Follow The Leader: Salma Al Maawali, CEO, FRiENDi Mobile Oman
"Gender diversity clearly continues to represent not only a key challenge, but also a significant opportunity for the future of our industry."
“It has been my privilige to lead the company through numerous changes and challenges to achieve one of the highest market shares of any mobile virtual network operator anywhere in the world,” declares Salma Al Maawali, the CEO of FRiENDi Mobile Oman, the first ever mobile virtual network operator in the Middle East, and the third largest mobile service provider in the region.
Having earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, University of South Carolina, Columbia, and Master of Accountancy, University of Nevada, Reno, Al Maawali spent six years at telecommunications company Ooredoo Oman (formerly Nawras), before continuing her career as the Finance Director at FRiENDi Mobile Oman. In 2018, FRiENDi Mobile Oman opened yet another door for her by appointing her as CEO, making her the first ever female CEO of a telecommunications company in Oman. “My appointment was announced on Omani Women’s Day [October 17], and it received a great reaction on social media,” Al Maawali recalls. “The telco industry is often viewed as being male-dominated, and so many people, especially women in the sector and my female colleagues, were exceptionally proud and happy to see a female CEO in the telco sector in the region.”
Today, Al Maawali is pleased to state that at Virgin Mobile Middle East and Africa, which is the holding company for FRiENDi mobile Oman, 40% of the total workforce is currently made up of women, with 25% of leadership positions in the business being held by women. “Gender diversity clearly continues to represent not only a key challenge, but also a significant opportunity for the future of our industry,” she says. “Diverse teams, including those with greater gender diversity, are on average more creative and innovative, so I hope that female leadership appointments, such as mine and the recently announced appointment of Noor Al Sulati at Ooredoo Oman, can inspire more businesses to follow suit.”
Last year, Al Maawali was recognized as the Best Woman in Telecoms at the World Communications Awards 2020. Having seen such success in her career, she lists three key lessons she’s grasped through the course of this journey. “Firstly, it is to stay focused,” she explains. “Focused on your key values, and focused on the needs of your customers. As part of the Virgin Mobile Middle East and Africa Group, our core focus is always to listen to our customers, in order to ensure that we are delivering an outstanding customer experience and meeting their needs.” Secondly, Al Maawali believes that embracing change and constantly learning is crucial to achieving success.
“If the past 18 months have taught businesses anything, it is how quickly the world can change and keep on changing, and therefore, companies and leaders must be agile enough to move with these changes.” The COVID-19 pandemic, she adds, has sharpened consumers’ appetites for digital services, and that means brands need to continually learn new ways to deliver the best proposition possible. Finally, her third lesson is to always focus on doing one’s best. “Contribute to the maximum of your abilities, and always have a positive attitude, especially in challenging times,” she says.
Salma Al Maawali, CEO, FRiENDi Mobile Oman.
With this mindset, it should not come as a surprise why FRiENDi Mobile Oman, under Al Maawali’s leadership, has increased its customer base to almost 500,000 users since October 2018. Looking back, Al Maawali says that achieving these numbers and growing the company’s presence in Oman, a market where it had been operating for more than 10 years, was her key challenge, which also required the company to implement and oversee a change of host operator in 2019.
“This involved securing an agreement that has set the stage to allow FRiENDi Mobile Oman to provide better services, such as larger data bundles and more international minutes, at a lower operational cost, sowing the seeds for FRiENDi Mobile Oman to continue to grow significantly for the coming years,” Al Maawali says. “This also involved migrating our entire customer base. And to achieve this, it was essential that we had a highly qualified and motivated team in place, and by bringing in the best talent and empowering each individual, we were able to successfully drive the needed change and complete the migration in record time. Since the migration, we have witnessed a significant increase of over 50% in our active customer base, and an increase of 30% in terms of subscription growth. Data has more than doubled, and we have experienced a phenomenal increase in the number of voice minutes consumed by our customers, growing by over 300% since the migration.”
Al Maawali has also put a focus on sustainability at the forefront of her enterprise, and it is due to her initiatives that FRiENDi Mobile Oman became the first company to be 100% single-use plasticfree among Virgin Group’s companies worldwide. Such results stem from the core principles that guide all her decisions, she explains, which are analytical thinking and listening. “When I approach a problem, I listen to all available opinions and options, and then I apply analytical thinking to work out the best solution,” Al Maawali says. “For example, in line with the Virgin Group’s dedicated global strategy to tackle climate change, we wanted to take a leading role in driving a greener approach to the use of single-use plastic in the region. In order to assess the most effective changes that we could implement to eliminate plastic, the team undertook a study into all the company’s plastic usage options. We then assessed the most effective changes we could make to our SIM and recharge cards. The outcome showed a staggering 20 tons of estimated reduction in plastic production per year.”
Apart from delivering financial and business results, Al Maawali also considers developing young talent at FRiENDi Mobile Oman as one of her key achievements in her time there. “As a woman, I feel that we have a duty to mentor and encourage the next generation of female leaders, as well as to nurture young talent in general, and I pride myself on playing an active role in the development of all my team,” she says. According to her, it is due to the vision of the late Ruler of Oman, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Bin Taimour, that the country is a place where aspirational women can dream of doing and accomplishing big things, and Al Maawali is determined to contribute to that goal even more in the future.
“Omani women are very much empowered,” she says. “Contradictory to the traditional view of women in the region, Omani women have had equal opportunities in education, healthcare, job vacancies, and participation in making political decisions for a long time, and women’s empowerment is a key pillar of Oman’s economic vision.” And that leads into Al Maawali’s advice for women not just in Oman, but around the region and beyond. “Never stop learning, and never step developing yourself,” she concludes. “Look back at what Omani women have achieved and strive for more.”
THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: SALMA AL MAAWALI’S TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS
1. BE RESILIENT “Never attribute failures to being a woman- everyone fails, everyone has setbacks. What is important is how you pick yourself up, and the learnings you take away from your failures.”
2. BUILD ON YOUR BEST FACETS “Value your strengths and the qualities that make you unique; embrace them, and use them to lead.”
3. ALWAYS BE OPEN TO NEW IDEAS “Listen. Listen to your staff, listen to your suppliers, listen to your customers, and always be open to new ideas that come from listening.”
4. EMPOWER YOUR TEAM “I believe in having a flat structure, and empowering my staff through a culture of meritocracy. Building a culture of inclusion and equality and empowering your team will allow you to get the very best from each individual, and harness their unique strengths.”
5. STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE “Just because an industry is typically seen as male dominated, or is on the edge of your comfort zone, doesn’t mean you should be afraid to challenge it. Being on the edge of your comfort zone will only expand your comfort zone.”
Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.