Dena is Group Chief Human Resources Officer (GCHRO) at Etisalat, one of the world’s leading telecom groups in emerging markets and the Founder and CEO of the AI Tech start up WhiteBox HR. Working at the intersection of HR and technology, she is one of the leading global HR practitioners in her field, helping organisations leverage technology to make data-driven decisions about how they attract, hire, promote, engage, and retain top talent.
Can you tell us a bit about how you were raised, and your family values?
I spent a lot of my life living abroad which taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I was a true “third-culture kid” having lived in France, Brazil and the UAE from the ninth to twelfth grade in high school alone.
I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for exposing my siblings and I to the world – teaching us about different cultures and instilling certain values really shaped the people we are today. They allowed me to see the world through a different lens and taught me a lot about respect, hard work, resilience, humility, gratitude, patience and the importance of being grounded and proud of your roots, no matter where you are.
Who most influenced you growing up?
There are so many inspirational female role models out there – both present and in history – but, growing up, my biggest role model was my grandmother. She was an incredible woman who taught me a lot about life through her own journey. She helped me understand that the barriers we face are often self-imposed, emphasised the importance of education and always believed in me. She allowed me to be unapologetically true to myself and encouraged me to dream.
Where and what did you study?
I hold an MBA from the UK’s University of Strathclyde, a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems and Finance from Boston University in the US. I recently completed a programme on Artificial Intelligence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.
Did you advocate for yourself from an early age?
Unfortunately, no. I advocated for everyone around me but self-advocacy was not something I truly learned how to do until I was much older – and I’m still working on it. I think this is such an important topic. Whether in school, at home or in the workplace, advocating is a critical skill for healthy relationships and overall happiness in life.
I see more children today learning how to be comfortable communicating and standing up for their needs, which is phenomenal, but I was too shy when I was younger and didn’t want to bother people around me. Self-advocacy takes time and patience to master: it starts with our internal monologues and requires a certain level of vulnerability.
Do you act as a mentor for others?
I mentor quite a few people – it’s very gratifying to see people around me succeed in their own definitions of success. I’ve mentored informally in the past and at WhiteBox HR and Etisalat but also through formal mentorship programmes such as ‘accelerateHER’ – a female-focused career mentorship accelerator at DIFC’s FinTech Hive, guiding and coaching, and providing the tools to enable people both professionally and personally.
I mentor professionals, entrepreneurs as well as young people who feel stuck and don’t know what to do next. I think it’s very important to give back and to support the next generation of leaders and dreamers.
What has been your most important life lesson?
As an entrepreneur, I think all entrepreneurs know that making mistakes is part of the start-up process. I don’t know any who haven’t experienced failure – but it’s how resilient you are, and how you pivot, that matters.
Sharing your mistakes has become a common way to give back to the tech community, whether it’s choosing the right people to partner with or agreeing on the right minimum viable product (MVP) to launch. We shouldn’t be afraid of failure. It’s part of the journey and it’s how we innovate and learn.
What will your legacy be?
Legacies are often associated with what people have done and accomplished. I’ve certainly accomplished incredible things in my life, but I’d rather my legacy be around how I made people feel.
What do you tell the girl who wants to be a CEO today?
Research shows that, when women are empowered and economically independent, it makes a positive difference to their families and communities. So I would say, be clear on your priorities and the impact you want to make.
Oftentimes I see people moving into roles for the title, or because they care more about what others think of them versus what they really want. You have to be clear about your priorities and values. Know the WHY behind what you do. If your vision and dream is to become a CEO, you need to work incredibly hard, stay true to yourself and ignore the naysayers. There’s a lot of unnecessary noise along the way to achieving your dreams – so stay focused and keep going.
Where can we find out what you’re up to online?
The best way to connect with me is on LinkedIn.