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“I just wanted something more. So I took a risk.”
Mrs. Hanan Saab
Muscat, Oman. April 26, 2010. Women in Business Conference 2010. Female enterprise executives and entrepreneurs gathered on a fragrant sunny day at the Intercontinental Hotel, in Oman’s capital city. The topic? Changing the Face of Business – Women as an Economic Force.
One of the most inspiring talks today came from Mrs. Hanan Saab from Beirut Lebanon. She talks of the challenges she overcame creating a pharmaceutical business from scratch amidst the political turmoil of Lebanon in the 80s and 90s, all while raising three children.
Mrs. Saab is a self-described 3rd generation pharmacist. Her grandfather graduated in 1905 from the American University of Beirut…. as did his son…. as did his daughter, our very own Mrs. Saab standing before us in a crowded auditorium filled with aspiring and inspiring Omani business women.
“In 1976 political insurgents burned the our family business.” The business of three generations of pharmacists who were there to provide aid to their community.
Lebanon is a country with 4 million inhabitants, and 15 million immigrants who live outside the country. In the face of this challenge, Mrs. Saab chose to stand her ground, Lebanese ground, a pattern she unwaveringly continues. In 1983, she was forced to move 8 times, when she was pregnant with her second daughter, as bombs and cannons forced her family into underground shelters for protection. She stood again by her decision to remain in her home country.
In 1985 she joined the American University of Beirut Hospital Pharmacy. The years spanning 1985 to 1990 were the toughest period of the civil war in Beirut. ““What about our children?” her husband would ask. “I have a duty she says, as a mother, but as a caregiver. Who knows who will need medication at this almost full hospital? What if there is someone I know amongst the casualties?” She stood by her decision to remain in Lebanon. Shortly after this statement, she recognized one of the bombing victims and treated none other than her very husband’s niece.
An eternal optimist, Mrs. Saab lingers not on the pain, but on the personal and professional growth these experiences gave her. “I continued to develop conflict resolution and bettered my communication skills. One day the Vice President of the American University Hospital (AHU) at the time; asked me to start a pharmaceutical purchasing department.”. Witnessing all the untreated pain around her (“Go home, we really can’t do anything more for you. It is untreatable.”), she envisioned an opportunity to start a business in pain management and oncology medications. “My goal was to improve patient care with controlled medication.”
Now consider this sequence of challenges Mrs. Saab faced as she tried to get a fledgling business of the ground. Your challenges may not seem as mountainous as compared to this terrain.
Finding partners was difficult. Lebanon was considered high risk due to “recurrent if not ongoing political conflict. No one was coming, so in order for me to create partnerships, I had to travel as people were concerned and afraid to make the investment.”
Connecting with partners was crippled by poor infrastructure. “To get a telephone line in Beirut we had to physically bring in wires from Cyprus.”
High interest rates plagued the dragging economy and made getting a loan a challenge. Add to this laws prohibiting her to start business without permission from her husband (In 1994 these laws were abolished). To get a loan, the Bank requested collateral from both herself and her husband that was 10 times the value requested. In order to travel, she needed permission from her husband. In order to open an account for her own children, she needed permissions from her husband. She got those permissions. Note that this was abolished in 2009.
“I was just a pharmacist. To be an entrepreneur there are many other skills you need – finance, human resources.”
Yet she persevered and obtained a license in 1990 and commercialized the company in 1992.
“I own 90% of my company and my husband owns 10%”. (At this, the hushed auditorium in Oman suddenly bursts into spontaneous applause).
And what did she decide to take to market as her first product?
“No one wanted to bring this in. Everyone thought I was crazy. ‘You have a very good position in AUH, securing the education of children. What more do you want?’”
“I just wanted something more. So I took a risk.”
The risk paid off. “Either the market drives you, or you be proactive,” she paraphrases a quote. “In 2000, we opened up to other territories in our region – Jordan, then other regions in the Gulf followed. Dubai, Qatar, Egypt… We became the exclusive distributor for 22 companies and a major player in the field of oncology.”
“We have 40 employees and 78% are ladies,” Mrs. Saab announces, her next words nearly lost after thunderous applause from the Omani business ladies. “…and these ladies occupy our highest administrative positions. We give employees who are mothers flexible hours, extended maternity leaves, and the flexibility to nurse their babies in a nursery that faces our office. – For as long as they want. The health of our babies is number one.”
“We are a small company and at the same time, a well bonded family.”
She concludes, “Even if they say no, try diplomatically to find a way around the obstacle. Never give up. If you fail, make sure to learn. And always, help one another.”
Mrs. Hanan Saab is is also one of twelve architects behind the Lebanese League of Women in Business (LLWB), and a founding member of the Middle East North African Business Women’s network, whose mission is to “Take the Lead And Succeed”.