Drive: a female brand developer on the road in Saudi-Arabia

On the road in Riyadh

“No one has ever asked us what our dream job would be.” The head of Alf Darb academy translates for me to english, gathering up feedback from 25 female participants in the pilot of a custom designed Self Branding Toolkit. “I feel like I was lost in a maze, and you have showed me the way forward.”. The smiles in the group radiate towards me. Even in something as functional as giving feedback, the poetic beauty of Arabic cannot help but slip through. And yet, it’s the end of a week of so many completely foreign impressions and deep emotions, that even such profoundly moving feedback isn’t the highlight.

At the start of the week, I have no expectations, simply because the world I was entering is such a black box to me. On our way to the university on the first day, I watch the landscape through the tinted windows of our eight seater SUV. The traffic ebbs and flows through the serene dusty landscape, we pass apartment blocks and compounds the colors of sand and rock. Water reservoirs on the rooftops resemble elephants standing guard for the families below. I peek into the cars that we are slowly overtaking. All are driven by men, some of whom are accompanied by a woman in the passenger seat, fully covered in black robes, without even so much as her eyes showing.

I am in Riyadh by invitation of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, of Fastcompany-most-creative-person-of-2014-fame, who drives over half a dozen innovative projects in her home country. Princess Reema has gathered an impressive team of collaborators around her to help make these project reality. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the vast majority are women. Today, six of us are packed into an SUV on our way to pilot one of the projects.

Since women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, it falls to their husbands, fathers and brothers to bring them to university every single day (or, if the family is financially comfortable, they hire a driver). As a result, weekday mornings around eight, and in the afternoons at around three thirty, the four lane highway across campus fills up with vehicles to deliver the 55.000 female students that make up the universities student body. The drive to university can be long, and some drivers don’t bother going back home. They park their cars underneath the elevated train tracks to shelter from the scorching sun, waiting for classes to end.

Our driver pulls into one of the special drop off lanes, and we tidy up our abayas for the twenty meter walk to the entrance door. As I step out of the car, a dozen other women, completely in black like myself, scuffle past me, their only identification marks a pair of bright nike trainers, glossy black ballerina’s or beige loafers.

At the entrance to the building, a sign marks the start of the women only zone. There are no buts about it: no men allowed. Once the blinded doors are opened, we enter a world of women: female security, female IT staff, female professors and of course, female bachelor, master and Phd students. Once inside the doors, everyone takes off their black robes, and a whole world of subcultures, styles and orientations submerges.

Though no skin is showing, in a way my grandmother would approve, I spot fashionistas with Gucci bags and Juicy Couture velvet sweat suits, tomboys with pixie cuts, metal heads with piercings, nerds bent forward by the weight of their Eastpack backpacks and Beyoncés who strutt around like someone will regret not putting a ring on them. Personally I’ve always enjoyed covering up (in a style I describe as bike courier chique) and I feel right at home with the status quo.

While we prepare the workshop space that the university has graciously offered us to use for our pilot, it occurs to me that it is odd that I had to come all the way to Saudi Arabia to have a female IT assistant set up my powerpoint presentation and check the sound. It also occurs to me that I find myself in a wonderous situation. It was only half a year ago, Princess Reema saw the beta version of my Branding Toolkit for Changemakers, and realized it could hold promise for her new initiative, Alf Darb.

Alf Darb was born out of a unique combination of factors. When two years ago, the law changed to allow women to enter the workforce in certain sectors of the Saudi economy, Princess Reema was leading Harvey Nichols, a large department store in Riyadh. She quickly realized that though Saudi women are often highly educated, their previous seclusion from professional life meant they were missing crucial skills for the workplace. Not one to be trapped by circumstance, Princess Reem founded Alf Darb; a training institute that helps women to prepare for the workplace through a combination of classes, coaching, and personal growth tools, one of which is a custom developed Personal Branding Toolkit.

When Princess Reema first spoke to me about adapting the Branding Toolkit for Changemakers for the need of Saudi Arabian women entering the workforce, I was lost for words. Her participants needs checked all the boxes, yet the idea seemed foreign to me. It only took a few moments to realize my hesitance was ludicrous. After all, whether you are a developer looking for a job in silicon valley, or a woman looking to enter the job market in Riyadh, we all need to understand what we stand for, what our strengths are, what we want to be recognized for, who our audiences are and how we will get them to see us for our true potential. Of course, I said yes.

Fast forward six months, and a beta version of the tools, translated to Arabic, is sitting on the table in front of me. Our twenty five pilot participants softly enter the room and gather their chairs in a half circle around us. I am hit by the familiar thrill of knowing that the group is now still a clutter of faces, but that I will get to know one by one the incredible talent, hopes and dreams, and uniqueness of each single person.

As the women introduce themselves one by one, I feel my eyes tear up at each turn. Their stories are recognizable. Their dreams are mine. They have travelled to places I still want to see. They have brilliant business ideas, or plans for a smart app. They have babies to care for, husbands to love and parents to look after.

Over the next five days, we take the participants through coaching sessions, eye openers, physical exercises, they will collaborate on a challenge, they will pitch. We will laugh and occasionally, someone will cry. We discuss values needed in the workplace and in life, we talk about our goals and where we want to be in two to five years time. Each participant mapped out her own dream job, created a strategy for their personal brand and identified who they needed to make it happen. We wrote the dream jobs on balloons and held them up in the air together. We asked for feedback, feedback and feedback, on how to improve everything we offered. And when the dust settled on the final day, we were looking at a phenomenally successful pilot.

We call the driver to let him know we will be out in five minutes. We pack up our post-its, balloons, canvasses, markers, adaptors and laptops. We make our way to the blinded doors that mark the exit. We join the other women gathered there to put on their abayas and cover themselves up to rejoin the world of men. When the black doors swing open, a scorching hot wind tugs at our abayas as if we are walking towards the engine of a plane. Our driver is waiting for us in the pickup lane and opens the doors when he sees us.

We are currently kickstarting the final development and publishing of the Branding Toolkit for Changemakers, the toolkit that is the foundation for the adapted version for Alf Darb. Let’s create a toolkit that opens up the knowledge and tools to empower change making entrepreneurs all over the world to build the brand they deserve!

For privacy reasons, we cannot show photos of the pilot that identify the students, faculty or workshop materials.

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.