Dr Jeannette Vinke assures me there has been no grand plan for her career. Mapping her path – which has spanned Holland, England, Germany and the UAE, in senior positions at a Big Four firm, global bank and now COO of an American university in the Middle East – would challenge the finest cartographer.
Until recently, Vinke was senior lecturer at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), teaching accounting and finance, before accepting the job of COO earlier this year. She arrived in the UAE almost 15 years ago and has seen Sharjah, along with the other Emirate states, evolve economically and socially at pace.
Expatriates from all corners of the globe, attracted by the Emirates’ thriving economy, year-round sunshine and tax-free environment, have arrived en masse.
So how did she find herself in the midst of this change? Vinke has always put herself in a position where she had choices, she explains: “When I graduated I was young and ambitious and in England, everyone seemed to want to join a Big Four firm.” Vinke became an audit manager at KPMG: “Doing the ACA has given me so many choices. I’ve not really had to look for a job since I qualified. It’s been about what suited my life. I wanted to be in Europe and if it was going to be in Frankfurt I thought I may as well join the biggest bank, Deutsche.” She was eventually appointed VP for Germany at the bank.
When her husband moved to Dubai, Vinke wanted to join him. She left Deutsche, packed up her bags and arrived there thinking she had given up her career and would have to start again from scratch. “Dubai at the time was not as well-known as it is now. But being an ACA, I was able to re-join KPMG; that was always a fall back. But then I wanted to start a family and have a career break.”
When Deutsche, like most companies at that time, was looking to expand in the Middle East in 2004 the financial services company asked Vinke to be CFO of its operation there. She had a nine-month-old child and didn’t want another all-encompassing role with long hours. But Vinke accepted and helped the bank set up branches in Dubai, Qatar and Riyadh. She did that for four years but again, was faced with conflicting choices. With a growing family, Vinke decided to step back to spend time with her two young children.
“I always wanted to teach so I contacted the dean here at AUS and he said they could do with some interesting local practitioners. He asked me to come and teach for a year and I’ve never looked back. I didn’t really understand how fantastic a career in academia could be.”
Vinke thinks she’s fortunate to have been able to find her way into teaching while also doing her doctorate, with a thesis on sustainability in accounting. “You just wouldn’t find the time to do that in a corporate career,” she says. “I finished my thesis a couple of years back and I was going to take a year out and take my kids to England but the chancellor asked me to become COO for the university. With my corporate background and my understanding of academia, it’s a really good fit.”
She oversees finance, IT and the campus, and works within an overall management team of three. They have a global board of trustees, which includes His Highness, Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah. It’s a full Emirate but not as famous as its cousin, Dubai. “The vision of the ruler is really about education. He set up this university city in the most beautiful part of Sharjah. The AUS is one of the few not-for-profit universities here. Dubai is very commercialised, so this is a completely different angle.”
The university was built in 1997 in the middle of the desert in the space of 11 months. It was the vision of the Sultan, who has two PhDs, to create quality tertiary education in the country, which at the time was lacking. It had to be not-for-profit for that to work. AUS is co-educational, which is unique in the region. It’s based on the American university system in terms of minors and majors and accreditations, and has up to 6,000 students.
The mix of nationalities among both students and staff reflects the population of Sharjah and the UAE (around 80% to 90% of Sharjah’s population are expats). The indigenous population – the Emiratis – make up a small fraction. Vinke says the rest are “their guests – to help with, among other things, the economy”. Even at the school attended by her children – who grew up on the AUS campus – there are over 100 nationalities.
As COO, Vinke has 220 people who report to her. Recruitment and retention of quality staff is a challenge as many are there on three-year working visas. The three main goals she has set for her team over the next year to tackle are sustainability, automation and customer service. But Vinke says the changing education environment, namely proliferation, is AUS’s number one challenge. When AUS launched it was one of a few universities in Sharjah – now there are over 100 institutes of higher education. This means competition, and having to stand out. “We always focused on quality, but never had to worry about marketing. Now we have to explain what we do better.” The cost of education in the UAE, as in most advanced economies, is increasing. “So we have to look at how we help the parents. Obviously education is critical. What I enjoy most about my current role is the direct contribution to society. AUS, in the vision of Sultan Al Qasimi, is based on the American Liberal Arts model. This means that we not only prepare students for jobs, but prepare them to be critical thinkers who can shape society. Also a lot of the work of ICAEW in the region is cementing the economic base by aiding financial knowledge and transparency through educating the next generation and advising governments and semi government bodies,” she says.
The role of women in society and business has been a well-publicised and criticised issue in the region, but has changed significantly since Vinke first arrived. It differs from country to country in the Middle East and within the UAE itself, she says. Women now make up the majority of students in third level education in the UAE and they outperform men in every single area of academia. This will be the first generation in which a vast swathe of the educated class entering the workplace will be women.
“We have students whose grandparents may not have been able to read or write even, Bedouins who led a very simple life in the desert. Within a couple of generations this is completely turned upside down. The role of women is changing so radically and aggressively. I think another generation and the women are going to rule.”
The process of “Emiratisation” has also been pushed in recent years – a policy that encourages the private sector to employ more Emirati professionals across the UAE. There are concerns that if things continue as they are, Emiratis will be just 3% of the population by 2050, according to forecasts. “They have unlimited opportunities in the public sector. We try to convince our students to do this but it’s tricky. We see it too in trying to recruit Emiratis to the ACA, and across the private sector,” says Vinke, who also serves as a founding member of the Middle Eastern Advisory Board of ICAEW. “They need to be ready to take over. At the end of the day they are the only ones who are here indefinitely.”
Oil has supported the UAE’s rapid transformation. But ever since oil revenue began to flow into the UAE in the 1960s, a significant proportion has been invested in non-oil infrastructure, including transport and free-trade zones. Today, oil accounts for less than 50% of the UAE’s export receipts. Retail, finance, tourism, media and other sectors have been at the heart of a drive to diversify the economy.
Vinke’s research areas and academic activities include integrated reporting and promoting better finance practices through improved corporate social responsibility by research, training and consulting.
“We all know that oil and gas is coming to an end – my research into sustainability has given some insight into that. There is a big push to diversify the economy. We’re not there yet. Like the rest of the world, there are a lot of things to be done. On sustainability, what used to be marketing has become more serious and genuine. On campus we finally have some serious sustainability initiatives that a few years back no one was worried about.”
Vinke’s stay in Sharjah was set to end in 2016, with a move back to where her career started in the UK. She had already bought a house, found schools for her kids and contacted universities to find work. “I had done my doctorate in the UK, I’m a chartered accountant for the UK. I feel very much at home there. Then the Brexit vote came. It took me completely by surprise. So when the university chancellor [at AUS] called and asked me to come back it made it very easy to decide.”
Vinke spent her 20s in the UK, in Holland, in Germany and travelling across Europe. “I am grateful for what now could be seen as a European experiment. We benefitted so much from that. My generation would not have had the choices and opportunities without the EU. It helped my career,” Vinke adds.
“I have been incredibly lucky to grow up and build a career during a time when young people were encouraged to be Europeans. I have had great professional opportunities because of that, and have benefitted from the unique political, social and economic stability at the time. For a long time, I thought this was a normal state of affairs.”
Away from her day job, education is still part of Vinke’s life. Her friend Shabina Mustafa created a charity in Karachi, Pakistan, called The Garage School. It started in a garage, helping around a dozen children from a nearby slum with education, healthcare and teaching them the basic skills to survive. Vinke helped her set it up and it now has around 400 students. Beyond that interest, Vinke thinks she is “really boring!”. “I spend time with my family and we travel together. But I haven’t done any Kilimanjaros or anything like that.”
Does Sharjah feel like home? “It does and it doesn’t. It’s tricky, especially for my kids. The worst question anyone can ask them is, where are you from? They’ll say we’re from Holland and people accept that. I’m from Holland, but I’m a little bit from England, and Germany and Sharjah and Pakistan. Whether that’s socially acceptable or not, it’s the way it is.”
What comes next in her career, Vinke isn’t quite sure, but she certainly has no shortage of ideas. “Maybe something completely different. There’s so much to do here so I’m really looking forward to the challenge. Maybe when the kids are ready to move on I’ll start something of my own – possibly between educating people about finance, or financial literacy or bringing in sustainability. In academia you have so much freedom. I couldn’t see myself going back into banking. You don’t feel you’re particularly adding value there. When you get a bit older you think about making an impact. To do your tiny little bit for the world.” As always, she’s leaving her options open.