In 2005, I enrolled in law school with big dreams about working in international law, changing global policy and making an impact on international immigration and human rights issues. However, I graduated in 2008 — the year of the worst economic recession this country has faced since the Great Depression. To say employment opportunities at that time were few and far between is a complete understatement.
I had a decision to make: give up on my dreams or take another path on my journey. I decided on the latter. I went back to school to get my Masters in Law in Real Estate Development, and I also got my real estate license.
"I can do that!"
I got my first glimpse into the Investment Immigration industry while attending a real estate seminar in 2011. The guest speaker, also an attorney, pitched the U.S. EB-5 Investment Immigration Program, which allows foreign investors to obtain a green card and a path to U.S. citizenship by investing in U.S. projects. As a first-generation immigrant and understanding the journey and struggle that my parents went through, I felt drawn to the whole concept. I thought to myself: "I can do that! I am in the wrong business!"
I immediately did my research, and being the passionate (and impatient) person that I am, decided that I wanted to get my Investment Immigration business going, and I wanted it done stat! I took advantage of an upcoming trip to India and convinced my family to make a pit stop in Dubai for five days. The United Arab Emirates, known for its wealth and development, seemed like the perfect place to gain investors, the perfect place to gain clients.
I spent the next two months emailing thousands of UAE real estate professionals to let them know I would be in Dubai to meet with those interested in U.S. Investment Immigration. The feedback and interest I received was so positive that I was booked with meetings from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. for five days straight while in Dubai. I didn't even get to see the outside of my hotel!
That trip solidified what I already knew to be true — the Gulf region was an untapped market and I had to be there full time to make my business work. I returned to Miami and convinced my law school friend, Shai Zamanian to come with me on this new adventure. In February 2014, we packed up our lives, moved to Dubai and never looked back.
Starting a business abroad
Our first year of launching Step America was difficult. The Middle East is worlds away from the United States in culture, business and process, so we had to learn as we went along.
Being the first company to specialize in the EB-5 market full time in the region was also a double-edged sword. We were introducing an exciting and new opportunity that would benefit investors in the region, but the first year was spent largely on educating the market. Many people were skeptical and it made it difficult for us to convince them to invest their funds. As we watched our savings deplete, there were several times we considered packing up shop and going back to our comfy corporate jobs.
As the year progressed, we slowly began to see clients warming up to us and the idea of the EB-5 Program. After 11 grueling months, we signed our first client. We have been scaling ever since. Step America has now become the leading firm for U.S. Investment Immigration in the Gulf region with clients from India, Pakistan, Africa and other emerging markets. I couldn't ask for a more fulfilling career and purpose. Today we help families make their way to the U.S. for a better future — something I wanted to do since I was in law school and dreamed about changing the world.
A female entrepreneur in Dubai
My experience as a female entrepreneur in the Middle East has been interesting to say the least. I have encountered people with the mentality that men do it better, I have oftentimes been mistaken as the assistant rather than the attorney. I have also felt the strong preference of some to work directly with my partner, Shai, just because he is man. To overcome this, I have had to treat these opinions and biases with respect, while continuing to affirmatively work towards my goals in business. Not everyone is going to agree with what I am doing, but there are many more people that have offered support and encouragement.
The biggest misconception, though, is that it is difficult to function as a woman here in the Middle East, especially a woman in business. This deters women from freely entering the market and taking advantage of the opportunities this region has to offer. With thousands of expats starting businesses in the UAE, it is a great place for entrepreneurs (men and women) to succeed. In fact, we need more female-run companies so this society becomes more and more accustomed to dealing with women in decision-making positions and positions of authority. We need to shine a spotlight on these successful female entrepreneurs and share their stories with the world. I make it my mission every day to represent female entrepreneurs in the Middle East and work hard to make the path easier for other female entrepreneurs.
About the author: Preeya Malik is an entrepreneur, U.S. licensed attorney, immigration rights advocate and co-founder of investment immigration firm Step America. She helped expand the firm's reach to Dubai, Qatar, Mumbai, New Delhi and Singapore, as well as securing the building and development of several U.S. Hilton and Marriott Hotel properties, a number of private charter schools, and government infrastructure and technology projects.
Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Taylor. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org with your pitch.