Leading Cultural Impact in The Boardroom with Rana Nejem

Rana Nejem is a communications expert who has used her skills to train ambassadors, today she leads the shift in creating social and cultural awareness in the middle eastern business community.

The challenge for me was educating clients to the need and getting management to see the impact of a business’s culture on almost everything the business does. To see how an organization can translate its values and the company’s image into actual behavior, since the culture of any organization is, in essence, the sum total of each employee’s attitude and behavior. That becomes even more complicated in multi-national organizations where you have people from different countries working together trying to align with the company’s culture and the culture of the country in which they are operating.

 

YARNU is the first in the region to specialize in Business Protocol and Inter-Cultural Intelligence for the Middle East. Using a personalized and personal approach builds bridges by training more socially conscious Entrepreneurs.

What did you eat for breakfast?

Although I love breakfast food I don’t always have the chance to eat breakfast. About three months ago I started a new thing which I read had a lot of benefits – I take one teaspoon of black sesame seed paste (which is very popular in the Arab world but I am not sure of its name in English) and I mix it with a teaspoon of natural honey. I have found that it gives me energy and keeps me feeling full until lunchtime. But don’t let that give you the idea that I am a very healthy eater! My weakness is a really good burger with fries or good old fried chicken!

What’s your favorite sport or exercise?

When I was much younger I used to play a lot of tennis, but now I do yoga and I really enjoy walking. I am not a gym person but when I do go I like the circuit training, which gives me a full body workout in just half an hour.

What inspired you to start your business? Where did you start and where are you now?

Throughout my working career, I was able to see the impact social and cultural intelligence had on diplomatic situations, business dealings and people’s professional life. It is simple yet it’s the kind of thing that people don’t know that they don’t know. So, in 2013 I decided to make the jump and to set up my own business helping people to raise their social and cultural intelligence, enabling them to float with ease and confidence from one situation to the other while building long-lasting, fruitful relationships with people from different backgrounds and different cultures. The name of my company is YARNU – which is the Arabic word meaning to aspire to, to look towards something higher with calm and serenity. The work may sound very different from what I had been doing, but in essence, it is just another form of communications.

It wasn’t an easy decision. I had no experience working in the private sector; my entire career had been with the public sector, in one way or another. When I took the decision to set up my business, the ambassador convinced me to stay on for another 9 months, so I used that time to prepare myself for the move. I took at least 6 courses in various disciplines that would help me get started. So that when the time came, I hit the road running and the transition was very smooth. But that is only because I was able to do the 9 months of prep work while I was still in a job – a luxury not too many entrepreneurs are lucky to have.

I am also extremely happy to see my first book published. “When in the Arab World; an Insider’s Guide to Living and Working with Arab Culture” came out in May of this year. The book is based on one of our programs that is targeted towards non-Arabs who want to live and work anywhere in the Arab world. It is a very practical guide, full of authentic advice that is essential for business people, diplomats, journalists or just about anyone who travels for business. (The book is available on Amazon and Itunes).

 

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How large is your business?

I have intentionally kept my business model small because it was very important for me not to turn into the manager who is just worried about the staff and where the next contract will be in order to pay salaries and rent. I wanted to continue doing what I loved doing and I wanted to keep it bespoke and personal. Therefore, we hire on a project basis as needed. This has allowed YARNU to remain agile and to go wherever the client is anywhere in the world.
In the first three years of YARNU, we trained over 630 professionals from different parts of the world who are at various stages in their career. Keep in mind that we are not a training company and we do not have public courses that are open for anyone to join. We work directly with businesses – large and small – and with government organizations, we provide specially tailored programs to meet the needs of our varied clients.

What do you see as challenges for you and your business? Is there something you need to grow your business you’d like to bring up?

The challenge for me was educating clients to the need and getting management to see the impact of a business’s culture on almost everything the business does. To see how an organization can translate it’s values and the company’s image into actual behavior, since the culture of any organization is, in essence, the sum total of each employee’s attitude and behavior. That becomes even more complicated in multi-national organizations where you have people from different countries working together trying to align with the company’s culture and the culture of the country in which they are operating.

The fact that YARNU was launched during difficult economic times in most parts of the world but especially in the Middle East, made things more challenging for us since the perception was that what we provide is a luxury that focuses on soft skills and that they would rather focus their limited training and development budgets on something more hard-core.

But we are now seeing a major shift, especially in our region, and more organizations are recognizing the value of what we provide, and our client base has been growing steadily.

Tell us a story about a success in your business or a mistake you overcame that made you proud of yourself, or more confident.

This may sound a bit cliché, but every single time I complete a workshop and I see the shift in at least 3 people in the group, I consider it a success. And when I bump into one of my clients several months later and they tell me how they are still implementing what they have learned – that is a big success for me.

What about your business matters most deeply to you? How does it engage your values?

I love working with different people helping them to be their best at whatever it is that they do. It is such an incredible feeling to see the shift in behavior and attitude in someone. And the ability to build bridges of understanding between people from different cultures is something that I find extremely fulfilling. To think that I might be able to make the slightest bit of a difference in helping avoid conflict between people at any level is really quite humbling.

What’s the best and the worst thing about being a female founder?

Perhaps because of the nature of the work my company does, I have found that being a woman founder has actually helped in many ways. People want to see someone who lives the values and image they are trying to sell. I felt it was more about being true and authentic rather than my gender that mattered. I can honestly say that I have not faced any difficulties being a female founder of a business – even in the male-dominated culture of the Arab world.
Setting up your own business requires you to be organized and very disciplined but also to have the ability to get into the details while juggling several things at the same time. I don’t know if these traits are stronger in women or am I being biased?

What is the best advice you ever got, and from whom?

It’s very difficult to single out one particular piece of advice, as a lot of times it is one simple word here or one observation there that clicks and triggers a series of thoughts and actions that then affect your decisions in different ways.

Having said that, the one piece of advice that I felt kept me on track came from one of my teachers – the amazing Tony Robbins. He said that the driving force behind anything is the “why”. If you are clear on “why” you are doing something then the “how” will come. So every time I had to make a decision about my business I asked myself why am I here? Why did I set up this company? The answer took me back to my own driving force, not the “shoulds” that others were telling me.

Who is the entrepreneur you admire most right now? Why does s/he inspire you?

There are so many that I admire mostly for their perseverance in continuing to grow themselves while learning from their mistakes, but most importantly for still finding the time to lend a helping hand and a word of advice for others who are struggling with their own projects. I feel very grateful to be surrounded with such people.

Connect with Rana Nejem of YARNU

Twitter: @RNejem
Web: www.yarnu.com

Want to learn more about women’s entrepreneurship in the Middle East and Gulf Coast States?

This content was curated through our partner Naseba and the 18th Annual Global Women in Leadership Forum.

 

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