Saturday 13th April 2013
GBA: What is the current state of financial services for women in Abu Dhabi?
BS: The UAE in general is almost overbanked, if anything, but there are a couple of things to note in that regard. First, Abu Dhabi itself is a very female-friendly environment which provides an excellent base to build from. The prime minister decreed that all governmental organizations must have women board members, women are enrolled in university at increasingly higher rates than men — even the seats in the front of public buses are reserved for women. But there are still financial regulations that can take you by surprise. For example, I was out shopping recently with my university-age daughter and she wanted to apply for a credit card. She was told that her father had to co-sign. She said, “My father lives abroad, but my mother is standing right here plus she’s an executive with Abu Dhabi’s biggest bank, she will co-sign.” No sale – by law, it had to be the father. Second, even though we are headquartered in Abu Dhabi, we have a major presence throughout the Arab world – we are also the biggest foreign bank in Egypt, for example. So we want to learn from the Alliance how to refine our outreach to women throughout our regional market, not just in the UAE. This will be a journey that takes time. But we recognize from other countries who are ahead of us that economic success depends on each country optimizing contributions for all sections of society, and women have a major role to play here both in leadership roles within the private sector but also as entrepreneurs within the small and medium enterprise market.
GBA: Where do NBAD’s women’s market initiatives currently stand?
BS: NBAD’s flagship programs for women, Velvet and Fursati, are both in early stages – they were launched in January and November of 2012, respectively. But they focus on relationship-driven private banking and business development services rather than a product-led strategy for a couple of reasons. First, even though this is a wealthy country, there is a surprisingly low level of financial literacy. Saving consistently for the future is not embedded in the culture. Things like household budgeting, money management and delaying gratification are not the ‘norm’ as they are in other societies. Even in the wake of the global financial crisis, it is still possible to access easy debt and historically the government has bailed out private citizens who have gotten into unmanageable debt. And it’s not uncommon for women to inherit significant sums of money and have no idea how to manage it. We see a lot of enthusiasm amongst women to participate in programs that present serious networking opportunities, as well as provide a takeaway in terms of financial and business knowledge. Our challenge is that when women do go into business, they tend to cluster into low-margin businesses that are already oversaturated and associated with traditional female stereotypes such as tailoring, confectionary or salons. We would like to give women the confidence to think broader — to realize the ambitions they are capable of delivering.
GBA: How does the Velvet program work?
BS: Velvet focuses on high-net-worth individual women and provides discreet, culturally sensitive banking services – Velvet private banking staff are women and they come to the Velvet customers’ homes. NBAD provides Velvet customers with investment management solutions, inheritance planning, onshore and offshore banking, and trusted counsel generally. We identify potential Velvet customers simply by reviewing our customer base for HNW female customers and then approaching them one-on-one. Our marketing in this segment is entirely based on referrals.
GBA: What about Fursati?
BS: Emirati women in general, not just high-net-worth women, are increasingly involved in their families’ financial decision-making, and are also increasingly engaging in business ventures. By way of context, in its “Economic Vision 2030,” the government of Abu Dhabi has set an objective to maximize the participation of women in the workforce and in the economy generally. As Abu Dhabi’s biggest and also oldest bank – we used to be the nation’s central bank – NBAD feels a strong commitment to help realize that vision. So once the Velvet program was up and running, we started to realize how much women in general needed to learn about financial and investment decision-making. And our research found that our women customers really liked the idea of networking with each other as well. In November, we launched Fursati, which means “my opportunity,” in collaboration with the Dubai Businesswomen’s Council. Each Fursati session focuses on a specific topic – the first one was “The Venture Tool Box,” which presented some of the fundamental principles involved with launching and running a business. And after each session, there is a networking opportunity.
GBA: What about NBAD’s own workforce? What policies are in place to make it a woman-friendly place to work?
BS: The story here is one of commitment and major progress. I joined NBAD in 2007 and I have seen big changes since then. Our women employees are considered critical to the long term success of the bank – you can’t win the game with just half the talent and we recognize that we need to reward that talent for the contribution is makes to our business. NBAD is committed to pay equity – the basic assurance that women and men will be paid the same for doing the same job. Some organizations still struggle to make this commitment and we are very proud that NBAD can make this statement. Our approach to training was somewhat ad hoc for both men and women a few years ago: now we have the NBAD Training Academies to deliver systematic, ongoing skills training, and this is equally available to men and women. We track raw numbers, of course, and at this point, more than half of our branch managers in the UAE are women. But those numbers decline as you look up the career ladder -we want to increase the percentage of women in upper management, too. We are however very proud to have a number of women in key leadership roles across the bank, leading business divisions and group functions. Our aim is to increase the number of women in influential leadership roles, as research shows that that the presence of gender-diverse leadership teams correlates with stronger financial and organizational performance.
As important as statistics are, we are starting to dig into the data and see what story emerges beyond the numbers. We conduct exit interviews to understand the reasons women leave. We are just beginning to experiment with flexible working hours in response to finding that one driver of female attrition is burnout trying to manage work with family obligations. NBAD is proud of our heritage, and we are always striving to be a better institution. But we also spend a lot on workforce development, and it’s important to us to protect that investment and the competitive edge it gives us.
GBA: So will we see you in Istanbul?
BS: I hope so! My own schedule is a thing of madness, but I very much hope so – and at any rate, the Bank is very interested to get the right business representatives to the Summit, particularly from our Business Banking and Private Banking units and to make the most of this membership.