The answer, it seems, is ‘quite nicely indeed’ if the recent 3rd Arabian NextGen Conference led by Tharawat Family Business Forum in Dubai last month, is anything to go by. Of the lineup of attendees—rising stars charged with steering their family enterprises into the future—almost half were women.
This should perhaps come as no surprise. While multinationals and other corporate powerhouses continue to grapple with the touchy subject of women in the workplace—or lack thereof—family businesses have long drawn their female members into their folds, and by and large, are better for it.
“Running a family business, especially in volatile and challenging environments, requires that family members can trust and rely on each other to be able to take important decisions, crucial to the growth and sustainability of their businesses,” explains Farida El Agamy, General Manager at Tharawat Family Business Forum and Attorney at Law. “Women have naturally always been part of those structures and therefore their influence has shaped the way businesses are led.”
It is only in recent decades, however, that women have been stepping into more corporate roles or even leadership positions, traditionally reserved for their male relatives. “Women were mostly looked at as the 'custodians' of family harmony and 'behind the scenes' support for the decision makers, while also responsible for raising the next generation of leaders,” says Tharawat’s GM.
Today, as women start to occupy top corporate positions while continuing to uphold vital behind the scenes roles, their importance in shaping a family business landscape for the future is more pivotal than ever.
Challenges undoubtedly remain, but here are just three of the Arab world’s up and coming female frontrunners who are not only helping their family companies to success, but their region too.
Najla Al Suhaimi : Saudi Arabia
- Executive Manager, Suhaimi Design Architecture and Engineering Design and Consultancy, KSA, 57 employees
- Board Member/Family Business Consultant, Shade Corporation General Contracting, Construction Management, Value Engineering and Design/Build services, KSA, Bahrain, Qatar, 2,000+ employees
- Board Member/Business Development Analyst, Mohammed Saleh Suhaimi Sons Investment Company, Middle East & Europe, 15 employees
- Partner Representative, AlSuhaimi Holding Company
– Investment and Trading, Middle East, 10,000+ employees
Joining the family enterprises in 2009 at the age of just 22, Najla Al Suhaimi is not only a crucial member of her family’s multiple businesses, she’s an entrepreneur in her own right, with events and PR company, NTI Co., to her name. As the granddaughter of Mohammed AlSuhaimi, Co-founder of Al Suhaimi Holding Company; and daughter of AbdulAziz AlSuhaimi, co-founder of the remaining three companies, Najla counts amongst the second and third generation of family members within the diverse range of companies.
The Challenges: Maintaining a unified vision can be a challenge within family businesses, especially across different generations, as members often have different personal and business goals. The older generation also tends to resist ideas coming from the younger generation and would rather sustain the status quo. Then there are emotions and relationships that can create challenges too, while authority awarded according to tradition rather than merit, and lack of succession planning are also factors.
The Advantages: While maintaining a united vision can be tough, family members usually share the same ethics and beliefs on how things should be done. There is also a strong sense of commitment and loyalty; having strong family ties helps family members stick together in facing and avoiding hard times. Trust, solidarity and a short chain of command count amongst the advantages too.
The Gender Question: In our society gender is always factor. I have faced a lot of prejudice; however, I see this as a positive thing as it pushes me to overcome any limitations. Saudi family businesses are still largely male dominated and while the role of women in business became accepted and encouraged recently, when it comes to hiring women, there are still reservations.
Within the Saudi social context of business families, bringing up the children is considered primarily a responsibility of the mother. Thus, whenever the issue of women in the family business is raised, it is subject to her ability to balance her duties at home and her duties at work. However, many women are highly educated nowadays and are demanding basic rights which the traditional family model will ultimately have to respond to.
On the positive side, a family business can offer a higher degree of flexibility and an improved work-life balance, as well as greater opportunities for advancement. In contrast, in the corporate world, women are often expected to place the priorities of the company ahead of their personal lives.
The Next Step: We are currently working on a succession plan entitling me to fulfill my father’s role in the business. I am also working closely with my brother in developing and executing new business ideas and ventures, and growing the family business with my cousins. Meanwhile, I am in the middle of growing my own business, NTI, and plan to expand across the MENA region over the next ten years.
Samar Sayegh : UAE
Sayegh Group :
- National Paints, Alva Paints, National Solvents (manufacturing)
- DMTV, Ro’ya, Altaria, NB Productions (media)
- Sayegh Group Aviation (aviation)
Role: Managing Director, DMTV
Samar Sayegh belongs to the third and in some cases second generations of her family’s businesses. Her late father, Salim Sayegh, and uncle, Michael Sayegh, are the founders of National Paints—the company where her career began back in 2005, Now 29 years old and the Managing Director of DMTV, the Jordanian is fulfilling her father’s vision by making a success of her popular men’s TV channel while contributing to the wider success of Sayegh Group.
The Challenges: Too many opinions can sometimes slow down certain decisions. We are in the process of tackling those challenges by creating the structures and processes to improve the workflow within the organization.
The Advantages: We have the chance to learn about many aspects of the businesses and are given opportunities to handle positions or responsibilities that would take years to reach in a corporate environment. We also have access to unlimited information and a steep learning curve.
The Pressure: We love our work, love talking about it and are passionate about our businesses enough to understand the strong emotions that surface from trying to do what we believe is best for them. We were brought up accepting the fact that National Paints is my father’s first child and then there was us. We treat our businesses as an extension of our family.
The Gender Question: I am a big believer that gender is not an issue and should not be presented as one. It has been proven over and over—especially here in the UAE—that determined women pave their way and do not allow this factor to stop them. In any case, for our family it is not a factor, keeping in mind that in the third generation we are a minority—two out of seven family members are women.
The Next Step: We are looking forward to the new structure, which will allow us to expand and grow all aspects of our businesses in a more productive way. Personally I can’t list all the things that I plan to do since I am currently managing my time between the TV, National Paints and starting our creative studio, which was recently launched under the name NB Productions.
Mia Bassoul : Lebanon
Bassoul Heneine SAL - Exclusive importers in Lebanon for Renault, Dacia, MINI, BMW and Rolls Royce.
Role: Marketing Manager for Renault and Dacia brands
Bassoul Heneine SAL was established by Mia’s grandfather, Louis Bassoul, and his brother-in-law, Pierre Heneine, 62 years ago. On joining the company a decade ago, 35 year-old Mia strengthened the third generation presence at a company which counts as Lebanon’s exclusive importer of some of the most well-known car brands in the world.
The Challenges: It is difficult sometimes to differentiate between the personal and the professional. I also think that implementing new ideas or procedures can be a slow process as it takes time for them to be accepted. This is understandable when you work with people who were born in the business, and who have invaluable experience. You need to be patient and you also need to learn to draw the best from the experience of the family members who have been active for a long time like my father and cousins.
The Advantages: Continuing a 60 year old legacy is not just a job, it is an internal passion that makes coming to work every day an opportunity for growth. I have a great relationship with my family; there is a great sense of safety and solidarity that you don’t necessarily find anywhere else. Blood relationships remain strong and always come first at the end of the day.
Dealing with the pressure: I try to do my best at work, and I also try to separate my emotions from what needs to be done.
The Next Step: I wish to pursue my studies while continuing to work, and I also want to assume greater responsibilities as time goes along.