Developing talent

One of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful businesswomen, Lubna Olayan, discusses the country’s challenges and opportunities.

Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its industry sectors and is also investing heavily in infrastructure. Where do you see the country’s advantages and opportunities, as it starts to look at a future beyond oil?

Our youthful population is both our biggest challenge and potentially our greatest strength. And we have the advantages of a government committed to the development of private sector industry and a private sector with liquidity and a keenness to invest at home. Other than operations focusing on fulfilling the obvious needs of a young, growing, and demanding consumer base for quality food, fast-moving consumer goods and services, the increasing diversification of Saudi’s industrial base will continue to provide a range of opportunities – power generation and transportation and logistics are good examples, as are downstream industries such as aluminum and fertilizer production. The government is also keen to encourage and develop “knowledge-based” economic activity.

What advice would you give companies looking to succeed in the Saudi market?

The dynamics and nature of the Saudi market have changed significantly in recent years – it is a market in which customers are increasingly better informed and demanding, and able to differentiate between similar products and services. Competition is extremely fierce. Success in the Saudi market will require strategic agility – the ability to adapt and attract and then retain market share. My advice would be to invest significantly in after- sales customer service – especially since companies are finding it difficult to win customers back once they become dissatisfied.

How do you see the development of talent in Saudi Arabia, with both world-class facilities such as KAUST, and overseas scholarships through the King Abdullah Scholarship program?

Developing talent will be the key to our long-term success. King Abdullah has tasked the government to invest significantly in developing the academic qualifications of a growing portion of Saudi youth with the aim of getting them to become “job ready.” The Saudi private sector is starting to reap the benefits of such programs; we are seeing more graduates who not only have the academic qualifications and the skills needed to excel, but have the “mindset” and self-confidence needed to compete in a global marketplace. The overseas scholarship program has really benefited our youth – the education they receive and the exposure to global cultures make them aware of the global challenges and the need for dedication, hard work, and continuous improvement, regardless of where we work or live. KAUST has set a very ambitious goal for itself, as it aims to become a global center of scientific innovation and excellence. Such centers act as magnets for venture capital; having such an institution on Saudi soil has and will continue to create a mental shift in perception for Saudi companies and people. We now have multiple companies working with KAUST on cutting-edge scientific projects.

One of your charitable causes is Alfanar. Could you brie#y describe its aims?

Alfanar is the Arab world’s first venture philanthropy organization. I got involved because I found its vision unique for the region – to help social purpose organizations serving women and children in poor communities become financially sustainable and self-reliant. What those of us in the private sector know is that it takes more than funds to grow a company. Among other ingredients, it takes strong management and a strategic plan. The situation is no different with charities. At Alfanar, we believe that in order to make lasting change, the social sector needs to be as rigorous about achieving social impact as the private sector is about the bottom line. This is why we provide both grants and technical support to social enterprises that pass our due diligence; the support is aimed at strengthening their management systems to impact more people over time and become financially independent. Our track record shows that we help grassroots organizations impact 63% more lives and grow their revenue by 62% over the span of our investment with them. In real terms, Alfanar has positively impacted the lives of more than 20,000 women and children in Egypt and Lebanon. We aim to double our impact numbers in five years in the hope that our approach can deliver game-changing, lasting change for those in need. — Michelle Bach

About Lubna Olayan

CEO and Deputy Chairperson of the Olayan Financing Company, the Olayan Group’s vehicle for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, Ms. Olayan is also a Board Member of Schlumberger and Saudi Hollandi Bank, where she serves as Vice Chairman. She is on the International Advisory Boards of Rolls-Royce, The Council on Foreign Relations, Akbank, and McKinsey & Co. Ms. Olayan is a trustee of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and Cornell University, and is involved in a number of non-profit organizations, including Alfanar, where she currently serves as Chairman. 

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Published: September 2014

Photo: Bloomberg News/Getty Images