A look at Sophie Le Ray’s CV and you quickly get to realise her achievements can’t be ignored. As Co-Founder and CEO of Naseba, she is responsible for overseeing its operations across its offices in the Middle East, India, the US and Europe. Since the company that facilitates businesses in emerging markets was launched in 2003, she has been central to its dizzying growth. Middle Eastern-based Le Ray is also the Founder of the Global WIL Economic Forum, an annual platform that aims to promote female leadership worldwide. Plus, she is the co-author of “Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World Are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future.”
Le Ray, who has over 20 years of experience in producing and organising business platforms, found her niche in B2B conference production. However, she hasn’t always been in the field, the French-born force was involved in PR when she started out. And interestingly, due to her passion for ancient cultures, she has a Master’s degree in Ancient History.
As part of our series on the 19th Global WIL Economic Forum taking place in Dubai on October 25-26, we have a chat with the inspiring entrepreneur. We ask about the barriers women face in the region, her most difficult decision, tips on climbing the career ladder and a lot more.
Name three women who have inspired you.
- Coco Chanel for her freethinking and entrepreneurial spirit.
- Christine Lagarde for her class, intelligence and leadership and for giving some dignity to her function after the disastrous departure of her predecessor at the International Monetary Fund.
- Mother Teresa, for her courage in showing vulnerability and being transparent about her struggles with faith, her life challenges and her sense of purpose.
Can you share some strategies that can aid women achieve a more prominent role in their companies?
Have a serious reflection on your WHY? What is your motivation, why do you want to be there? Then, do the work. Be a source of solutions to your team and boss, never a source of problems. Be patient.
Tell us about the most significant leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career.
I have learned to make fast – but informed – decisions. Once I receive the information I need, I seek advice from a team I trust, I then decide and move out of the way.
And what are the most important barriers to female leadership in the region?
The barriers are fundamentally the same everywhere. The gap is slightly higher in the MENA region than in the west in terms of representation of female in the workforce (below 35 percent as opposed to above 40 percent). However, this region is improving at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. Since governments of the GCC have made women’s economic empowerment a pillar of their strategic vision plan for sustainable post-oil era growth, I am extremely optimistic about the future.
Which kinds of challenges do you think the new generation of women face?
Now more than ever, we see a gross misrepresentation of what businesswomen must look like and act like. I am personally appalled by this culture of “personal branding” that seems to focus much more on female representation than male. Why do we need to brand ourselves? Why can’t we just genuinely do what we are good at, without adding extra pressure on ourselves by “building” an image for it? Let your experiences and results build your “brand.”
I think the concept of appearance is stronger than ever in this digital world, leading to a herd mentality: same physical standard, same poses, same quotes, same stages, copycat business models and so on.
Although I live and fully engage in a digital world, I would encourage young, aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders to cultivate their authenticity and build their businesses instead of their images.
What is the most difficult decision you've ever made?
Following the 2008 financial crisis, we had to lose a large part of our team in order to save the rest. It was by far the hardest and most painful decision I had to make and personally act upon.
Which particular qualities (some of the things you couldn’t include on your CV) have helped you get to where you are today?
It’s all things I can’t include in my CV: curiosity, resilience, drive and empathy. I am more and more convinced with experience that although hard skills are necessary when growing in your career, once you lead an organisation, what you need to cultivate is your effectiveness. By that, I mean exercising and improving the soft skills necessary to motivate, inspire, build trust, drive into the future the organisation you have the stewardship of.
What do you do to keep yourself centred?
I read a lot: novels, articles and business papers. I also wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to dedicate at least 30 minutes to meditation on scriptures. It changes my entire outlook on the day.
What is your favourite quote?
“Man hopes, genius creates.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
What’s the most exciting part about participating in the Global WIL Economic Forum?
Being surrounded by women and men that want to make a difference by sharing, exchanging and gaining true inspiration. I can only speak for myself; these two days are very special for me. Although I have been a communications and event professional for over 25 years now, I have never encountered such energy and inspiration in a conference room. I love the buzz, the exchange between totally different people, regardless of age, culture, race or professional outlook. The interactivity and the sense of purpose and mission the participants have is outstanding. I just love it, and I always leave it with more conviction and energy to make change happen.
The theme this year is ‘The Butterfly Effect – From Intent to Impact.’ Why do you think it’s particularly important to focus on enacting social change at this time?
If we really aspire to be leaders, we need to take the responsibility that comes with it. One of them is to leave this world in better shape than we found it. Championing diversity is not just morally sound, but is also economically viable.
This year we want to inspire all participants to make social change happen, whether it is by actively sourcing diversity in your talent pipeline, supporting the entry of people with disability in the workplace, engaging in philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, analysing the impact arts and culture has on modern society or supporting the aspirations of new generations, to name a few areas. The agenda was curated with one idea in mind: how can we practically make an impact and get away from the excuses we find not to take action?
The agenda explores diversity as the driving force of our collective future. Could you elaborate on that?
There is a lesson to draw in looking at how perfect and brilliant the planet’s biodiversity is, and how it works together so harmoniously when we maintain that balance.
We can achieve so much more if we exploit all the talent our humanity has to offer.