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Breaking the glass ceiling: Q&A with Egypt's 1st female bank VP

Egypt's pioneering former banker Sahar El-Sallab tells Ahram Online about the struggles and lessons of her path to success

Deya Abaza, Sunday 21 Apr 2013
Ahram Online talks to Egypt

Sahar El-Sallab is perhaps Egypt’s most famous female banker.

By the end of nearly thirty years with Commercial International Bank, she had achieved the position of vice chairman and managing director, as well as chair of CI Capital, the bank’s investment arm. In 2008, she left CIB to become the assistant to the Minister of Trade and Industry for Development and Investment in Internal Trade. She has featured in Arabian Business website’s list of the Arab World’s 100 most powerful women for the past three years in a row.

In person, El-Sallab is warm and jovial, an almost archetypal mother hen brimming with energy and eager to chat. Brought up in Lebanon, where her father was a prominent banker, she initially studied to be doctor at the American University of Beirut, before having a change of heart. “I wanted to have a little fun, and I found that being a doctor wasn’t much fun” the lady of banking confesses.

The university student with a natural penchant for mathematics found instead that she was intrinsically drawn to the banking world as a part-time intern at the Union of Arab Banks. “I used to go and do some research work a few hours every day. I hated research work, but I just wanted to belong there,” she recalls.

Shortly after El-Sallab graduated in 1974, the Lebanese civil war forced her family to move back to Egypt. She worked and trained in Citibank, before being nabbed by Chase National Bank in 1981, to work in its credit department.

“There, I was the first to make a credit guide, which is now used by all the banks in Egypt, including the Central bank” she proclaims. “I also turned the credit department around with a strict system of early warning reports on problem loans, which paid off.”

El-Sallab recounts how CIB became dominated by women. When Chase Manhattan Bank sold its equity stake to the National Bank of Egypt in the late 1980s, “most of the male senior officers jumped ship,” expecting the bank’s standards to plummet.

“They said ‘this is going to be an Egyptian bank, we are AUC graduates’…so the women became the leaders of the bank.”

“Soon,” she continues, “the heads of all our departments were women, something which took the board of directors by surprise when they summoned them,” adding playfully “sometimes I would ask any man to accompany me to a meeting, saying, I just need anyone who is wearing trousers! ”  

She accredits CIB’s growth to become the largest bank in Egypt to this historical characteristic, as she believes women have a social intelligence that gives them an edge over men in the field. “Women are also more articulate,” she finds.

In 2003, CIB launched a women-only credit card called “Heya”—“She” in Arabic, and five years later El-Sallab also led a drive to attract female customers to the bank, which she partly credits with the bank’s ultimate success. “We held workshops and campaigned to get women to bank with us… it was in those years when our bank reached the number one spot.”

“In CIB, the women were paid as well as the men, and sometimes better, if they made more deals.” I used to say, I don’t want extra points because I am a the deals, in the promotions, in the salary, I don’t want a pound more, but I won’t take want a pound less” she says with finality.

Still, the banker from Lebanon felt she had to work twice as hard to excel amidst her male peers. “I was the only woman vice chairman, amidst 40 male chairmen of banks; for me to take on a transaction I had to be more innovative, more intelligent, more understanding, and dividing the profits fairly when I did a syndication.”

“And of course there was a glass ceiling, but I was the first to pierce through it,” states the former first-ever female vice chairman of an Egyptian bank.

A dynamic multi-tasker, El-Sallab does not believe in the family-career dichotomy. On the contrary, she believes that her marriage, arranged around the time she started working with Chase National, encouraged her professionally. “It gave me the emotional stability I needed to dive into my career.”

On raising her two boys, El-Sallab can only vaguely recall that “it must have been quite difficult.” But the help and support of her parents and siblings alleviated the burden of trying to juggle her duties as a mother and career woman. “In Egypt we are lucky to have loving and supportive families.”

For El-Sallab, the two years since the revolution have been a time of regression for women in Egypt.

“The percentage of women being recruited in banking and other sectors is not as high as it was in the previous five years; the jobs are mostly secretarial and administrative jobs,” she says. “Employers are less inclined to hire women given the security situation because it is less safe for them to travel and work late hours.”

The disappearance of women from the public sector since Islamist President Morsi came to power also irks the former deputy minister. “At the time I was deputy minister of trade, there were a lot of women in all the ministries; now they are all men,” she laments. “We’ve gone backward…women are being talked about like any man can get married to four, and the women should stay at home.”

As for El-Sallab herself, besides chairing Hiteknofal, a family IT business, the veteran banker’s new passion lies with her angel fund investing in IT startups. “My friends cannot believe that here I am, approaching sixty, and I’m going into entrepreneurship like a child,” she exclaims.

The idea for the fund grew out of her experience judging start-ups for Google, namely 75 projects including ground-breaking online application Bey2ollak, a user-based website which monitors traffic. “What I saw then made me fall in love with the young entrepreneurs,” she gushes. “I think this is the real revolution in Egypt.”


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