From her smartly appointed office in Riyadh, Samira Al Kuwaiz, 44, helps manage Osool Capital, an independent investment firm in Saudi Arabia that holds 2.2 percent of the country's traded shares. Al Kuwaiz is from one of Saudi Arabia's tribal families, the equivalent of blue blood in that society. After earning a master's degree in accounting and teaching at King Saud University, she became the first female chief financial officer in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia the lowest out of 128 countries on women's participation in the workforce. Women make up roughly 6 percent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, according to the Labor Ministry -- among the lowest in the world, but a jump up from nearly nothing a generation ago. Al Kuwaiz is part of an emerging set of women executives in the Kingdom.
Lara Setrakian: How did you get your start at Osool Capital?
Samira Al Kuwaiz: Initially, I was heading the marketing team for ladies, because the shareholders saw the prospect of women's funds in Saudi Arabia. People who own that money now in Saudi Arabia are the second generation of the people that initially made it, so we see a lot of women who have inherited money. Women own up to $60 billion in deposits, term deposits, which are not being utilized in the market. And the partners wanted to tap into this market. So I headed the finance department from the beginning. We started it form zero. I built up a team and now I'm heading the marketing for ladies and the finance department. I'm CFO of the company.
LS: You are the first, and it was driven by serving the women's sector.
SAK: In the beginning they saw me as a prospect towards women. Now they see me as a person who is capable to take on this task.
LS: Is it hard sometimes, in terms of male mentalities? Are there still stigmas that you have to bring down?
SAK: Dealing with my partners, no. Initially, from the beginning they wanted me as a board member, and that says a lot. That says a lot that they have that confidence in me -- in my capabilities as a person more than anything else.
Changing that stigma, changing that stereotyping of women -- that's another story. But we see that change day to day. In the beginning some men have questions in their eyes. They have curiosity. But later on, they see the professionalism, they see your capabilities and little by little, that, let's say, the way they view Saudi women changes.
We have lots of people coming in from Europe, from the states, from Great Britain who bring different marketing material to the company. And in the beginning they are not used to seeing women in meetings here. In the beginning they don't even look at you, as a Saudi woman because they don't know how to deal with it. But later on, throughout the meeting, you see how it evolves, you see how they look at you, the look at you evolves. So you become a capable person more than you are a women or a man.
LS: And that drives more acceptance of women in the workplace?
SAK: It is changing, day-to-day, and I always say that we see the change in Saudi Arabia. I see it every day, I see it every month, every week, every year. That change, you smell it in the air. People coming in from outside, maybe, for the first time they don't see it. But people living in Saudi Arabia, we see it. We see the change.
LS: What does it look like? What does the change look like for Saudi women in business?