Forbes Middle East’s Top 50 Influential Women Is From Syria
Published for Qatar Airways Oryx Premium magazine
What does one of the Forbes Middle East Top 50 Influential Women do immediately after expressing deep humility with the recent honour? She keeps working.
She certainly means it – we had to dovetail our interview around her busy work schedule managing 90 employees at Mira Trading and six employees at her latest business venture, Al Yam Trading, a retail complex of three supermarkets in Damascus.
Over the course of the interview, I received helpful tips for running a business, such as “not becoming too dependent on an executive assistant, because one has to take responsibility for one’s own schedule – especially in the event a mistake is made”.
Azhari intrigued me – but not just because she is a female entrepreneur who has been recognised twice by Forbes magazine, three times by Arabian Business Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential Women, and as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010. Most of all, I am intrigued by her style – a combination of extrovert and introvert. “I would never be what I am if my society did not help me and encourage me. So, I have to reciprocate and render a small part of my gratitude by participating with the NGO community,” she shares, revealing her more introspective side. But this is the same Azhari who rose to the top to serve as the first woman on the Tartous Port board of directors, the first female honorary consul in Syria, and the first woman member within the Lattakia Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Both professionally and personally, Azhari’s most treasured advice has come from her parents, or as she describes them, “my guardian angels”.
For the last 32 years her businessman father, who runs the shipping agency, served as her mentor, reminding Azhari that “money, effort, time, the right strategy, and vision must come together to create added value”. “I still ask him for his advice in business and in life,” she adds.
He also gave her the following invaluable advice:
TRAGEDIES, CELEBRATIONS, TEARS, SMILES, REGRET, SHAME, BROKEN DREAMS. ALL OF THESE THINGS MAKE US WHO WE ARE…
A real entrepreneur is a man or woman with one head and one hundred hands.
She recognises that money and vision alone truly are not enough to give that elusive ‘added value’, and she has passed on this advice to her two children, Mohammad and Rania Sayhouni. Her son recently graduated with a degree in business administration, while her daughter is in the process of earning a degree in graphic design.
Most Arabs in the business world speak English or one of the Romance languages – but rarely a Slavic language. Again, Azhari intrigues me, because she speaks Serbian – a distinctive skill that complements her strong command of English. Her mother is Serbian, which has had a positive impact on Azhari’s outlook, helping her to engage with different groups.
Azhari’s daily routine includes much reading – including articles on leadership – as well as at least two hours dedicated to a multitude of favourite charitable and voluntary works. From environmental preservation to children’s welfare, Azhari holds herself accountable to the ideals that she believes have been key to her professional success, shunning the exuberant hyperbole that tends to surround the issue of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Although Maersk is not allowed to have its own Syrian office, the shipping giant is supportive of her business’s sponsorship of a range of causes, such as her presidency of Bashaer Al Nour, a non- governmental organisation that provides an outlet for individuals with autism and Down’s syndrome. This cause has become a real family project – her son produces films for Bashaer Al Nour and her daughter also lends support. Damascus has several facilities and various opportunities available to the special-needs community. As such, Bashaer Al Nour was founded in Lattakia to help those with Down’s syndrome to move from learning how to read and write on to undertaking vocational training through a programme known as irada – meaning ‘will’. The young participants build their confidence in areas such as learning to swim and gardening, along with a host of other vocational skills that will enable them to lead a more independent adult life.
The initiative employs a staff of 32, all with graduate degrees in psychology and social studies, who mentor just 50 children between the ages of three and 14. Bashaer Al Nour gives Azhari the opportunity to leverage her business networks to promote Arab art and culture, and also to raise funds for those with autism or Down’s syndrome in Syria. Azhari’s passion for children with special needs travels with her.
“I visited Sharjah city for humanitarian services. It is a great place that hosted our teachers for three separate training [events]. We have an excellent cooperation with them,” notes Azhari. Regardless of the social or economic disparities between some Arab countries Azhari adds: “Tragedies, celebrations, tears, smiles, regret, shame, broken dreams. All of these things make us who we are…these are the things that make our stories real and help us to connect and to inspire and influence those around us.”
From her community-service work to her extensive hands-on knowledge of the business world, I attempted to distil the key lesson from Yasmina Azhari. Azhari herself summed it up best: “Try and fail…But never fail to try….”