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“When millennials are inspired, we can move mountains” – Noura Al Akeel

Gems of Arabia
Meet Nour Al Akeel, the Saudi millennial helping to shape the future of the Kingdom and the women who live there...

I am completely overwhelmed with pride when I see young Saudi millennials representing us in such a positive way. I assure you that although Noura Al Akeel is a close relative of mine, my choice of interview subject has nothing to do with nepotism but is purely based on merit as she is no doubt a pioneer in the women’s empowerment movement. Her efforts and accomplishments are indeed praiseworthy.

She currently works at SAP, a multinational tech corporation that makes enterprise software to manage business operations and customer relations. SAP was founded in 1972 by five former IBM employees and today 76 per cent of all worldwide business transactions touch an SAP system. Noura is the Presales Innovation Lead where she currently engages with customers in finding innovative opportunities to leverage technology in business operations.

Thank you for taking the time Noura. Tell us more about your current initiatives and latest impressive panel of discussion you were on…

Currently, I am leading Presales innovation at SAP so I work closely with customers facing challenges and use the latest technologies like IoT, Blockchain, Machine Learning to find innovative solutions to their challenges. The innovation team that I lead is working on innovating the way we connect to our customers, and scaling digital engagements to deliver an amazing customer experience.

I recently gave a keynote on innovation for the Stanford Women in Data Science Conference (WiDS), hosted by Prince Sultan University, the WiDs ambassador in Saudi Arabia and in collaboration with the American University of Beirut. WiDs is a yearly conference that aims to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide. It gives the opportunity to learn about the latest data science related research and application in a broad set of domains. It is a global conference with over 75,000 participants and 80 regional events held worldwide which are simultaneously broadcasted. It was a great honour to stand amongst Saudi talents and I was truly humbled by the opportunity to be on stage with so many talented pioneers in the technology field.

The milestone we achieved [with the lifting of the driving ban] was having the right to choose. 

How did you start working for SAP?

I had just recently moved back to Saudi after living abroad for most of my life. I remember sitting on the couch pondering my purpose in life while the TV played in the background. I knew I had to put my years of education to work but there was always that hesitance that held me back. By chance I was flipping through my phone and found an advertisement for a job fair focused on women — I noticed it was the last day and that there was probably three hours left to the event. I leaped to my printer, printed about 60 copies of my resume and headed to the venue. There I remember placing my resume on every desk, and feeling quite discouraged as my resume disappeared into the booth compartments with no real next steps. At the moment of disheartenment, I found myself staring at the SAP booth, where two gentlemen approached me, decided I was fit for the role and changed my life. I went on to spend six months training in California before I rejoined my market unit.

That job fair was an opportunity to step out. It’s always difficult to take the first step, the first leap — God places all the best things on the other side of fear on purpose. I have been back every year to recruit at the same fair and I see myself in the eyes of the passionate girls all looking for an opportunity to change the world.

What are SAP’s initiatives for the upcoming years?

What makes me proud to be a part of the SAP family is that I work for a purpose driven company. SAP has made a commitment that was witnessed by His Majesty King Salman and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, between the Saudi Government and SAP to invest $300 million over the next four years to build an Innovation Cloud Hub to host data in the Kingdom. We’ve also invested heavily in training university students, young professionals and initiated programs to support startups. We are closely aligned with the Saudi National Transformation Plan and the Vision 2030 as we want to leverage technology and the cutting-edge innovations to support the digital change within the Kingdom.

You mentioned that last year SAP had a refugee code week where they worked with the band Imagine Dragons on a song. All the downloads of that song went to support the refugee crisis. Tell us more about this amazing campaign…

The One4 project was a collaboration between SAP, Apple and Imagine Dragons, to support the refugee crisis. This collaboration put the humanitarian crisis in the spotlight mixing the world of enterprise tech with the music industry. Proceeds of the downloads of the song I Was Me by Imagine Dragons were donated to the United Nations Refugee Agency, additionally SAP matched 10 cents for every iTunes download up to the first five million downloads.

What other CSR activities have you worked on during your time at the company?

We are currently working on a initiative called 1 Billion Lives (1BLives), where SAP has pledged to invest in creating SAP technologies that will change the lives of one billion people across the globe. This is an employee-led, crowd-sourced initiative, where employees get together with NGO’s and share ideas during a full day workshop. Those ideas are then formalised and voted upon by a panel of experts and then are brought to reality with an investment by SAP. One example of the ideas that came up out of the  past workshops were applications to better cancer research. The 1BLives initiative was launched in 2016 in the APJ region, where SAP invested 1 million euros to support and now the initiative is spreading across the globe. The 1BLives SAP team in Riyadh had their workshop just last week, we are excited to hear the outcomes of that session.

What is your experience as a woman in the industry?

Personally, I’ve seen a drastic change over the past three years in our workplace. We started off with being so few as a female representation, and today I proudly can say we’ve taken over the office. The SAP office in Saudi doubled the number of female employees in just one year — our female workforce ratio went from 6.4 per cent to 12.6 per cent. We were also awarded the Top Employer award for three consecutive years for the Global, Middle East, and Saudi Arabia regions. That speaks volumes to the support we get from the SAP ecosystem.

What are your plans for the coming years?

To continue scaling the talent of young millennials and females in the workforce. We have just begun an SAP-led initiative called the Business Women Network (BWN) this year, that I am leading. The BWN is an employee-driven network at SAP to help women advance their careers and the company’s business. By sharing professional insights, best practices, education and experience, we help one another develop skills and offer  career advancing opportunities to drive SAP’s success. We want to be able to foster an inclusive atmosphere at SAP where the full potential of women employees can be realised. Additionally, we want to drive and develop women leadership skills, career development opportunities, and business acumen. Ultimately we want to make a real impact in growing business for SAP in KSA and make an impact in the country-wide vision.

What are your thoughts on the amazing new milestone for women being allowed to drive? Will you be conducting any special activities?

I am ecstatic beyond words, I still remember the days where I would get ready, step outside, and realise I had forgotten to call the driver. Driving is going to facilitate the lives of many, and though I do also acknowledge that there will be some challenges, there is nothing we can’t overcome. I completely respect everyone’s choices on whether they will engage in driving or not, it is a personal preference. The milestone we achieved was having the right to choose. I learned to drive in Rome and in Beirut  I’m not afraid to be on the road, I’m excited. I am working  along with my team on some projects on driving where we are looking at opportunities to inject technology and make it a safe and enjoyable experience on the road.

The advantage that millennials have is that we are all thirsty for a purpose and we are over-achievers. You need to inspire us to move us, and when we are inspired we can move mountains.

Do you envision that we will be seeing more pioneer millennials like yourself and female entrepreneurs in the Saudi corporate world?

Absolutely. It takes just one to take the first leap and all the others will flow through going further and beyond. I am a true believer that we need to break the glass ceiling and be catalysts for change, it’s what I live by. The advantage that millennials have is that we are all thirsty for a purpose and we are over-achievers. You need to inspire us to move us, and when we are inspired we can move mountains. Also, we are driven by innovation; put innovation and passion together and you will get wonders. I am just making a small splash in an ocean which I am sure will flow with talent in the coming years.

What is style to you?

Style is your brand, it’s how others perceive you. It’s a compliment to your intellectual assets. I do believe that your style speaks volumes before you can utter a word. Growing up in Italy, style and fashion run through my blood I appreciate them ever so much. Now that I am in the corporate world, I view style as essential tool to inspire and be unique. As per Edith Head, “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.”

Less is more, or more is more?

I will go with less is more, the European way. I see it as more elegant and chic.  Perhaps, I’d leave the more is more to the special occasions in life. I feel it is most important to wear clothes that suit you as a person. It’s essential to know yourself and the message you want to give with your clothes, then see which trend can complement you with that.

In the end, style is just another reflection of yourself, as Miuccia Prada explained when she said, “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Now, see the film created by Hatem to celebrate the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia