In the spirit of Arab-American Heritage Month, we could think of no one better for ABANA to feature than Hutham S. Olayan. Ms. Olayan is Chairman of The Olayan Group, co-founder of ABANA, and a pioneer in the financial industry in the US, the Middle East, and worldwide. We are delighted to present a written interview in which she discusses her path to success, describes challenges she overcame as both an Arab and a woman in the industry, and imparts some wisdom to ABANA and our community. We hope you enjoy! May 6, 2022
ABANA: Please tell us about your professional journey to the top of one of the world’s most distinguished private investment groups. Any secrets to your success?
Hutham: It is no secret that early on and for some five decades, I had a great mentor, Suliman Olayan. He was not just my father, but also a teacher. He himself was orphaned as a child and had no formal education beyond high school. But he did have prodigious gifts — an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a true talent for numbers, a seemingly photographic memory, and strong determination to succeed in business and investment.
He was a lifelong student and a master of the Socratic method. No matter how prepared I thought I was for a meeting with him, he always seemed to ask the one perfect question that had never occurred to me. Fudging an answer was totally unacceptable. However, it was perfectly OK to simply admit I didn’t know but promise to find out. This simple but important life lesson on intellectual integrity has stayed with me and is common practice in our organization. Stick to the facts, know what you don’t know, and no bluster!
ABANA: What about your journey from East to West? Tell us more about that.
Hutham: I grew up in Lebanon at a time when Beirut was the most cosmopolitan city in the region and the main commercial and financial bridge to the wider world. Many Mideast and international firms had offices there, including Olayan. I graduated from AUB in 1975 with a BA. With the winds of civil war gathering strength, I enrolled in the MBA program at Indiana University in America’s heartland. When folks asked where I was from, I said, “the Mideast.” More than one replied, “Well, I’ve heard of the Midwest, but I’ve never heard of the Mideast!”
After graduation, I headed to New York, where I joined Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette as an intern. That was my first exposure to the financial world. I subsequently joined Chase Manhattan Bank as a credit analyst, and went through their rigorous credit program.
ABANA: Have you faced personal or professional barriers as an Arab woman?
Hutham: Yes! But more so as a woman than an Arab.
Both my parents were very open-minded. My father used to describe himself as “gender-blind and color-blind.” Thinking back on this, I believe my father and mother gave me the fortitude to crack my head against some glass ceilings and sometimes shatter them. A few examples:
In 1979, I joined a bank in London which was an affiliate of JPMorgan at the time called Saudi International Bank, SIB. I soon learned that my salary was a fraction of what my male counterparts were making. When I protested, management basically said: “that’s tough, get used to it”. While they did adjust my salary the next year, it remained a fraction of what my male colleagues were making.
While at the bank, I was the lead analyst on a loan to a company working on the construction of the bridge between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. My boss hosted a celebratory dinner to mark the closing – at a men-only venue from which I was banned. When I joined The Olayan Group as a New York employee a few years later, one of the funds in which we were invested held their annual meeting also as a “stag” affair. They eventually relented the following year, but I was the only female investment professional present.
Such experiences of course induce anxiety and frustration, even fury. But they can also induce courage and determination, bolstered by very positive experiences and mentors. One early example greatly heartened me:
While at SIB, I transferred to New York to help open a representative office there, followed by a branch a few years later. The governor of SAMA, the Saudi central bank, would visit New York from time to time and always ask me to accompany him. Once he invited Muriel “Mickey” Siebert, the New York State banking superintendent, to travel to Saudi Arabia to visit SAMA. Mickey said she would only go if I went with her. What a vote of confidence! I was thrilled. After all, Mickey was a Wall Street legend — the first woman to own a seat on the NYSE, among 1,365 male traders. As banking superintendent, she oversaw a $500 billion portfolio. She was also a fierce champion for women and minorities in the financial industry.
Such experiences, both bad and good, can be fortifying, and of course strong role models are a great help.
ABANA: Are you saying there are advantages to being an Arab American woman?
Hutham: Yes, along with a frank and questioning mindset and strong ties to the region, in my case Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. This has given me advantages as a private investor and on the boards of public companies and non-profit institutions.
There is no denying there are stark differences regarding gender norms across cultures, and that gender issues can be subtle and complicated even when they seem straightforward. I think we Arab-Americans are fortunate to have the perspective of both cultures, Middle Eastern and Western. This perspective also positions us to give back to the Arab world.
ABANA: You have been a pathfinder on numerous boards. Please elaborate a bit on those experiences.
Hutham: Serving on a board of directors or trustees can be hard work and enormously time-consuming but also greatly rewarding. It can deepen one’s knowledge and exposure, broaden vistas, create opportunities, and forge new and lasting friendships with truly remarkable people. But here I will limit my comments to a few examples of my personal experience with boards and gender.
Thermo Electron (now Thermo Fisher Scientific): I joined in 1987, the first Saudi woman to be named to the board of any major public company. I served for 15 years as the sole female. Today the board has 3 women and 10 men.
Morgan Stanley: I joined in 2006 as just the second woman on the board. Over the next 15 years three more women were added.
Brookfield Asset Management: I currently serve on their board, which has 10 men and six women.
Generally, I have found non-profit boards better balanced than corporate boards when it comes to gender. ABANA is no exception. Indeed, it is exceptional even among non-profits. In 2022, ABANA’s board achieved parity – 10 women and 10 men. Alf Mabrouk to ABANA!
ABANA: What do you think the future holds for Arab-Americans today in the financial industry? And how can those in the industry push their limits and build a stronger path?
Hutham: As an optimist, I think the future is always bright. As a pragmatist, I suggest the following:
Stick to business. Strive for excellence. Lead by example. Ask the tough questions. Make a difference. Don’t just network for the short term. Collaborate, partner, befriend for the long term. Build bridges and build trust.
Everyone’s journey is unique, special. The twists and turns can take us by surprise. Be open to new opportunities. We can’t program our futures, so we might as well relax and enjoy the ride.
ABANA: What is your advice to our ABANA community, and especially the women within? How can our community learn from your journey and further build on it?
Hutham: In the early 1980s, Wall Street was a lonely place for Arab Americans. But somehow a small group of us found each other and concocted the idea of a professional association as a bridge between North America and the Mideast. We launched ABANA. The idea caught on, and the rest is history. The growth of ABANA since then has been very gratifying.
One of the highlights for me occurred in 2015, when I was honored to chair a highly successful conference organized by ABANA: Women in Finance and Investment. It attracted stellar speakers and participants. It was both substantive and inspirational. It also was a terrific networking opportunity in tune with ABANA’s core mission as a professional bridge.
I would urge ABANA to resurrect this as an event held annually or every few years.
ABANA: Final thoughts?
Hutham: I have been privileged to have a phenomenal career in the endlessly interesting world of global investment.
Of course, there have been many stress tests along the way, both professional and personal. I and my husband joke that raising three rambunctious sons in New York City was our ultimate stress test.
Last year was the 50th anniversary of The Olayan Group’s New York office. This year we celebrate our Group’s 75th Anniversary under the theme, “Ever forward for Future Generations.”
We have much to be thankful for and much to look forward to.
Hutham S. Olayan is Chairman of The Olayan Group, a global investor and operator of commercial businesses in selected markets. The family-owned enterprise originated in Saudi Arabia in 1947.
Ms. Olayan was named a director of The Olayan Group 1981. She has spent her career overseeing the Group’s investments outside the Middle East. As CEO of Olayan America, she headed the Group’s US operations for over 30 years. She became Chairman of the Group’s global Corporate Board in October 2018.
Ms. Olayan has extensive outside commitments. She serves on the board of Brookfield Asset Management Inc. and the Executive Advisory Board of General Atlantic. In the non-profit sector, Ms. Olayan serves on Stanford University’s Global Advisory Council as well as the boards of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She is a Trustee Emeritus of the American University of Beirut and a member of AUB’s International Advisory Council.
Ms. Olayan is a former director of Morgan Stanley, IBM and Thermo Electron (now Thermo Fisher), Georgetown University, and the MasterCard Foundation. She is a current member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Economic Club of New York.
Ms. Olayan has been widely recognized for her work with humanitarian, educational and professional organizations. She co-founded the Arab Bankers Association of North America in 1983 and received ABANA’s annual Achievement Award in 2013.
Ms. Olayan holds a BA from AUB and MBA from Indiana University.