For ICON Founder, Salma Sakhnini, education has been the cornerstone of her life. Growing up in a Palestinian family who became refugees overnight, Sakhnini said the one thing that allowed her parents manage and start over in Canada was their education; education is something that can never be taken away or lost.
“I'm a big believer in education and I think it's a fantastic basis to give anyone the discipline and the thinking tools of how to look at things. Now the model of education as we know it is changing and updating and so on, and I think that is very necessary. However, I think the importance of education is not just to get the certificate, because you're not only getting the knowledge but you're getting the discipline, you're getting to work in teams, you're getting to have the responsibility of delivering on something whether it is homework, or whether it is a case study that you're doing with your teammates for the class, or having the responsibility of preparing for an exam where you're tested, it's where you are evaluated.”
She added all these factors better prepare an individual for their time in the corporate world because everyone is evaluated in their jobs, people have to work with a team, they have deliverables, they have to show up on time, and they have to work hard towards their goals. Education grooms people to develop all these necessary skills, and by missing out on education, people can actually miss out on an important building block.
Sakhnini mentors a number of young people who do not see the value in pursue education further–they either do not see how education will benefit them or they are impatient and want to jump straight into starting their own business because they have the financial support of their families.
“To me it's like watching a baby try to start running before they actually can crawl and stand up and walk. I think in the start-up world and with the pressures to excel and to succeed, if you do not have the right and solid building blocks, it's going to catch up with you,” said Sakhnini.
She added that this emphasis on further education applies even more so for women, because women are paid less and still have to work hard to prove themselves in the workplace and to achieve positions at certain levels. Further education can certainly provide a stepping stone to allow women to achieve those goals.
“We talk about equity, and not only in the UAE or the Arab world, but globally. We speak about equality and women's presentation and so on, but we're still not there. We still do not have women executives running the big organisations as CEOs, or executives at the board level to make decisions. With that that in mind, I think in order to be taken seriously, women have to have that education, because we are competing and we are making progress, but people still look at credentials, experience, and education to see what they have to bring to the table,” she said.
Sakhnini’s two years spent studying for her MBA gave her the tools to analyse situations and to negotiate. “I was competing with my classmates because every semester the students with the lowest grades dropped out; it was very competitive. Every semester I grew more confidence and I realised I was just like this smart group of people, I can compete, and I can beat them at their game."
She added that going through that process gave her the confidence from the point of view that women have to prove themselves more, because women tend to get stuck collecting credentials before thinking that they have the right to ask for the next step.
“Many women, before taking that next step or asking for a promotion, will think ‘I need to do another master's or let me get another year’s experience or I need to go to two more seminars or something’ when men will feel they’re ready even if they do not have the tools, because they have that self-esteem and self-confidence,” she added.
The global population is almost evenly split between men and women, yet Sakhnini said that a challenge facing women is that of representation. “Where are these women? Are they decision makers? Because the way you make an impact is if you are a decision maker. So we need to change that conversation from quotas and numbers to a woman's influence rather than representation. How are we shaping business and the future of business and society? I hear a lot of executives say ‘I empower my people.’ that is their job. Their job as an executive is to provide the environment for people to grow and excel.”
The role of SMEs
Creating the environment for women to excel is much the same as creating the right environment for SMEs to excel, Sakhnini added. “A lot of people talk about SMEs and the importance of SMEs and how we need to encourage SMEs. I really believe that we're still at the very beginning of creating an environment where SMEs actually can grow and can get the tools that are needed.”
She added that to compete in an economy where the major players, and historically the businesses and the biggest businesses, are family businesses that run throughout the region, means an SME owner is running against a well-established legacy. But ensuring that the tools for SMEs that are different are available is where a lot of work still needs to be done.
For more on our interview with Salma, please have a look at our video where she talks more about SMEs and empowering women.
By Jessica Combes
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