Interview with one of Egypt’s Top Women: Sahar Sallab

Sahar Sallab made her professional mark in banking but her example extends beyond sector and geography.

She spent 25 years working at the Commercial International Bank (CIB), the largest private sector bank in Egypt, achieving the position of Vice Chairman and Managing Director. She was also chairman of CI Capital, the second largest investment bank in Egypt.

After her private sector success, Sahar became the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry for Development and Investment in Domestic Commerce in Egypt. Today, she is an angel investor and supporter of start-up businesses, and serves as chairperson of family-owned business HitekNOFA.

In 2011, she was named one of the Arab World’s 100 Most Powerful Women by ArabianBusiness.com.

I connected with Mrs. Sallab to learn about her path to success. Her perspective was direct, frank, refreshing and instructive:

Tell us about your career path. How did you choose to pursue the career you did?

SS: I was inspired to become a banker by my father who was one. I worked part time while I pursed my education at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon and discovered that I loved numbers and loved analyzing numbers.

After the Lebanese civil war started (1975), my family came back to Cairo and I started a full time job with Citibank in their Credit department. I discovered how ambitious I was after I was picked to join the bank’s international credit course in Athens. It was clear to me that I wanted to climb the ladder and climb it quickly. Later, I had the opportunity to join Chase Manhattan Bank in a management role that was by far much larger in scope and responsibility than my experience. But, I when I was given the opportunity, I quickly took and learnt a lot about decision making and risk taking. My success in the private sector led to being asked to join the Egyptian government as a deputy minister for industry and trade.

Why/how did you decide to become an angel investor and become involved in helping small businesses?

SS: After serving on several private sector boards, I was asked by Google to judge start-up entrepreneurs and young entrepreneurs. I have judged over 75 projects.

The idea of the angel fund came partially through this experience. Three friends, my son, who is in the IT field , and I created a small company to invest in new Greenfield projects. We mentor and sponsor small businesses, helping them with whatever it takes to be successful. Although the capital investments are relatively small there is a lot of personal reward in being involved in mentoring and supporting young entrepreneurs.

Why do you think you have been successful? What drove you to success and were there people or opportunities that aided you on your path?

SS: I have been fortunate in my career to have excellent sponsors at the most senior levels: managing directors and general managers. They believed in my abilities and trained me to speak up, work with a board of directors and take full responsibility. Their support instilled in me the confidence to make decisions.

I believe that I have been successful because I am a great team player. I believe in new ideas. I listen to my staff and I give them time to come forward with their best ideas. After listening I am usually a very quick decision maker and I love taking a calculated risk. At the end, I make the best decision for the institution based on many factors not just mine. But, also at the end I take full responsibility, back my staff in case of some failure, and lead by example. I have had over 4,000 employees. You realize very quickly that your team and staff are your primary responsibility.

What are your greatest accomplishments to date? What are you most proud of?

SS: I consider my greatest accomplishments to have been my:

  • Development of a credit policy guide that all banks have copied, even the central bank of Egypt.
  • Developing and training a staff of excellent Egyptian women.
  • Launching a credit system for women within the banking system.

In the government, I am proud of creating a team and a strategy for internal trade to fight unemployment and poverty.

What’s the bravest or riskiest thing you have ever done professionally?

SS: The bravest and riskiest were handling financial transactions that no man in my business would take on. These included several privatizations of public sector companies and bank syndications. Although this is a technical accomplishment and it would take a long time to fully explain it, I would best describe it like this: I was a threat to all banks in the country – a women who worked like dozens of men, but acted as a women.

What is the biggest obstacle (s) you encountered in your professional life? How did you overcome it?

My biggest mistake was concentrating solely on results. I should have also focused on diplomacy, relationship building and politics.

SS: The biggest obstacle was the jealousy of many men in the institution itself, as well as outside the institution. I had no time while I was busy doing my job to work on board and other external relationships.  This is what I would like to advise women about. My biggest mistake was concentrating solely on results. I should have also focused on diplomacy, relationship building and politics. I also trusted too much when I should not have.

What do you think are the keys to success for women in Egypt/the Middle East?

SS: In the Middle East, especially in Egypt, the road to success is not given. You have to grab it. You need to have the right qualifications and technical abilities. You need to understand that although the road to success is difficult it is achievable – provided you are ready to work twice as hard/smart as men and still feel positively about your job. The most difficult part is the jealousy of colleagues, bosses, even subordinates. You just need to work on creating SUPPORT from your team, from your board, from your peers and around the world. If you work to make your institution higher, you will get higher. Trust is needed but be very cautious.

In the Middle East, especially in Egypt, the road to success is not given. You have to grab it.

What advice would you give women aspiring to professional and business success?

SS: Failure in something should be taken as a seed to success, and women must be taught to develop failure into a success story. A sense of humor is required all the time!

Inspired by Sahar’s success? Connect with her on Twitter @sahooracraze.

Rania Habiby Anderson

Rania Habiby Anderson

Founder & President

Expert on the advancement of business women. International speaker and author. Executive coach. Former corporate leader. Angel investor. Author of UNDETERRED: The Six Success Habits of Women in Emerging Economies.
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