It’s not everyday you get to meet a Saudi Arabian princess.
Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud is an entrepreneur, a trainer, an artist of the possible, a pioneer in employing and empowering Saudi women, a creative leader, a women’s sports advocate. She has applied a fierce creative passion to powerful projects that have both opened doors for women in Saudi Arabia and inspired women the world over. Her energy is breath-taking. She is quite possibly the fastest speaker I have ever met.
She led the team organising the first expedition of Saudi women to reach base camp at Everest. She won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records when she gathered more than 8,000 women — the biggest female-only gathering ever in Saudi Arabia on the first day women ever voted — to form a human “pink ribbon” for breast cancer awareness.
She was appointed head of the first Women’s section of the Saudi government’s committee overseeing sports. She’s been expanding fitness opportunities for women through the creation of women-only gyms. She turned the design of the Saudi women athletes’ Olympic costumes over to a charity for low-income women who used traditional textiles to create a powerful statement of national pride and diversity of heritage. She’s been outspoken in her message to women and girls that with hard work, anything is possible.
But Reema joined the THNK Creative Leadership program with some reluctance. “I’d just been through one massive vertical learning curve, and while I was highly effective, I was operating at a level of profound insecurity. I had a degree in museum design, I was more interested in creative expression than business and wanted to work in the arts. But my family asked me to manage ALFA International (license holder of Harvey Nichols UK), and so I was overseeing a retail operation at a time when the government mandated more women join the workforce. I was seeing women who had never held a job outside the home – walking into places that had never employed a woman, with no training, and little experience in even the social skills of the workplace; much less sales or customer relations. In some cases taking over positions men had held for decades, being resented and being blamed for declining sales.
“So I had a glimmer of a thought to create a retail academy — something that would teach these women the basics, but also prepare them in other ways — something that would soften the blow of the additional life pressures we were piling on top of all the ones they faced at home. I could plainly see a need, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the skills to really shape what I was after. I knew I needed help but wasn’t sure what help I needed.
“One day I am talking all this over with Sofana Dahlan (Amsterdam Class 2), and she tells me about a school she’s been attending in Amsterdam. I presumed it would be something like the Harvard Business School. The last thing I wanted was yet another vertical learning curve. But she told me I was missing the point. What she was suggesting wasn’t a curriculum or a set of classes: it was a way to get 35 very bright people to help me figure out what I wanted to do. Try it, she tells me… when you get there you will understand.
“For the first week, I really didn’t understand. There was a lot of western-style bonding going on. I appreciated greatly the flexibility of the staff in adjusting exercises like staring into someone’s eyes for 30 seconds, which is profoundly uncomfortable for someone coming from the Middle East.
The group immersion took me out of my comfort zone, and it was a while before I truly got it. But when I did, THNK really lit up a light bulb inside my head. It changed my idea, and the idea of what I was trying to do, 100%.
“I’m interested in people who work outside the box without tipping it over, and these were obviously brilliant people who were opening up a lot of boxes. One of my classmates was Reem Khouri, and she was presenting a concept for an agency which would advise businesses on how they measure and improve their social impact, how they could create sustainable models by improving the sustainability of society. THIS was precisely what I was looking for. I wanted to know where I could sign up! She hadn’t started yet, so I told her I’d be her first client. And we’ve been working together ever since.
“So here I am surrounded by these innovative social entrepreneurs who have had experiences in life that I’ve never even imagined possible, and they’re openly sharing their skills and insights and giving to one another in this spirit of cooperation. They’re setting an entirely new context for my thinking.
“Then, the light bulb: it hit me that what I wanted to do wasn’t simply to teach retail skills. That was so narrow, and a space that others were already occupying. I was going to take a step back and teach ‘readiness to work’ skills. To create an academy that provided a toolkit for women to become more capable individuals in their community. I was going to empower women to learn new ways of engaging with society, including the basics of opening a bank account and new methods of financial literacy, but also things that could expand their opportunities and well being. If they chose to enter the workforce, we’d offer them roadmaps into front-line jobs in retail, corporates, and NGOs, but if they chose not to, they’d still be extraordinarily capable individuals with sharpened skills for their daily lives, making society itself stronger. I mean, what’s a mother but the COO of the household? She’s head of operations, procurement and HR — why not apply the best of business and management knowledge to those roles?”
That was the beginning of Alf Khair, a social enterprise offering “Access to opportunities” and designed to drive greater contributions to society and a deeper understanding of community issues among the women of Saudi Arabia.
“When I reflect on everything I learned in that course, I’m so grateful to THNK and so grateful to those who convinced me to join. Anyone who is considering THNK should know it’s not about a curriculum or classes, or teacher-led learning. There’s no handbook. It’s about getting like-minded individuals together, using some extraordinary tools to help facilitate one another’s growth and nurture and challenge each other’s ideas. The toolkit becomes a part of who you are. Your classmates become a trusted circle of advisors. You learn how to transform limitations into inspiration.”
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