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“Know what you bring to the table and be very realistic and factual about yourself” - Basma Shams [Interview]

Article-“Know what you bring to the table and be very realistic and factual about yourself” - Basma Shams [Interview]

© Fi Global Insights Women in Food Interview with Basma Shams
An experienced communications, marketing, and PR professional whose diverse career has spanned food, politics, technology, and more, Basma Shams, general manager at POD Egypt, knows what it takes to make it as a successful female leader. Never stop learning, know your strengths and weaknesses, and don’t be defined by your gender, are just a handful of her top tips for breaking through as a woman in the industry.

Basma, your career spans over two decades in the food industry, with diverse roles in global companies like Danone and Phillips. Could you share with us some of the highlights of your journey? How did you get to where you are today?

“I studied in the University of Ottawa in Canada and started my career there doing some pro bono work for NGO's. I then moved to marketing and got a great opportunity in Egypt to work on the presidential elections as part of the team from the Ministry of Communication where I was primarily responsible for the International Press Center for the presidential elections that took place in 2005 and for the yearbook for the country. [After several years,] I moved into the corporate world where I mainly did internal and externals comms and later PR for [various large companies].

“My current position is at the largest PR agency in Egypt and North America, POD, where I handle a number of food and beverage clients including Nestlé and Coca-Cola. My role [duties] include giving clients the overall strategic comms direction, government direction, and government relations guidance.”

How has your diverse experienced shaped your perspective on women's leadership? How would you describe your own leadership style?

“Honestly, I don't believe that women are hindered any longer in terms of leadership. I think it's something that we have in our mindset that hinders ourselves.

“In Egypt, women are very empowered, and we see lots of women heading ministries and banks in influential positions. The number of women in leadership positions is significant, but I think the issue is positioning women in leadership positions with male qualities that are married to [traditionally] male characteristics. The fact that we must always portray male characteristics to show that we are worthy of [a certain] position is something we really need to work on.

“We need to stop putting people into brackets of ‘this is female, this is male’ and evaluate them according to their skills and competencies. Personification of the job in terms of skills and competencies is way more important than the female-to-male ratio.

“There is no leadership without trust so the first thing I do is give whoever I’m dealing with complete trust and it’s up to them to keep it or completely lose it. I’m not a micro manager at all, but I like to stay informed of the bigger picture and I also manage by objective.

“I'm not the person who would attempt to evaluate anyone that stays at work till seven or eight pm or works for just three hours. It's all about meeting objectives and doing the work correctly, whether it's at home, by the beach, or in the office.”

Your passion for communications, PR, and marketing is evident throughout your career to date. What skills does it take to lead a successful career in these fields, and what challenges have you faced along the way?

“One thing is that you need to have compassion. You need to be a human being and communication is all about being human. If we don't have that humane aspect or that compassion, we will fail to understand the person that we're communicating with. We're not robots, so it's not a check box.

“You need to humanise what you're doing, and I always put myself in the shoes of the receptor. Are they going to understand? Are they going to believe? Are they going to be loyal to what we're saying or what we're putting out there?

“You also need to be extremely flexible. You need lots of perseverance and commitment because unfortunately communications is never a nine-to-five job. You're constantly working, but [it’s important to] strike a balance between knowing when to pause and when to act fast.

“Most importantly are very strong interpersonal skills and a passion for content. Whether it's writing, or creating a picture, or thinking of a PR stunt, or even creating a marketing campaign and launching a product, always think: how is this product going to speak to me? How am I going to humanise this product? What are the characteristics of the product and how can I connect to my consumer?”

What advice would you give to aspiring women leaders on the topic of leadership and career growth?

“[Life] is a journey and a learning process. Never stop learning. If you want to succeed in your career, at home, and in anything you want to do, you need to teach yourself.

“You need to understand your consumer and you also need to understand your boss. [Learn how] to be flexible and adjust your communication style accordingly, because we communicate and sell every day.

“Whether you’re selling something to your kid or something to your husband or to your friend, you're constantly selling yourself, so you need to be very confident. You need to know what you bring to the table and be very realistic and factual about yourself. [This means] knowing what your weaknesses are and working on them.”

Looking forward, what is your vision for the future of the industry, particularly regarding women's leadership, participation, and innovation? How do you plan to contribute to this vision through your work and ongoing initiatives?

“I think in the industry we will see a lot more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) in the next few years […] because we really do need them. There’s a huge demand for them and they’re multitaskers so they’re able to juggle many variables and tasks.

“In parallel, we need to change the perception of women working in STEM. She's not the ugly duckling; she's not the woman that will be scared to work a midnight shift because of security issues, or what not. Even if she has a family or thinks about having a family, working in STEM should not hinder her personal life.

“We need to be flexible and integrate women into AI and robotics to drive [forward] the flexibility of working in that field, because it's extremely important that we have more women in STEM.”