Advice from the experts: Influencing within limits

Dr Lama Al Sulaiman

Dr Lama Al Sulaiman (PhD Nutrition, 2004) was the first woman in Saudi Arabian history to be elected to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce as Vice Chair and is also a mother of four.

Her appointment was even more remarkable given that she had just beaten breast cancer. Dr Al Sulaiman studied Biochemistry before embarking on her doctorate at King’s. We find out how she has managed to be such a success while remaining true to her values.

Did you always want to pursue a career in business?

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, business was never in my career path. Although my father was a leader in the field, it was known to be a man’s world. I also never felt that you needed an education to go into business. Most of the people around me in business didn’t study for their roles, and education was important to me.

I was drawn towards science to prove myself. It too had many challenges for women but my motto was “we must stand out in this world if we want to be recognised”.

What influence did King’s have on your success?

King’s has had a huge influence on my life and career. I had some amazing professors – some of them were tough and some supportive. The professors who were tough made me tougher. Those who were supportive gave me opportunities.

The most important thing King’s gave me was the ability to observe, analyse and ask questions. It taught me the importance of understanding research and reading data.

How did you make the transition from academia to business?

I was already a businesswoman when I finished my studies, as I had started a small health club for women. I had seen an opportunity and thought, ‘Why not?’ There was nothing like that in Saudi at the time. I found a partner, rented a space and turned it into a gym. Then I was diagnosed with cancer.

As I was recovering from cancer, the rules governing women changed in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia]. Women were able to join the elections for the Chamber of Commerce. I was invited to put myself forward and was elected.

Dr Lama

How did you find your voice in the male-dominated Chamber of Commerce?

When I started I was lucky; the men on the Board were supportive. However, it was important to learn my role and responsibilities. I had to work harder than male colleagues, dare to speak truthfully, and never stop being diplomatic. My voice was heard because everyone came out a winner and achieved results. When faced with chauvinism, I simply moved on.

What advice would you give to those experiencing challenges in their work environment?

My experience in the business world has been extremely challenging at times. Beyond the Chamber of Commerce, I have worked on boards far less supportive of women. As a young woman, I was embarrassed to talk about gender issues. Today, I realise those issues will never go away unless we continue talking about them.

 “I had to work harder than male colleagues, dare to speak truthfully and never stop being diplomatic. My voice was heard because everyone came out a winner and achieved results”

And, finally, in this global issue of InTouch, what’s your view on globalisation?

Globalisation has existed for thousands of years, although it has only recently been given a name. We need to deal with education, and help people understand each other’s cultures and habits. The next generation should be connected not just to their nationality, but to the world.


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