Table of Contents:
- Princess Reema on recognizing her privilege
- Creating change at Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports
- Why Princess Reema was wary of showing her face uncovered
- Transitioning to the role of a diplomat
- Princess Reema’s vision for the women of Saudi Arabia
- Choosing a ‘fluid’ leadership style, as opposed to combativeness
How the word “no” inspires change
PRINCESS REEMA: I fell into the world of business because of the word “no.”
I’m a woman born of privilege. I’m born into a royal family and I couldn’t get a job. How many other women are being told no?
I know I have privilege, but I also have a conscience. When you marry privilege and conscience, you have an obligation. And that obligation is to give to others what you have to the best of your abilities.
BOB SAFIAN: That’s Her Royal Highness, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud.
Princess Reema is a member of the Saudi royal family and Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States. But before that, she was a CEO, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale Rapid Response.
I sat down with Princess Reema not long ago to discuss how she applied business-thinking to spark change in one of the most traditional societies in the world.
Our conversation, which took place live at the Masters of Scale Summit in San Francisco, delves into her unlikely efforts to open economic opportunity for women in Saudi Arabia, the obstacles that she encountered, and the significant changes that have come to pass.
As Princess Reema acknowledges, she was born into privilege. But her story provides a case study into using your advantage for impact and influence. It’s full of lessons that any business leader can learn from.
JUNE COHEN: Please give the warmest welcome to the Masters of Scale stage to Her Royal Highness, Ambassador Reema Bandar Al Saud.
SAFIAN: Princess Reema, thank you for joining us here today.
PRINCESS REEMA: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.
SAFIAN: So, when you and I first met, you were not working for the Saudi government. You were a CEO running a luxury department store business in Riyadh.
PRINCESS REEMA: Slight shift.
Princess Reema on recognizing her privilege
SAFIAN: Slight shift. In that role, you broke ground by bringing women into your workplace in ways that required navigating religious police and other restrictions that were in place at the time. You’ve long been avid about entrepreneurship and creativity and the potential of business to be an agent of change. And I’m wondering how you landed on that conviction that business was a way that you were going to begin to have those impacts.
PRINCESS REEMA: So I actually, I grew up in the States. I arrived in the States, I was seven years old and 30 with two children when I went home. And I knew what it felt like to live here, to have experiences, to socialize and engage. And when I went home, I recognized that the experiences I had when I was younger weren’t available to my children. And I fell into the world of business because of the word “no.” I studied museum studies and my goal was to go home and lift the material culture of my nation because my mother had one of the largest collections of material culture. And I studied to take that home, work in it, and help it thrive and tell a narrative of my country. And I arrived back and I was told, “Thank you. The collection’s lovely, but not you.” And the “no” was: women can’t be employed.
And I couldn’t understand that. I said, “What do you mean?” And so I had to sit and think and recognize, I’m a woman born of privilege. I’m born into a royal family. I’m born into the ruling family, and I couldn’t get a job. So what is then the state of women and every other woman, and how many other women are being told no, but don’t have opportunities? But I had an opportunity to make that shift, to make that pivot and try to use skills that I had learned to tell another story. And so I tried to do that.
PRINCESS REEMA: Yes. So basic 101 if you’re selling to women, women, we really do sell to each other better than men do. No, I’m not trying to create a gender bias or anything, but it really does help. And so, the issue was the law was not drafted to allow for women in that space, but it was being worked on. So we worked with the Ministry of Labor to say, “What would it look like if men and women shared the workplace? And then what regulations should come from that?” And that’s where we did the research on the obstacles for inclusion of women in the retail space. And then we applied those across other sectors.
Creating change at Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports
SAFIAN: Now after that, you pressed women’s health issues in the Kingdom. You were a leader at the Saudi General Sports Authority. I remember you telling me a story about how when you first started working there, there were no bathrooms for women in the building.
PRINCESS REEMA: I was hired into the Ministry of Sports, and I was told that my mandate was female inclusion. And I said, “That’s great, but do you mean myself sitting in an office and we tick a box, or do you mean that we actually have a mandate to create change for female inclusion?” I was told, “No, it’s a mandate.” Fabulous. The only issue was, there was no offices. So I actually worked from home for the first year with my team that was growing.
I would go to the ministry and there’s no bathroom. So I was lucky that my home was five minutes away. That’s still just not convenient. So we used to put a sticker on one of the bathroom doors with a little female sign, and we’d come back every day and it would be removed, and then we’d put it back. And then, not to be crass, but we put ladies’ products in the bathroom and they never took the sign off again. They were like, “All right, we got you. We got you.”
Why Princess Reema was wary of showing her face uncovered
SAFIAN: I remember for the first Fast Company article that we did about you, you were wary about having your face uncovered shown in any photographs, and we did some tricky things with gauzy material. But you were concerned about how more conservative parts of Saudi society might react. It wasn’t that long ago, and yet it seems like things have changed a fair amount.
PRINCESS REEMA: It’s a world away. And I was very cognizant of the fact that yes, I was trying to push borders, but also the concept of self-promotion as a woman at that time was difficult. And I understand where the borders and the boundaries are. And I did recognize that for this change I wanted to see, I needed to take steps and not leaps, and I needed to take people with me because I know what happens when the word “no” is said. So I didn’t want to get in a position where the word “no” would be said again.
So I prefer to take people with me on the journey. And sometimes you have to read the room, and you have to say, “Is change coming and do I see a thread?” And if so, “Which is the thread that I know if I hold on to, I can actually add more and make the thread a rope?” And so that’s what I tried to do. I am by nature a very private person. And so, the hardest thing for me in this current job that I have today is I no longer represent myself, I represent a nation. And so I can’t hide behind the wall of my personal privacy, because I’m telling everybody else’s story. And it’s one of the challenges that I’ve had to overcome to be able to do my job well in the current state.
Transitioning to the role of a diplomat
SAFIAN: Yeah. When you were in business, you could say and do a little bit more though, of what you wanted. You were a prod to the establishment. And now as ambassador, your statements are official. So is that harder? Are there things about that you say, “Well, some things maybe, but now I can have more impact”? How is the role of being a diplomat different than the roles you’ve had before?
PRINCESS REEMA: So it’s really interesting because before being a diplomat, I was an actual government employee at the Ministry of Sports. And part of my role was to come in and say, “How can we include women in a sector that women never were included in?” And that really spoke to my soul because prior to working in government, I had created a women’s social enterprise for female inclusion, financial literacy, and readiness for work skills. And my mantra is providing access for opportunity. I know I have privilege, but I also have a conscience. So when you marry privilege and conscience, you have an obligation. And that obligation is to give to others what you have to the best of your abilities. And so, the work that I was doing in the social enterprise translated immediately into the Ministry of Sports because in the private sector, I could access maybe 300-400 women a year.
But when I was asked in the Ministry of Sports to open access to women’s inclusion into sports, that’s 11 million women across the country. And because we were drafting everything for the first time from scratch, we had the liberty to actually dream and be open-ended in the regulations that we were writing, because the reality is I’m 47. And the reality is the nation that I’m building and was working collaboratively with the ministry to design these regulations for female inclusion were younger than 25. And their dreams and aspirations of what they will want will be so much bigger than I could have ever dreamt of, or my team could have dreamt of. So we really had to think beyond ourselves, beyond the present, and think in the future: how do you phrase things open-ended enough to allow that next generation not just to thrive, but to find opportunity that they can then draft for themselves?
And so, I was hired to push the envelope. I was hired to make change. I was hired to push back on either the stereotype that we had for ourselves or the limiting beliefs that we had for ourselves, or the boundaries that we were always told no, because I was told there is no “no.” The “no” is simply what you could imagine doesn’t exist. So we were able to put PE in girls’ schools for the first time in the history of my country. We were able to allow for women to run, jog, ride a bicycle, and participate and compete internationally.
We took four women as wildcards to the Olympics. And frankly, one of the most amazing opportunities was, they said, “Reema, there’s these four girls. We need to get them ready, but we can’t talk about it, which means we can’t train anywhere publicly.” Which means also FYI, at that time, no facilities for women in sports. So I said, “My God, what do you want me to do with this?” So they actually ended up doing their boot camp in my home. They trained in my home gym. They stayed in my parents’ guest house because we just needed to get it done. Get it done. The thing was just get it done before somebody says no, because once you break the ice and you take that first step, it is what it is. It’s precedent. And so, I went from being in the kitchen where we were cooking and changing and breaking down walls to create opportunities. And my role was to challenge. My role was to present and broaden and open.
But the role of a diplomat is to convey, to communicate, and to bring together. And so my role in my private communications with my government is to challenge. It’s to present the opportunity. It’s to present the impact of decisions. But once a decision is made, it’s to implement. And I think many of you might see that when you make the transition from when you are a private company to a public company, you’re now beholden to shareholders. Or, if you had had a startup and you were the entrepreneur and that didn’t work, or you get absorbed into a company. So you’re now shifting from you to us. And the “us” has a different flavor, it has a different impact. And the impact that I know I can have today is to keep traveling the world and keep showing young women of my country, “You have an opportunity, you can represent your country. You can be a little different.” Because I recognize I am different. I understand that.
I grew up here, and I lived in the Kingdom. And so my heart is this mix of what I know can be, what I know is, what I know we could do. And for me, I find the challenge that I as an individual no longer represent an individual, I represent a majority. I represent not just the women of my country, I represent the men of my country. So the words that come out of my mouth have to be measured, because they have impact.
SAFIAN: When we return, my conversation with Princess Reema.
SAFIAN: Before the break, we heard Princess Reema talk about how she applied her advantages to generate change for women in Saudi Arabia.
Now, she digs in deeper, outlining the challenges women in Saudi — and around the world — still face while also highlighting progress that’s been made. Princess Reema shares lessons for all of us about looking beyond limitations and persevering in the face of obstacles.
Princess Reema’s vision for the women of Saudi Arabia
You and I have talked about how you have goals to modernize Saudi society, and at the same time, you have a lot of respect for the traditions of Saudi. It’s one of the reasons you moved back when you were here. Do you have a vision for what Saudi’s society will be in the future for women? There are a lot of things that people, as you have educated me over time, that people misunderstand about Saudi society and the Kingdom.
PRINCESS REEMA: My vision for the women of Saudi is that a woman, like the women you see on your screen, can feel as welcome, as comfortable, and as proud to call herself a Saudi citizen as a woman that looks like any one of you in the room — dressed in what she wants to wear, saying what she wants to say and going where she wants to go. That’s my vision for the women. And I will tell you that the women of my country today are leaders. They’re CEOs. 40% of all small and medium-sized businesses are women today. Not a true statement five years ago. Women are in the military, women are in leadership positions in government. We have deputy ministers and vice ministers. We have women across the board not just as leadership, but also in that middle management, where I always try to tell people: a decision made of just a group of men, regardless of whether the leader is male or female, is delivered with a single point of view.
If you are middle management that is creating and cultivating the decisions that are being presented to the leader, regardless of whether they’re male or female, will be a better decision because you’ll have both points of view. So you really need to focus on this middle management because that’s where a balanced collective view comes, and the pipeline for leadership comes. And that doesn’t matter if you’re a government, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a corporation.
I find pain when our women are painted with a singular brush, because there is not one Saudi woman. She’s not the woman that’s covered, she’s not me that’s sitting here. It’s a collective and it’s a “we.” We exist. We have many voices, we have many obstacles, we have many challenges. Some of them have been addressed. And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful we can drive. I’m grateful women can work anywhere. I’m grateful we have equal opportunity in the workplace. I’m grateful we have equal pay. I’m grateful a woman can be head of household. I’m grateful that she, I, can make decisions on behalf of my children. I’m grateful that we have an age of maturity and guardianship is gone, that we can travel and come and go and have our own passports. But that’s not the end of the challenge.
The challenge for women in my country today is no different than the challenge for women in your country. And the limiting belief that we hold ourselves to is what will hold us back. Not the limiting beliefs other people have. Because the reality is, you may read a headline and say, “Those poor women”, but you’re going to go on with your life. We wake up every morning and say,” What do I need to do today to create the change that will make life easier for my daughter, for my sister, for my cousin?” And in the process of doing that, by the way, I make life better for my husband, my son, my brother, my cousin, because the men deserve the same opportunity and respect for opportunity and growth and development that young women do. And the day that I will sleep so happily is when we no longer have to isolate the woman as a bracket of “other.” It drives me crazy.
When somebody says: “We’re so proud to support young people, entrepreneurs, people in medicine and women,” as if we’re this isolated box that is not one of those, I’m like, thanks for isolating us out of all of that. I could be the doctor. I could be the entrepreneur. Why are you pulling a woman out as if she’s the other that doesn’t fit in that box? So I think all across the world when that woman is no longer the other magical being that we’re trying to solve for x. Don’t take us out of that box. Solve for us in the box, because otherwise you’re making decisions on our behalf without asking us. Put us back in the room.
Choosing a ‘fluid’ leadership style, as opposed to combativeness
SAFIAN: Because you’ve been through so much … faced adversity through all of these things. Do you have any lessons that you share with this group about persevering in the face of the kind of obstacle that you have operated under?
PRINCESS REEMA: So when I was younger, I thought the way to combat the obstacle was to be strong, firm, and solid and like this brick. But I recognized, the way to confront the obstacle is to be fluid and engaged and flow through it, because the solution comes at less physical burden and cost if you flow with it and find the peaceful path.
When you communicate with people, you recognize their fear of change is born of fear of the other. So when you bring the walls closer and the conversation closer, you do that so much better than if you go and you confront and you hit and you operate in aggression. So I found peace with the fact that I can channel the femininity of my spirit and flow through change and bring people with me. Because we can flow better together than if I’m constantly trying to break things, it’s not my nature. And it might not be the solution for everyone, but that’s the solution I found. Come with me.
SAFIAN: Well, thank you for joining us and sharing your flow. Thank you.
PRINCESS REEMA: Thank you, thank you.
SAFIAN: Whatever you may think of the Saudi regime, Princess Reema’s impact on women’s lives has been significant. I’m struck by her approach to generating change: to be fluid and engaged.
For anyone seeking to reframe the status quo, whether via a startup, or inside a larger organization, staying fluid and adaptive is so important. We all have certain strengths, and it’s useful to lean into those advantages.
But how we lean in depends upon the conditions around us. Sometimes we have to bend to meet the world as it exists today, even as we work to mold it toward a better future.
I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.