When Saudi nonprofit leader Lujain Al Ubaid travels abroad, she often finds herself in the unenviable position of having to explain her culture.
Saudi Arabia, the perception goes in the West, suppresses women, forcing them to wear headscarves and forbidding them the chance to get behind the wheel.
While some stereotypes are rooted in reality, other tropes she encounters reveal the need for her voice, to show that cultural differences about their role in society aren’t always best portrayed through news reports and movie scripts.
“It’s like going to an Indian lady and asking why is she wearing a sari all the time,” she told Global Atlanta about her black headscarf, which she left behind for the interview but donned for a public speech at Agnes Scott College.
“I want people to understand that there are amazing women who choose to wear the scarf over their head or wear the black dress when they travel abroad, or even choose to over their face,” Ms. Al Ubaid said, just days after a Georgia legislator withdrew plans to introduce updates to an anti-masking law widely viewed as targeting Muslim women. “Even with these choices, that doesn’t mean that they are oppressed or anything because they are choosing, and that doesn’t make them unqualified for positions.”
Despite challenges, the founder of Tasamy for Social Entrepreneurship is working to empower others in her home country while sharing the story internationally of her own journey toward impact — and she’s doing it in partnership with her government.
Ms. Al Ubaid speaks globally about Saudi Arabia’s growing nonprofit and entrepreneurial sectors, which are experiencing rapid change as more organizations are formed, and more existing outfits focus on innovation and using metrics to gauge their real impact.
“We are challenged by a lack of data,” she said, noting that the few charities that existed focused on doling out aid without a clear sense for sustainable impact. Social enterprise, she says, fills the space between simple aid and a pure profit motive.
Tasamy, she said, changed the conversation when she and her co-founders started it five years ago on a whim out of frustration with the status quo. Since then, she has attended executive programs at Harvard and Columbia universities and has engaged in a variety of global programs.
The organization now puts on a yearlong fellowship to help social entrepreneurs hone their ideas, as well as a three-month “Kun” (Arabic for “be”) program that aims to help others create pilot projects.
Although a relatively wealthy country, she believes there are ample social problems to address in Saudi Arabia: rising rates of obesity, food waste, 3 million people unemployed and 12 percent of some 30 million people living below the poverty line.
Among Tasamy’s successes so far are backing the creation of a new plate for lamb feasts that cuts wasted rice by 30-40 percent, as well as a female entrepreneur from a small city who is building an online platform for home-based, female-owned businesses to make financial transactions.
Ms. Al Ubaid’s itinerary included many engagements in Atlanta, from talks at Coca-Cola Co. and the Atlanta Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative to an appearance at the Georgia Council for International Visitors holiday reception.
At Agnes Scott, a women’s college investing heavily in globalizing its curriculum, she made a particularly poignant address to an audience of young refugee girls attending the Global Village Project school, also in Decatur.
Ms. Al Ubaid’s passion for helping others started when she was 10, visiting a poor neighborhood in Riyadh with her mother, she told the girls. As their car approached, people receiving food and supplies put their hands on the windows, leaving impressions that lasted long after the last food was delivered.
“Their hand prints remained on the glass of the car as they remained on my soul and heart,” she said. “I wanted less hands to be asking for things in the world.”
She also shared her experience in India, where she learned how to listen as she worked with villagers outside city of Hyderabad. She even talked about gradually overcoming her fear of public speaking, as well as how she has come to view leadership as orchestrating things in the background rather than always being vocal and out front.
The Global Village girls, meanwhile, were armed with questions about her favorite countries, the toughest parts of her job, whether she had ever been separated from her family, how she learned English, her motivations for doing good and more.
Many of the girls are recent arrivals with low levels of English, and some of the students from Syria and Iraq in particular perked up when Ms. Al Ubaid answered a question in Arabic.
Seeing an empowered Arab woman traveling the world and presenting in public was impactful for the students, said Amy Berry, a teacher at the Global Village Project.
“We talk so much with our girls about how can you be brave, how can you be confident, how can you resettle successfully here, learning the language,” Ms. Berry said, pointing out the value of practical engagement with someone with a global profile. “They see her, they watch how she’s presenting — even the fact that she’s got a PowerPoint.”
Ms. Abaid doesn’t deny the challenges that women face in Saudi Arabia. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Index, only 19 percent of the Saudi workforce in the country is female, despite the fact that 53 percent of university graduates are women. The country ranks No. 130 out of 142 countries on the index overall.
But with trailblazers like business executive Lubna Al Olayan of Olayan Financing Co. to look up to, things are gradually changing. Just this past week, incidentally, billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who has no official government role, said women should be allowed to drive as a matter of human rights. Women recently were awarded the right to vote in local elections.
Saudi’s economy more broadly undergoing shifts after decades of dependence on oil, with a nascent entrepreneurial culture and a government focused strengthening small and medium businesses that form the backbone of mature economies.
Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, son of King Salman and second in line for the throne, has shaken things up with an ambitious plan to sell shares of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, and use the proceeds to diversify its holdings. He also wants to privatize roads and airports and boost small enterprises as part of his sweeping Vision 2030 plan.
Meanwhile, Ms. Al Ubaid said an increase in nonprofit activity reveals a more socially engaged youth culture. More than 70 percent of the country’s population is under 30 years old, and while women do face real issues, she has found by traveling the world that many of them are shared across borders and cultures.
“Ninety percent of the challenges that women face globally are almost the same, and 10 to 15 percent are related to culture and work,” she said.
Women globally often find it hard to be heard in business, she said. While assertive men are seen as effective bosses, women taking the same tone might be perceived as bossy, she added.
The kingdom, meanwhile, is relatively young in the eyes of history.
“You will be seeing a lot of progressive change, which is positive in Saudi, but things take time. Nothing will happen overnight.”
She also pointed to the fact that her organization has garnered interest from all over the Middle East, with emails coming in from places like Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, even war-torn Aleppo, Syria, before the situation deteriorated recently.
She asked the Agnes Scott audience to consider ways it could work with the organization to expand its regional reach.
“We consider that as a responsibility.”
Ms. Al Ubaid said her visit was an example of Saudi corporate social responsibility in action. Her trip was arranged under the auspices of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a museum and cultural institution backed by Saudi Aramco. The Middle East Institute in Washington worked with the Georgia Council of International Visitors to coordinate meetings on the ground in Atlanta.