Sahar Elsallab

The Banker Who Broke The Glass Ceiling

Art Director Radwa El Ziki Photography Ahmed Mobarez

Sahar El Sallab’s successful career in banking spanned over three decades. She reached the pinnacle in her challenging male dominated field of finance, when she became Chairman of the Board of Directors at CI Capital Holding and Vice President and Managing Director of the Commercial International Bank (CIB), Egypt’s largest private bank. She became the only woman at that level in Egypt’s entire banking sector and earned the respect and admiration of financial circles. In 2008, she was lured away from banking and was appointed Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry for Internal Commerce. Currently as the chairperson of HitekNOFAL, a family-owned business working in hi-tech solutions and engineering, she’s focusing on creating new opportunities for young Egyptians trying to make a difference. eniGma’s Lina Ashour learns from the wisdom of a woman who firmly carved a place for herself in a man’s world.

Throughout your career, you have been pushing for women to strive for more, why do think this is so important?
Let me tell you about men and women. Even without the Muslim Brotherhood, male chauvinism remains very strong in Egypt. Men don’t feel the need to prove themselves as much as women do and the government doesn’t really help women. We have to take care of ourselves and we have to support each other. What else can we do in a society like ours that keeps pushing women back? Actually women tend to do extra work while juggling jobs and ideas and thinking outside the box. Handling difficult situations and juggling different responsibilities comes easily to women here.

How can Egyptian women change this mentality and push through the glass ceiling?
There is a glass ceiling everywhere, even in the United States. We have cases where women in management positions have been pushed out. But we need to continue to find our own way. We can’t look back, especially now that the country has changed.We have to see women advocating for women to work, have good jobs, become leaders, and become entrepreneurs. There always have to be examples of successful women shown in the media. We have to find a way to make our voices heard. If our voices are heard by society then the government will listen. Our government does not lead; it wants to be led. But we need to have a strategy. We are not striving to be like men but we need to be where we deserve to be. What’s most important is to get women working, making money, and becoming financially independent. That’s the name of the game. If you’re financially independent, nothing hurts you, even if you’re hurt by a man in any way, life continues, and you can move on.

What was the greatest obstacle you ever faced?
My career was full of obstacles. When it came to juggling family responsibilities for example, you never want to show that you’re going to skip work because one of your children is sick. I used to tell them I was sick so they don’t say ‘oh she’s a woman and unreliable because she has to take care of her family.’ Juggling family and work is hard enough, but because of the glass ceiling, we get hit hard by senior colleagues and this is true of institutions all over the world. This is especially true if you are successful and speak your mind. It is very important to realise that the challenges faced by any successful woman are not easy. Your family has to understand, and appreciate, and push you to the next level. You have to push yourself and continue to work despite the obstacles.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
Being Vice Chairman and Managing Director of CIB. Climbing the ladder is quite difficult but it is very achievable. If you have problems everyday and you linger on them you will not be able to think clearly about how to solve the problem. You have to set a plan and stick to it, and if you can’t, you have to be honest about it. Women have to be very aware and able to handle any situation before it comes. You need to forecast what will happen so nobody can call you out on it. That’s the intelligent part.

How do you think Egypt can work on fixing its current economic problems?
The government should have a grand strategy. Egypt could become the biggest industrial country in the region. By 2020 we will have the youngest labour force in the region. About 45% of our economy could be based on manufacturing; with the rest based on internal trade, logistics, and services. That’s a strategy, and to achieve it you have to ensure that education in schools, especially vocational training, serves that strategy. This means that we should choose the industrial specialisation most suitable for us and we should fund our schools accordingly. Our government today is full of very decent, competent people, but it lacks vision. We don’t know where we are. This is the truth. Egypt’s economy is facing many challenges; a lot of factories are closed. I don’t like it when a minister has his picture in the media instead of raising awareness about a strategy. We still have the same types. The same people who were there before the first revolution came back and took over again, where are the new faces? Where is the 25-45 age group? If I were in government now I would only recruit people in that age group. We could bring an expert to train these people for six months and then leave. Basically you need to politically shake up your performance. Older leaders have a culture that makes them resistant to change; they are comfortable and don’t want to take the kind of risks young people do. When you sit with young people you are inspired, but they won’t give these young people the chance.