Exclusive interview with Loula Zaklama: A self-made Egyptian businesswoman
Loula Zaklama, one of the first woman entrepreneurs in the Middle east, founder of two successful companies in Egypt, professionally renowned for her experience and expertise in communications, advertising, marketing research and public relations, talks to Albawaba-MEBG about her first steps in business, nearly forty years ago, and her vision of women’s role in Egyptian economy.
Zaklama founded the Radar Advertising Company in 1961 and managed it for 21 years. In 1982, she established the RadaResearch & Public Relations Company, one of the leading private marketing research and public relations companies in Egypt today.
Zaklama is a member of the Board of Governors, American Chamber of Commerce 1987-1990; the Chairman of Marketing Committee, American Chamber of Commerce; Vice President of Congresses, International Advertising Association; member of IPRA, PRCA, ISOMAR, and market Research Society; and Member of Executive board in the International Economic Forum of Egypt.
Albawaba-MEBG: How did you enter the world of business and why?
I graduated from the American University in Cairo, with a degree in mass communication. At that time, the Egyptian economy was still liberal and in 1962, I founded my first company in advertising. A few months after, all the economy was nationalized and my company remained one of the few private ones. It was hard to do business and for many years I struggled to get contracts and maintain my company. You have to understand that Egypt has always been seen as a leader among Arab countries and my role was to sell that unique situation to multinationals. When [Sadat’s] Open Door Policy was established, multinational companies started considering Egypt as a hub for Middle East business. But they didn’t understand the local market. This became the life opportunity. In 1985, I realized that there was a need in marketing research and PR. I founded my own company that today employs forty people and is recognized as one of the first companies to provide both services in one company.
Albawaba-MEBG: What do you consider to be your most significant professional achievement?
My biggest achievement is the international recognition and acknowledgement that I’m getting throughout the world in my profession. I have built a reputation of professionalism and success that I’m very proud of. I represent Egypt on the international level in various advertising and PR associations, especially in Europe and in the US. In 1987, I have won a prestigious Medal of Merit for my contribution to the advertising community. I have also been chosen to be part of the 50 Leading women Entrepreneurs of the World.
Albawaba-MEBG: What is the secret to your success?
You have to be ready to work hard, very hard, and always be on top of your knowledge. I have a deep faith in God and that has always helped me through hard times. But one has to be optimistic and has to have a vision of his company and in his domain.
Albawaba-MEBG: Where do you draw you will to succeed from?
I always had to fight for my survival. I didn’t choose to become a businesswoman ¯ I was forced into it for economic reasons. I have always kept my mother’s example in mind. She grew up in a very conservative family and never had to work for a living. When my father died, she was very young and she was left alone with four children to educate. She fought and she struggled, but she managed to give us university education and a good life. She never approved of my working and only when she saw my success and recognition, did she change her mind and now she’s proud of me.
Albawaba-MEBG: What advice do you have for young Egyptian women who wish to pursue a career?
I would advise them never to sacrifice spending time with their young children. A woman, unless she’s forced to, shouldn’t leave her children to be successful career-wise. Women should start careers when their children are old enough and don’t need a mother at home anymore. You have to be patient to be able to achieve anything in life.
Albawaba-MEBG: What is the biggest challenge facing businesswomen in the Middle East?
You have to distinguish between Egypt and the Arab world. In Egypt, we have an open society that allows women to be part of the professional scene, and as an example you can see that women are present on the political, the economic and the social levels. We have women in very high and important positions in all sectors in Egypt and today that’s not a problem for society to accept. On the other hand, some Arab countries still make a clear difference between men and women and restrict certain activities for men only. That is particularly the case in business where people still prefer to deal with men as counter partners.
Albawaba-MEBG: To what extent do women contribute to Egyptian economy today?
I think women overall contribute no less than 20 percent of the economy. Egyptian women contribute a lot on the small and medium size enterprise level and start micro companies. A lot of them work at home or from home where they open small shops and workshops. We have to remember the contribution of women to the country. I think that there is a positive trend out there and that women’s contribution will increase as the years go by.
Albawaba-MEBG: Do you see any new business trend due to the increasing number of educated women? What role do you think women will play in tomorrow’s business community?
I think that women still have a lot to prove and accomplish, especially to as far as how professional they are. It’s still very common that a woman has to prove her knowledge and professionalism, even if she’s just as educated as her male colleague. So women have to be prepared and master their knowledge, be on top of it, because a men’s mistake is easily forgettable, but it’s not the case for a women.
Albawaba-MEBG: In what sense do you think women’s associations and clubs can help young or inexperienced women to start a business?
I don’t really believe in that women movement. For me, there is no difference between a man and a woman. So when an association can help me improve my business or build my network, I’ll become a member. I’m not a member in any of the businesswomen associations because I think their battle isn’t efficient enough. They are promoting a good cause, which is wider acceptance of women in the corporate world, but they are not working hard enough and not pushing for changes of the legislations ¯ where the real battle resides. I think that if a woman wants to succeed in business she has to learn to fight on her own.
Albawaba-MEBG: Have you ever encountered problems because you were a woman conducting business?
Certainly not in Egypt. I haven’t traveled a lot in the region for business purposes, but I know that countries like Jordan, Lebanon or even the Gulf countries are liberal. I did encounter a problem, once, in a certain country, many years ago, at the beginning of my career. But I imagine the situation has changed since. I prefer today to concentrate on doing business in my own country, Egypt, a market that I know the best.