In 1998, Sarah Al Ayed collaborated with her brother in setting up TRACCS, Trans Arabian Creative Communications, learning her business from the ground up. Today, it’s one of the largest public relations companies in Saudi Arabia, and further afield, working with globally renowned companies as well as the kingdom’s governmental banks and entities.
Sarah Al Ayed has become as celebrated as her company in many other aspects, including being a Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Regional Ambassador for Middle East & North Africa and the Vice President of the National Entrepreneurship Committee (Council of Saudi Chambers). In 2013, Forbes proclaimed her one of the most influential women in family businesses in the Arab world.
Businesswoman, mother, humanitarian, mentor; Sarah Al Ayed does it all and AboutHer.com wanted to find out how:
Tell us a little about how and where you started your career in public relations.
I co-founded TRACCS with my brother Mohamed, who is a communications expert, he had a dream about revamping the understanding and practice of Public Relations and communications across the region - from a traditional practice to a science contributing to the development of an industry that is able to serve both private and public sector organizations. While I had no experience in the field and had recently graduated from university where I studied English Literature and Linguistics at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, I was coached and mentored by Mohamed and worked in all levels of the company starting from basic research and analysis tasks until I became Managing Partner for Saudi Arabia and a senior consultant in the network.
As a Saudi woman, having worked for yourself in a time where laws on women's rights were stricter, how was your position and success received by your family/society?
My family has always been very supportive, and proud of my achievements and all the work I have done. I believe this has built my own confidence and drive. In terms of advocating women’s causes, I believe in the results and impact rather than the name of the cause or opportunity - this is quite relevant as we are now seeing Saudi Arabia as a nation that is truly advocating women’s rights and giving them more opportunities. Entrepreneurship is a great example of this progression and is something that is close to my heart.
Other than your education, what personal qualities do you think helped you to get to where you are now?
I believe that I am a people’s person, I love working with people helping them develop and letting them see themselves from a different perspective. I was able to use myself as a testing ground to fully understand my capabilities, grow them, nurture them, and then convert them into an asset where I am able to help others. I believe personal development is key.
When I saw the need to help the new recruits entering the workforce with market readiness, in terms of preparing their own CVs, acing interviews, and properly presenting themselves, I started training them in a social and business etiquette program. I believe that personal development is a journey that doesn’t stop.
What challenges do you face as a Saudi woman in a male dominated media industry?
I don’t see the media industry today as male dominated, on the contrary, both men and women are paving the way for the new future of media. The challenges I’m seeing is market readiness and talent development, the media has evolved massively and changes are occurring daily. How is the industry today, in the Kingdom, evolving to match the pace, if not exceed, and how are we preparing the market with talent, opportunities, regulations, etc.? I think that is the key challenge.
What did you do to make yourself heard in a place where perhaps women weren't encouraged to be assertive?
Always being there, being visible, encouraging dialogue, allowing my achievements to be shown through results. Being gender neutral, I want the job because I am qualified not because I am a woman or a man!
Who are the women that inspired you and why?
Every woman is an inspiration. In every step in every phase of my life, the men and women in my life played a role. My main inspiration is and will always be my mother! A woman who defied any challenges she raised five children in the best possible environment with key emphasis on education and bringing out the best in us. Not only that, as my career grew she was always there, guiding and cheering me on. She always had my back and was my support system so that I could achieve, grow and develop.
Inspiration can sometimes come from the simplest actions of those around us. My daughter Haya inspires me to continue on a path we both are proud of; her pride in my work and me is my motivation. She calls me right after my interviews on TV to say “mom you were great,” and shares her favorite parts and gives me her thoughts also - that in and of itself is a massive inspiration.
The truly inspiring woman throughout history who is the Mother of All Believers – Sayyidah Khadijah bint Khuwailed because, through her legacy in life, I learned and understood what it is to be a wife, a mother, a businesswoman (merchant), a leader, and a believer in faith and finding the truth during the hardest of times. The truth about marriage lies in how a woman supports her, and how each complements the other. When one cannot give 100%, the other spouse does and adds on even more to that. She supported her husband Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and was his first believer and invested her wealth and kept her home, family, business going and thriving.
In 2013, you were named in the Forbes Most Influential Women in The Arab World list, how did you feel about this accomplishment?
I was proud! It was truly unexpected because I never strived for recognition or awards, so to be recognized as such means I’m doing something right.
Saudi Arabia is at a turning point and many reforms in favor of gender equality are beginning to take place, what do you hope to see for the future of Saudi women?
The sky is the limit. There are no limits on what they can do and achieve. Each era brought inspiring women who achieved wonders, and their stories are the legacy that will push all generations to place no limitations on what they can do. I am full of optimism, hope and pride.
How do you think the Vision 2030 plan will impact the lives of Saudi women?
The massive impact we are seeing daily; the impact from an educational, career development and social development perspective, it is a vision that is empowering a whole nation not only women but for all. One of the pillars of Vision 2030 is “a vibrant society,” and this cannot be created without equal opportunities for men and women, and a collaborative spirit to power a nation and move it forward.
Being a prominent female businesswoman in the Arab world, how do you use your position to promote female empowerment in the Arab region?
Being the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Regional Ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa I have been able to work with WED ambassadors and organizations in various MENA countries to help in their development, and in building bridges of cooperation, support, collaborations and so much more.
Even beyond the WED MENA scope, I’ve always felt that if we have something to share, to teach, and to give then we should not let any challenges hinder us. I’ve developed a training / mentorship program that has kicked off in Jordan and is preparing to launch in other countries starting with the self-development and communications training, leading to entrepreneurial initiative launches. I’m proud to have trained thousands of students and young ladies in the past two years, and have mentored 120 women from Palestine and Syria, who are refugees, living in camps in Jordan. Today I’m proud that 3 have launched their own entrepreneurial ventures and hope to see more following suit.
What do you think are the most significant barriers to female leadership in the region and what do you think needs to change to push it?
There are many challenges and one has to specify whether they are socio, economic or others. But I truly believe that barriers are made to be broken, and the best way to break barriers down is by having a goal and working towards it.
As a successful businesswoman, with Arab values, what do you do to maintain a work-life balance and keep yourself motivated?
Knowing my priorities and working accordingly. While my work and career is very important, today my priority is my daughter Haya.
What empowers you?
What empowers me can be shared via my personal mission statement, a mantra that I live by:
“To inspire and awaken the passion within you, turning what you do to what you love; building a culture of optimism and ardent fervor that is innovative, ethical, giving, energizing by paying it forward.”
I like to think of myself as a source of inspiration for all dreamers who dare to dream to make difference in their society or in their country using ethics and value, integrity, perseverance, and entrepreneurial spirit.
What strategies for success would you share with other women who aspire to take up leadership roles?
- Be the best example of what is a leader
- Believe in yourself, believe in a cause, embrace it, and make it happen
- Be kind and generous
- Collaborate, don’t control
- Inspire others to do better than you