Some call her the most powerful woman in the Middle East…
Others know her as a woman who champions other women…
Lubna Olayan is many things, but what sure stands out about her is that she is her own woman, a woman to be reckoned with in any sphere.
What makes her stand out amongst other giants in the world today is her firm belief in gender equality, her unshakeable resolve to get as many women into the workplace as men. In a culture where women are still to a large extent relegated to the back-end, this is a real fight for survival.
Lubna Olayan had a dream back in her family’s dining room. She remembered the day like it was yesterday. She and her husband just returned back to Saudi Arabia after a nine years sojourn in the United States. She never thought in a million years that she could work for her father, let alone head his company one day. She thought to continue her career in banking, but her father shocked her. The next day, she started work as her father’s executive assistant in a company where all of the workforces comprised of men.
For the next eighteen years, Lubna was the only woman in that company. The downside to that? There was no ladies’ room. Because the whole company was filled with men, both in the factories and the boardroom, there was no need for such facilities.
No wonder she is so passionate about women in the workplace today. Her experience of eighteen years birthed in her a passion for Saudi Arabian women to be able to contribute their own quota to the development of the country as a whole.
After years of working with her father, Olayan started urging him to employ more women. There were few women in business at this time, but more than 50% of the general population of women were not allowed to work. Lubna felt this was wrong. She knew they could never reach their full potential as a country if 50% of their population were not allowed to work.
In 2001, Lubna finally hired her first female colleague in Olayan Financing Company. Hana alSyead’s mission was to increase the number of women employed at Olayan Financing Company. Little by little, brick by brick, they started building the women work force, all without attracting attention and antagonism. Everything was done in utmost secrecy so as not to create problems.
A lot has changed from when they started. Now, Lubna is the CEO of Olayan Financing Company, a journey that took thirty-five years after that fateful dinner. Today, she has come a long way from trying to prove she deserves to work with her father, not because she is his daughter, but because she merits the position. Today, she is a true proponent for change, a force to be reckoned with.
From that one woman employee, the women working in Olayan Financing Company has grown to 500, a small fraction of a 16,000 workforce, but a long way from where they started. With the government involved in the fight for women to enter the workplace, Lubna is enthusiastic about what the future holds.