When Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi arrived in Dubai in 1992, little did the then 22-year-old Filipina, a graduate in chemical engineering, know the lofty heights she would scale in the UAE. All she had at the time was a job as a quality assurance officer at a textile company in Jebel Ali, one that paid her just Dh1,000 a month. Still grieving the death of her father who had lost his battle with a chronic lung condition, she desperately needed to financially support her mother, who was running a small restaurant, in the education of her four siblings.
“While we were young, we lived in absolute comfort as my father’s business was thriving,’’ she says. But once his lung condition worsened, he was forced to remain confined to the bed and his business suffered. “It was up to my mother to look after us five children from the profits of the restaurant she was running,’’ says Mary Jane. Determined to help, she did part- time jobs while studying hard to earn a degree in chemical engineering.
After graduating she first worked in a company in Manila before she got the job offer in Dubai. A few months before she was to leave for the UAE, her father died. Mary slowly but steadily worked her way up the corporate ladder and today she is the CEO of Geoscience Testing Laboratory, a leading independent, testing laboratory in the Middle East, which conducts tests on construction materials and micro biological tests on food, water and air. “I went from riches to rags, and then back to riches,” she says.
Hints of her success and recognition are visible in her spacious office – crystal, silver and gold trophies adorn her desk and cabinets; on the wall hang pictures of her receiving awards from the Governments of the UAE and the Philippines. She likens life, with all its challenges and achievements, to one of her hobbies – mountain hiking.
“Life is like a series of mountains to be climbed. Once you reach a peak, you don’t stop; you just find a higher mountain to climb.” In the 14 years she has worked at Geoscience, Mary Jane has led the organisation to become one of the best laboratories in the Middle East.
In the process she has also distinguished herself as an outstanding businesswoman and leader. Geoscience’s staff has grown from eight when she joined, to over 500 today. From a lab space of 1,000 square feet in the Al Rashidiya area in Dubai, Geoscience today boasts a 140,000 square feet sprawling lab complex at Dubai Industrial City.
Mary has led Geoscience to work on mega-projects such as Downtown Burj Dubai – which included the Burj Khalifa – the Dubai Metro, and Emirates Road. Accolades followed – she was honoured as the runner-up of the Emirates Businesswoman Award in 2008.
In the same year, the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo bestowed an award that recognised Mary as “an outstanding and exemplary overseas Filipino worker’’. Other honours include the ‘Woman of Substance 2009 Honoree Award’ and ‘Most Distinguished Chemical Engineer Award’ 2009.
“Every step of the way, I’ve received a lot of love and encouragement from my husband Mohammad Al Mahdi Lari, and my parents-in-law. They are so proud of me! I only wish my father could have also seen what his daughter has achieved today,” she says.
Before I graduated as a chemical engineer in 1991 in Manila, I was accepted as a trainee with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. For six months I assisted my seniors in a very interesting project – reviving a biologically dead river called Pasig, which runs through Manila. It’s been years since I left that project, but I am happy to see that a large part of this river has been rehabilitated.
Immediately after that, I joined a textile factory as its Quality Control Engineer. It was while working here that I applied for a position of a Quality Assurance Officer of a textile company in the UAE and I was taken on.
I arrived in Dubai in 1992. My boss was impressed with a quality control process I created for him and recognising that I was over-qualified for the position, he gave me the freedom to move, even extending me moral support as I interviewed with Al Futtaim Wimpey Laboratories for the position of chemist.
There I undertook a range of civil engineering and infrastructure projects, and had a testing and analysis division. When the Chief Chemist left, I was promoted to fill his position. After six years, I was headhunted for the Geoscience Testing Laboratory and I accepted to join as the Quality Assurance Officer.
In those days, Geoscience had a staff of just eight and operated out of an office in Al Rashidiya. Once there I initiated a series of changes in the entire system, re-structuring and re-engineering it. It took me weeks – and I was working on the entire gamut of operations, from testing and analysis, to reports and worksheets and managing the team. There were several evenings when I even slept in the lab.
As our market reputation grew, our market share also increased and we subsequently took up a larger lab space in the Al Quoz Industrial Area. We were awarded with prestigious and numerous infrastructure projects from the government and private sectors, and we expanded our scope of activities to more of specialised testing. In 2000, I was promoted to General Manager, and in 2003, to CEO.
I firmly believe that as a leader, I need to keep equipping my people to anticipate change and adapt. I like to coach, to be a mentor and facilitator. I ask my team to get outside their mental box – their comfort zone and explore. Mistakes should be viewed as stepping stones to rise up again. Everyone fails, don’t be afraid.
I’m the fourth of five children and my father Renato Alvero was a well-to-do businessman and my mother, Martha, ran a small restaurant. Our early years were spent in comfort. Life was beautiful and carefree when I was living at the farmhouse of my paternal grandparents at the age of six. It is common in our country to spend the young years with grandparents. It was an idyllic setting – verdant hills, cascading waterfalls and pristine beaches. Every weekend, our parents would make the two- to three-hour trip from Manila and visit us.
I always ranked in the top ten students at school. From an early age I loved sketching and enjoyed watching cartoons.
My father was doing very well in his business in machinery parts in Manila but it began to suffer as he couldn’t concentrate on it after he was diagnosed with severe emphysema, a progressive condition that destroys lung tissue, making breathing increasingly difficult. I was in high school then and only 15. His condition was so bad that he couldn’t move out of his bed. The cost of medicines was high and his savings from the business and even the profits from mother’s restaurant were not enough to meet his medical expenses.
I did my best to help her. During my lunch break, I would rush to the market and buy some provisions for her restaurant. While pursuing a degree in chemical engineering at the Adamson University in Manila, I took up a part-time job at a fast-food chain as a counter service staff. This way I could at least defray some of my education expenses, which were being jointly shouldered by my mother and my aunt who was working in Saudi Arabia at that time.
But things changed after I got a job in Dubai and I began to rise in my career. I met and married my husband Mohammad Al Mahdi while in Dubai. Since our marriage in 2003, we have been blessed with two children – Humaid aged eight, and Noor, one and a half. Together with Ali aged 20, Abdulla, 16, and Hanan, 14 – children from his former marriage, we live in Sharjah. My family and their needs come first, but I also do take out some time to participate in community service.
I make it a point that Geoscience provides free geotechnical testing and soil analysis services whenever a mosque is to be built. I am also a founder member of the Board of the Filipino Digerati Association. As a not-for-profit organisation, we provide free training in computer operations, professional and personality development. My own history of financially difficult times prompted me to grant scholarships to outstanding chemical engineering students who are unable to pay for their education.
I dream of mentoring more people, especially my female compatriots in the UAE. I am convinced that many of our dreams will be fulfilled if we advance our education, practise and share what we have learned, go the extra mile every day, think out of our box, and explore.
My dream is to keep on educating myself. Education is the greatest enabler that helps you keep climbing higher. Recently, I completed an MBA programme from the Philippine Christian University, and have embarked upon a doctorate in Business Administration at the Lyceum University in the Philippines.
My ultimate dream is to have a happy God-fearing family, and to live a simple life. I want my children to embrace life’s true values – to be compassionate, to look after each other, and to work hard with determination, humility and intelligence. There is no greater treasure than a loving family who find it in their hearts to be there for one another in times of need.