(May 29, 2023) Being an expat is hard, and often lonely. Reema Mahajan felt this acutely when she landed in Dubai for work. All alone in this big city, Reema wanted new friends, and one day, decided to make a group on Facebook. She asked the few members present if they wanted to meet up for a coffee. That was how Reema went on to found Indian Women in Dubai, or IWD. “We are the second largest community for Indian expat women in the UAE, with nearly 55,000 members,” she tells Global Indian
Coming from a small town, Reema’s road to success was paved with grit, determination and hard work. Grateful for the opportunities she has found, she wants to make a meaningful contribution in return. IWD is her way of doing just that – its mission is women empowerment. IWD connects women to opportunities and gives them a platform to showcase their talent and creativity. It’s also a way for them to stay connected to their roots. “We have a social mission of connecting Indian expat women in the UAE, making friends and celebrating Indian festivals together,” Reema says. “Our business mission is to empower women and businesses by supporting their growth.
Reema hails from Chandigarh and grew up in a traditional Indian family. “My father, who is a lawyer, was my role model and biggest supporter, along with my mother,” she says. “They made it possible for me to dream big and nurtured me so I could achieve my dreams.”
Always an excellent student, apart from being ambitious, Reema made it to IIT-Delhi, where she studied Chemical Engineering, after which she went to IIM Bangalore. Soon after, she was hired by leading consulting firm Bain & Company and moved to London. She lived there for a while before moving to Dubai.
While Reema had always been passionate about women empowerment, being in Dubai gave her a chance to transform this into a career. “Being an expat away from home country – without the support of friends and family – it’s always hard for anyone to settle in a new country,” Reema remarks. The need to make new friends led her to start up a Facebook group, which soon found a few members. “I asked if anybody wanted to meet up for a coffee. And that was the beginning of everything that Indian Women in Dubai are today.”
The group expanded through word of mouth and more women came to join her. Their vision, she says, is to create a vibrant and resilient community of women who provide unwavering personal, emotional, and professional support to one another.
IWD envisions a world where women from various walks of life come together to uplift, encourage, and empower each other to achieve their fullest potential. By building a network of strong, supportive women, IWD aims to create a brighter future for all women, one where we can all thrive and reach our dreams, she adds.
To her, being a woman means being herself unapologetically. “Through sharing my ideas, pushing boundaries, and finding my own voice, I can prove that although gender is part of anyone’s identity, it should never restrict them to cultural boundaries of how a woman is expected to be. Women are all unique, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Building an inclusive society
Empowering women is crucial to building a more inclusive society. “It means challenging stereotypes that limit women’s potential, addressing systemic barriers and discrimination, and promoting women’s participation and leadership in all aspects of life.” The IWD community is the source of support, solidarity, and shared experiences.
Many women find strength in connecting with others who face similar challenges and working together towards common goals. Building networks and communities allows women to exchange knowledge, ideas, and support, and it can contribute to fostering empowerment and social change, she opines.
A new path
As IWD began to pick up pace, Reema found herself at another crossroads. She decided to leave her stable job, and her well-established career, to dedicate herself fully to her new endeavour. It meant surrendering oneself to many things that were out of one’s control. “One word for those early days,” she says, “is uncertainty.” Reema recalls those days, saying, “I had a steady job, a happy family and it was a risk that kept me up at night. In the beginning, I didn’t know where this was going to go, I had zero clue how to even get women together or even how to get them to trust people they’ve never met before.”
Another bigger challenge for her was to break the bias that ‘Women’s Groups’ are all about kitty parties, makeup, or ‘girly’ discussions. “While these topics are as big a part of IWD daily conversation, these are not the only things. We have supported each other, built businesses, and provided advice to each other- personal or professional,” she explains. “And that’s the message I always want to speak about with IWD as a live example- A woman alone is a great power, but when they all come together, it’s magical.”
A family of 55k womem
This network of support and collaboration extended to the pandemic. “IWD started in 2019 with very few members and then Covid happened. Everyone was at their home feeling the uncertainty of time which was exacerbated by the isolation,” says Reema. In order to alleviate the stress they were all feeling, Reema began organising free Zoom sessions on physical and mental health and wellness. “There were yoga classes, Zumba sessions and meditations. We also played games like Tambola, reminisced about our childhoods in India and talked about life in Dubai.”
When word spread, the community grew from one thousand to four thousand and from 10k to 30k in a span of just two years. “Our conversations evolved to business meet ups and networking sessions. Mind you, we still do free workshops, talk about makeup and dresses and play Tambola but I’m so happy to say it’s become so much more now.” The positivity of my team and the community, and their hard work keep this all going. I might be the public face of IWD today, but the engine that keeps it running is this beautiful community, she maintains.
Since its establishment, IWD has supported over 5000 women entrepreneurs, conducted more than 100 physical events and meet-ups and around 500 online events. They have partnered with nearly 500 brands. Their organic reach includes over 50k followers on Facebook, 23k on Instagram and 5000 on whatsapp. Their email newsletter reaches over 1000 women. They also collaborate with the Indian Consulate in Dubai, and recently hosted the Pan IIT-IIM meeting IIWD also hosted the Pan IIT IIM meeting in collaboration with the Consul- General of India, Dr. Aman Puri. “Over 100 alumni participated and the Indian Ambassador to the UAE, Sunjay Sudhir, was also in attendance. They talked about “Harnessing India’s Potential: The Role of IIT IIM Alumni in Building Brand India,” says Reema.
The Indian Women Awards
The community is now gearing for the biggest night of the year with their Indian Women Awards season. Nominations are now open and the response, Reema says, has been amazing so far. Started in 2021, the awards are meant to recognize and celebrate talented Indian women who are making a difference. Women from different spheres of life are awarded for their contribution to society under different categories including, entrepreneur, designer, baker, homemaker, banker, and lots more.
Reema Mahajan has been featured extensively in the press and IWD has been recognised for the Meta Community Accelerator program. She was named Inspirational Woman of the Year & Asia’s 100 Rising Women Power Leaders 2023. She also works directly with the Indian Consulate in Dubai to support them on a variety of initiatives for outreach to the Indian Community.
Balancing work and family
I always try to balance out my day for my family and IWD. Since my kids are very young – my daughter is four and my son is seven, I like to spend as much time as I can with them, she says.
“During the day, I mostly spend time planning and executing activities for IWD but I try to be home – working around the kids schedule – so we have good quality family time.”