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The Art and Science of Public Speaking – Saana Azzam

Saana Azzam is a power-house in the international world of public speaking. She is the founder of MENA Speakers, the leading speaker bureau in the Middle East, and has made it her life’s purpose is to change the world through dialogue.

A talented speaker herself and a trainer of public speakers, Saana’s core business is managing over 200 speakers globally and matching them to the right events. Her clients include Ericsson, Spotify, and Del Monte as well as numerous royals and dignitaries.

Trained by international journalists and media experts from CNBC and MBC amongst others, Saana has undertaken public speaking assignments in Europe on leadership and leading Generation Y. She was recognized as one of Sweden’s 101 Super talents in 2012, and a “Top 30 Under 30 influencers” in 2015. Her speaking engagements have covered audience sizes up to 1000 people, all across Europe and the Middle East.

During our chat, we discussed Saana’s entrepreneurial journey, what drove her from “Female Economist of the Year” to building a completely different business, and what obstacles she’s faced along the way. We talked about the art and science of public speaking, and got loads of practical tips on how to get better at it. We even discussed how CEOs use speakers strategically in their companies… in fact, this episode is another good one for corporates looking at messaging.

Finally, we talked about gender equality and how to get there, with a focus on her home country of Sweden, a leader in the world of gender parity.

If you are a CEO keen to improve messaging internally and leverage speakers to do it – this episode is for you. If you are a corporate professional keen to sharpen your speaking skills, this episode is for you. If you are an entrepreneur like Saana – or want to become an entrepreneur – this episode is for you.

You can follow Saana Azzam and MENA Speakers on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn @SaanaAzzam and @MENASpeakers.

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:01)

Hello ladies and gentlemen, my guest on today’s show is a power-house in the international world of public speaking. Saana Azzam is the founder of Mena Speakers, the premiere speakers bureau in the Middle East. While a talented speaker herself and a trainer of public speakers, Saana’s core business is managing over 200 speakers globally and matching them to the right events. Saana’s clients include Ericsson, Spotify, and Del Monte. We discussed Saana’s entrepreneurial journey and how her desire to be aligned with her values drove her to building her own business. We also talked about the obstacles she faced along the way. We discussed the art and science of public speaking and how to get better at it. Finally, we talked about gender equality, with a focus on her home country of Sweden, a leader in the world of gender parity. So let’s get into it.


Rana Nawas: (00:56)

Saana, I am thrilled to have you on When Women Win. Thanks for making the time.


Saana Azzam:  (01:00)

Super excited to be here Rana.


Rana Nawas: (01:04)

Great. Two years ago, you decided to leave a successful career in the corporate world and start your company for public speaking, training, and promoting. Why?


Saana Azzam:  (01:13)

It was at a point where I was doing phenomenally well at the bank and actually at the top salesperson there as well, so things were going really good, but at the end of it there was something inside of me that said you’re not on the right path, and I knew it for about a year and repeatedly I had that silent voice that would go like you’re doing really good, you should be happy, but there’s something that’s missing here. So I did this exercise where I wrote down my set of values, what are my values? So honesty, integrity, comradery, altruism, and all of that. And then my next question was, how close am I to my values in this job? And then out of a percentage from 0 to 100, I realized it was 20, 30 percent. It was very low percentages. And when I was auditing myself, I realized I wasn’t living my values. I was doing something which was great on my CV from the outside, but from the inside I was in essence suffering in silence. And this is what I knew I needed to do. Something that aligns with my core values and who I am as a person. So I wanted to do something that had an impact that lived way beyond me.


Rana Nawas: (02:22)

So is that one of your values? Social impact?


Saana Azzam:  (02:23)

Completely. Helping others in a shape or form and following kind of the Muhammad Yunus way of doing business, which is doing good by doing well. So I literally starting brainstorming for my values and said, what can I do that relates to this? And I just pitch different ideas to myself and very quickly when you come to this type of realization and you have that Aha moment, I couldn’t stay in the job. I found myself just out of the blue looking at my manager at that point of time, going, I’m leaving. You know, it’s just that one moment, I just could not do it anymore.


Rana Nawas: (03:00)

And did you know what you were going to do when you left?


Saana Azzam:  (03:04)

No clue. I just knew that I didn’t want to be there. I knew what my values were. I had a few kind of high level ideas, but it wasn’t crystallized at all. So when I left, I looked at this kind of master plan of values and which direction I wanted to go and this is where I saw an opportunity as well. So my values are there, there are gaps in the market when it comes to public speaking. Out in Europe and the rest of the world, there are speaker bureaus that represent business speakers, motivational speakers, people that have a great story to tell. And I really wanted to do that as well. Just a way to inspire an audience, educate an audience, and really have an impact on people around me in my community.


Rana Nawas: (03:47)

And where there no speaker bureaus here in the Middle East when you started?


Saana Azzam:  (03:50)

So not in that specific niche. I wish I had been more organized and doing a more thorough research. I went on a hunch, intuition and kind of learned along the way. I knew that I wanted to honor my values and what I wanted to do. And luckily it turned out that there weren’t that many actors. I just ran with it really. It felt right. And what was funny was from the day I resigned, in about a month and as I’m figuring all of this out, I had a deal that came in out of the blue within two weeks of resigning and about three weeks after I get a call from South Africa and the ex-president of South Africa is saying that he wants to be invited to Dubai and host a dinner. So I had the great pleasure of organizing that dinner where he would raise the awareness about what his foundation and in essence, use my service. And this was out of the blue, came from a friend of a friend. It just appeared. And this is when, when you know that you’re living your truth, you’re doing something that aligns with your values. All of a sudden you’re like in flow. There’s not that resistance. Things are just moving for you.


Rana Nawas: (04:59)

Sorry, did you say three weeks after you set up your business?


Saana Azzam:  (05:02)

Three weeks after I resigned.


Rana Nawas: (05:02)

So you hadn’t even set up your business.


Saana Azzam:  (05:02)

I hadn’t set up my business.


Rana Nawas: (05:07)

So how did the Ex president of South Africa get your number?


Saana Azzam:  (05:12)

So I resign and tell my immediate friends, this is kind of what I’m thinking to do. This is what I’ve done. What do you think? Literally this is how I roll that out, like what do you think? And I’m asking my immediate mentors, friends, or whatever. And one of them said, oh, you know something about speaking at events, why don’t you do this? And it just appeared. It fell on my lap. I have no immediate connection to the experts in South Africa, but this, I mean, I really think that when you live your values, you’re doing something very passionate about stuff like this happen.


Rana Nawas: (05:40)

And so is that something you’d recommend to others to write a list of their core values? How did you get that idea?


Saana Azzam:  (05:46)

It was, so I took a leadership course and this was one of the exercises in the leadership course. So I just pulled that up and now I put it in this context and I said, how can I do this? So just applying frameworks. Frameworks are great to give you clarity on different situations.


Rana Nawas: (06:02)

I love that tip. I’m going to do that. Everyone should do that.


Saana Azzam:  (06:05)

Such a small exercise, but oh my God. And then you can apply it on relationships, on friends, on situations, just across the board. How close is this to what I want to be and who I am as person.


Rana Nawas: (06:16)

Great. So let’s talk about your background in public speaking, given that one of your friends said, well, you’re a public speaker, etc. So when did you get into public speaking?


Saana Azzam:  (06:23)

The way all of this went down was in 2010. I was studying economics at Stockholm School of Economics, and I was super blessed in winning an award called Female Economist of the Year. And now all of a sudden the press were writing about me and this award and I was getting a lot of traction.


Rana Nawas: (06:40)

Sorry, why did you win “Female Economist of the Year”?


Saana Azzam:  (06:44)

It’s based on interviews, social competence, grades and past experience, your master’s thesis. It was like a full,


Rana Nawas: (06:53)

You were pretty young to win that award, right?


Saana Azzam:  (06:56)

Well, it’s awarded to people that are on their master’s degree in economics. So it was the right age for that and it was appropriate timing, with that said one: the award, getting all this press. All of a sudden I get a call out of the blue, oh, do you want to speak at this HR conference? And I’m like, 20 something I’m not going to reveal. I’m going, why do you want a student to go and talk at a conference? Oh sure. Why not? You just roll with it. So I kind of go and wing it and I share a very informal talk about what high performers want when they’re looking at employers, what’s the talk of the students when they’re in that context? So I go do my thing, step off stage as I’m stepping off stage, somebody comes up to me and says, Oh my God, I love your talk. Do you want to come and do this to our organization? I was like, sure. They’re like, we’re going to pay you this much for this, I’m like, excuse me, you’re going to pay me to speak? Yeah I’ll do this! But the stakes were higher then. So obviously I spent a lot of time getting trained and prepping and getting the facts and getting this more intact than when I was very casual about it. And one thing led to another and all of a sudden I was touring Northern Europe, speaking about generation Y, how to retain top talents in your organization as motivational speeches, so on and so forth. So I traveled to quite a few countries doing this.


Rana Nawas: (08:25)

Wow amazing. And what did you, what did you learn in doing that?


Saana Azzam:  (08:28)

As a speaker?


Rana Nawas: (08:32)

Yeah and what makes a good speaker?


Saana Azzam:  (08:33)

Oh, great question. What has been really interesting, this is, we’re going on eight years since I first properly and professionally stepped on stage and what I can tell you is my skill set has been constantly improving and there are so many elements in a speech and so many things that you can plan for, but also that you can’t plan for. And it just comes with experience, training, preparation. So still to date I would spend a considerable amount of time recording myself, preparing my content, researching, making sure that the flow is just good. And I think that’s what you need to do. You need to constantly be asking for feedback, for advice, and kind of analyzing your audience and the context that you’re in. This is what professional speakers do. They take it seriously. They invest a lot of time to make sure that their message is concise and clear and it’s being conveyed in the right way.


Rana Nawas: (09:28)

So preparation, practice, feedback,


Saana Azzam:  (09:30)



Rana Nawas: (09:35)

Training of course, nobody, nobody does this naturally.


Saana Azzam:  (09:35)

No, it’s an art. There are a lot of great natural speakers, but there is an art and there’s a craft to this and so the very professional speakers, you know I work with people that are on stage 300 days a year and still when they step off stage, we have a debrief, what could we have done better? What could I have improve? That’s the type of conversation we still have, so people that are professional about it will be very adamant on taking feedback all the time and kind of analyzing what they’ve done. It’s like an athlete.


Rana Nawas: (10:06)

Great. Well let’s come back to Mena Speakers now. The business. Yeah. So what was the uber-goal? You found something, how did this gel with your values?


Saana Azzam:  (10:15)

Super. So as I was a speaker out in Europe, there was a common theme there, which is I was quite often the only female on stage at absolutely the only person on Arab descent or Middle Eastern descent and most certainly the youngest person as well. And I felt inherently that there was something that was wrong with having only in essence male white voices on stage or predominantly you would see the odd, odd example every now and then of somebody who is unique and has different attributes, but this was common, a common theme. And I felt that that wasn’t, you know, there are so many great voices from this region, from the Middle East. And I wanted to showcase that and I want to showcase, you know, the renaissance movement that’s happening in this region. And that’s really where all of this comes from. One of my, my mission statement is to become the biggest exporter of Middle Eastern voices to the world. And you know, I’ve been so lucky enough. I’ve been fair, and it’s been true to say that there are a lot of great intellectuals from this region that are super inspirational and the world deserves to meet them too. The second vision that I have is to create an improved state of the world for great dialogue and we know that this region is characterized by a fair bit of headlines and news.


Rana Nawas: (11:40)

And conflict.


Saana Azzam:  (11:43)

Yeah, exactly. So when we engage in great dialogue, that’s truly when we can achieve growth, peace and understanding compassion. This is really what Mena Speakers is about.


Rana Nawas: (11:59)

Wonderful. And how has Mena speakers grown over the past two years?


Saana Azzam:  (12:04)

So we’ve had quite a phenomenal growth. We’ve both grown in terms of speakers that we’re working with, our roster of speakers and the number of clients that we have, but also the expansion in terms of reach, global reach. So first year, we were predominantly Middle Eastern based. Most of our engagements were located in this region and the second year, we’ve reached Asia and Europe and North Africa now. So that’s just been a beautiful journey to experience. But the team is working incredibly hard, we are all very dedicated to the cause and what we want to achieve. And essentially it’s been a 24/7 around the clock commitment to Mena speakers.


Rana Nawas: (12:46)

And so you get speakers from the Middle East and export them globally.


Saana Azzam:  (12:49)

Correct. Absolutely.


Rana Nawas: (12:53)

Great. Let me ask about challenges you face. Building a business is never easy. What challenges have you faced in building Mena Speakers?


Saana Azzam:  (13:01)

There’s so many challenges. I don’t really know where to begin. What’s interesting about entrepreneurship is that it tests your complete skill set, so everything that you’re naturally good at, you’re going to excel in, but things that you’re not good at as a business owner, you’re going to notice that very quickly so the business will pinpoint where your weaknesses are, whether that’s marketing, accounting, sales, or whatever it may be. So it’s been about me upscaling myself, recruiting the right type of people, which has been a journey in itself for, you know, understanding what the business needs and as a startup, the business needs today will be different from the business needs in two weeks time. Being able to anticipate that, it’s virtually impossible when you’re just setting up and getting the right people on board. That’s been fairly challenging and also as we’re entering the market to educate the market that in order for you to have professional great speakers that will do a great job for you, you need to value their time. Educating the market and saying that this person has dedicated a lifetime, they’re up on stage one hour, but they’ve spent over 10,000 hours researching this topic, so give credit where credit is to and reward them and compensate them for it because a good speaker, a great MC, a great panelist, they can make or break a conference.


Rana Nawas: (14:21)



Saana Azzam:  (14:23)

So you’ll find that a lot of event managers have spent a lot money in the venue and the lighting and marketing, but when it comes to speakers, they’re not valuing them correctly. So this educational journey has been one of these challenges that we’ve been facing, but as the experience, the difference between a professional speaker and one that’s a hobbyist, they’re seeing the difference in that, our clients. So we’re educating the clients and they’re learning with us.


Rana Nawas: (14:52)

Wonderful. And did you pick up any lessons from the corporate world that help you navigate these challenges?


Saana Azzam:  (14:58)

The corporate world is a great school in many ways undoubtedly because it’s incredibly system driven. So I come from the banking world, it’s structured, it’s system driven, and also I liked what came from the banking world in terms of compliance, ethics. These are things that have really been found useful in this business context and respecting client confidentiality, being very adamant on having to write paperwork from a legal point of view at least. So that’s something that I really appreciate coming from a banking sector, no startup environment.


Rana Nawas: (15:36)

You have a lot of big corporate clients like Ericsson, Spotify, and Del Monte, just to name a few. When companies come to Mena speakers, what are they generally after?


Saana Azzam:  (15:47)

So the perspective on this is whether you’re a technical speaker or you’re a motivational speaker, at the end of the day, you’re there to elevate people after any conversation. Either you’re giving them the right skill sets and tools for them to make use of in their day to day job or to lift the perspective, their spirits in one context or another. So it’s regardless of the context, it’s to inspire people, it’s to motivate people. So at the end of the day, everyone’s a motivational speaker that’s on stage. This is my perspective, and we make sure that whenever somebody is on stage, we remove everything that’s related to fear tactics. We make sure that the audience feels good, feels empowered and it feels educated. So these are key attributes that we push and the client wants. Sometimes they’re not able to articulate that, but that’s in essence what’s needed from their side.


Rana Nawas: (16:38)

You make the audience feel empowered


Saana Azzam:  (16:44)

Empowered, inspired, elevated. Educated, engaged and empowered. Those are the three things that we make sure that a speaker brings to the table, which also happens to be our slogan.


Rana Nawas: (16:54)

Well that’s good.


Saana Azzam:  (16:55)

Educated, engaged and empowered. Mena Speakers.


Rana Nawas: (17:00)

Okay, so they’re looking for speakers on. So I guess what you’re saying is the technical bit is different, but the end result is the same.


Saana Azzam:  (17:08)

Absolutely, absolutely.


Rana Nawas: (17:11)

So you have some professional speakers as in technical expertise and some more on the motivational side?


Saana Azzam:  (17:18)

Yeah. So all of them are professionals speakers that we work with. They take the craft very seriously. They’re trained and they had been coached thoroughly and they’ve been on stage a significant amount of time. So we have proof of concept and definitely we’re in the range of, sometimes people want to understand what supply chain is, sometimes AI, blockchain, ICOs, we have technical speakers in that department. And then of course we have the motivational speakers that talk about taking it from good to great. So we’re industry agnostic. At the end of the day, what’s important for us is that we have the right speaker that is much to the right client.


Rana Nawas: (17:55)

And what’s your message to CEOs and decision makers interested in inspiring their teams with speakers? How do you work with them? What do you advise them to do?


Saana Azzam:  (18:03)

Super. So the ones that are very strategic, they understand what a speaker can bring to the table. You’re bringing in a third party to talk about things that you want to address as well as a CEO for example. So you’re using this speaker as an extension of yourself, perhaps you want to talk about, you know, now this year we have to work even harder than ever because the market is in the way it is. So you bring somebody else who sends that message and then you come in and reinforce that again. So they’re using speakers as an extension of themselves.


Rana Nawas: (18:39)

Great. Very sneaky.


Saana Azzam:  (18:40)



Rana Nawas: (18:40)

Very strategic.


Saana Azzam:  (18:40)

Yeah, clever.


Rana Nawas: (18:50)

Okay. So as you know, When Women Win is all about inspirational stories and practical tips. Now you talked about professional speakers and how they prepare and practice and get training. What tips do you have for our listeners who are just normal people going about their daily job? How can they become better presenters and better speakers?


Saana Azzam:  (19:08)

Great. There are a lot of elements to consider and there is one core message that I have for everybody, which is when you’re speaking your truth and you’re in your own authentic voice, this is really when you’re going to be able to impact people. I can tell you in very technical terms what you should do in order to be considered a high-powered speaker. I can train you on that. A lot of people can train in that. There’s a lot of youtube videos, but when we have a person who is speaking their truth, this is when you were getting the Aha moments, the goosebump effect. People are going, oh my God, what a great speaker. They’re speaking from their core. So when it comes from a technical perspective, I don’t mind if you’re the big showman or you’re the very static technical speaker, the professor type, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that again, you’re speaking from a place of sincerity, congruency, authenticity. That’s really what matters.


Rana Nawas: (20:03)

Okay. So for our listeners who have a presentation, they need to know their stuff. And believe in their work.


Saana Azzam:  (20:10)

Absolutely. We can actually recognize that somebody’s being insincere as human beings. And so we find that the ones that are over-constructing their presentations are actually not getting particularly high ratings. And the ones that are, you know, they’re planning what they’re saying in their core messages, but they’re speaking from a place of what they truly believe in. They’re the ones that are getting excellent ratings.


Rana Nawas: (20:32)

That sounds like a really soft thing for something that’s so hard technically. But okay, so let’s, let’s take some more practical everyday tips. So you’re speaking in your authentic voice. Then what do I do?


Saana Azzam:  (20:44)

Okay. So then it’s about being structured in your messaging. What is the overarching message that you want to convey? How is that structured into enough, short and compelling bullet points that will keep your audience engaged throughout. So what we want to do is make sure that nobody picks up their phone unless they’re taking a photo of you. This is success for us. So the way we would do that is make sure that your structure is so snappy and to the point, and it’s engaging all elements of both facts, storytelling, infotainment, engagement with the audience. So they’re literally going, what’s going to happen next? This is so exciting. So structure is key and there are a lot of frameworks that you can use,


Rana Nawas: (21:28)

Like what? Can you recommend one?


Saana Azzam:  (21:30)

Our own, I mean that’s a little plug in. I mean we’ve created our own frameworks so we looked at different ones outside in the market and we found that they weren’t adapted to today’s attention span. People aren’t able to focus that particularly long. So we try to stay on one topic for about seven to eight minutes and then we’re moving on and not longer than that because people are going to start checking out, your audience is going to think this is, okay we got the point, move on. We live in an age where Ted and Ted speakers are the ones that are within 18 minutes conveying their message. You want to be doing the same.


Rana Nawas: (22:06)

Okay. So maximum 18 minutes, maximum 7 minutes a message.


Saana Azzam:  (22:08)



Rana Nawas: (22:13)

Alright. What about body language? So let’s talk about someone presenting. Let’s talk about someone in the corporate world who’s making a presentation. What about body language?


Saana Azzam:  (22:23)

There’s a lot of research when we looked at what’s considered high-powered body language. So if you look at Ted speakers that have been rated phenomenally well and high with the sound that while people are viewing their videos and on mute the ones like Simon Sinek that did exceptionally well were the ones that were doing a ridiculous amount of hand gestures and above average amount of hand gestures.


Rana Nawas: (22:46)

That’s interesting.


Saana Azzam:  (22:46)

It’s super interesting. So you had people that were, other speakers that were speaking about the same topic more or less, but there were more static and so animation is perceived and received really well by an audience as opposed to when you’re just standing still. There is power in standing still. But if we look at the research it supports the data of high animation. The other one, if you’re, when you’re the speaker, you’re the alpha of the room. You’re the leader of the pack and like a peacock, the leader of the pack takes up a lot of space. So when you’re doing gestures above your head, above your head, above your body, your pointing your finger at three things, and then you’re putting your hand up and you’re showcasing three things with your hand. These type of grand gestures are also received really well by an audience.


Rana Nawas: (23:34)

Okay, so peacock be bigger.


Saana Azzam:  (23:34)



Rana Nawas: (23:36)

Use your hands and power posing.


Saana Azzam:  (23:42)

Completely. So Rana, what do you think is the most powerful place on stage? What position in the whole stage is the most powerful place for a speaker?


Rana Nawas: (23:50)

You think front and center, wouldn’t you? That’s what I would think.


Saana Azzam:  (23:52)

That is a great thought and that is absolutely the case.


Rana Nawas: (23:55)

Oh, okay. I thought it was a trick question. I genuinely thought it was a great question.


Saana Azzam:  (24:02)

No, it really, really is front and center. You’re on point. So we tend to remove a podium and this is, you know, never stand behind a podium because you’re creating barriers between yourself and your audience, but if you’d go to your most critical point and you stand in front and center and you’re almost leading in towards your audience, there is a level of closeness that you’re achieving. People are going to want to lean in as well to hear what you have to say. So this is the most powerful point on the stage


Rana Nawas: (24:30)

And use it wisely then.


Saana Azzam:  (24:34)

Oh my goodness. So when I’m up on stage and doing that and I’m going with for my key point, I kind of go slower for the lower volume, lower pitch.


Rana Nawas: (24:49)

Wow. That is really impactful. That’s amazing. Let’s shift gears now. You’re Swedish with Palestinian parents. How has the East West union shaped you?


Saana Azzam:  (25:01)

Oh, interesting. Do note that I’ve also lived in five countries in between.


Rana Nawas: (25:03)



Saana Azzam:  (25:05)

So I considered myself a citizen of the world. Really home is here my heart is and, you know, where I’m comfortable and happy. I’ve learned a lot of things from two very different cultures. The Swedish culture is super structured and organized and orderly and you stand in the queue. Whilst the Arabic countries a little bit more based on habibi business. It’s warm, It’s more dynamic. The conversations are a little bit louder and spicier. So being in between these two cultures, I feel like I had the luxury of choosing the best of both worlds. But with that said, we’re moving towards more globalized society, where people like myself are prevalent. We’re not unique anymore.


Rana Nawas: (25:41)

Third culture kids.


Saana Azzam:  (25:41)

Oh completely. I mean, living here in Dubai, this is the norm, you’re the norm.


Rana Nawas: (25:41)

But I mean, I’m really interested to hear about Sweden because, well let me come to that in a little bit, but you’re a big feminist like me.


Saana Azzam:  (25:41)

Oh my God. Yeah.


Rana Nawas: (25:41)

Why was there an experience that triggered this or was it a journey?


Saana Azzam:  (26:10)

Great question. So as a Palestinian, you, now I’ve never lived in Palestine but I’ve been raised, you know, everyone reads the news. You see the injustice that’s happening in the world. And even in other countries when you see something that’s wrong, reasonably, it upset me. It upset me. And so when it comes to feminism, gender equality, I inherently think that discrimination of any type is not right and we need to stand up and take a stance against it. So if that’s what it means to be a feminist, I’m absolutely a feminist. I am pro justice and human rights and so there’s so much research around feminism and the market inefficiencies, the injustice, the pure discrimination based on gender alone, which I just cannot reasonably accept and I don’t think anybody else around us should accept this type of discrimination either. Add on the argument that this is not even about justice, it’s about profitability. There is so much research that backs up when you have diversity, it translates to profitability, so as a business person, as a humanist, it all aligns with my values. Of course. I’m then going to call myself a feminist and I would hope that other people around me would also do that as well because it’s the right thing to do.


Rana Nawas: (27:39)

Yeah and Sweden is a leader of the pack when it comes to gender equality, it’s ranked up there, I think top five or six countries on gender balance among with Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia. What does Sweden do right, do you think?


Saana Azzam:  (27:53)

What’s beautiful about Sweden is that we engage in the conversation very clearly. We talk about these inefficiencies in the market, but the injustice very clearly. There is no taboo in discussing this topic, so this is the first one. They’re great with their paternity leave. I think that’s something that’s quite exceptional and how it’s encouraged and supported in a corporate environment that I managed to take paternity leave and this is also appreciated by the men in return, that they get a fair chance to be fathers, to be present parents.


Rana Nawas: (28:30)

Yeah, and if I could just interject here. A research has found that paternity leave is a better indicator of women getting to the top of your company then maternity leave. Okay. This is the Peterson report that is the most thorough report ever done on diversity, on gender balance is 22,000 people, or companies, sorry, assessed across over 90 countries. So imagine that. Imagine that paternity leave is a better indicator of whether you’re going to keep women in your workforce.


Saana Azzam:  (29:05)

Makes sense. It translates into a culture that is humane. That is logical.


Rana Nawas: (29:09)

Shared parenting. Because you can’t have one person who does two fulltime jobs.


Saana Azzam:  (29:16)

Yeah you’re right. Women do work on that bridge five times more than men actually. So we have the job and then the home work. So it translates to a considerable more amount of effort and energy that’s being diluted into different aspects of life.


Rana Nawas: (29:39)

Yeah unpaid work. I think. The second thing was paternity leave.


Saana Azzam:  (29:41)

Right? Then we have legislation, strong legislation around this. So with regards to sexual harassment, harassment at work, there is strong legislation that protects employees on all sides and there’s a zero tolerance around this. When you go and speak up as a woman about sexual harassment, you know, even as a man, it’s not frowned upon. It’s well received. So the fact that we do protect humans, basic rights and interest, that in itself is a strong signal to the market that we value human lives.


Rana Nawas: (30:17)

If there was one government policy you could make universal, what would it be?


Saana Azzam:  (30:21)

Equal pay.


Rana Nawas: (30:26)

You would legislate for equal pay. It will be illegal to pay women less than men for doing the same job.


Saana Azzam:  (30:31)

Absolutely. We need to address discrimination based on gender and a Canadian report, research clearly supports the idea that it is, there is a percentage of the pay gap that is purely attributed to gender alone. So this is one thing and this will then translate to a market, I mean, anything that makes the market fair and equal as an economist will resonate with me. So this is great.


Rana Nawas: (31:00)

Yeah, it is astonishing actually that that’s not against the law in many countries that a man can apply for a job and get offered x and then a woman will apply and she’ll get offered, you know, 80 percent of x or something.


Saana Azzam:  (31:13)

It’s ridiculous.


Rana Nawas: (31:15)

Same job. Yeah. But then they’ll come up with, you know, rationale. Oh, years of experience and this and that


Saana Azzam:  (31:24)

So this is what I’m saying say. There is enough research that backs up that tenor, experience, marital status, education, you know all of these variables that are commonly used as an excuse have been factored in. And that’s the conclusion that has been that, purely based on gender, women are paid less and there is no other reason than gender.


Rana Nawas: (31:46)

Now you meet C-Suite executives every day. What is your message to them on improving gender parity? Especially at leadership levels.


Saana Azzam:  (31:53)

Brilliant. So again, one of my core messages is that this is about profitability. If you’re a strategist, a good business person, a business leader, this needs to be on your agenda. Some different research tells you what sort of profitability it leads to when you have diversity, and I think Rana you’re in a better position to tell me what that is, and McKenzie was talking about 10 percent that, you know, it just depends on where you’re looking. But this is a profitability question. So if you can increase your bottom line in one way or another as a business owner, then you reasonably should be addressing this. So this is my key message. The second thing is to understand the different biases that we’re sitting on. One of the things that has been discussed on your podcast is, by the way they should listen to When Women Win as a podcast.


Rana Nawas: (32:45)

Absolutely. CEOs are part of the target group. Absolutely. Great.


Saana Azzam:  (32:48)

So this is one. Educate yourself and understand the differences in the reactions and negotiation techniques in the way that men and women in the biases, on the market and how we operate and how you can mitigate that to get the most out of your employees. So again it’s a business call.


Rana Nawas: (33:04)

Yeah, no, that’s fair. I mean to approach them with the bottom line angle, like it makes more dollar sense for you to have a reasonable number of women in leadership positions. And then on the biases question, I would just, as you say, listen to When Women Win, first episode, but also, you know, get the book, you know, there’s an amazing book out there What Works written by professor Iris Bohnet that talks about all these biases and how in fact training doesn’t get rid of them. And so my message to CEO’s is actually that. My message is we all have unconscious biases. This pushes women out of the workforce at every stage in the employee life cycle. And you cannot train people to lose these biases. Your HR people, your hiring managers, you cannot train it out. There is no evidence to suggest diversity training works. So what do you do? You fix processes. We have outdated processes that don’t take this stuff into account and very simple fixes can have huge impact.


Saana Azzam:  (34:08)

Yeah. I mean, I heard that if you get a diversity manager, just a person to stand alone in that role, will actually have an impact in the organization.


Rana Nawas: (34:15)

That has a huge impact. HVR wrote that article


Saana Azzam:  (34:15)

Oh yeah?


Rana Nawas: (34:20)

Absolutely. And that’s because it puts a focus, so then the heads of departments are now accountable. So what that does, it introduces accountability so people know that somebody is watching their numbers. So even that exercise alone, greater accountability, greater visibility, you know, creates a better behavior. But it’s not enough. I mean, that’s a huge step forward, but it’s not enough. Right. So Saana business owner. I’m going to switch gears now and talk about, ask you a couple of personal questions before we wrap up. How do you switch off when you feel overwhelmed?


Saana Azzam:  (35:01)

So as an entrepreneur, you’re feeling overwhelmed quite a lot. And as a person that’s responsible for employees’ future, I take that responsibility very seriously. So obviously this is something that’s on my mind wanting to grow the business for them as well. The way I do that is by exercising. I mean one of the main things is I’ve actually found my passion in stand up paddle boarding. Yeah, so I’m trying to do some yoga poses on the board as well as a of recently hasn’t worked so well.


Rana Nawas: (35:35)

That sounds pretty hard actually.


Saana Azzam:  (35:43)

Been splashing around. So that’s one of the things and then you have to travel. You have to detach every now and then. Just get some distance from everything here and then recharge. Super important with mental health and recharging, taking care of yourself and not just working around the clock, but also caring for your body, mind and soul.


Rana Nawas: (36:00)

Yeah. My thing too is travel. I find that’s the only way I really manage to switch off and disconnect and, the overwhelm just get away from it. Get on a plane. Okay. If you can have coffee with one person from history, who would it be and why?


Saana Azzam:  (36:16)



Rana Nawas: (36:17)

Just one.


Saana Azzam:  (36:20)

Oh, there’s so many people. Can I choose like two?


Rana Nawas: (36:21)

Okay two, fine.


Saana Azzam:  (36:30)

I would love to sit with Maya Angelou and just, even though her life so well documented, it’s just hearing her stories, hearing what she hasn’t told the world, and this is one, she’s a huge inspiration for me. And then Um Kulthum. She’s definitely somebody who,


Rana Nawas: (36:51)

For listeners who don’t know her, that’s one of the most famous Arabic singers of all time.


Saana Azzam:  (36:59)

Yeah. and she, I mean, brilliant person, she went against her upbringing and then decided to sing even though her father was conservative, didn’t really allow her to do it, but she said, you know, this is what I’m passionate about, this is what I want to do, and became one of the greatest voices in this region. So definitely somebody I would love to have a chat with


Rana Nawas: (37:20)

If only. Wonderful Saana. This has been a lot of fun. How can listeners find you?


Saana Azzam:  (37:23)

First of all, thank you for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure. They can follow me on. Mena Speakers. We’re on Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin, and then you can follow me personally on my name Saana Azzam.


Rana Nawas: (37:35)

Great. Well, I’ll put all the links and handles in the show notes. Thank you so much for your time. This has been so much fun.


Rana Nawas: (37:43)

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at or search: When Women Win on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on instagram @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day!


End Of Transcript