November Cover: How Regional Figures Dr Sara Al Madani And Emon Shakoor Are Shaping The Tech Industry In The Middle East

BY Salma Awwad / Oct 28 2019 / 18:10 PM

“It’s amazing that in the UAE, and the entire region, there are a lot of girls leading the tech frontier. That’s awesome because it means that there’s no choice but to see the power of a woman in the world we’re about to walk into – and that’s beautiful” –

November Cover: How Regional Figures Dr Sara Al Madani And Emon Shakoor Are Shaping The Tech Industry In The Middle East
Sara wears: Sunglasses, Dhs12,950, Balenciaga. Jacket, Dhs12,950, Bottega Veneta. Emon wears: Sunglasses, Dhs1,850, Balenciaga. Jacket, Dhs16,450; Top, Dhs3,300, both Bottega Veneta

These two powerhouses are shaping the face of the industry in our region. Each achieving milestones in the development of robotics and A.I., they represent the forward movement of embracing the next industrial era in the Middle East, and the importance of involving women in its leadership positions.

Highlighting that we can be the capital of such a movement, Dr Sara Al Madani says, “We all know that men are rational, and women are emotional. So I think if women take the lead in the tech industry, they’ll always take into consideration everything around them. I sat with a lot of men in tech and they were like, “We want to feed these robots, we want to make them smarter than us, we want them to fix themselves on their own,” but not knowing what that could lead to. But I’ve seen a growth of women in the region in tech who are doing it because they feel there should be a balance between the emotional and rational in these things.”

A serial entrepreneur, Sara now runs her own robotics creative-marketing agency called Social Fish, specialising in hardware, software, A.I. and V.R. Her headquarters are based in both LA and Dubai. She is also a public speaker, a board member in both The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Sharjah and The Ministry of Economy in Dubai, heads a fashion business and just launched a wedding-planning service which she is integrating with robotic capabilities. Her mind is clearly set on disrupting the industry.

Sara wears: Hat, Dhs2,790, Graham Cruz. Dress, Dhs42,950, Valentino

But she recalls a simpler time, with no technology: “I was born in ’86, so I saw the before and after - the pros and cons of both those worlds. Sadly, our children won’t know that value because they were born into this life, in the future,” she says.

“Sometimes I wish I could just turn all of this off and be without it because life before was simple. Sentimental things mattered. Now when people have weddings or funerals, they just WhatsApp each other or send an e-card. The human touch is dying, and that’s what I’m trying to change, but by working hand-in-hand with robotics. We’re not competing, we’re completing each other. That’s how we look at it.” 

Sara ventured into the field after a 17-year career in fashion, and recalls the exact moment when she had the epiphany to discover what it is she was meant to contribute to this world. “In 2003, I sat myself down and thought that God did not create me just to do fashion! We’re full of potential; we just need to go on a mission of self-discovery. So I did. I ventured into so many different businesses. Then one day, I was watching a talk about robotics that said in the future, robots would take over humans. That really intimidated me, because I value people; we’re sophisticated pieces of art. It intrigued me to want to start something in tech, but to do it differently. It was all out of curiosity.”

Sara wears: Bodice, Dhs4,517, Graham Cruz. Emon wears: Bodice, Dhs4,517, Graham Cruz. Dress, POA, Ekaterina Voronina. Arm cuff, bespoke by Lucy Holt

Emon Shakoor’s curiosity was ignited through a very different path. Approaching the field from a unique angle, with a personal cause that drove her deep desire to research and better understand the human brain.

“From the age of four till 23, I had epilepsy, suffering from seizures every single day. That’s really where my fascination with the brain stems,” she says.
“As a kid in Saudi, no one really understood what seizures or epilepsy was. There was always bullying. In terms of empathy, I always wanted to live in a world that was better connected. I felt like if we all put our guards down and could just better see each other, it could solve so many issues that we’re facing right now.” 

A US-born Saudi Arabian, Emon always had a passion for STEM, but majored in cognitive science, specialsing in neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. She focused her studies on the science of empathy and the activity of mirror neurons that the brain fires when we have a connection with another human.

“I found out that the brain was the most complex organism on the face of the planet. Even with all the technological advancement, the brain and neuroscience are the most pivotal parts of this Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s the missing puzzle piece that scientists all over the world come together to try to understand,” she says.

Emon is now an inspiring example of female empowerment, publishing her work on mirror neurons and being recognised as one of the youngest neuroscience researchers in the world. Seeing the gap in KSA’s start-up eco-system, she launched the very first female-focused tech accelerator in the country.

Emon wears: Dress, Dhs55,087, Tony Ward. Visor, Dhs1,865, IYH. Earrings, Dhs2,552, Dolce & Gabbana

“There’s research from McKinsey and Harvard citing that having at least one female on a team creates a more successful, profitable company. And the key takeaway there is not that women are better than men, it’s that women have a different skill set. Actually, in neuroscience, a woman’s ability for emotional intelligence tends to be higher, as does her ability to multitask. This is what’s important about diversity and inclusion. And in technology start-ups, women have to have a seat at the table.”

As passionate as they all are about robotics and its potential, the clearest message that our three cover stars want to emphasise above all else, is placing humanity’s needs first.  

“Yes, robotics can possibly beat us in IQ, but EQ has to remain an essential part of this revolution. We have to stay empathetic with each other. That human-to-human connection is more integral now than at any other time.” Emon explains.

“I was at a conference in San Francisco once, and I heard a man saying that he built an A.I., and that it’s so smart that every time he tries to switch it off, it downloads how to fix itself and comes back to life. If that’s not an example of how things can go wrong…” Sara trails. “Why did you do that? When did you lose control? I want to make our lives easier and better, but we need people! When did you remove your roles and become slaves to your inventions? It freaked me out. I don’t want to do what he did. We don’t need the Terminator!”

“Whether you’re ready or not, it’s coming,” says Emon. “It’s just about being cognisant of what keeps us uniquely human. As robots become embedded in our daily lives - something that we’re going to experience in this lifetime – it’s empathy and human connectivity that will keep us at the frontier of the robotics revolution, which has already commenced.”

“It’s hard to control because there are so many parts of the world working on different projects. Each have different ethics, but I think there should be a lot of nurturing and teaching about the importance of people. I don’t want one day for us not to have jobs and for robots to be doing everything, no matter how efficient that is. I believe that just as we created them, we should be part of that revolution as well,” Sara adds. always explains this paradigm by comparing its likeness to Star Wars, while Sara chooses to view it through a lighthearted recollection of a cartoon that we all watched. “I think a good comparison to that lifestyle would be The Jetsons! There are a lot of people and emotions involved, but even with robotics assisting him, George Jetson still worked – even though he just pressed buttons,” she laughs. “There should be a balance. I can’t change the world, but I can start by changing myself, and slowly, with the right emotions and the right message, you infect others.”

When we ask them if we should worry about A.I. ever replacing creativity, it’s who pauses to reflect before replying with a firm “No.” He stops again before adding, “It’s the first time in human history that we even have to question something more creative than us. We never had to worry about, like, the bear outdoing us with its creativity. Like ‘Damn, that koala is killing it right now!’ But now, we can create an algorithm that can create things. That’s the first time our creations will create! We’re here. We’re at that point. It’s almost 2020 and we can create something that can create something. That’s like manifestation squared! So the answer is – because I’m optimistic – no. But maybe. Maybe.”

Maybe. But we would tend to err on the optimistic side, too. With their futuristic vision, mindful approach and unparalleled finesse, we can certainly expect great things from our three game-changing cover stars as they pave the way for humanity to always remain one step ahead.

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