Inspirational Woman Interview: Tala Al Jabri

Tala Al Jabri is pursuing her MBA at The Wharton School and MPA at Harvard University. Tala has worked in management consulting where she completed engagements in over 6 countries in the Middle East and Africa. At the age of 25 Tala served as the Head of Government Strategy at Dow Chemical Saudi Arabia. She was the only female to occupy such a role in the country. Tala has received recognition for her work including being selected as a Young Arab leader and earning fellowships at Wharton, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In her spare time, Tala is a mentor to female entrepreneurs at the Cherie Blair Foundation and has authored Op-Eds for such publications as Entrepreneur Middle East, Wharton Impact Investing Partners, and Khaleej Times.

Can you tell us about your work as a management consultant working to address economic development issues?

Tala Al Jabri: Management consulting in the Middle East takes on a different form than in developed markets. It typically involves a great deal of public sector work – policy development, institution-building among others, – often with trying to balance economic gains with social gains. I had the good fortune of working with some amazing teams on projects that ranged from coming up with a strategy for a new city to helping a country develop a tourism strategy as a way to diversify their economy. The range of work you do is broad and touches multiple industries but all with the purpose of satisfying social goals that benefit the public and that promote sustainable economic models.

You’ve focused on nation-building and macroeconomic issues in 6 countries – Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Ethiopia. How were you able to find these experiences in such different countries and your key insights?

Tala Al Jabri: I feel that I hit the jackpot when I made the decision to focus my career in the Middle East. I worked in a region where travel was facilitated by good infrastructure, especially when you consider Emirates Airlines’ vast route network. Dubai is fast becoming a hub for both the Middle East and Africa in travel, trade, and commerce. Because of the scale of development taking place all around us and because we’re so closely located to many different countries, I had the good fortune of working in these different countries. My experience covering such a wide region offered many invaluable lessons. Firstly you start to develop a sort-of intuition about what it takes to implement sound development policies that will work for the public and economic good in developing markets. Secondly, and perhaps somewhat antithetical to the first point, you realize that there’s a great deal of nuance in every country and a size-fits-all model almost never works. You can’t force fit a model that worked in country A into country B. Being mindful of those differences, listening to the local experts and what they want is also extremely important.

To illustrate the importance of this I can draw upon my experience working in Saudi Arabia relative to Ethiopia. The biggest difference there from a consultant standpoint was that decision-makers in Saudi Arabia were very gung-ho on promoting private sector involvement; the government was keen on promoting investment, particularly in the form of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment). Of course, they wanted to protect local firms but on the whole they agree that enabling the private sector was crucial in their pursuit to modernize their economy. In contrast to these sentiments, Ethiopia viewed the path to modernization in a completely different way. Because of its unique history, particularly when one looks at the influence of the communist durg regime in last period of the 20th century, the country has amassed very strong communist sentiments. While in some ways both countries are similar, such as in their strong reliance on government to drive economic and social welfare, there is little political will to enable the private sector in Ethiopia. Understanding these nuances when making policy recommendations is important, particularly in getting the “buy-in” of decision-makers and in ensuring real and lasting progress is made.

Moreover, you are especially passionate about Islamic finance. Can you tell us about some of your involvement at school with initiatives related to Islamic finance and anything interesting you’ve learned?

Tala Al Jabri: Where I come from in Saudi Arabia, we have a 100% sharia-compliant financial system – for example all the financial institutions issue sukuks in place of bonds. The main difference is that a Sukuk is not an interest-bearing instrument, yet still allows an investor to generate returns without charging an interest fee.

Naturally, my curiosity for Islamic finance stems from the fact that I grew up in a region where that was the status quo. At Wharton, I came to see that there were many parallels between sharia finance – which falls under the rubric of “ethical finance” because it doesn’t allow investments in the pornography and alcohol industries – and impact investing. I started to look into that and explored frameworks that could both be a vehicle for Islamic and impact transactions, particularly in private markets. I explored this idea further in my coursework with Professors who are leaders in the field including Professor Gultekin and Professor Geczy and with fellow students including my friend Steve Rizoli who I worked with on the PE Africa landscape.

What opportunities do you see for financial inclusion in the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia?

Tala Al Jabri: I strongly believe that unlocking capital is one of the best ways to elevate living standards- especially for communities that are emerging to the middle class. One of the best uses of capital now is to invest in female-founded businesses and women who are carving a path for themselves in the business world. Access to capital is a challenge for women entrepreneurs around the world. According to the World Bank, over 1 billion women do not use or have access to financial institutions. Indeed, research has shown time and again that the biggest impediment to women’s access to capital is accessing male-dominated VC networks and overcoming unconscious bias. In Saudi Arabia, access to capital can be very difficult because we have a gender segregated society; many of the finance professionals in asset management and private equity are male, and that increases the challenge for women.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Tala Al Jabri: My biggest role model is my mother – I would not be who I am without her. My mother was a pioneer in Saudi Arabia; she was one of the first women to found a professional services firm when the workforce participation rate among women was under 10%. Not only was she breaking barriers by actively engaging in the workforce, she led a firm that spanned multiple offices across three cities in the country. But I don’t only applaud her for her professional accomplishments only; her perseverance, her high level of integrity, her forcefulness in overcoming insurmountable challenges has inspired me and allowed me to have an appreciation for what women can accomplish. Her example has given me the confidence to believe that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. It’s an important lesson and one that I cannot overemphasize for all women. My mother’s example showed me that women should be able to fully explore their potential so she’s definitely had the hugest impact on me – she’s a force to be reckoned with.

What advice do you have for individuals interested in economic development careers?

Tala Al Jabri: In starting your career, it’s important to stay broad and open-minded about location and role/position. I’ve found since arriving to the US that people are unaware of opportunities in places like Dubai where you can work in economic development without needing to speak the local language. Often, people wishing to enter the development space fall in the trap of thinking that such opportunities only exist in Africa.

Finding mentors is important too – mentors can take different forms and your alumni network is one of the best places to start. Also, talking to your peers can be very useful in helping you gain an understanding of a field.

What are your favorite books, films, websites and/or resources?

Tala Al Jabri: My three favorite books are Orientalism (Edward Said), Why Nations Fail (Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson), and Women and Gender in Islam (Leila Ahmed).

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