Salma Sakhnini: Breaking all Glass Ceilings

She graduated from the American University of Beirut and earned her Master’s in Business Administration from one of the most prominent universities in the world; Yale University. Climbing her career ladder and reaching leadership roles reflecting her dedication and ambition that goes beyond limits. She is the Palestinian Salma Sakhnini, currently Owner and Managing Director of ICON; a consulting and coaching company. Previously Salma was a Partner and Chief Operating Officer in Rasmala Investments and before that she was the Vice President of Citibank in the Middle East and Africa.

Arab Woman Mag is honored to have Salma Sakhnini among our inspirational women segment not only as a role model in her career but also through her community work and support towards women empowerment by sponsoring several cultural and educational projects from which our magazine is part of, we are privileged to be sponsored by ICON.

How did the way you were brought up, and your family play a part in the success you have reached today?

As a Palestinian family being forced to emigrate from our homeland Acre to Syria, then Lebanon and later on Canada; my father realized early on that our only true wealth and for all Palestinians is education. In our family education was a top priority, and with every degree me and my siblings earned my mother would raise the bar for our achievements, her first dream was that her children be graduates from the AUB, and once that was accomplished she encouraged us to continue our higher studies from Yale University; one of the most distinguished in the world. I was taught from my parents that respect is the foundation of love, and raised with equality not differentiating between a boy and a girl. My parents instilled in me that fear and remorse has no place in this world, and ambition, education, perseverance and the love of family and having a sense of responsibility towards others are all basis for success.

Tell us your journey in Citibank and how in a relatively short time you reached a leadership role?

After earning my Masters, I began working in Citibank Dubai, and here let me tell you a funny story. I used to go to work daily and park my car on a sandy open area that was a good distance away from my office building; eventually this took its toll on me and was getting very unpleasant especially during the summer months. This gave me reason to ask my manager for a parking spot, his response was, if you want a proper parking spot then you have to be in a leadership role. From that day I set a goal to move up in my career in the shortest time possible, and within 12 years of hard work and dedication I became Vice President and finally got my parking spot.

After twelve years working in Citibank you moved on to Rasmala, how did you benefit from your time there?

Joining Rasmala was a unique and new experience for me which helped me gain experience to be part of a startup. We began with 23 employees and after putting in the right groundwork we established an investment bank. After 3 years we had around 260 employees and several offices in the region. My time in Rasmala helped pave the way for me to later start up my own company ICON.

In 2009 ICON was born, how did it come about?

The idea behind ICON came about from my desire to put Arab entrepreneurs and professionals under one roof to help in supplying expertise services that would help in the development of our society. It is a valuable network of Arab professionals working together to supply the business sector with their expertise, consulting and coaching.

In your opinion what are some of the challenges that face a successful leader?

In my opinion the biggest challenge for leaders is to stay true to their values and morals, as money and power may influence one’s principles and be challenging in its own right, and this is something I never accepted. Choices that are taken from an authoritative position is in its self a daunting task that can only be overcome with a lot of will power and continuous self-control.

Another challenge is realizing that leadership is having the vision to inspire others reach their goals. Usually in the start of one’s career, the path to success is a personal journey. However, when one is in a leadership position the measure of success has a different meaning, your success is defined by helping others achieve their potential. Here one must ask, are you making a positive change? What is your message in life? And what is the legacy you will leave behind?

Additionally, another challenge is to have a clear plan to fall back on especially during uncertain times, here the plan becomes the tool that guides us forward. Personally I have been through many of these challenges, and it is part of life and learning how to deal with such obstacles in my opinion is one of the art forms of life.

Other challenges are those that may sometimes dampen one’s enthusiasm but quickly recover from once we see the valuable lessons learned. This brings me to another story when I became a partner in a factory “Index” and circumstances forced me to run it personally for around two years during the economic recession. It was a very hectic job with many obstacles as it was out of my field of expertise, which at times made me feel frustrated and at the end of my ropes, but with hard work, determination and my partner’s belief in me, I saw it through till it was a success. Now looking back, I know I learned immensely from that time and it added industrial and managerial experience on top of my other skills, which in turn helps me in my current work at ICON.

I realized that every experience one goes through is beneficial, there are no failures in life, as everything one goes through is a learning opportunity even through hardships; as such circumstances help build character and come to be a benefit in future situations.

Success is not that life is devoid of challenges, but success lies in the way of how one deals with them. There are certain pillars for success, being an affirmative thinker, having a positive attitude, believing in yourself and how others have faith in you and in your abilities; and these are things i was blessed with that helped me overcome many hardships.

Volunteer work has been always dear to your heart and at the core of your values even during your university years; can you tell us about your initiative REACH the non-profit organization that you set up?

I am very passionate about community and social work and believe that volunteer work is a duty on every member of society. At one point of my life I was training at the UN for development, and I was genuinely considering working for them, until I realized I can do both, community work alongside my work at the bank. This is when REACH a non-profit organization was created, with a group of enthusiastic and passionate volunteers to help; its aim was to help aid in education and development of Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon. We gathered volunteers who were willing to offer their time and knowledge to help out; we worked on several projects that helped in providing income for the women in these camps by using their embroidery skills. We also joined forces with organizations that supported education for the children of these camps by offering university scholarships to some of the youth in the camps.

It was a very unique and rewarding experience especially seeing the enthusiasm and gratitude in the eyes of the REACH members, it helped enhance their personalities and claim their identity. Even today and after years of REACH closing its doors, many of its old members continue to work hard on their own accord to help refugees.

What effect did working with those women in the camp have on you personally?

One thing that touched me was the sense of belonging those Palestinian women had and their adherence to their identity. I witnessed families that had nothing but their morals, values and pride that they never give up on. I witnessed dignity and integrity in its highest forms, a woman whom has lost her husband and four children and still believes and lives for the day she will return to her home in Palestine. Another lady that I tried to offer financial support to and yet she refused, not because she wasn’t in need but because she said her neighbor was more in need than she was. Those women in the refugee camps give lessons to the world on pride, dignity and self-respect.

How do you see the state of Arab women today?

The road ahead is long and grueling; the Arab woman will not rise unless she breaks the chains of dependency whether it is financial or emotional. The more a woman becomes independent the more her incentive is to work, develop and be creative. There are many creative women whom suppress their vitality just for the sake of going with the current flow and have a fear of doing something out of the norm.

Women should renounce their defeated and careless way of thinking and abandon shallowness and their focus on appearances. Change starts with a conscious choice, one choice, that if she truly believes in then she can rise above obstacles and help self-develop and then go on to helping others to excel. Some women view their accomplishments by their husband’s success or her children’s. Why doesn’t she become successful in her own right? Why doesn’t she define her-self with her own achievements? A woman’s success will reflect positively on her surroundings and pave the way for the success of her own family.

Changing mind sets and self-developing is not just a necessity for women but men as well, and society as a whole. What we need today is to build communication, open dialogue, reevaluate our thoughts and standards, we need a cultural movement that will raise awareness to help us once again rebuild and be influential. We need to restore our confidence in ourselves and in our Arab identity that once was a beam of light for science, knowledge, and creativity.


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