Sanaa Azzam started MENA Speakers after leaving the corporate banking world. Read her story below to learn about her journey to starting MENA Speakers!
On her career path and journey to starting MENA Speakers
I started my career in banking and worked at American Express, Saxo Bank and even for a Swiss gold trading house. At every job, I would get invited to hold speeches at different conferences or to facilitate high profile conversations on stage. A seed was planted already in 2010 when I found myself being quite often the “unique” person at conferences in Europe. The difference was that quite often I was the only female speaker, the youngest or the only Arab speaker. I would like to say that I was speechless but that’s never the case for a speaker but I was rather surprised. The stage seemed to be dominated by a specific demographic and it was in no way a reflection of our society.
I got headhunted by speaking agencies quite early on in my career, however, when I moved to Dubai there was no speaker agency that could represent me. What was noticeable though was that there were a lot of very high intellectual and powerful voices with no representation. There was a real opportunity to showcase and support these speakers in the region and globally.
I left the finance world and decided to set up a business that essentially doesn’t exist in the Middle East. People were not even familiar with the expression “speaker’s bureau” and I spent a considerable amount of time explaining the business model. I knew I had signed up for a real challenge and I wasn’t so sure my cashflow actually allowed for that for too long. In the first month of setting up my start- up, I received a call from South Africa. I hung up that call and couldn’t believe what had just happened. I was requested to organize an itinerary and event for HE President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa in Dubai With a few days’ notice. It was a beautiful milestone in life and it was marvellous to host a humble visionary such as His Excellency. The purpose was the raise awareness about the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the important philanthropic work the foundation does out in Africa. That event single-handedly lifted my spirit and I felt like it was an omen that I was on the right path.
Today my old finance colleagues are my clients and we have had the distinct pleasure of working with some of the greatest economists and bankers in the world such as former Fed. Reserve chairman Dr Ben Bernanke.
On overcoming the challenges that she faced as an entrepreneur
How much time do I have? 🙂
Being an entrepreneur and a founder means that you live constantly outside your comfort zone. It means you need to quickly learn and master topics across every department in a normal organization and pivot, pivot, pivot.
I have asked for so much help from people around me and guidance from those that are experts in their field. The business is going on its 3rd year (yay!) and we are facing scaling up scenarios. I never thought I would need to write an employee handbook to discuss all the different scenarios that employees need to think about. But here I am, thinking about paternity leave and code of conduct. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help Mechkett Guellouz Bedran that is an expert in the field.
In short, the challenges will be many and unexpected but the support and help from the community can be so generous and heart-warming if you dare to ask for help.
On being recognized as one of the top 30 under 30 influencers, and what it takes in her opinion for someone to be successful in her field.
We represent professional speakers that are able to do this for a living are treating themselves as a brand and business. They are able to recognize that they are now CEOs of a company and their product happens to be themselves, as a speaker. There is still no compromise on organization, accounting, marketing, sales and more. The ones that are successful work on both “product development” and business development in parallel with a high degree of discipline. They also recognize that they may need to get a new “CEO of their company” if they can’t do it well and employ agents that will help them along the way.
An obvious one is that professionally recognized speakers are incredibly passionate and skilled at spreading their message to the world and are resilient in repeating it. So the secret sauce consists of 3 elements.
- What is your personal story and narrative?
- How strong is your personal brand?
- How great is your public speaking and stage presence?
We have mastered the third element and are at a place where we help people in their communication skills. It is amazing what a couple of hours of work can do to achieve huge transformations.
Sanaa’s advice for young employees who just entered the workplace
Life of YOLO is wonderful but quite simply failing to plan is planning to fail. Live in the moment but always plan for the future. There are numerous ways to invest and create wealth for yourself.
One long way is where your own time and effort to create your wealth or another approach is where you invest in different assets that generate wealth for you independent of your time and effort. Buy gold, buy a home, invest in art, invest wisely in financial instruments or even in a startup. The ticket size for all of these investments have reduced over the years and it is now possible to trade virtually all asset classes starting from a nominal fee. We live in a great era where money and wealth don’t belong to a certain social class or those with specific lineage, it belongs to the intellectually curious and that transcends ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender and more.
On reaching on her future goals
Yes, the formula for success and wealth is out there and it has been told and retold numerous times from people that have achieved it. From a business perspective then I always look at return on investment (ROI) to justify investments. As a business that is going on for 3 years then we have to be extra smart about our expenditure and agile in cutting our losses quickly if something isn’t working. I try to be mindful about the sunk cost fallacy or the notion of holding on to something that doesn’t work. For example, we had a wonderful relationship with a marketing agency and we dealt with them for a couple of months but their strategies weren’t generating enough business to offset their cost and so I had to have that tough discussion with them to let them go or ask them to decrease their costs.
I operate the same way with my personal investments, if something is working then increase the investment and if something isn’t then taking a level-headed approach and calling it off quickly. The metric of “working” depends on asset class and what timeframe I have.
I have some dreams and with that come financial goals to achieve them. It is definitely motivating!