented, ambitious, and highly skilled. And as
Emiratis continue to shift their focus from public sector to private sector jobs, showcasing
that talent, the demand for an Emirati workforce will continue to rise.
Having met with hundreds of young Emiratis through my work with Khayarat, I have also
noticed a rising interest in new and innovative domains, such as space science, blockchain,
and smart cities. Like their forefathers, the younger generation of Emiratis have their eye on the future, looking to stay ahead of cutting edge technology and develop the UAE’s
knowledge economy. They will continue to take the workplace by storm.
Where do you see Sheraa and Kharayat in 5-10 years? Is there room for further growth?
The goals for both organizations will always be a moving goalpost, so there will always be
room for further growth. Regardless, in 5-10 years I see Sheraa as being the go-to for all
things entrepreneurship, helping achieve the UAE’s 2021 mission of transitioning towards
an innovation-based economy, with a community of entrepreneurs and investors, and a
global network of entrepreneurship hubs.
As for Khayarat, all Emirati students should be able to access a platform that helps them
recognize their potential and encourages them to discover and pursue their passions. It is
therefore my sincere hope that all young Emiratis will see us as the first stop after
graduation for mentorship and career guidance.
What are the latest milestones of Khayarat and Sheraa, and what can we look forward to in the coming months?
Since Sheraa’s inception, we have inspired a community of over 6000 aspiring
entrepreneurs through our workshops and speaker events, with over 300 local and
international speakers. We will be graduating our third Accelerator cohort this coming May,
bringing our total number of graduates to 30 start-ups. Applications for the fourth cohort
will open in August. We will also be graduating our second Incubator cohort of over 25 start-ups this summer.
Later this year, Sheraa will be opening a second location at the University of Sharjah,
furthering our support for young, talented aspiring entrepreneurs. Additionally, we will soon
begin building an entrepreneurship campus in the Sharjah Research, Technology, and
Innovation Park that will not only be a co-working space for entrepreneurs, but also provide
other facilities such as makers’ spaces, dormitories, and office space for other players in the ecosystem. And in November, we will host the second Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival, bringing the ecosystem together under one roof to network, share their ideas, and discuss ways to grow.
On the Khayarat front, we have partnered with Sandooq Al Watan and Al Bayt Mitwahid for
the Jusoor program, to help place high-potential Emiratis at summer internships in leading
private sector companies.
Last year, we placed over 50 Emiratis in companies such as McKinsey, Bain, SAP, and Emaar. This year, we have received over 400 applications, and look forward to placing even more students in private sector internships.
Khayarat is also beginning to build on our online platform, to provide further resources for
students looking for additional career guidance and information on career options.