2016 Best EMBAs: Reem AlBanna, London Business School

Reem Albanna London Business SchoolReem AlBanna

London Business School, EMBA (Dubai 2016)

“I do give credit to my colleagues both at work and school, my family, and friends for keeping me going and believing in me. They never doubted my ability in completing the course. All I heard was: ‘Come on, this is a walk in the park for you, you have managed more before.'”

Age: 33

Location: Dubai, UAE

Family Members: 2 (Myself and daughter)

Undergraduate School and Degree: Zayed University, Dubai, UAE, B.Sc. concentration Finance

Where are you currently working? HSBC, Senior Manager Corporate Credit & Risk Middle East

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work, and Leadership Roles:

  • Professional artist
  • Board member and co-founder of The Phillips Group, Executive Search & Career Consultants
  • Silent Partner of Enayati Homecare nursing services, the first of its kind in the UAE
  • Board member and co-founder (still in progress) of UAE Chapter — Big Brother Big Sister International Mentorship Program for Orphans
  • Mentor, Reach Mentoring Program in the Middle East
  • Mentor, Emarati Graduate Program and Risk Academy, HSBC
  • Social Rep for Embadj2016
  • Co-captain, HSBC Touch Rugby Team
  • Co-host, Eyes on Career Radio Show for two years

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? My biggest extracurricular achievement was definitely having the courage to join the HSBC mix league touch rugby team. I had never played the game or understood the rules before. I did play American football for fun when younger, so thought, “Why not?”

My goal was to bridge the gap between Emirati and other cultures — what better way to do that than through a universal language, sport? The journey into the world of rugby was not just one of bridging cultural divides but also of personal development, as with any team sport comes the need for strategic thinking, leadership and teamwork.

To my astonishment, not only was I able to play rugby (and I thank my team members for their patience and guidance) but I became the team captain for one full league. As I had never let the team down, by always showing up to the games, making sure we had enough girls on the team, and even playing with a dislocated shoulder, jaw, etc., they decided that I should be the captain. I still remember the feeling — butterflies in my stomach would be an understatement. I do not know what I was thinking when I agreed, all I remember is that I smiled and said, “Let’s play.”

I was still new to the game and so I did not get into the technicalities, instead I told the team that I trusted them with the game plan and kept the pep talks constantly going all throughout the games. I never criticized or showed disappointment. Remarkably, we won the league, which HSBC had never done in the last decade.

It was a wonderful journey that provided me with a window into western UK culture, rugby as a sport, and also into myself. I gained the respect of my team members, the other players, and the C Suite Executives at HSBC. I was even allowed to keep the trophy (usually stays at the bank) as recognition for my efforts. I also made sure that HSBC UAE CEO personally thanked the team.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am proud of winning the Most Distinguished Women in Banking and Financial Services award from the Sheikh of Sharjah, one of the seven Emirates in the UAE. Personally, it was awesome to be nominated by the bank, let alone win! I really did not expect that as there are many impressive women out there!

All I did was follow my dream of becoming a Risk Manager at HSBC. Being a Risk Manager at HSBC is one of my biggest achievements as it is a very technical role and it is very rare to have Emiratis in such positions. Currently, there are only three Emiratis in wholesale credit, including myself. Moreover, the only bank with Risk Managers holding high amounts of delegated limits of authority is HSBC, as a result that makes me the only Emirati in this positon.

When I first wanted to join the Risk Team, I was faced with constant opposition from many individuals including the Human Resource Department. The Risk Team is known to be exclusive to a certain demography, usually males with over 10 years of experience. The job is known for its long hours complemented by neverending pages of information and numbers to crunch. Therefore the position of Risk Manager required a steep learning curve for a new entrant such as me.

It took me two years and a half to get into the Risk Team with all the patience in the world. Making it more difficult for myself, I only wanted to work in HSBC Risk. I wanted to be part of the most respected Risk Team in the UAE Banking Industry. Plus being part of HSBC Risk meant regional and global exposure. I was lucky that the deputy CRO had a chance to work with me to realize that I had the resilience and perseverance to face the challenges that would come with the role. Nevertheless, most people thought I would fail, especially as I joined the risk department during the recession, a very delicate time. Not only was I in a position where I had to decline proposed deals, but it would often be to senior managers who would be several pay bands above me. That’s never comfortable!

Even today, I often find myself having to build consensus in a room where I am the most junior person and the most senior is the CRO or even the country CEO! So I have to present my position in a professional way that makes sense to the people in the room. At the end of the day you have to do what is best for the business and the bank.

The key is not taking pushback personally, and ensuring that one builds good relationships — and of course knowing that it was an invaluable experience both in terms of negotiation skills and credit knowledge.

It has been a long seven-year journey, but finally I broke the stereotypes and now have the respect of my colleagues, senior executives, and the banking industry as a whole. Knowing that my diligence has been recognized by the UAE financial service industry is very humbling.

Who is your favorite professor? This a very difficult question to answer. Every professor I encountered had a unique style backed by superb credentials. All the professors not only demonstrated technical expertise of the subject matter but also their passion and enthusiasm, which was most of the time infectious. They gave mundane topics the gravitational pull that engaged the entire class in their own way. I have grown close to many of my professors and make a point to see them when I am in the UK or when they visit Dubai.

Favorite MBA Courses? Wow … a lot of them for different reasons. I would say Managing Corporate Turnaround, as I coincidentally sat for the class the same time I was reviewing companies that were on the verge of going bust. The oil price had just dropped by 60% and the bank was feverishly reviewing its portfolio to stave off the growing population of non-performing loans. So this course was in my area and came at the perfect time. I loved it.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? I always wanted to enroll at London Business School for different reasons. The main one is that it is a melting pot of people with not only different professional backgrounds but nationalities. It represents the future of the world, where people are global citizens. Plus all my friends were already existing alumni, so I had been exposed to the school and the events even before I decided to pursue further studies. I already felt like I belonged at London Business School.

What did you enjoy most about business school? I loved being one of the social reps. Firstly, being nominated as social rep without putting my name down for the role was astounding.

While the course content is always fascinating, it was always eclipsed by the charm of my classmates. With over 30 nationalities, it was a great experience to meet people from all over the world. As one of the social reps, I had to find activities that were acceptable to such a breadth of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. I enjoyed bringing people together and making it a memorable experience for everyone. The EMBA can get a bit stressful at times, so I enjoyed finding silly activities like paper plane competitions and in-class Halloween costume parties to keep the energy up. People forget that the most joyful moments are the simplest. I love to remind them with that fact and as result seeing them smile.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? The biggest lesson would be making the time to self-reflect. The MBA helps in breaking the routine.

Self-reflection is an essential part to growth. By being aware of our own weaknesses and strengths, we are able to change. It is also important to learn from people of different walks in life. Socializing with people who are “different” than you is critical in self-development.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? My ability to do the MBA work, my job and be a mom all at the same time. Often I did not think I could make it but in the end I pulled through somehow. I do give credit to my colleagues both at work and school, my family, and friends for keeping me going and believing in me. They never doubted my ability in completing the course. All I heard was: “Come on, this is a walk in the park for you, you have managed more before.”

What was the hardest part of business school? The toughest thing was saying goodbye at the end of the course and knowing that I would not be seeing all my classmates every month. Our class managed to build a strong bound. We are still in touch and we keep trying to bring people back together through different events and gatherings.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your executive MBA program? To believe in the impossible and never waste time thinking about how you will achieve something but rather what it is that you want in life and career. The how will always follow the what. So take each day at a time and find your support network, those individuals that believe in you and will keep you going. Also try to find a favorite spot to study; mine was late night on the beach after my daughter was sound asleep!

“I knew I wanted to go to business school …” After suffering a traumatic life experience which left me with post-traumatic stress disorder and an anemic self-confidence, I decided I needed to re-build myself. Additionally I thought I could be an example for other women who went through a similar situation, to make them realize that there is a way to heal and move on. Life is all about perception.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be …” Still be suffering from PTSD.

What are your long-term professional goals? I want to retire as a writer and a painter to be able to challenge social norms and the pedestrian perspective of reality. I would like to eventually move out of the corporate world and into a more creative role, where I can produce exhibits in the form of art pieces, books, sculptures, etc. that would push boundaries and make people ponder their way of thinking. I hope I make it and whatever the outcome I would like to be a role model for women. I want more young girls to believe in themselves and break barriers into different fields. They should feel less pressured to fit in and instead should feel comfortable in being unique and standing out. At the end of the day, we all bring different (good) things to the world. It’s not a walk in the park but it’s not impossible! I believe that with resilience and perseverance one can accomplish his/her dream. You just have to be passionate about what you want and know where you want to be. Never give up!

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I was thinking about this recently and I must say it is my father. He taught us the value of hard work and focus. I was never spoilt like most of my friends. I had to work for my allowance even at a very young age; washing his car was my first option.

My dad comes from a family of masons and instead of relying on his father’s financial standing, he went to the U.S. at a young age to get his education and came back to serve his country and support his family through his own means. He never borrowed money even in his direst moments. I was 10 at the time and he had gotten himself in financial trouble from a bad investment. Instead of turning to his family for help, he managed to pay off all his dues through budgeting and renegotiations. I was impressed even as a child. With all that was going on, he never let me and my siblings feel the crunch. He believed in education and so he sent us all to a private school and when he found out that my grades were slipping in high school, he found out what motivated me — studying abroad. With that knowledge, he got into a bet with me. He promised that if I managed to be one of the top four students graduating from my high school, he would send me abroad for my undergrad. He kept his promise, although it meant breaking the social norm; I was the first girl from my community to live abroad on her own.

He also believed in learning about new cultures and so every other year he would take the family to a different country. He taught me how to be independent and not let society and culture bound me or dictate my life. He showed me how to respect people of different backgrounds. He trusted me to make my own decisions. I was the first girl in my community to do a lot of things and still am. A trailblazer you could say. (What are you going to do next? as mum always asked anxiously). He pushed me to excel and to pursue my education and not bow to the gender biases that shackle the majority of women to backseat societal roles.

I truly believe that behind every strong, independent woman is a dad who believes in her and not societal norms. His upbringing taught me to see solutions in matters rather than obstacles. I can be myself.

Fun fact about yourself: I am a comic geek and can put you in an arm bar!

Favorite book: The Yellow Wallpaper

Favorite movie: Donnie Darko

Favorite musical performer: Many … I have an eclectic taste, so I can’t really choose one, but I can always listen to Paolo Nutini

Favorite television show: “The Simpsons”

Favorite vacation spot: Camping anywhere by the ocean or in the mountains where I can reconnect with Mother Nature, preferably barefoot

Hobbies? Painting, tango, Brazilian jujitsu, learning a new language and touch rugby

What made Reem such an invaluable addition to the class of 2016?

“As one of the social representatives for her class, Reem has actively made sure her class had a well-rounded experience. Despite the fact that the modules required considerable preparation time, she always found time to make sure her classmates had some social activities planned. The EMBA (Dubai) class had some of the best social events during my time working at the programme office. Reem made sure to include all her classmates and families at the events and the social activities they hosted. She is very popular amongst her class members and at the same time a good student with sound academic standing. Reem stands out as a leader and valuable member of the graduating class of 2016, and we are proud to recognise her great efforts and nominate her for this award.”

Zara Kamileen

EMBA Programme Manager

London Business School



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