Sophie Le Ray: The GCC Has Grasped Gender Diversity Faster Than Most Parts Of The World
Sophie Le Ray, Co- Founder and CEO of Naseba and the Global WIL Forum, has been an entrepreneur for over 15 years. Deals in High Heels sits with Sophie to discuss company innovation, investments, gender diversity and hiking.
Thank you for interviewing with us, Sophie! You are the co-founder and CEO of Naseba, a business facilitation company focused on helping clients: raise capital, close sales, enter new markets, secure partners and educate workforces – what made you come up with this idea originally?
We founded the company in 2002 in France, on the premise of a need for events bringing more than merely networking or product exhibition, but platforms that would engage buyers and sellers in pre-qualified meetings to DO business. We rapidly were comforted in our business idea by a rapid growth and decided to focus our expertise on growth markets of MENA and ASIA.
You studied art and ancient history at University, and have a PR background – a little different to what you do now! What was it like transitioning out of your corporate job into the early days of entrepreneurship?
I come from academia actually and thought for a long time I was meant to live researching and teaching. Life took me to another road, and I transitioned to a corporate job in London, producing business conferences. I loved it. It was both intellectually stimulating and was responding to my entrepreneurial calling. The transition then was easy as I always wanted to be the captain of my own ship. We launched with my husband and 2 friends and had a blast growing it. To be honest we felt the sting and pain of entrepreneurship much later in the process..
Many entrepreneurs say that their businesses have pivoted and evolved over time to keep up with market conditions – how has Naseba changed and what’s next on the cards for the company?
One attribute I would describe Naseba with is flexibility. Agility is a big word nowadays, and I think it is for better (and worse sometimes) part of our DNA. We have evolved and adapted to market demand a lot over the years, moving from Europe to growth markets, increasing our offer to many verticals, moving towards a more tailor made service. Over the last 5 years, social media has changed the game in our industry so we took a serious how could we remaining relevant and add true value to our customers in a well connected world. 3 years ago, we dropped several business lines and pivoted our expertise into new ventures, combining our knowledge of Tech in MENA and ASIA with our access to senior business leaders, High net worth individuals, and game changers to become true DEAL FACILITATORS. We now have built the capacity to partner with a company from entry to market, access to funding, joint venture to accelerating its growth by providing sales support, qualify distributors, provide market intelligence, train talent. The key is we don’t just “advise”, we roll our sleeves and make it happen with our client.
What should entrepreneurs look for when seeking investors?
To be on the same wave length, looking ahead, sharing the same vision (not the how but the why). We learned it the hard way back in 2007 when we listed the company on the French stock market. Suddenly the barbarians were not at the proverbial gate but IN our boardroom.
We were so eager to grow and so naïve, believing the investors we had welcomed in our “baby” felt the same way about the company than us. Our visions were so fundamentally different that we eventually had to delist and restructure our cap table with people who shared similar views on what Naseba was about and where to take it.
You are also the founder of the Global Wil Economic Forum, an event founded in 2009 to champion gender diversity – have you seen advancement in the Middle East? Where are areas do you think we could improve?
When we founded WIL in 2009, it was in response to a very concrete need for a networking platform for business women in the region (it’s hard to believe now but at the times there was none) as well as offer our contribution to breaking stereotypes about feminism and about Arab women.
The past decade has witnessed so much evolution in the region on social issues and grasped gender diversity faster than most parts of the world (gender gap index proves it- the GCC consistently beats western countries growth rate), thanks to a leadership that has paved the way by actively championing women economic empowerment but also by leading by example- over 60% of senior officials in UAE government are women!
WIL has evolved as well, we are interested in actionable strategies, and support each year tangible grassroot projects, celebrate companies that walk the talk and champion all forms of diversity, not only gender, but also multi-cultural, trans generational, and the inclusion of people with determination.
Diversity is good for economies, corporate bottom line and societies in general. It’s not me saying it, it’s now well researched and documented – unless you live under a rock, there is no way denying it. Now it needs to be put in action in a scalable manner (to use start up vocab), and that is where we can improve. By making the choice as a citizen, a consumer, a business person, an entrepreneur, government official, policy maker, an artist to make change happen.
The next #GWEF event is being held this November! What can we look forward to from this years’ conference?
We plan on hosting over 1000 change makers from all over the world from academia, arts and culture, business, politics, fashion. It’s going to be a feast! This year, the theme is “Stretch, thriving for more” where while staying committed to its initial objective towards gender diversity, the forum shines a light on other economic imperatives such as the inclusion of all and social impact initiatives.
You speak a lot about why it’s so important to know your ‘why’ when you are an entrepreneur – has your ‘why’ changed over time or is it still the same?
I don’t think my why has ever changed but my experience has stripped to its core, separated the true WHY from the stuff that comes often with it (instant gratification of reward, success, money or whatever was in the way of what truly drives me, makes it all worthwhile)
How can CEOs of companies engage and retain their employees? How should we ‘show up’ to the office?
I wish I’d cracked the code. It is the hardest part, sharing the drive you have with people who build the company while putting yourself in their shoes to understand where their decision, actions come from. I am a doer and I am learning he art of sitting still and listening. What it takes to be an entrepreneur is often quite incompatible with leading a team – the drive, sheer force, appetite for risk combined with the roller coaster of running a business makes you often tone deaf to other’s needs.
Leading with integrity, by connecting my needs to the demands of reality experienced by his/her team is how I’d like to show up. I am working on it.
I’m originally from NZ, so I think the fact you are an avid mountain hiker is VERY cool! Do you have any trips planned and what has been the most memorable hiking experience you have had?
New Zealand is my “somewhere over the rainbow” place- I would love to one day have a place on the ocean over there! Paradise!
Yes I love to hike, it’s like therapy for me. I hiked a lot in Oman, in the French alps almost every year, in Austria (the hardest so far), in Africa – Kilimandjaro was an amazing experience mostly due to the kindness and joy of the crew and the beauty of this mountain. I was lucky as we chose a very new path and we did not meet anyone till summit day.