The go-getter

March 13, 2018
By Erum Noor Muzaffar

This week, You! talks exclusively to Naheed Memon, chairperson of the Sindh Board of Investment.....

This week, You! talks exclusively to Naheed Memon, chairperson of the Sindh Board of Investment (SBI), a fearless, bold woman, who is committed to bring business reforms in Sindh, especially for women...

Naheed Memon has a diverse and long working career which spans across banking, public policy research and development, academia, consulting, setting up and managing own businesses in textiles, retail, travel, energy and real estate. She has worked and lived in the UK and Pakistan throughout her work life. Naheed holds a MSC in Economics from Brikbeck College, London and an MBA from Imperial College, London. She is also an adjunct faculty of Economics and Strategy at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi. She was the CEO of public think tank in Pakistan, and headed its research and advocacy function. She is also a Director in her family owned group of companies, based in Karachi. In London, Naheed worked for Bank of America Merrill Lynch for a number of years. She was the founder CEO of a management consultancy firm in London which serviced clients including PWC and foreign missions. Being the chairperson of SBI, Naheed tells at length to You! about Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) in Sindh in coordination with World Bank, and how she feels about bringing women in business sphere...

You! How did you join Sindh Board of Investment (SBI)?

Naheed Memon: I was nominated by the political leadership and Government of Sindh to this post. This was my first assignment with the Government and I had to learn about applicable systems and adapt to working in accordance with the government’s rules of business.

You! Can you tell what SBI is all about?

N.M: SBI is the government’s investment promotion and business facilitation agency. It is our job to showcase investment and business opportunities in the province and liaise with all government departments in Sindh and in Islamabad to make businesses succeed and grow. It is also our job to connect Pakistani businesses with businesses abroad and bring in foreign investment. I am also the Vice Chair of the Special Economic Zone Authority of the province and responsible for promoting, developing and managing all present and new Social Economic Zones (SEZs). I also chair the Sindh Enterprise Development Fund (SEDF) which is a separate entity instituted via a not-for- profit company which supports agribusinesses in the province. This is the only one of its kind in Pakistan and I am very committed to promoting business in agriculture. I give this strategic unit a lot of my time in order to deliver worthwhile results in this very important sector. SBI is also the custodian of projects in education and other industrial sectors. I manage different units and work on a fairly large canvas.

You! What is the relation between EoDB & SBI? What is the role of World Bank in this process?

N.M: The World Bank is our partner in the programme to improve the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB). The Bank has helped strengthen our capacity and our desire to push ahead with the reforms targeted on making doing business easier and improving our ranking. The Chief Minister Sindh is committed to ensuring compliance and action on the reform agenda chalked out by the World Bank and this buy in has produced notable results. I am managing this reform project in Sindh, and I am so pleased with the commitment and action shown by all the concerned reform departments.

We have just completed the first 100 days of our reform process and there remain a few more hundred days to get through before we feel satisfied. I am also cognizant of weak capacity in most departments, to serve the public, on account of operational time constraints and lack of priority assigned to EoDB. The next area of reform would certainly entail building capacity and imparting skill sets to service clients. We are also in the process of setting up arbitration centres in Sindh which should hopefully reduce time required to settle disputes in court. Finally, the World Bank is also helping us automate business registration and I am convinced this added facility will make starting a business quicker and simpler.

You! What kind of business reforms SBI is doing in Sindh, particularly for women?

N.M: In the first stage of reforms, we are focused on making procedures shorter and fewer. These reforms are being executed in Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), Sindh Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Excise & Taxation and Board of Revenue (BoR) amongst others. We have managed to reduce procedures remarkably in a very short time. With respect to women, we are yet to execute reforms focused on women in business. However, I believe this will be an imperative component of the reform of the business climate in general. Sindh provides a very open space for women in economic activity culturally, but this spirit also needs to be reflected in the regulatory and business environment. This programme is in the pipeline.

You! What is your line of action, especially for women of Sindh?

N.M: I believe there are many great organisations working to empower women and support them in Sindh. Similarly, there are countless fantastic Sindh government initiatives which have enforced to improve the lives of women in urban and rural areas. However, a fast changing industrial landscape and technology have presented new opportunities and possibilities for increasing the participation of women in economic activity. I have been thinking of setting up an investment forum for women and I am toying with this idea. I am in discussion with some partners. I would like to augment ongoing efforts, and with the support of the GoS, scale the output. Sindh is much more alert to enhancing women’s role and their rights in society and embraces their participation more openly. I hope to convince and show women the way to set up businesses and lose their fear of failing. But more importantly, they should become comfortable with becoming rich in their own right.

You! How has it been working in a government sector? What kinds of challenges do you encounter?

N.M: Government systems can be cumbersome and speedy execution is not always the primary objective. I had to learn to alter my expectations which were borne out of a private sector experience. I still struggle with both the speed and selection of government actions and its priorities. However, over time, I have somewhat moulded my style of management and have understood the sequence of actions and events as they pan out in the public sector.

One experiences a sense of lack of fulfillment at times, especially when you have worked tirelessly to achieve some goals or to complete a project. Unlike the private sector, not everything is in your control and one has to often reconcile with disappointments.

However, I am grateful to Allah for giving me a chance to serve the people at large. It has been nothing short of a privilege, despite some frustration and disappointments which come with the territory.

You! Does your organisation give equal opportunities to men and women?

N.M: I try and give women more opportunities than what is fair. I want to make it up to them for any lost time or chances. However, I am disappointed in them because they harbour a dull ambition. I rarely see a fire burning in them. I hope their world becomes an easier place so that they desire more and better.

You! Have you ever faced sexual harassment at work place?

N.M: All women face harassment. I am certain of this. However, some of us are bolder, just as some men are, and can take the bull by the horn and knock out harassment. In fact, many strong women sometimes lose empathy for those who fail to stand up for themselves. Some women are not bold and get affected by it and may even succumb and be derailed. We need to nurture and bring up bolder women and equip them to deal with whatever life throws at them. I place a responsibility upon all employers in every capacity and at every level, to ensure they protect all women. Work place harassment is a real issue and laws to manage this are a long way from becoming a part of governing societies globally.

You! What are the challenges being faced by Pakistani women today?

N.M: Pakistani women have proved themselves to be extraordinary champions in all spheres of work and life. Yet, millions still live suppressed lives. I think seeing BB’s picture on the wall does not motivate a girl in Larkana to go to school. We have to make her chances in life better, in order for her to want to go to school. However, this fight for space and support for an equal chance at life is ongoing. We fight for equal opportunities in Pakistan and elsewhere. And I believe we will get them.

You! What advice would you give to other women struggling to follow their own ambitions?

N.M: I would ask them to make sure they pursue what they really want. If you really want something, then it should keep you awake at night. If you are lucky enough to have found this, then simply don’t give up. Perseverance is not over-rated. It does pay. For those women who don’t know what it is that they really want, it’s even simpler. They should aim with top conviction to become financially independent. This goal in itself will show them ways they had not known of.

You! Do you think the general mindset of our society is changing?

N.M: Our habits are changing. We use social media to communicate, we read less, we travel more, we meet our relatives less, we change jobs more often and move to other cities for work more than before. But we are not becoming more tolerant or more compassionate. In fact, we are all shouting more loudly than the person next door. I find society in Pakistan is getting increasingly noisy and exhausting.

You! How have other women received your work?

N.M: I really don’t know. I hope they see me as one of them and as someone rooting for each one of them.

You! What does a typical day look like for you?

N.M: I am very busy and my day normally does not end before 10 pm on an average. I try and spend some quality time at the SBI office, but besides that I am on the move. There may be wisdom in routine but it eludes me.

You! Any lessons learnt the hard way?

N.M: Aren’t all lessons learnt the hard way? And as long as we aspire for better, we make mistakes and learn along the way. I would like to keep going for as long as I can.

You! How do you unwind?

N.M: These days I like walking.

You! Your most cherished accomplishment...

N.M: I don’t take stock of anything I achieve. I don’t think I have achieved much. I certainly have not read as much as I should have.

You! What is your agenda for coming years as far as SBI is concerned?

N.M: I would like SBI to become the first and the most relevant port of call for all in business or looking to invest. I would like SBI to become the agency which sets the course for future business, industry and subsequent employment in Sindh, especially for women!