“Change is coming”. This phrase really resonated with me during a recent conversation with Noura Al Aquil, a colleague from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Having lived in the Middle East myself, and worked with many Saudi women, it is apparent that Noura is not only passionate about change, but she is helping to drive it at SAP.
Noura’s job title is Presales Innovation & Technology Manager, a role she was recently promoted to, making her the first female Saudi national in a management role. But she is very clear that being a woman was not the reason for her promotion:
“We all are subject to predisposed judgements, and I believe as a woman unfortunately sometimes you have to prove yourself twice as much because of them. That being said, opportunities are open for all, and it really ends up being about those who are able and willing to learn, adapt and grow using their skills and time adequately to achieve their purpose. If you decide on a goal and don’t let anything stop you, you can achieve anything. The door has always been open, it’s about who can gather the motivation and take action instead of waiting for the things you want to be handed to you.
Going the extra mile is one of my top priorities. You should push yourself, learn from others, be on time, and look to do something extra - even if it’s not part of your role. That’s where the difference comes. I am proud of this milestone, and it is my humble opinion that my achievement is small in comparison to what more women will achieve in the near future. The glass ceiling has been broken, the sky is the limit now.”
Noura’s journey with SAP all started at a local career fair. Having studied abroad and gained graduate and postgraduate degrees, she was looking for a way of putting her studies to use.
“I was at home with my children, contemplating my purpose in life, when I saw an advertisement for a career fair focused on women. I leapt to my printer, got a couple copies of my CV and headed down there. I handed my CV out to many companies and they all did the same, they smiled and added them to a pile. I was becoming quite disheartened when a recruiter from SAP struck up a conversation with me. I hadn’t given SAP my CV as I was not sure what prospects they’d have for me, but we got chatting and something sparked.
The recruiter told me about the Sales Academy programme and that it involved six months in California. I explained that I had just come back from there and was married with children and I couldn’t possibly go back for six months. The recruiter said fine, ignore California for now, let’s just keep talking.
Following the fair, I had a telephone interview and was invited to a selection ‘boot camp’. I kept saying that I couldn’t travel, I have children, I can’t go to the Sales Academy, but I could already sense that SAP was my home, and that it was the perfect place for me to flourish.
It is very important for me to work somewhere where I could make difference. If I was going to leave my children each day I had to know in my heart I’d helped the world run better and I could look back and tell my grandchildren some amazing stories. So, I went to California. My family thought I was crazy and this was a big investment. It took a leap of faith but I believed in this company and its purpose and that’s why I did it.”
That was three years ago and since returning to Saudi Arabia, firstly in finance presales, then as an innovation lead, Noura has been mentored by transformational leaders who have helped her craft her career. She soon started moving upwards and is now a Presales manager.
“When I started there were only 5 to 6 in the office but now there are more than 20 ladies in different areas of the business. I am very happy where I am and it gives me pleasure to see how our office has changed with other ladies in leading roles and that the company has the trust in us to deliver.”
‘Presales’ may not be a career path that many graduates are aware of, so I asked Noura what she says to candidates, both male and female, when she is recruiting for her own team:
“I search for a passion within the people I interview, and if I find it I can map that to a purpose within SAP. Working at SAP is a privilege, you are able to understand the innovation and technology of the future and take it straight to your customers. You are not doing anything just for the sake of selling something, you are helping to create the future.
A Presales Advisor is someone who can map the pain of the customer to a solution. I look for someone who understands processes and business gaps and can partner with a customer to achieve a common purpose. My team are trusted advisors, not just there to run demos, they believe in the solution and how it solves problems. This empathy is what sets presales apart.”
Some day-to-day challenges that Noura and the other ladies within her team encounter in their roles are unique to the region, and may be difficult for others to understand, but this does not hold them back.
“Some of our ladies do experience difficulty out in the field. Some of our customers will not accept women to their offices and we must find ways to support each other to push forward. One of my colleagues came to me and said that she needed to demo a product but was not allowed to go to the customer’s office. We found a creative opportunity to use technology to overcome this and used our Virtual Studio to run the meeting.
I myself attended a meeting with male colleagues and on arrival I was told by the security guard that I could not enter and must sit in a corner and wait for authorisation. I was embarrassed and frustrated that I had been isolated. At one point, while waiting I remember wanting to drop everything and go home. My colleagues persuaded the guard that it was essential I be included in the meeting, and with a change of heart he decided to let me in. I was preparing for the meeting to begin, when to my surprise the customer walked in with another lady who was a foreigner. I was really perturbed, and I wondered if she had gone through the same treatment. I kept thinking was my treatment because I was a woman or because I was a Saudi woman?
After the meeting I casually made my way back to the security guard and asked him if he had stopped the other lady. He was shocked at my question. I figured the other lady had made her way into the premises without any issues because he couldn’t say anything to a foreigner. I told him, ‘change is coming and you better adapt! Next time I am here I won’t be stopping, I will walk straight through’.”
It’s not just within her own role and team that Noura can push the change. She is a founding member of Saudi Arabia’s chapter of the SAP Business Women’s Network (BWN). This chapter not only seeks to build its network internally, but they are seeking opportunities to take this outside of the SAP ecosystem, give back to local communities and support the Saudi Government 2030 plan for more women in private sector employment.
“I don’t want people to think we are repressed because we are women here. We have a sea of opportunities and there are so many that are happy to support and engage in our success. I would be nowhere without the support of my managers, my role models, and my colleagues who believed in me and gave me the opportunities to step up. We are making the change. Woman can physically drive now, but we have been driving change for a long time before this milestone. We are making a difference on the ground with our customers, and though not all our customers have transformed yet, we are finding the solutions to this rather than letting it hold us back.
Most importantly to me though, working for SAP means I can be flexible. I take calls on the road, I can have a sensible work life balance which means that I can still look after my family. If you are organised and work flexibly you can succeed both at work and at home.”
SAP as a business is a champion of diversity and women in leadership, and I have no doubt that what Noura and her colleagues in Saudi Arabia are doing will not only make a difference to our business and our customers, but will impact the region as a whole. As Noura says, “Change is Coming.”