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Lubna S. Olayan: One of MiddleEast’s Most Powerful Business Woman

Lubna Olayan's remarkable journey from breaking gender barriers to shaping Saudi Arabia's business landscape and philanthropy

Lubna Olayan is a prominent and globally renowned Saudi businesswoman who has been at the head of many different companies. Presently, she occupies the position of Chairman at The Saudi British Bank.

Olayan’s commitment and her contributions to business, gender equality, and social development in the Saudi Arabia has not only broken the gender barrier but also inspired many Saudi women to make the advancement towards the business landscape.

Olayan has been a major figure in Saudi business for decades and has been named as one of the 100 Most Influential people by Time magazine in 2005 and has featured in the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women many times over the years and recently featured in the Forbes Middle East’s 100 Most Powerful Businesswomen 2023.

Lubna Olayan was born in 1955 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, into a family deeply involved in business. She is the daughter of Saudi billionaire businessman Sulaiman Olayan. She earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and master’s degree in business administration. Lubna earned her MBA from Indiana University and B.Sc. degree in Agriculture from Cornelll University.

After completing her education, Lubna Olayan joined the Olayan Group, the conglomerate founded by her father, Suliman Saleh Olayan. She served as the CEO of Olayan Financing Company for over 30 years. Under her leadership, the company expanded its portfolio into diverse sectors such as real estate, investment, consumer and industrial related operations in the Gulf region. Today, the Olayan Group is one of the largest and most respected privately-held conglomerates in the Middle East, with a presence in various countries.

Ms. Olayan’s strategic vision and ability to navigate complex business environments have been instrumental in the growth and success of the Olayan Group. Her leadership has not only strengthened the family’s legacy but has also had a significant impact on Saudi Arabia’s economic landscape.

Throughout her career, Ms. Lubna Olayan has been a trailblazer for gender equality in the traditionally male-dominated world of business. She has broken numerous barriers and shattered glass ceilings, becoming the first woman to serve on the board of a publicly-listed Saudi company.

In 1983 when Lubna Olayan made history as the first woman to join her father’s business, Olayan Financing Co. (OFC), a vast multinational conglomerate based in Saudi Arabia. However, it would be 18 years before she had a female colleague. During this time, Olayan assumed leadership of the company and began to recognize the need for change. She realized that being the only female CEO in a prominent family business was not ideal, and it prompted her to take action. With the support of her family, Olayan embarked on a deliberate and cautious effort to diversify the workforce. She sought advice from colleagues and even conducted a discreet campaign to persuade a particularly resistant OFC partner. After months of meticulous planning, the company welcomed its second female employee.

The prolonged duration it took for this second hire underscores the challenges of instigating change in a deeply conservative society where tradition had historically restricted women’s participation in the workforce. However, the fact that OFC now employs hundreds of Saudi women illustrates the remarkable progress both the company and Saudi society have made in empowering women economically since then.

Beyond her business acumen, Ms. Lubna Olayan is a dedicated philanthropist. She has been actively involved in various charitable initiatives, focusing on education, healthcare, and community development. Through the Olayan Foundation, she has supported numerous projects aimed at improving the quality of life for disadvantaged individuals and communities. One of her notable contributions is the establishment of the Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut, which has become a leading institution for business education in the Middle East. In addition to chairing the board of Alfanar, the Arab world’s first venture philanthropy, Olayan also sits on several international advisory boards, including those of Akbank, Allianz SE and Bank of America .

  • In 2004, Olayan became the first woman to join the board of a Saudi publicly listed company when she was elected to the board of Alawwal Bank.
  • Olayan joined the Board of Directors of INSEAD in December 2005, and has been a member of its International Council since March 1997
  • In 2006. She joined the Board of Trustees of the “Arab Thought Foundation”
  • In 2007, she was elected as a member of the Board of Trustees for Cornell University
  • Olayan has also been in the Advisory Board of Effat College, a private and non-profit girls college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • Olayan was a member of the board of directors of Maaden, the Saudi Arabian mining company, since April 2016.
  • In 2019, Olayan was named chairwoman of the Saudi British Bank (SABB), making her the first Saudi woman to head a bank
  • In 2021 she became the first woman to head a Saudi foreign business council. She was appointed as the President of the Saudi-Swedish Business Council.
  • Olayan was appointed to join the World Economic Forum’s Board of Trustees in September 2022.
  • She is currently a trustee of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well as the Asia Business Council.
  • She is a nonexecutive director and member of numerous international advisory boards since 2011.
  • She has received numerous awards and recognitions, including an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) from Trinity College, Dublin and the insignia of Member First Class of the Royal Order of the Polar Star by His Majesty the King of Sweden, Carl Gustav XVI.

Ms. Lubna Olayan’s contributions to the business world and society at large have left an indelible mark, and her legacy continues to inspire future generations. She is a true exemplar of the transformative power of leadership and compassion.

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