Advancing With Agility: Nadia Al Saeed, CEO, Bank Al Etihad
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The long line of accomplishments that Nadia Al Saeed can attest to doesn’t seemingly end, and one of the first statements made by the former Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) of Jordan and the current CEO of Bank al Etihad in my interview with her hints toward a leadership mindset that has been essential for all the success she has seen. “I’ve found that one needs to be a lifelong learner,” Al Saeed declares, with one of the key highlights in her pursuit of knowledge being a BA degree in business management and economics, as well as a MBA degree she secured from the American University of Cairo.
However, she also notes that it was her family that instilled in her the values that served as pillars for all her choices in life. “I come from a background that valued education and independence- my mother was a career woman, and my father was very supportive and encouraged me to pursue my career,” Al Saeed says. “Today, I am fortunate to have the constant support of my husband, who has been a real partner and supporter of my success.” In line with Entrepreneur’s central themes, what follows here is a story of a woman who has had two successful professional paths (“one in the public sector, as Minister of ICT, and one in the private sector, as banker and CEO”), but it is, first and foremost, the portrait of a woman who describes herself as “a mom, wife, and CEO of Bank al Etihad.”
“I believe that the way I was raised and my experience in enabling work environments has shaped the person I am today,” Al Saeed says. “I started my career at Bank al Etihad. I then moved into a completely different sector, and going from the private to public sector as a Minister of ICT was a very enriching experience. The shift taught me to never be afraid of change, to keep learning, to always accept and tackle new challenges.” Indeed, in Jordan, Al Saeed is a trailblazer of sorts when it comes to women in the country’s workforce, with a World Bank report in 2020 noting that the economic participation of women in Jordan stands at 15%, one of the lowest rates in the world.
For that reason, Al Saeed is a firm believer that entrepreneurship and enabling women in more leadership roles is a much needed vehicle for their economic independence as well as social change. “That starts at the policy level, as women experience barriers in almost every aspect of the labor market, including pay gaps, lack of safe transportation, and affordable childcare,” she says. “In recent years, there has been growing focus on increasing women’s participation in political leadership. It is my belief that greater female representation in all aspects of the political process leads to more inclusive and sustainable policies on a national level. When women are involved on a policy level, we see more focus on quality of life, families, gender equality, and the inclusion of vulnerable populations.”
Nadia Al Saeed, CEO, Bank al Etihad
Al Saeed describes her years in politics from 2003-2006 as of being “a woman in a man’s world,” where the culture and governing rules were different from that which she had been used to; however, she also notes, “My experience wasn’t typical, and I was fortunate to work with likeminded people on a transformational portfolio.” Over the years, Jordan has adopted a proactive approach to increasing the representation of women in politics, but Al Saeed points out that there still are a number of obstacles that obfuscate women’s participation in politics in the country. “Gender bias and traditional roles continue to hold our women back,” she says. “While it’s important for us to help mentor and prepare women to challenge the status quo, it is equally important for us to challenge gender bias wherever and whenever it occurs.”
Jordan is among 189 governments that adopted the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a comprehensive roadmap for gender equality, the empowerment of women, and the human rights of women and girls. One of the country’s steps that promotes the inclusion of women in politics is the establishment of The Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW), a semi-governmental committee and reference authority for all official bodies in Jordan in relation to women’s affairs, by HRH Princess Basma Bint Talal.
Progress is slow but still visible, Al Saeed states. According to an OECD report, the introduction of legislated quotas for women’s representation in decision-making bodies at the national (2003) and municipal level (2007) has played a key role in increasing women’s representation in politics in Jordan. “With increased representation, we are seeing the gender equality agenda being pushed through and more work being done to eliminate gender discrimination,” Al Saeed says. “While those efforts are admirable, we still have a long way to go to make sure women have equal representation and greater political participation.”
Al Saeed left the public sector more aware of how much harder it was for women to take on and succeed in leadership roles. In 2008, Al Saeed assumed the role of CEO of Bank al Etihad, after working on the bank’s new growth strategy as a McKinsey & Company strategy advisor for one year. Drawing on her experience from the public sector, she made sure to work on creating solutions that empower women, such as launching the Bank al Etihad’s Shorouq, a women’s market program that was Jordan’s first and only full banking proposition for women, in 2014.
“Shorouq not only ensured we implement diversity and inclusion policies within the bank, but that we also offer inclusive financial and non-financial services and advice to women,” Al Saeed says. “In my role, I have made it a priority to use resources to educate women about entrepreneurship and taking control of their finances and lives. At Bank al Etihad, we have built services dedicated to females at all stages of their lives, providing them with financial and non-financial services to become risk takers, entrepreneurs, and successful women in the economy.”
Today, almost half of the staff at Bank al Etihad are women, Al Saeed proudly notes. “Having women in positions of power contributes to building a sustainable country with healthy and progressive communities,” she says. And when it comes to succeeding in the corporate world, her main piece of advice is “to constantly learn, reinvent yourself, and adapt to the rapid changes in technology.” Another thing to focus on is the importance of leveraging partnerships- “Your team and the ecosystem around you, your impact and the value you provide become greater when you join forces with likeminded people and organizations,” she adds.
“The team you surround yourself with is also very important. I believe you are as good as your team.” In addition, it is crucial to choose a work environment wisely, Al Saeed says. “Working in an enabling corporate culture, one that respects and welcomes diversity, where women have an equal opportunity to compete, lead, and succeed is pivotal,” she adds. “Most importantly, once you have made it, don’t forget to open doors for other women by influencing decisions, policies, and practices that are inclusive. In addition, as a woman, you need to carry yourself as a professional in a corporate environment, so others deal with you in the same way.”
Now, Al Saeed is not just a supporter of Jordan’s women, but also of its youth- she believes that it’s their savviness in tech as well as their eagerness to learn that have attracted global players, such as Expedia and Amazon, to open their regional offices in Jordan. “Jordan is an untapped market,” she says. “Our greatest asset remains our local talent. When the entrepreneurial ecosystem hype started in the region back in the early 2010s, Jordan was at the heart of the boom, and we saw many firsts- the region’s first accelerator, Oasis500, was here, Silicon Badia was among the first VCs, and even the first regional Endeavor offices opened in Jordan. Comparing Jordan to our neighboring countries, the market is in fact smaller; however, Jordan is the place for entrepreneurs to pilot and launch their ideas. Consider, just to name a few, Souq, Mawdoo3, Maktoob or Arabia Weather. They all started in Jordan, and later on expanded into regional markets, and they have shaped technology and the ecosystem in the whole region.”
Jordan’s startup landscape looks set to now get a boost with Al Saeed having been recently elected as the chairwoman of the board of directors of the Jordan outpost of Endeavor (“the world’s leading community of high impact entrepreneurs”), with her aim being to advance the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. “I think that we’re just witnessing the cusp of what is possible,” she says. “Even access to funding and investments has witnessed significant growth, as funding for startups and SMEs more than doubled over the last five years.” Al Saeed adds that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent shift to digital by numerous companies has again highlighted the need to support and encourage tech startups. “The roles of business leaders worldwide dramatically changed during the pandemic,” she adds.
“Before COVID-19, we were focused on fostering innovation and driving growth. When the pandemic hit, we had to make quick rational decisions about reinventing business models, controlling costs, maintaining liquidity, and prioritizing business continuity in order to serve our clients. We were forced out of our comfort zone, and forced to adapt and respond. It has underlined the importance of resilience and agility.”
In her opinion, while the MENA region will continue to grow in terms of innovation and infrastructure advancement, with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman leading the game by investing in infrastructure projects, it is also increasingly becoming a hub for global investors and entrepreneurs. “We’ve seen remarkable growth in the ecosystem in terms of access to funding through regional investors, accelerators, and VCs. In 2020, despite the economic repercussions of COVID-19, 469 regional startups closed funding deals that are worth a total of US$1 billion,” she says, crediting the entrepreneurs behind Maktoob, Souq, and Careem for successfully leveraging the region’s talented youth to build multimillion dollar companies.
However, Al Saeed is also quick to point out the issues that remain. “Even with all the hype around startups in the region, business owners face problems when it comes to hiring,” she says. “The region suffers from some of the highest unemployment rates in the world, mainly due to a gap between educational institutions and the job market. Organizations and SMEs need to work on investing in the youth to shape their skills, and providing the right tools and space for them to explore and innovate. They shouldn’t expect to bring in a fully qualified junior, but instead search for candidates that fit the organization’s values and work on helping them grow and excel.” In Jordan, she adds, one of the main obstacles is scaling. “Entrepreneurs utilize the Jordanian market as a launchpad, and then scale in countries like Saudi Arabia or the UAE,” she says. “I believe there is room for collaboration between markets to open up, share resources and knowledge to give the region an edge, and make it a hub for investors and entrepreneurs.”
The Executive Summary: Bank al Etihad CEO Nadia Al Saeed’s tips for entrepreneurs
1/ Find a mentor “Great leaders know their limits, and they know when to ask for help. Find someone that you trust, and turn to them when you need advice or a sounding board.”
2/ Pay it forward “Make a difference in the lives of other existing and aspiring entrepreneurs. Multiply your impact by mentoring and investing in the next generation.”
3/ Involve younger employees in decision making “It’s not just about the power of teamwork, but a lot of the times the younger employees see things from another perspective, which eventually will help in the success of your organization.”
4/ Embrace agility “Welcome change, and always be ready to adapt and respond to the needs of your consumers and evolving business landscape.”
5/ Communicate, listen, and be transparent “Transparency and honest communication is everything in today’s world. Whether you’re talking to consumers on a brand level or to employees, leading with transparency will build trust around you.”