Women Working Wonders

March 28, 2020


On the cusp of International Women’s Day, Forbes Middle East unveiled its annual Power Businesswomen in the Middle East list, packed with 100 leaders at the top of some of the most influential and transformational companies in the MENA region.

“Most people on this list have worked their way up a steep career ladder for decades to reach the top of their professions,” said the Forbes report. “If there were glass ceilings to be smashed, these are the titans that first smashed them.”

Forbes cited nine Egyptian women, and we sat down with five to get their thoughts on the business environment today and challenges for the next generation. Following are excerpts from the interviews.

Abir Leheta
Chairman and CEO, Egyptian Transport & Commercial Services Co. (Egytrans)

Appointed in June 2015, Leheta is responsible for the development of strategic and structural opportunities to increase the resilience, agility, and growth of Egytrans. She has been with the company for more than 20 years, and before her appointment as chairman, she was chief strategy officer. Leheta holds a bachelor of science in computer science with a minor in business administration from the American University in Cairo. Leheta ranks 81 on the Forbes list.

What are the two most important traits for your position?
The first thing is to have the courage and the willingness to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. I also think the desire to take some risks and step outside your comfort zone is crucial. Another important one is to build consensus, to bring people together by identifying all stakeholders in a particular situation and communicating effectively.

What’s the best business decision you made in 2019?
Changing some of the strategic focuses of the company and increasing the importance of investments, business development, and diversification, looking for new areas in which we can expand. I think it will start to bear fruit in 2020.

What would you do differently if you had to start over from scratch?
I came to this job in an unexpected and unplanned way. My brother, who was chairman and CEO in 2015, was taken ill and passed away in a very short period. As a consequence, I was kind of thrust into this position without being fully prepared for it. If I went back in time, I would have planned to engage in certain aspects of the business and to learn in a more hands-on approach. I would dig more deeply into some of the operational and customer aspects of the business that I was never directly involved with.

What was your dream job growing up?
The interesting thing is I never saw myself in this job, ever. You know I had phases, as many kids do, but eventually, what I settled on was that I wanted to be a computer programmer. So I studied computer science and did a fair amount of programming at the beginning of my career, and I enjoyed that very much. That was probably because, to me, computer programming had an element close to writing, where it is very satisfying to write something and come up with a very elegant piece of code that works.

Describe one of your biggest failures, what lessons did you learn?
I tend to be a pretty structured person who likes to take things one step at a time and get as much input as possible from the people around me. I wouldn’t say there have been any massive failures, but maybe taking a little bit too much time on some things. Also, sometimes an idea looks very attractive, and because you worked on that idea, you can be a bit reluctant to give up on it and have it fail early, so that is maybe the other thing.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
The woman herself. Self-doubt or fear. Not realizing one’s potential and being afraid to step out of that comfort zone, which is where all the magic happens.

How do you overcome this barrier?
You find the only way is to take the initiative yourself and decide to embark on it, even if you still don’t know precisely how. The way to get through it is by drumming up support, building up a team, and finding the right help. That has been a huge theme in my life.

What woman inspired you growing up, and why?
Sayyida Khadijah. She managed her own business at a time when that was not a societal norm, while at the same time doing it in a very principled way.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Throughout my generation, the challenge was really about putting our foot in the door, having more women represented in various sectors. Still, I hope the challenge for the next generation will be about dreaming big and doing tremendous things. It also occurred to me that one of the people who supported me enormously and helped me throughout key stages of my career was my mother. She was there for me whenever I needed to focus on a huge deadline and work through pressure. I think a significant number of the current new generation are working women, who are already juggling their work-home life with its own set of challenges, and may not be as availableto their kids as they prepare to launch their careers.

What’s a piece of advice you would give to young, aspiring women entering male-dominated fields?
They need to realize that they can do anything if they really set their minds to it, structure it, and plan it properly. Nothing will hold them back. You will always meet resistance, and you need to find ways to get around it. Again, it’s about finding the support system. Some of that support is other women, some comes from family, and some comes from finding male champions within that same organization or industry. You must be able and willing to go the extra mile because you will have the added burden of proving yourself and overcoming the stereotypes or whatever negative perceptions may be there.

What’s one fact no one knows about you?
In the evening, I like to journal a little bit before bed just to review what happened in my day, the lessons learned, and what I’m grateful for. It helps set me up for a positive attitude the following day.

Hoda Mansour
Managing Director, SAP Egypt

Since Mansour was appointed in February 2018, the company has recorded its best performance ever. Egyptian-British Mansour is responsible for growth strategy, including sales, marketing, and operations in Egypt. Mansour holds a bachelor of science degree with distinction and honors in architecture engineering from Alexandria University, as well as a master of business administration with distinction from Maastricht School of Management. Mansour ranks 75 on the Forbes list.

What’s the best business decision you took in 2019?
I’ve taken some steps to improve the overall well-being of my team. I made sure to secure the approval to help us move to a new office that will fulfill our aspirations and improve our productivity. We should complete this move by June. Our new office will have lots of sunlight, free areas where the team can unwind, collaborate, and get together, as well as some recreation facilities. Another critical business decision I’ve taken is to get more involved and support the government as it embarks on its digital transformation plans.

How do you motivate yourself?
I get my energy from the people around me and my team. I’m always happy to sit with people who bring positive energy.

What would you do differently if you had to start over from scratch?
I would have taken faster steps at a younger age.

What woman inspires you, and why?
My mother. Her determination inspires me. Her confidence in the future warms my heart. She is never worried about the future. She is the one who taught me how to be confident.

What’s a typical day like for you?
My routine has changed since my new year’s resolution. I hired a private fitness coach. I wake up at 6 am and head to the gym. I exercise for an hour now. Then I start my workday, meeting clients or going to the office. Due to the nature of our field, we finish work quite late on account of to participation in other events. So there isn’t much time afterward.

What was your dream job growing up?
To be a university professor.

What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make, and how did it impact your life?
Leaving my studies and starting all over again to study information technology. It’s a reset button on all I learned. Looking back on it, mixing arts with technology helped me pay attention to details and present things differently.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
We are getting buy-in from colleagues and bosses. As women in a tough field like IT, we used to work twice as hard, which is a very unnecessary challenge. Recently, companies have started changing. If we look at our company, we have a target to have 30 percent female leaders by 2022.

How did you overcome this barrier?
The first step is to think strategically, work harder, and focus on doing things in a different way to achieve quick, yet sustainable results while maintaining a confident and humble attitude.

What are the two most important traits for your position?
Having a vision and a sense of direction, as well as paying attention to details. Your team and your clients have to believe in your vision. You need to validate your path as you go periodically.

How do you succeed in a field known to be male-dominated?
By being raised in a family environment that was not dismissive of female success. It’s the attitude from within that can challenge a potential victory. You have to believe there should be no difference between males and females in the workplace to earn what you deserve.

What will be the challenge for future generations?
Competitiveness. But I think this is a challenge all would face, despite gender. Having a wide array of opportunities, access to the global markets, and technological advancement is all added pressure on the next generation. The social element is also slowly diminishing year by year from our youth, and I see this as a huge concern. Everyone is on a phone, losing touch with real life. I am concerned that the next generation will find it hard to live in and enjoy the moment, which worries me a lot.

What’s one fact no one knows about you?
People may not know I was initially an architect. I even ranked second in my graduation class at the Faculty of Architecture, Alexandria University.

Mervat Sultan
Chairperson, Export Development Bank of Egypt (EBE)

Since Mervat Sultan was appointed as the first female chairperson in 2016, the bank has increased its assets to more than $3.2 billion and generated revenues of $138 million up to June 2019. Sultan began her career in 1983 at Egyptian Gulf Bank. Her term at EBE got renewed last year to end in November 2022. Sultan earned a bachelor of arts and an MBA in business administration at American University in Cairo, with the highest honors. Sultan ranks 60 on the Forbes list.

How do you maintain your energy and remain motivated?
It’s a very simple thing. I have a trick to work by goals and objectives that I set, work for and strive toward. As soon as I achieve the goal, I set another one.

What would you do differently if you had to start over from scratch?
Career-wise, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Maybe on a personal level, I might have made a couple of choices differently. But in the end, I always look at the cup as half full; whatever turned wrong I would turn into something positive. What you believe gets realized. Thinking that nothing is the end of the world is a major attribute not many people have. It keeps us young, fresh, motivated and alive. As long as it is not the end of the world, it can be fixed.

What would you say is the most important business decision you made in 2019?
Expanding into retail. We had an attempt before that didn’t work out. But I was determined to make it happen. We currently have a full-fledged retail banking proposition, we hired very aggressively and now have a full team launching new products. I get a lot of feedback from nonclients and friends who are not in the sector, which is a good indication we are on the right track.

What are the top qualities for your position or for that of a leader?
Leaders must realize they are not managers. They are not supposed to micromanage people. For me, what I found was most important is listening and analyzing what others say in order to challenge what doesn’t make sense and to accept what does. Followed by that is motivating and empowering people, which has worked tremendously in this bank.

What was your dream job growing up?
Believe it or not, I wanted to be a banker.

Did you have any tough decisions you had to make that impacted your life?
In a way, I’ve had a good life, but it wasn’t an easy one. I had to make a couple of tough decisions. I don’t regret them, but I understand now that maybe the choices could have been slightly more rational. I came out really learning to listen, not pretending to be a know-it-all because this is when you fail. This is what I do here, encouraging people to be vocal and express their opinions, and sometimes I even change my mind if I listen to something that makes more sense.

What do you think is a significant barrier to female leadership in Egypt and how do you overcome it?
This is a really difficult question because I’ve never thought about this all my life. As a student, I was top of my class, the competition was always there. Even at university, AUC didn’t really have that bias, so when I went out into the workforce I was not really considering this. Looking back, there were instances of bias against me, but when you don’t really pay attention to it, it doesn’t irritate you. Having said that, I think today is completely different. There is more female representation and success in Egypt than in Europe. It is going to be a lot easier going forward. Education has opened up and the sky’s the limit.

Did you have any women role models growing up?
The first one was my mother. She was a housewife and never worked, but she was a really strong woman, a true leader. She was one of 10 siblings. She was the least educated, and the most powerful. She helped her siblings make all their decisions and was a great support to my father as well. Her leadership, strength, charisma and social ability were enormous. Later on, I had a math teacher in high school who worked with so much passion and never asked for anything in return. She just wanted everyone to excel and truly made me love the subject. Growing up, it is very important that you have these strong figures to leave a mark in your life.

What are upcoming challenges for the generation coming after you?
There will always be challenges. I think one of the biggest is this generation has had things much easier, their appreciation for many things is not there. They want to start where everybody ended, which is not the right approach. I think the challenge will continue to be having the right partner who supports, understands and shares the responsibility, and this is not necessarily easy. Middle Eastern men are not as understanding and supportive, leading to many failures in marriages and people marrying later in life. I truly hope men will catch up with the pace at which women have grown and developed. They need to accept that a woman can be successful and make it to the top. I personally have been blessed to have my husband, who is very supportive with my workload and responsibilities. He always pushes me forward.

What do you want to achieve next?
The honest answer is to enjoy my grandchildren. During my sabbatical, I thought I had achieved all I wanted and would have been happy to stop. Since I landed here, I really want to continue our success story. After I am done with my six years, I want to leave an institution that is among the top 10, then get to enjoy life a bit. I would like to stop working while I’m still healthy and can enjoy my family.

Noha El Ghazaly
Managing Director and Head of Investment Banking, Pharos Holding for Financial Investments

With more than 10 years of financial services and investment banking experience, El Ghazaly joined Pharos Holding in May 2018. She previously served as executive director at HC Securities & Investment and as a board member at HC Brokerage. El Ghazaly studied at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, and pursued her master’s at Edinburgh Business School of Heriot-Watt University. El Ghazaly ranks 92 on the Forbes list.

How do you motivate yourself?
My motivation comes from the challenge. I hate the comfort zone. I get very motivated knowing that something is very difficult and still getting it done. I also get motivated by my team. I love to see how they are developing and getting creative around the current work that we do in investment banking.

What’s the most important business decision you made in the past year?
Putting culture and environment at the forefront of my hiring and management decisions and thus building a family-like harmony in my team.

What are important job qualities for your position?
Emotional intelligence. We deal with different people in a process that tends to be frustrating. You have to be smart in dealing with pressure and creative in your solutions. Also, integrity and confidence. At the end of the day, you are working as an advisor. If you don’t earn people’s trust, you wouldn’t be able to do this job properly. If you don’t believe you will succeed in doing something, no one else is going to believe that you can do it. You have to have a winner’s attitude. Women have a set of unique characteristics that they can bring to the table. They are very practical, they are problem solvers, and they’re great at multitasking. All of these soft skills are very important for a leadership position.

What was your dream job growing up?
I wanted to be a genetic engineer. I was very much into biology as I looked up to my father, who is a doctor. I gave that up because I didn’t think I would like the lifestyle. Being the extroverted person I am, I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab.

What would you do differently if you had to start over from scratch?
I would travel more.

What kind of obstacles did you face throughout your career as a working woman?
People’s first impressions of me are always intriguing. As a woman who’s very young to be where I am, people’s first impressions are usually apprehensive toward the girl that’s coming into a meeting to boss them around.

How do you overcome this obstacle?
I tend to highlight being the odd person in the room. I highlight that uniqueness early on as it gives more credibility to how different and capable I am. I celebrate being a woman and being young. I don’t like to hide it or act as if I’m one of the guys. I’m here. I’m present, and for a reason.

What’s one of the toughest decisions you had to make?
I was at another company for 10 years. Leaving my old employer was a very tough decision. It was the right one as it got me completely outside of my comfort zone and got me to think from a very clean slate. I usually take things in a very positive way. If there is something I think it’s going to be difficult, it impacts me positively.

What woman inspires you, and why?
My school principal, Mrs. Magda Moussa. She was the epitome of a woman’s perfection. She was very powerful, she had a demeanor of an inspiring leader and she was a lady. Also, my mom hugely inspires me every day; she’s a miracle of a human being. I wish I could be a fraction of the person she is.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Self-doubt. Society usually doesn’t put us in enabling situations, so we have to have a drive from within to make what we want actually happen. Again, it’s having a winner’s attitude. Technology also is making this generation very impatient. In real life, it takes a lot of hard work to get things done.

What’s one fact no one knows about you?
I love vanilla ice cream and I’m a dog mum.

Pakinam Kafafi
CEO, TAQA Arabia

Since 2013, Kafafi has been CEO of TAQA Arabia, a leader in energy distribution across Egypt. With nearly 25 years of experience in the energy and investment banking sectors, Kafafi joined TAQA Arabia as chief investment officer in 2006. She led the group’s business diversification strategy into power generation and distribution and later orchestrated TAQA Arabia penetration into the renewable energy market. She graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, with a major in economics. Kafafi ranks 31 on the Forbes list.

What’s the most important business decision you’ve made in the past year?
Important business decisions are becoming part of our daily lives especially that we are always looking for innovative and new lines of business, but if I would point a single important or critical decision made recently, it would definitely point to the decision taken to publicly offer a part of TAQA Arabia in the Egyptian stock exchange market yet this is for sure not a single person’s decision.

What are the important job qualities of a female leader?
Being a good listener. You need to constantly be aware of all details happening in the company, how employees about their careers and the future of the company. The other most important job quality is being a good negotiator and knowing when to let go and when to fight for what you want and believe.

How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
To be honest, I am a kind of person who is always motivated, I am always looking for the future and thinking of how I improve myself in all aspects, not only the work environment but also as a mother as a colleague and as a partner. You always need to love and have passion in what you do, and this will always keep you motivated.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? How do you overcome it?
Stereotyping, especially in a developing country like Egypt. People tend to stereotype women as less educated, less smart, less intelligent. These old stereotypes are very dangerous as they can brainwash young women to believe them. Nowadays, I believe these notions are slowly diminishing. Women hold positions as ministers, high-ranking judges and several other jobs that were always male dominated. I am very lucky to have worked in companies and organizations where the quality of work, not gender, is always what counts.

How did you overcome this barrier?
I believe that rejecting the stereotype and being more determined to give more and excel in what you do will always make you stand out and have peers respect you all along the way.

What’s the toughest decision you have to take as a CEO?
I think tough decisions are normal decisions that you need to make except they are decisions you don’t want to make. The toughest decision is always when I have to lay off someone from the company. It still gets to me after all these years, because my decision is not just affecting one person but an entire family. Yet it’s a decision that needs to be taken for the benefit of the whole company.

What would you do differently if you had to start over from scratch?
Believe me, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I’m thankful for my life and what I have accomplished in both my personal and professional lives. I would follow the same journey again, willingly.

What woman inspires you, and why?
My mother for sure is my utmost source of inspiration, she is always motivating and encouraging me all along the way. She was a working woman that reached the position of under-secretary of the ministry of justice. I was only 19 when my father passed away and my mother had a huge role in shaping me into the strong woman I am today. She pushes me past my limits, supports me in challenging situations and believes in me. She always tells me ‘there’s nothing you cannot do.’ Her words keep me moving every day. She’s my backbone.

Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn?
I don’t believe in failures. When I make a mistake, I don’t dwell on it. I understand why it happened, I learn, and move forward with a lesson learned. But when it comes to major life hardships, I tend to get stronger.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Trying to perfect and excel at the multiple tasks they are solely responsible for. I think it is important to build a family with values of sharing tasks and responsibilities. In our culture, a man is responsible for his career only. This is a fatal mistake that burdens the entire family. If we raise our kids that sharing is caring, just like how we initially teach them in kindergarten and continue nurturing this value, women will not be stressed into managing a million responsibilities. By doing so, the entire family will excel together with love, because they are working hand in hand. Teamwork in households is just as important as it is in the workplace.

What’s one fact no one knows about you?
I’m a certified experienced diver and a travel addict.