Saturday, December 18, 2010

Breaking a world record while making a difference

This past October, HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, the President and CEO of ALFA International and AL HAMA LLC, talked to the polyglot about how Saudi businesswomen are changing perceptions globally and leading the campaign in the fight against breast cancer.

You’ve been pro-active in terms of changing perceptions about Saudi women around the world. Is that a role you naturally fell into? In the last year I was invited to participate in lectures at the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs and the Harris School of Business to clarify many of the misconceptions that surround the status of Saudi women in the workplace. A lot of it has to do with misinformation, and I’ve always believed that dialogue is an important step towards understanding different cultures.

You are the CEO of two of the largest luxury retail corporations in the Kingdom. How do you use your role to further career opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia?

I think that with any leadership position, comes the responsibility to create opportunities for others. I am committed to making employment a more tangible option for women in my country and encourage them to be more ambitious by just taking the first step. When I started my tenure at Harvey Nichols in Riyadh I made it a point to not only employ Saudi women in management roles, but also in positions dealing directly with customers. A few years ago this would have been unheard of. Since women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, our company offers my female employees a transportation allowance so that they are not forced to hire drivers at their own expense to get to work.
In 2001 you became a co-partner in Yibreen, a woman’s day spa in Riyadh. How has it evolved since its opening?

Yibreen is more than just a spa in the traditional sense. It has gone beyond offering health and wellness services to providing women a place to network, relax and converse. Learning to network and promote their businesses is another critical issue for women business owners, which is why it was so important to create a space for them. Over the years the spa has hosted fashion shows promoting the work of Saudi female designers. It’s important to support women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia, because they play a key role in creating new employment opportunities.

What drove you to become a founding member of the Zahra Breast Cancer Foundation?

Before Zahra was an official association, it was essentially a group of phenomenal and inspiring women who took it upon themselves to educate our society on the facts of breast cancer and the benefits of early detection. I joined Zahra as a founding member the day after I found out a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with the disease. We are the same age, married a few days apart, with children of the same age. She is such a brave person facing and dealing with this disease, and I felt I had to do my part.

In the past Saudi society viewed breast cancer as a stigma or a “female problem” which often deterred women from taking part in regular exams. Fortunately breast cancer is among the most curable and treatable cancers when detected early enough. In this day and age there is no excuse for ignorance and no woman should be allowed to suffer in silence. As part of the Zahra Foundation’s “A Woman’s Stand” campaign, we’re taking a unique approach this year to increase awareness in the Kingdom and our commitment of support to a global audience. On October 28th, we will form the largest ‘pink ribbon’ human chain in Jeddah. My hope is that women of every age, race and region of Saudi Arabia will come out and participate in this event, because at the end of the day everyone can make a difference by just being aware.

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