What We Need From our Leaders in Tech Right Now

Originally published by Nathalie Bontems for Communicate.

Rania Zalami, Area Director for India & Middle East at Meltwater, explains what being a female leader in tech means today.

To say that there are few female leaders in the Middle East’s tech world is an understatement, but Rania Zalami is one of them – and the first Arab woman to fully take ownership of the region in that position and in that field.

Zalami is the newly-appointed Area Director for India & Middle East at software as a service (SaaS) and media intelligence company Meltwater. With 20 years of experience in giving customers real-time information advantage, Meltwater has never been more relevant, making Zalami’s appointment all the more important: today, more than 30,000 companies, many of them in the region she manages, use Meltwater’s AI-powered monitoring to stay on top of online and social conversations, extracting relevant insights to strategically manage their brand reputation, understand their audience, and keep tabs on their industries and competitors. As Zalami takes over India & Middle East, her expectations for the region are high despite the current circumstances, and her 60 people-strong team is all in.

What does it mean to you to be a female leader in tech?

I don’t necessarily believe in the term ‘female leadership,’ but in leadership in general. I understand why we should and do use this terminology, but I can only hope that one day, we won’t have to. One day, we’ll get to the stage where there’s impartiality around gender and the phrase becomes ‘leaders in tech.’

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Parity report 2020, that day – actually, that month – will come in May 2119. In other words, at the current rate, it will take 99.5 years to reach global gender parity! Before you go into shock, there is a silver lining: 99.5 years is already ten years fewer than the last report predicted in 2018, which is a positive.

My outlook for the future is optimistic partly because I work in a gender-diverse company, where 60% of the leadership roles are held by women. However, being optimistic is one thing and contributing to change is another. For me, it’s important to lead by example and make an immediate impact on both women and men at work. It’s important for me to promote the success of an equal work ethic, in what is essentially a male-dominated industry.

What are your leadership tips for other women aspiring to lead?

Stay true to yourself. Build your business and manage expectations from your perspective. Don’t bend yourself to the status quo; it dilutes your authenticity and makes you second-guess yourself. Rather, choose to back yourself and bring valuable input and solutions to the table.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and not always know if what you are doing is right – everyone feels like this at times. This is why, in addition to being true to yourself, it’s just as important to surround yourself with people you trust, be transparent with your team and have a collaborative approach to the way you all will tackle a challenge.

I have learned just as much from my adversity, as I have from my successes. When life throws you a punch, you will subconsciously revert to practices and behaviors that you have built up over your lifetime.

I’d like to share my personal metaphor – a mindful practice I use to keep myself mentally fit as a leader and individual: I have a backpack of life skills, which I make sure to fill with essentials that fuel me and keep me going through tough terrains. Here are six of the most important ones I like to share with those around me:

  1. Connections. We are social beings, so make sure to nurture this aspect, be it by a virtual couch-coffee with a group of friends, an online gaming session of Fifa, regular calls with family far away, or connecting with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while.
  2. Digital detox. Take a break from screens when you feel stressed. Take time out for yourself and do something you’re good at or have been wanting to do for a while but never made the time for.
  3. Physical activity. Download a yoga or fitness app – you can find a workout buddy or trainer on Geofit – or download one that’s made for indoors – Dubai Sports Council just launched one. You can also set up space in your home dedicated to home workouts.
  4. Good immunity. It sounds simple, but when people are stressed and overwhelmed, this basic human need gets overlooked although it is at the epicenter of mental and physical wellbeing, as well as, ultimately, survival. Eat well, drink lots of water and get enough rest!
  5. Kindness. Be kind, not just to others but to yourself as well. Ask for help and reach out to those that might need it too.
  6. Meditation. If you are not familiar with the practice, don’t worry; there are some great apps that can get you started. Here are some of my suggestions: Calm by Apple, Headspace and Simple Habit.

My backpack keeps me agile, working outside of my comfort zone and tolerant to risk, rather than being held back by my fear of failure and eagerness to please others. Over the years, it has proven helpful to me and in this time of uncertainty, I am using it more than ever. The importance of mental wellbeing is something I advocate with my team. I recommend my managers and teams to set themselves new personal goals that align with the current circumstance.

What are your business management principles?

  1. People are your greatest investment.
  2. Customer advocacy is a no.1 priority.
  3. Employee training & development is oxygen for a business.

I believe wholeheartedly that if you look after your people, they will look after your business and culture. I have a superb management team that I respect and trust – some of whom I have worked with for five to nine years and who have helped me retain and grow our 500+ customer portfolio in the region. It’s important to have everyone working to their strengths, as our customers benefit from this.

Our company’s HQ is in San Francisco; so, much of the Engineering, Product & Operations gets run from there. Regionally, we have business functions that support local market demands such as – CX, Customer Success, Business Development, Sales, Marketing and Enterprise, Talent Acquisition, and Training. Hiring local expertise and relying on my experienced director team make an exciting combination for our strategic growth goals for the India & Middle East region.

The threat of covid-19 to our families, friends, colleagues, and business, has driven us to work from home (WFH) and has naturally led me to realistically adjust our plans and forecasts. It’s not wise to keep everyone focused on unattainable goals; that’s not good for either morale or business. So, adapt, adopt and improve.

Here are some of the WFH initiatives we’ve implemented around creating a sense of community – our no. 1 priority:

  1. Virtual lunches as a team.
  2. Managers: three touchpoints a day with each team (morning, midday, EOD).
  3. Initiatives to maintain the Meltwater culture, such as: celebratory bell rings for a job well done (these videos have become quite creative); dress-up theme for the last day of the month (it’s a pajama party), etc.
  4. End of week wrap-ups with Dubai and India offices.

I still have an optimistic outlook for the recovery of the region. Both India and the Middle East markets know how to come together as a community and innovate where necessary. Combined, the Dubai and New Delhi offices boast 18 different nationalities and are an accurate, eclectic representation of the region. Regardless of covid-19, our aim remains the same. We want to be seen in each country as a local entity with global expertise. This is pivotal to fostering long-lasting customer relations and strategic partnerships.