Haifa AlHumaid

From Saudi Arabia to social enterprise

Growing up in socially conservative Saudi Arabia, the 28-year-old dreamed of emulating her older brother by going to college and studying abroad. These may seem like modest goals, but in a social order where only 15% of women work outside the home, they’re an audacious set of ambitions.

Haifa AlHumaid is an unlikely rebel. Shy as a child, she’s now a poised and articulate young woman – hardly your standard renegade. But AlHumaid opted to embark on a path few females in her country would have ever considered.

Growing up in socially conservative Saudi Arabia, the 28-year-old dreamed of emulating her older brother by going to college and studying abroad. These may seem like modest goals, but in a social order where only 15% of women work outside the home, they’re an audacious set of ambitions.

AlHumaid navigated the strict social mores with a combination of persistence and pluck. She joined the country’s first E*TRADE-esque  financial services firm as its second female employee. From there, she built its accounting and compliance departments from the ground up.

A serendipitous encounter on a plane led to her second job. AlHumaid struck up a chat with her seatmate after noticing the logo of a foundation she was interested in on the woman’s laptop screen. The non-profit experience sparked her interest in social enterprise and fed a desire to create her own organization.

Still, she wanted to study abroad. She applied for and received a scholarship to live in the U.S. Her father said no. But the seed was planted. Several years later she applied for another scholarship in Boston, but this time she put the pressure on, asking her father about it every day and even meeting him in Egypt to make her case. He ultimately approved and even spent two months helping her settle into her new city. For AlHumaid, it was just the beginning. The stint on the East Coast gave her the time and confidence to apply to Babson College.

In May, AlHumaid ticked off one of her biggest goals when she crossed the stage as a newly minted MBA at Babson’s commencement ceremony. Now she’s back in Saudi Arabia with an eye on blazing her own path yet again by launching a social enterprise.  

Here’s her story:

I studied accounting in college in Saudi Arabia, which ended up being a good decision; you never know if your choices are good ones until you look back on them. I realized after graduation that I didn’t want to work in a big company. I still didn’t know much about business, and I figured the best way to learn was to get hands-on experience at a startup. So I joined Derayah, the first online financial services company in the Middle East. It’s  like E*TRADE for Saudi Arabia.

Open All Close All

That really shaped my personality. In Saudi Arabia people typically don’t complete internships over the summers, so this was my first real work experience. On the first day, they gave me a file with all of their invoices and said, “Here you go, we haven’t started an accounting system yet.” It was an interesting challenge. I set up the accounting department over the next year, and I got to work with people from all sectors of the company, like marketing and IT, to understand what they do.  My next project was to setup the compliance department from A to Z.

I left and traveled around for a few months. I realized that I’m most interested is the non-profit sector.  I learned about the King Khalid Foundation, but they had nothing on their website except a phone number. I took it down and planned to call them one day.

A week later I was flying from Riyadh to another city in Saudi Arabia. The woman sitting next to me on the plane was working on her laptop. I saw the King Khalid Foundation logo on her screen and struck up a conversation. She told me about the foundation, which has two centers: a center that trains non-profits and another center that gives them grants. This was new in Saudi Arabia. Before, people would give organizations money and never ask about it again. Grants held them accountable. I was really interested, and she suggested I interview with them. That was how I get my second job. I worked there for a year and half before deciding I wanted to go to business school. I really wanted to start my own social enterprise.

I didn’t get into Stanford, and I could have waited another year to apply again, but I decided to go to Babson. The vibe and the student body just clicked with my personality, and I was super impressed with the energy. In class, people seemed more relaxed than at other schools, like everyone is friends with everyone. It was all very natural.

I had a scholarship from the Saudi government that allowed me to spend seven months in Boston before I applied to Babson. This gave me time to study for the GMAT, work on my applications, and visit different schools. The vibe you get from the schools when you go to them is totally different from what you see on their websites.

I’m the youngest of four siblings and so my parents are protective. I’m also a girl from Saudi Arabia, and while it’s becoming more common for women to go abroad, it’s still not as common as it is in other places in the world.

It didn’t happen overnight that my father was like, “Sure go.” I applied twice for scholarships in Saudi Arabia. When I was accepted to the first one in 2008, my father was upset about me leaving. I realized that it was probably too early for me and my career. So I told him, “Keep it in your mind, I’ll broach the subject again.” When I want something, I won’t forget about it for years.

Three years later, I applied for another scholarship and would ask him every day, and every day he would say, “We will see.” When I needed a final answer, I wrote him emails while he was travelling and did everything I could. I even met him in Egypt. I told him, “If you say no I will understand, but I would really appreciate it if you would say yes.” And he did. He even came to Boston with me and stayed there for two months. I wrote about that whole experience in one of my application essays. I said I’m living my dream by writing this application in Boston in my apartment by myself.

I was super nervous when I first started the MBA program, and she said don’t get stuck on the details. Sometimes it’s stressful, but she pointed out that the  journey is bigger than hard courses and the other things.

I already had a business background, so I didn’t learn as much in terms of hard skills, but my personality has changed a lot. Eight years ago, I was super shy. It was hard for me to mingle and socialize, but after Babson I have a lot more confidence in myself. I realized that everyone has positive and negative traits, so why just think about the negatives? I also learned a lot about team work. Every team has some sort of challenge like different personalities or work dynamics, and I learned a lot by overcoming those.

During my first year at Babson I went to Uganda with the dean of the school in the Babson Entrepreneurial  Leadership Academy to teach entrepreneurship to kids. I went with the mentality that I’m going to an Africa country, which stereotypically is a poor country. We might feel pity, but I realized that the people in Africa are happier than us. They know how to enjoy the moment.

I didn’t know how helpful teaching entrepreneurship would be since a lot of them might not start businesses. But I realized that it’s important not just for starting an enterprise, but for challenging them to think differently and in  a more organized way. It was also the longest time I’d gone not speaking any Arabic.

I’m thinking of starting it in two to three years depending on what the country needs. Until then, I’m thinking about working for an international company just because I want to practice what I’ve learned.

I was part of the Net Impact Club at Babson for two years. That made me realize that there are other people in the program who are interested in the same things that I’m interested in. There’s also the Women Innovating Now (WIN) program. It’s an incubator for female entrepreneurs. I had an idea, but I wasn’t ready to start my business yet. Still, it was really interesting to meet women who wanted to create their own companies in areas like education, energy, and social enterprise.

It looks at the whole enterprise instead of just accounting or marketing. We learned about building a business from the very beginning. Professor Anderson really inspired me to believe that you don’t have to have everything set in your mind before starting out. If you’re interested in something, just go look, travel, and figure out what you like. And one day you will have an answer for everything. He would say “travel naked,” which means just take yourself and your bag and go explore some place new. This is my kind of thing. I’m an explorer. He would always say don’t get stuck, take some risks, learn new languages, learn new games.

Enjoy the journey and live now because when you look back you’re going to miss it a lot.