Saudi healthcare executive goes back to her roots
Saudi Arabia can be a challenging climate to do business, especially if you’re female. One lady who has managed to balance the cultural tightrope is Summer Nasief, the first woman to run an industry in Saudi Arabia for a blue chip company.
Ms Nasief is healthcare and life-sciences industry executive for IBM.
First working for IBM in 2001, she was performing in IBM America’s top 10 per cent two years ago when she surprised her colleagues by requesting a transfer to Saudi Arabia. After all, it’s not the country of choice for many businesswomen.
For Ms Nasief, working in Saudi meant a return to her roots; she’d grown up in Saudi Bedouin communities with her Saudi father, who built oil refineries, and her American mother. “All my education was in Arabic because my father insisted my upbringing be 100 per cent Saudi. So when at 15 my parents divorced and I moved to the US, I couldn’t read or write English.
“The healthcare industry that I now run for IBM is the biggest industry that money is being spent on today in Saudi Arabia, so IBM was taking a major risk by putting a female in. My selling point was ‘IBM believes in diversity, so why wouldn’t we send a woman to the most culturally complex place in the world?’”
IBM was ranked by the National Association for Female Executives in the US as one of the top 10 companies for females this year.
Ms Nasief persuaded the company she could create a Saudi healthcare industry for them, with an initial six-month budget and a headcount of three. She just had one prerequisite. As a single woman, Ms Nasief knew it would be difficult to live alone so she asked to have a base in Dubai, which she could return to at weekends.
“I cover the entire kingdom for IBM so during the week I’m constantly in and out of hotels,” she says “The swimming pools in the hotels are male-only. There are a small number of female gyms, but they’re very limited in terms of what they have. The advantage of Saudi hotels is it’s where people can sit and eat together, because that’s where most business people reside. So I stay at a hotel in Riyadh with massive grounds, and my friends come have dinner with me at the same hotel restaurant.”
A lack of mobility has hindered the progress of female businesswomen in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving. It means Ms Nasief has to rely on drivers to get around.
But she is not the only Saudi female in the healthcare industry, as it’s a more culturally acceptable field for women to work in.
“When I first started going to meetings, I wore the abaya and the sheila to fit in. As I started feeling more comfortable, I would put my sheila around my shoulders. As I got to know my clients better, I learnt how to broker meetings between the ladies and the men. I bring my Saudi side to the meetings, and as a female I sit with the other females, but at the same time I also guide the males to do what I need them to do.
“I can’t have one-on-one meetings with male clients. So I bring a male colleague to the table with me.”
Ms Nasief says there are limitations to her role. For a start, she says, she has to work harder than the men – a challenge she thrives on.
But she acknowledges that Saudi women deserve better opportunities in the workplace.
“The government is building women-only work hubs to give these women employment, and part of my job involves working with people who are building these industries for women. But they’re currently talking about creating entrepreneurship cells in two specific fields – cosmetology and fashion,” she explains.
Ms Nasief isn’t the only female striving to break down the employment divide; this year Somayya Jabarti was appointed as the first female editor of a Saudi newspaper. In 2013 Saudi registered its first female trainee lawyer, Arwa Al Hujaili, and its first female police officer, Ayat Bakhreeba. Such pioneers are inspiring the next generation of Saudi females.
“Girls here have told me I inspire them to follow,” adds Ms Nasief. “When I did my first speaking engagement, I realised how impactful what I was doing was. I got questions like ‘I want to do my master’s degree, but I don’t want to leave my family’. I told them family is important, but just because you’re getting an education, it doesn’t mean you’re leaving your family cell.
“I took my journey to Saudi Arabia to fulfil my needs and reconnect with my roots. But now I realise that it’s about more than just me.”
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Updated: July 6, 2014 04:00 AM