Driving Women's Empowerment: Sheikha Ambu-Ali on Managing Women-for-Women Taxis
What is your role at OFemale Taxi and what are your main responsibilities?
My name is Sheikha Ambu-Ali, and my role in OTaxi is Marketing Director. I was a Marketing Director before we came up with the idea of a taxi for women. After OFemale appeared, my responsibilities became to manage the OFemale taxi project from A to Z.
Were you one of the people who came up with the idea for the women-for-women taxi?
Yes, but really, the idea came from the customers. A few customers suggested the service, we liked it, and we took it seriously. It was a new idea, so it was a long process - two years! - of getting approval.
Was it the bureaucracy that took so long or did the government oppose the idea?
I think it's both. It was a new idea, so the government needed to understand all aspects. They needed to know if it was feasible from the privacy perspective, from the driver’s perspective, and whether the project was commercial. But also society and culture played a role. Multiple parties joined together to make the decision: the Royal Oman Police, the police with all of its entities, the legislators, and the ministry of transport communications and information technology.
How did you prove that a women-for-women taxi is a feasible idea?
By the time we started getting the approval, we already had a full market research. We had proof that there was a gap in the market. We could show how many women are attacked in taxis, and how many don’t have driving licences or cars. So we knew there was a demand from the customers’ side.
But also, we could show there is demand from the drivers’ side. There is an ongoing unemployment crisis in Oman, so we introduced the OFemale solution from this perspective. There are a lot of women who are taking care of their families, but they are unemployed or at risk of being unemployed. Ride-hailing could be a very good option for them. We showed how much income men get and how much female drivers could get as well.
What would you say are the main benefits of a women-for-women taxi service?
From the driver’s perspective, it's a good way to gain better income as there is a need here in this region, but also not just here, everywhere. Women love privacy, you know, we could get prepared, put on our makeup when we’re around other girls. But also, it’s the flexibility. As a mom, for example, you can work whenever you want. You can take care of your kids in the morning and then in the afternoon get some rides done, and then come back home, and then work again.
And from the passengers' perspective, the demand is just so high. Since we launched the service in March 2022, the demand has kept growing. We are trying to balance the supply with the demand, but, it turned out, our market research results didn’t predict such numbers, the actual gap in the market is much bigger than we thought. People order rides for themselves, for their mums; men order rides for their wives and kids.
Before, in this region, women weren’t really involved in the transportation industry. Women were being driven by brothers, fathers, or whoever would pick us up. So telling the girls that they can drive other women from point A to point B and be a taxi driver was life-changing.
There were also plenty of downsides. Taxi drivers have a bad reputation. So many women were opposed to the idea from the status perspective. Especially because a lot of them are university graduates or have some kind of diplomas. Besides, there is also a cultural perspective: a woman might want to work as a taxi driver, but her brother, father, or husband may be against it because of the bad reputation of taxi drivers.
Is attracting female drivers the biggest challenge OFemale has faced?
Yes, definitely. As we’re trying to meet the demand, we are persuading women day after day to join us and to see for themselves how much they can profit from this job. It has gotten much better. When we started out 1 of 100 females registered with us, as they would discover more information about the car or the documents, maybe two would stay to work. Today, I would say almost 20 out of 100 would end up working for OFemale. Also, now women come to the office themselves and ask how to join, and it’s such a relief not having to do the calls and seeing people who genuinely want to find out more about our service.
That’s such an immense increase in conversion! How did you manage to achieve that?
It was a journey. I think the best way we’ve managed to convince women to become OFemale drivers was to show them other female drivers. We would take interviews with them, show their photos, and post on Instagram and Snapchat. People are better convinced by example than by promises that they will make money. At first, we would show numbers, but this didn’t work that well. It was by having real women talk about their real experiences.
That’s great! That’s also totally understandable! Would you say you face any challenges as a female leader?
A leader of the team or of the team of drivers?
Honestly, no. I don't recall any real challenges as a female leader. We’ve had other issues, like retaining drivers was difficult. Firstly, because this was a new idea and women weren’t used to having jobs with flexible schedules. So, we had to remind them that they need to come back, and it’s a real job with real money. Often, drivers would work very hard on their first day, and on the second day they would perform much worse, and then they might not come back. It's a bit of a time management issue, really. But it also got much better within a year.
What strategies do you use now to retain drivers?
Lately, we’ve been getting top drivers to work with less active drivers, and it’s been working really well. We've done a competition where we have about 10 teams, and the leader of each team is one of the top drivers and less active drivers are in her team. Drivers need to do a specific number of rides and the quality has to be high. There is an incentive, of course. Top drivers act like mentors and motivate other drivers. There is a competitive vibe and there is a learning curve because top drivers explain how best to achieve results, which works very well.
Why did you decide to paint cars white and pink?
It wasn’t up to us: this was the decision made by the ministry. They gave us the license together with the colors. We have the logo that makes it OFemale.
What’s the general feedback that you receive?
The general feedback is very positive. Some call our service the saver. I hear that from students, mothers, and employees. But I am especially touched when female drivers share their feedback. One time a driver even cried because of how OFemale changed her life and provided her with the income she couldn’t earn otherwise. This was one of the best moments. Then there was this driver who said OFemale has been good for her mental health. Talking to drivers reminds me why we’ve started this.
Do you receive any negative feedback?
Not really, it's been a smooth ride! There will always be some negative people. When we work with social media influencers, some people post negative comments about female drivers, but then our drivers respond to these comments themselves! It’s great when girls are defending girls. It shows you how strong they can be.
But there wasn’t any real backlash. We had a very good launch in March 2022, and we involved marketing, PR, and social media influencers, and I think it played a role. We explained what the service is and how it will positively impact the society.
What would you say is your long-term vision for OFemale?
Our strategy right now is to expand geographically, but also expand from a service perspective. So we want to start the female vans and the female VIP service. There are many ideas, but we’re definitely implementing these ones first!