Nadia Al-doseri is the CEO and Founder of London-based Family Office, NDA Global. For decades she has been known as the Most Influential Arab Woman but joins Agreus for International Women’s Day to take back her narrative and inspire other women to do the same. Here Nadia discusses why modern women have a far greater challenge in the mind, why we need to separate love with life and why growing up in a patriarchal Saudi Arabia inspired her to achieve greatness.
ASSIMILATING INTO A NEW WORLD WITH AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE
I was born on a small island in Bahrain and I lived with my grandmother unlike my other siblings who lived with our parents. I have no idea why but I like to say it is because I was born with 12 batteries. I was hyperactive and my grandmother, she was progressive. She was a revolutionist and one of my greatest early role models but when she passed away, everything changed.
Aged 13 I moved to Saudi Arabia. It was difficult for me to assimilate as a teenager from a British orientated small island to a closed Kingdom with nowhere to go, especially as a woman. Even with my progressive family, my mother and father, it was hard. You could be a doctor or a teacher and that was that. I couldn’t drive, go out alone or do anything but study for two roles I was not interested in fulfilling. I was a rebel, I fought everything and my family couldn’t cope.
They arranged my marriage and I was forced to leave the family home I had only recently re-joined to become a wife aged 16. I couldn’t cope with this either. I had my two wonderful children when I was 16 and 18 but I could not live as just a wife and a mother. I needed to work and was passionate about completing an English literature degree and so I did both from home.
It was at this point I found Avon Cosmetics.
Avon is now a very well known brand across much of the Western World but back then, it was unheard of in the Middle East. They were looking for young girls from Saudi Arabia who spoke English and Arabic and could mingle with people across the country and so I took a leap of faith. It was extremely difficult as I was an outcast from my family and they rejected everything I did. Especially the concept of a young working mother but I continued on my quest for financial dependency and freedom.
I worked with Avon for 6 years and trained in sales and business development. I became a National Sales Manager and not because I was the best but because there was no other woman who would do the job, at least not publicly. I would travel to the closed corners of the country where I and any woman who chose to work was shunned, particularly in sales and especially leadership.
After six years I decided to use my experience and savings to join my ex-husbands steel company. I convinced my father that I wanted to invest, not work because that was a taboo but invest my money. He agreed as long as I didn’t interfere, I was to be a shadow.
Of course, me being the rebel I was, I could not stay silent. I learned the business inside out, picked up the skills and spent time with all of the employees. I was down to earth and started by trying to improve their working conditions. We had all of these expats from India and Pakistan working for us and I would work alongside them, understand their concerns and try to alleviate them – something no one had ever tried to do before.
At the beginning they hated that I was there but gradually, slowly but surely, they trusted me and I grew to become the boss. After my ex-husbands car accident, he had become quite sick and as a result, I was once again able to step up to lead this business on his behalf while he fought his illness.
Ernst Young came into audit the business about three years after I took over the running of the factory. They found the revenue had exponentially increased over this time period and could not believe it was I that had facilitated the growth. A woman in Saudi Arabia was never the boss let alone the boss of a steel company and they simply could not believe that on top of these factors, I had succeeded.
They decided to interview me and so I gave them a tour of the factory and grounds. I showed them everything I had done since joining from improving working conditions for our employees and simply offering them a more human environment to breaking sales targets.
Our employees would work all day in the Saudi Arabian heat of 40-50 degrees. It was dangerous and something they silently suffered with and so when I joined, I built a shelter to allow them to work under protected heat. I also introduced shift patterns so that those who particularly struggled could do their work in the evening when temperatures had cooled. I started a contract with Aramco so we didn’t spoil the ground with diesel and changed everything from our environmental policy to our employee satisfaction and as a result, productivity and sales were through the roof.
From selling scrap metal in a corner of Saudi Arabia we had become a real company with policies, structure, partners and regulations. Everyone was happy with us.
From then on magazines were interested in covering our story. I did interview after interview but one by one, as they were published, I realised they were telling a different story.
Despite being an independent and self-made woman who went against everything I was taught to believe in and in spite of Ernst Young emphasising this point, the magazines around the world still said I was dependent on my family and my family not only supported me but gave me the finances to start. Neither of these things were true.
There was self-doubt of course. A woman in Saudi Arabia should be a mother, a wife and a teacher at best but a boss of a steel company? It didn’t happen and I understood that but I was gobsmacked at the media’s ability to re-write my own narrative to better fit in with the culture of the country.
I started hiring girls by convincing them they can be isolated from men and slowly but surely, it skyrocketed.
If you are not on the ground with the people, you don’t understand what they are thinking and feeling let alone understand what is happening. Not only was I able to bring about huge changes by simply being human but I was also able to rid corruption from the organisation. By being on the ground, I could see discrepancies that simply didn’t exist in a filing cabinet in the office. It was real-life, first-hand experience that changed everything.
While all of this was happening, King Abdullah announced that women who work can go to the Chamber of Commerce and become a member and I was the first. I was a Partner and the only women in the entire country who had an industrial factory license. Other candidates were tailors or makeup artists – all fantastic at enabling them to work but due to the industry I worked in and my level of seniority, I became the first self-made woman in the Chamber of commerce.
I tried my best to hire women from that day forward and for two reasons. As a woman myself, I can understand the challenges other women face in a way men simply cannot. You can align yourself with these women who unfortunately face much more disadvantages in life than men ever will.
Women are multi-tasking and multi-thinking. I was raising my children, studying my bachelor’s degree remotely and working for Avon all at the same time in what was a very repressive Saudi Arabia. Women do not realise their potential all the time but as someone that does, I use that to our joint advantage by offering an environment that caters for their challenges while building an incredible workforce.
It felt fantastic to be on top of the world. The first woman in the Chamber of Commerce leading a team of strong women but once again I was faced with media backlash. Back then there was what we call the religious police who did not approve with me being a woman of this position.
You could be a woman without a job or a male boss but you could not be both. They released images of me all over the internet with moustaches across my face, calling me a man and a religious traitor for simply wanting independence.
I didn’t care. I went on. I went on and on until I couldn’t do anymore and I continue to this day.
My face was all over the press. It was horrible. Do I think back to these hard times and reflect? Of course, I may have been born with 12 batteries but I am human. What I do in these times however is remember that I have paved the way for women to lead normal lives in Saudi Arabia, to work and be free. Five years later and it became almost normal for women to do both and today, especially over the last three years with Crown Prince Salman, it is a different world.
Women can do anything and it is wonderful to watch from afar as it is about time.
CHALLENGES THEN AND TODAY
For me, it was a battle. My whole young life as a troubled child, a wife, a mother and a boss. It was different then of course but what I see now is a mental struggle for women, arguably worse than the physical structures many female revolutionists once faced.
Today we have what do you call them, influencers? Women listen to them. Women are made to feel a certain way about themselves, their bodies, their self-esteem, their confidence and achievements. These people who act like celebrities, they glamorize their lives without offering the full story and while we once had physical barriers, a glass ceiling perhaps, women are now faced with a huge battle and it is a challenge completely in the mind.
In Saudi Arabia, the pressure was a physical pressure from the outside world. Regulations, laws, religious police, hatred from others. It was all physical and I could block it all out and chose to ignore it but today, for young women, how do they ignore a battle that exists in their mind?
I do not know if it is by birth or by nature that we face inequality but I was raised by my revolutionist grandmother who taught me that every day I need to do something and achieve something. Today I think above all, we should all do the same. Men and women but especially women.
I also think today, the biggest piece of advice I give to my daughter and our friends is that life is not perfect. We cannot have everything and contrary to common belief and what we may see in magazines and on social media is that you cannot have it all.
I am a good mother but not a perfect mother, I failed as a wife but I have had an excellent career. Women can achieve great things, incredible things and now women can do the same in Saudi Arabia as women can do in London or New York but what women need to understand, is that life is not perfect and you can not have it all.
I also think something women need to do is something men already do which is differentiate between work and love, life and loss.
You cannot control your children, your husband or your environment. Just look at COVID-19. When I am faced with a storm, a sandstorm as I say, the first thing I do is worry but I then take a step back and look for the bigger picture. I am a patient person but need to find a solution. Whatever the situation you are in you can always find a solution if you look hard enough. I cannot speak for young women today but when I hear or read interviews with them, I worry. If she is failing in her love story her world collapses and she cannot go on but what about her career? What about her friends? Her children? The aspirations she had before marriage?
We need to differentiate between work and love, life and loss because you can lose a lover, fiancé or husband but still thrive in life. We need to own the narrative for women and stop making them feel as though one levels the other out and you need everything or nothing at all.
Life is not fair and it is not straight-forward. You cannot be stuck in an ideal that because everyone else is successful, you need to be.
Do not let one aspect of your life stop you from living a full life and do not let the falsified success of others believe yours does not exist.
I always knew that money would give me freedom and so the first goal I ever had was to gain my financial independence. I am very fortunate to have generated enough wealth to do that as well as give me and my children both freedom and a future but today, life is no longer just about business.
I am still a partner of my three companies and have a consulting company in London but life is about living and as I say, I was born with 12 batteries but I have seven left.
Every ten or so years I set myself a goal and my goal now is to write a memoir because as I mentioned earlier, I have had so much written about me but hardly half of it is the truth.
As a woman who cares so much for women not being manipulated by the media, I struggle with the reality that my story has also been changed and so I think the time has come for me to now reframe my narrative and offer a realistic and hopefully aspirational story for other young women.
It is one thing being a face on Forbes and having publicity but it is another offering tangible next steps for any woman to take to succeed – we need realistic role models in order for young girls to truly think success is possible and I would love to achieve this as my next goal.