Sophie Le Ray co-founded Naseba, a company facilitating businesses in emerging markets and founded the annual Global Women In Leadership (WIL) Economic Forum, a conference that aims to promote economic development through female entrepreneurship and gender diversity in business. Le Ray is a force to be reckoned with; under her leadership, Naseba has grown from 2 employees to over a 100 employees.
Instead of the traditional business background, Le Ray majored in Ancient History. She was halfway through her Ph.D. program before she started a company that would expand to 5 continents and 30 offices across the globe. Le Ray sat down with me for an exclusive interview for The Tempest at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFOL) to talk about feminine leadership, her experiences over the years, and the advice she had for entrepreneurs.
I asked her why she switched fields, and how Naseba came into being.
“I initially wanted to be an archaeologist, but reality sunk in. In my second year of PhD, I had a little girl and I had to get a job in something that was quite similar to what I was doing, because it was research-based. So, I worked in conferences, production, and then ultimately in conference production, where I also met my husband. He was working in the same company, but he had a sales background and I had a research one, so we just combined it because we decided to start a company together,” she replies.
Although she’s soft-spoken, her answer is powerful. I can hear the sheer will and years of experience, as she speaks. When I ask her about the challenges she’s faced, she laughs with an almost instantaneous answer. “Oh yes! just like any entrepreneur does!” says Le Ray.
But, then she pauses for a moment, and continues, “When you start something, there will be so many people who try to dissuade you and tell you it’s not possible,” and she shares her experience from Naseba’s early days.
“When we were starting off, this guy was acting as our “unsolicited manager” and unsolicited because we never asked for his opinion, but he still persistently gave it. We once went to dinner with him, and he was killing every single idea we had. We had spent months working on these concepts and ideas and we were full of energy, we were so excited about them- but he kept killing them. I remember my husband just stood up and and left the dinner that day. We never saw the guy again,” and she chuckles because the incident isn’t without irony. Le Ray continues, “Very recently, he contacted us twice. Once, when we went public and a second time to become a board member. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
Naseba’s Senior Project Manager, Charlotte Chedeville, is also with us during the interview. She’s been working with Naseba since 2014, and while I talk to them sitting in a small space that we have to make do with (because there are countless interviews happening at Litfest simultaneously), I feel inspired. These women empower countless others. Sophie founded the Global Women in Leadership (WIL) Conference, a project Charlotte now manages. As I ask Sophie her proudest moment, over the past few years, she answers with the WIL. “It’s something I’m very proud of, because it’s truly championing something that is very important to me; having a platform that champions diversity is something I’m very proud of,” says Le Ray.
And it’s not just important, it’s necessary. With everything that’s going on in the world, diversity and female leadership are important. They’re not catch phrases or PR techniques, they need to be engrained. Over the past 4 years, WIL has brought together business leaders, policy makers, and young female professionals and entrepreneurs, to dissect the challenge of diversity, share experiences and produce actionable strategies to strive for women’s economic empowerment. The Tempest fam is all about diversity and inclusion. The WIL has been critical, especially in starting conversation about diversity in this part of the world. It goes without saying that Sophie is to credit for, and I do thank her for it, but she doesn’t take all the credit as she responds with a “Thank you!” and points at Charlotte with a very warm smile. “She’s the wizard really,” Le Ray says.
And that’s probably been my favorite part of this interview, because there is nothing I love more than women empowering other women. In an age where we deal with sexism from all fronts, it’s endearing to see acknowledgement, and empowerment. It’s one of the reasons why I joined The Tempest. And, I’m almost grinning because I’m so happy to see it between these two women.
“Feminizing leadership will help, and it’s going to sound super cheesy, but it will support a better world. Especially, with the challenges thrown into the world today, economically, with climate change, poverty, and sustainability, feminine leadership and diversity in leadership can really make a difference. I’m proud of adding our little stepping stone to the mix,”
Sophie is a strong advocate of gender equality, she has written about a topic that’s scarce in the MENA region- literature tackling how women in the Arab world are changing the world. She’s done stark comparisons and countless strong interviews, highlighting a different side, literarily, because this is still something that people have but touched the surface of.
I steer the conversation back to Naseba, to ask her about the most challenging part of what she does. Although there are loads, she talks about emerging markets: “They’re very volatile,” she says.
Giving a very honest answer, she speaks about countries where they haven’t been able to operate in as well- Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. “We invested a lot in these countries because we used to run a lot of businesses in them and we invested even more in mature markets because the data was not as available and we had to do a lot of research.” and I know where the answer is heading as she continues, “You have to invest in events, and you set up something. But the Arab Spring happens, or something else happens, and it’s all gone. The most challenging part: getting the balance between repeat business and solid business so that you know you can grow. These opportunities take markets that can go either way, and you can only say where after you experience them.”
Some things you can only learn from experience. As I ask her about what advice she would give to young female entrepreneurs who are just starting out, she hits the nail on the head with a misconception that most in the startup ecosystem are all-too familiar with- glamor, “Entrepreneurship is a beautiful world, but it’s not glamorous. I get to meet a lot of young entrepreneurs who think it is, but it’s not.”
She continues, and as she’s talking I can feel the dilemma in her voice because she does state she doesn’t want to come across as negative when says this. Le Ray says, “You have to have a tremendous dose of energy and faith in what you do. Sometimes I see people entering entrepreneurship because they want to have freedom, but, you don’t have freedom as an entrepreneur. You’re not free at all because you’re the captain of your own ship; it’s great, but it comes with strings attached,”
Her answer deserves a Tempest article of its own, because it’s so damn true. People romanticize entrepreneurship all the time.
“When I speak to young entrepreneurs, I try to understand what the aspiration behind their goals, is it really sheer passion for a service or a product that she or he has, or is it more of an “I don’t want to work for anybody, so I’m doing my own thing” because doing your own thing is tough.
The only way you survive the ups and downs of entrepreneurship is if you are convinced to the core of what you do. If you’re not a 1000% convinced of what you do, you don’t always take the hardship, and you quit, even the first challenge can throw you out.
It’s astonishing really, the number of people who can try to kill your idea. Don’t think too much of your long-term plan. Unless your company is very heavy in infrastructure or service, you’re going to have so many different opportunities and challenges coming your way, and these can completely change what you do.
You need to have flexibility. Be absolutely convinced of what you do, but do have a dose of flexibility that will allow you to take whatever is thrown at you. Being flexible while being sure of your end goal is not an easy balance. “
So what’s a typical day like for this powerhouse of an entrepreneur?
“It starts very early because I have two girls. I have one teenage girl and she starts early as well. I do lots of things, but it’s very different from how my routine was ten years ago. I like to spend as much time as possible operationally, and though I try to fight it, I have a big thing for micromanaging,” Le Ray says.
I want to say guilty as charged and point to myself because I can relate so much to the micromanaging part; I can’t help but ask if she’s a workaholic too as we wrap up this fascinating conversation.
“I used to be, but I am much better now. I used to work long hours. I had a bad health issue a few years ago, so I started giving myself more time, away from work. I eventually realized that this time was very helpful with my job as well. It allowed me to network in different contexts and it gave me an openness to the world, that I had been missing when I used to constantly work. I still do at times, but I try to cure myself. Honestly, my objective now is to have people around me, who are so good, that they don’t need me,” says Le Ray.
Sophie Le Ray’s book, Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World Are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future’ is out now. You can learn more about the Global Women In Leadership (WIL) Economic Forum here. Interview was shortened for clarity and length.