Tuesday 13th May 2014
Helene Nasr is a graduate of nuclear engineering and doctorate studies at Texas A&M University, a graduate of fundamental physics at University of Provence Aix-Marseille I and the holder of the International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear Safeguards Inspector Certificate. She was part of the team that won the Nobel Prize for their work in understanding the presence or not of WMD in Iraq and she founded Scitek in 2010. She won the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2013 for Scitek’s work in protecting the Lebanese Border from radioactive incursion. Helene spoke with GBA about her work and why winning this award was an important boost to her and her business.
GBA: What does your business do?
Helene Nasr: Scitek offers nuclear security and integrated solutions for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRN + E) Detection and Response ranging from Hazardous Material releases to the use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD).
GBA: That sounds important and complicated! Tell us why you won the Brilliant Lebanese Awards?
Helene Nasr: We won the award because we developed a state-of the art business solution that enabled the Lebanese Borders to be well monitored and controlled in relation to nuclear and radioactive material.
GBA: So lets say I’m intent on smuggling a nuclear weapon into the country and take it through a part of the border that is not a manned station?
Helene Nasr: We have, in Lebanon, a well equipped and trained patrol unit to control illicit trafficking. At the Border Control Points themselves, Local Alarm stations are installed and linked to a Central Alarm station. We manage system maintenance and tweak the design when necessary, thus ensuring the detection system and devices are fully functional. We don’t actually build the equipment but we do refurbish and re-design the way it is deployed.
GBA: How did you decide you wanted to move from a well-paid scientist job into a business?
Helene Nasr: The Lebanese customs called to tell me that they had no system to detect radioactive material coming into the country and if could I help. I had the technical expertise in this area and so assessed what was needed in terms of detection infrastructure, developed a plan for what a national emergency response should be and made appropriate policy recommendations to ensure that that response could happen if needed.
I started the work under a European Union program as an expert and co-ordinated afterwards with the U.S. Department of Energy. After the implementation work was completed, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a tender for the detection infrastructure maintenance and sustainability. This is when I decided to set up a company and bid on it.
GBA: What were the main challenges you faced?
Helene Nasr: Like any start-up facing a big order, I had to scramble to build the team quickly. I had to have the right combination of well-trained technical and managerial skills as well as being capable of offering high quality service.
GBA: How does running a company differ from being an individual consultant?
Helene Nasr: The difference is that your responsibilities go way beyond being an individual contractor. As a business owner you cannot rest, you have to be always on call. You have to be able to make quick decisions and the right decisions. You don’t have leverage to make mistakes. The advantage is that you have the support of the team but you have to learn how to manage well and to delegate.
GBA: What was the impact of the awards?
Helene Nasr: I decided to apply because I wanted to expand into the region and I needed to get visibility. BLC got us great coverage through their PR and communications. The jury also provided us with great feedback and they motivated us to expand the business. The BLC team have been great. I’ve asked them for contacts outside of Lebanon, and they’ve been really helpful.
GBA: Do you think that being a woman makes it more difficult to be successful in business?
Helene Nasr: When I was younger, sometimes the generals in the army were a bit shocked when they met me, because they assumed I would be older. But they knew who they were talking to so it was fine. I have heard that because my professional reputation is already strong, I should not have a problem in the Gulf.
GBA: What advice would you to other Lebanese women starting a business?
Helene Nasr: First, for Lebanese women, they should not be ashamed of working. Second, in my opinion it’s really important to have the right kind of work experience before starting a business. Third, it’s important to make the right decisions quickly. Finally I would say to work hard and be professional and ethical. In these ways you will be successful.
—As told to the Global Banking Alliance For Women