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.
I was the second female at the company and among the first 10 employees. 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 set up the compliance department from A to Z.
After a while, the company started to be a real company, and it wasn’t super exciting for me anymore. I left and traveled around for a few months. I realized that I’m most interested in 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 a half before deciding I wanted to go to business school. I really wanted to start my own social enterprise.