Katy Holmes, CEO, British Chamber of Commerce Dubai

As CEO of the British Chamber of Commerce Dubai, Katy Holmes has a unique insight into the opportunities and challenges of doing business in the UAE. Having spent her first five years in Dubai as a non-working mother, she also understands the struggle that parents face in returning to work while raising a family.

Based on these experiences, Holmes believes that there is a huge opportunity, if only employers were more open-minded. By linking SME founders with experienced candidates who are seeking employment but can only offer restricted hours, Holmes says that businesses can tap into the high-level expertise they need, while supporting employees to re-join the workforce through a more flexible route.

In this interview, Holmes explains more about her own experiences and how SMEs can benefit from latent expat talent, particularly the stay-at-home mum demographic.

What was your own experience of returning to work after a career break?

Before I joined the British Chamber of Commerce Dubai (formerly British Business Group Dubai and Northern Emirates), I was 100 per cent focused on being a stay-at-home mum for my two daughters. I was committed to this because I dearly wanted to do so, but also, it was the main hook for me leaving the UK and my career for a new life in Dubai.

Dubai offered a wonderful alternative to what would have been a very hard slog - working in central London in a fast-paced, high-pressure role in financial services, commuting from the suburbs, and relying on outsourced childcare. During my first five years in Dubai, I honestly didn’t miss my career, and I was very happily devoted to being a non-working parent.

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Once both girls were settled into the pattern of school, the urge to re-enter the workforce started. I missed the challenge of a career and I sought a purpose outside of motherhood to regain some of our previous identity. I looked at freelancing but at the time, the set-up costs were not realistic. The only job that I found that was truly flexible and made use of some of my skillset was actually in network marketing, however, it wasn’t 100% for me.

It was through a true case of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ that I was invited to interview for a role at the British Business Group Dubai and Northern Emirates – a 34-year-old business group that needed a marketing strategy and refresh. Fast forward through an initial spell of three mornings a week, quickly increasing to five mornings and then full-time and a promotion, I am now the CEO of the British Chamber of Commerce Dubai.

What is the trick that SMEs are missing?

For business owners there is a huge opportunity to hire an experienced and willing workforce who may not be there from 8am to 6pm but will probably provide greater value, senior level counsel for the founder/MD, and deliver with ferocious efficiency. Despite Dubai’s progressive outlook, there is a significant gap in recognising and accommodating this immense talent and expertise, particularly of women who can only work within school hours.

Many expat women in Dubai face challenges in balancing their personal and professional lives due to various responsibilities, including childcare, eldercare, and household management. Consequently, they may only be able to commit to part-time or flexible working arrangements. By overlooking women who can offer limited hours but maximum experience and expertise, businesses in Dubai are missing out on a vast pool of untapped talent.

These women have often reached senior positions before moving to Dubai as either a ‘trailing spouse’ or a stay-at-home mother, meaning they bring a wealth of leadership skills, industry knowledge, and strategic thinking to a new role. Their ability to adapt quickly, coupled with a strong work ethic, makes them invaluable assets in any organisation.

What is needed to connect with this talent pool?

To bridge the gap between talent and opportunity, I believe it is essential for businesses in Dubai to truly embrace practices that cater to flexible working. By introducing part-time positions, job-sharing programs, or remote work options, organisations can tap into the wealth of expertise these women possess. Slightly controversial perhaps, but it’s also likely that a woman who feels genuinely supported to work flexibly will be less fixated on the remuneration, therefore a business owner could pay less than the market rate and both parties can reach a happy medium.

Adopting a flexible work culture not only attracts talented women but also promotes diversity, inclusivity, and employee satisfaction. It allows organisations to create a more balanced and productive workforce, resulting in increased innovation, better decision-making, and improved customer relations.

I am very grateful for the good fortune I have had in slowly building back up to full-time with a supportive Board to work dynamically. I manage the school pick up and I can attend important school events. I am fulfilled in my role and have also been able to provide the same opportunities for my own team to accommodate their personal life commitments and wellbeing and to be able to have a true work-life balance.

How can businesses act – and benefit – now?

My ask is for business owners – particularly SMEs – to be more open minded to hiring ‘experienced with limited hours’ candidates. As an organisation, we do share CVs on our App and e-newsletter and invite job seekers to some of our networking events to gain confidence and grow their networks. We would welcome enthusiasm from outside of our membership to share roles that fit these criteria.

If you are a business owner, start with your current team and ask them to ask within their network for candidates that may be looking to return to work after a break, or find a way to scan the community Facebook pages and female-only networking groups, and I am sure you will soon meet your next in-house marketing, financial, legal, auditing, tax, HR expert!