Maha Mohammed Al-Essa has come a long way from that momentous day in 2008 when she was granted her university degree. The enterprising graduate was among the first batch of students to take part in Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development’s QF annual senior convocation.
This year, the Foundation will mark its fifth convocation as parents and teachers come together to celebrate the achievements of 373 students in a wide range of subjects including design, medicine, computer science, Islamic studies and engineering. The number of graduates has more than tripled since 2008 when Maha was one of the 122 students who were awarded degrees.
Over the past four years, the bright 23-year-old Qatari has wasted no time in applying the practical lessons gained from her time as a graphic design student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar (VCUQatar) into the real world. “I co-founded a design agency in 2010 along with two other Qatari women. Our company is called 974 Design, which is the area code for Qatar,” says the ambitious entrepreneur. “I worked as a designer for two years, but I felt that I had far more to contribute and having a design agency meant that I would get the opportunity to work on several different projects in various sectors.” Despite the challenges, Maha believes the positive outcome of investing early on in a career she is passionate about far outweighs any trials, and this gives her the momentum to ensure the business continues to grow. “It is a lot of work, late nights and early mornings but it is worth it when you see that your work is being appreciated. You also learn a lot it is all about being patient, getting your ideas through, dealing with a client and having strong communication, which is very important.” Maha was a part of Qatar Foundation from the very start and attributes finding her chosen career path to the Foundation. “I was a student at Qatar Academy so I’ve been here throughout my school years. I found myself here and what I want to do,” she explains. “I was not interested at all in arts but, when I found digital media, that is when I became really interested. I applied to VCUQatar because I knew I wanted to do graphic design and the opportunity was available in Qatar, so I decided to stay here. I gained a lot from being at VCUQatar. The experience and exposure from professors is unique. One of our professors has worked in Disney and Pixar, so they constantly inspired us to be creative.” Maha received her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and Graphic Design from VCUQatar in 2008 and plans to pursue her higher education in the future. For the time being though, she is keen to promote her career choice to a wider audience, a philosophy that chimes with QF’s mission to help transform the nation to a knowledge economy.
“I want to create awareness about the importance of design in Qatar there is always a story behind a concept and a design can do a lot for a company and become part of their marketing strategy,” she says.
Maha holds a full-time position as a senior online and social media officer at Qatar Development Bank, as well as handling the many responsibilities of the design agency. In the short time that 974 Design has been operating, it has already begun to break new ground. “Our company is a start-up and what is distinctive about it is that we are three Qatari partners. When you think of a design agency, you don’t normally think of a local one, you think of international names that have worked on big projects. It was a bit risky entering a market dominated by international agencies, but we hope to expand in the future,” she says. The company is involved in all aspects of design such as graphic work, corporate identity, booth designs, logos and advertising campaigns. “This is about doing something different. It is about establishing a local design agency that understands the culture well. I think my highlight achievement is establishing a company at a young age and now it is all about growing and developing it to become one of the top design agencies in Qatar,” says Maha.