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Charmer who can take the heat

Profile: She was once told to go back to the kitchen where she belonged by a subordinate. But Soha Nashaat, senior advisor with the Swiss division of Barclays Bank has won over many on her rise to the top.

A senior adviser with Barclays Bank, Soha Nashaat has never allowed obstacles or doubt to block her path. As a pioneer in computer software, as an executive, and in the kitchen she is certainly a driving force even if her days behind the wheel are over, Gillian Duncan writes

Soha Nashaat was working as a deputy office manager for Merill Lynch in Argentina when she called one of her bankers in to discuss his work.

The conversation did not go well.

After she pointed out some things he needed to focus on, the banker told Ms Nashaat to stop bothering him and go back to the kitchen "where she belonged".

"It's better not to print what I said," says Ms Nashaat, now a senior adviser at Barclays Wealth in Dubai.

Many would have harboured a grudge against the banker for the rest of their days. Yet he went on to become a good friend. He was one of several people who sobbed when she left the Buenos Aires office.

There is no doubt Ms Nashaat's hard work and drive helped to win over many chauvinistic colleagues. But when you meet her you cannot help but think her charm and quick wit played a part too.

"People naturally gravitate toward her," says Steve Fedor, the chief operating officer of Barclays Wealth, for Middle East and North Africa, who adds she is "generous to a fault with the courage of a lion".

Ms Nashaat, who is half Syrian, half Egyptian and grew up in Kuwait, began her career as a product manager at Merrill Lynch in New York in 1991 and quickly rose through the ranks, with positions in Argentina - which she accepted before knowing what the role was - and London, which she initially resisted.

It was while she was working in London running the Middle East office, and juggling several other responsibilities, that she was headhunted by Barclays Wealth to set up its Middle East operation.

She was the chief executive of the Middle East region for Barclays Wealth for five years before stepping down to a senior adviser role in August to give her more time to pursue her dream of setting up her own businesses.

All she will reveal about the ventures - plural - is that they involve e-commerce in the retail, travel and property sectors.

"Whenever there has been a pivotal change movement in my life I have said 'OK, I'm just going to do it,'" Ms Nashaat says. "I don't want to say impulsive, because impulsive would be absolutely the wrong word here studied enthusiasm. I think that's what it is."

She put this quality to good use when developing software to select funds back in New York.

"You have to remember this was the early 1990s, when computing was still relatively new and people were telling her she was wasting her time," Mr Fedor says.

"Computing was not her area of expertise so she actually had to learn it as she developed the software. It didn't matter though as she kept at it - nights and weekends when she had spare time - and actually created a tool that ended up on every advisers' desktop in the international network."

Yet for all her fearlessness and independence, there is one thing rather surprising about Ms Nashaat: she does not drive.

She learnt when she was living in Los Angeles and even drove across the US when she was relocating to New York.

But two incidents in quick succession persuaded her to hang up her keys for good. The first occurred on the night she arrived in New York: the roof of her convertible was slashed while she dined at a restaurant.

"I fixed it and then a few weeks later I was going to pick up a friend," she says. "He came down from his apartment, opened the door to get into the car and a taxi came and took off the door. And that was the last time I drove. I pulled the car to the side, fixed it, sold it and I said 'that's it. I am never driving again.'"

About the time she moved to Argentina, Ms Nashaat made a conscious decision she would not have children because of her job pressures and busy travel schedule. She has questioned the decision "more than a few times" - but never regretted it.

"I realised this is really a choice. I'm making a choice because I have to be mobile for what I am doing and so therefore I am going to make this choice and I don't think that I want to have children because I would like to pursue this," Ms Nashaat says.

This does not mean she thinks other women cannot have a healthy work-life balance, only that businesses need to recognise what is expected of them and create an environment in which they can excel.

"We are very happy, me and Javier [her husband]," she says.

"We have a fantastic life. [With] the four pugs and the seven cats, we have 11 kids."

She describes her animals as the "centre of her existence". She was always a "cat person" until about three years ago when her husband, whom she met on holiday in the Maldives, surprised her with a puppy.

"He walked into the house with this little thing which was tiny, a handful. I looked at him and said 'what on earth is this rat? Get him out of the house.'

"My husband looked really crestfallen and he's like 'OK, I'll take him back to the breeder.' And then I looked at this little thing and I said 'you know what, give me 24 hours and let me see how I feel about him.' That was it. I never looked back," she says.

Aside from her husband and animals, her other great love in life would come as no surprise to her chauvinistic colleague all those years ago at Merrill Lynch.

"We have an outdoor kitchen and an indoor kitchen," she says. "There's always someone cooking something, whether it's a bowl of pasta or something much more elaborate. We are always inventing dishes.

"I actually like the kitchen, but it doesn't take away from the fact that I can be a very capable executive."

gduncan@thenational.ae

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