Author: Laraine Anne Valles

POCAHONTAS: “The ripples.”

JOHN SMITH: “What about them?”

GRANDMOTHER WILLOW: “So small at first, then look how they grow. But someone has to start them.”

(Disney’s Pocahontas, 1995)

Every so often, life throws us new experiences that inevitably and irrevocably change the way we view the world we live in. My participation in the Pearl Initiative Student Case Study Competition was definitely one of those profound eye-opening experiences and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been a part of it.

Eight months, three weeks, six days, nineteen hours and seven minutes ago. . .if anyone had asked me to define the term ‘corporate governance’, I probably would have shrugged and said something along the lines of “Oh, isn’t that what happens after a coup d’état?”.

Not to worry though. Thanks to the Pearl Initiative, I am now able to produce a far more eloquent and cognizant response these days.

I was in the second semester of my senior year at college when our Faculty Champion, Dr. Maryam Ficociello, told us about the case-study opportunity. I immediately went online to find out what it was all about and what I read really inspired me to join the competition, as the Pearl Initiative aspiration is to improve transparency and accountability among businesses in the Arab world. The Pearl Initiative experience reinforced what we learned from Dar Al-Hekma College – to always act with integrity, honour and truthfulness.

Participating in this competition was, especially for us as college students, quite daunting to say the least. The concept of corporate governance and accountability and transparency were all very new to us and was not something frequently encountered in academic conversations and class discussions in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, we took it as a challenge. It was like being introduced to a whole new world – it felt refreshing to discover all these ideas that the three of us were now suddenly privy to.

Deciding on a target company for our case-study was possibly one of the toughest parts of the contest. However, having one of the best mentors that anyone could ever ask for on your side really helps, and my team-mates and I were lucky to have Dr. Maryam Ficociello guiding us as Faculty Champion. Out of all the businesses on our list, we found that Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital (DSFH) had one inspiring story to tell about their quest for transparency. Right then, like sweet serendipity, we knew we had found the jackpot. It was a story that just had to be shared and announced to the world!

During our study, we were astounded by the tremendous effort we discovered that DSFH actually puts into ensuring that sound corporate governance procedures are in place. The hospital’s love affair with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) began as early as 2008 by forming a CSR team and publishing its first level C GRI G3 CSR hospital report in 2008 that was considered the first of its kind in the Middle East at that time. From that point on, DSFH moved swift and determined with tight-lipped perseverance. Ultimately, DSFH proved itself to be the apotheosis of organizational transparency and accountability by being the first hospital worldwide (with the exception of Spain) to reach an externally assured CSR report at the GRI A+ level in 2011. Simply put, DSFH was the paragon of Corporate Social Responsibility reporting and transparency in the Kingdom and we were elated to have found them as our target company.

Our victory was sweet and unexpected. When you are a neurotic sleep-deprived twenty-year-old college senior hell-bent on surviving the most stressful 4 months of your life and to top it off, you’ve participated in a nation-wide competition with over 500 other competitors dead-set on winning, let me just say that it becomes pretty hard to believe that the odds would ever be in your favour. In this case, they were and BOY were we thrilled!

Needless to say, whilst being immersed in the world of corporate governance, we learnt a whole lot about the application of integrity, ethics, social responsibility, governance and transparency within a real life context. A quick précis of our takeaways from writing the case-study are as follows:

  • Transparency is a necessity, not a choice. Someone really famous once said that “the truth ain’t like puppies, a bunch of them running around, you pick your favourite”. I believe this concept fits really well with the purpose of transparency and accountability. It’s okay to make mistakes. Businesses should understand that being open about these mistakes whilst reasoning “why things happened the way they happened” are key to showing credibility among stakeholders and surviving in the competing environment.
  • Transparency is a process, not an outcome.
  • Sustainability reporting: doing it right takes commitment – even if it means small but continuous steps.
  • It pays to spread the good! During our research, we learned that community engagement is invaluable. What better way to propagate the practice of corporate governance than through educating local businesses, suppliers, the community and us, the next generation of business leaders, about best practices.

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
(Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

As an incentive to win the case-study competition, the Pearl Initiative promised the winning team an exciting three-day trip to the United Arab Emirates to attend high-profile forums and workshops. They did not disappoint.

Our coveted prize trip was every business graduate’s dream – forums, workshops and company-visits galore! Like all great adventures in life, our three-day trip was exhilarating and exhausting, intimidating yet inspiring.

Our first stop was the 4th Annual Standard & Poor’s Financial Leaders Forum held in Abu Dhabi. Looking back on this day, I remember sitting front-row at the forum, fervently taking down notes, trying to look calm, all the while suppressing the manic urge to shriek “OMG! OMG! OMG!”

For those of you who do not fully comprehend my over-excitement, allow me to elucidate. Attending the S&P Financial Leaders Forum is basically like attending the Oscars: invite-only, exclusive, intimidating and when you get the chance to attend, it feels incredibly surreal.

On this momentous occasion, the rockstars of the financial world (global business leaders, economists, investors, business and policy makers) all come together in convergence to discuss alternative solutions to prevalent challenges in the region. Titled “Transforming Middle East Markets: Competing, collaborating and driving economic growth”, the focus of this particular forum was on how to guarantee the long-term sustainability of recovery across the GCC after its strong emergence in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

The session was engaging and very informative. I would say that one of the best parts of the forum was getting to watch the chief global economists (the economic-clairvoyants and financial-soothsayers) in action, sharing their insights and findings on the world’s economies. I could only stare in dumbfounded amazement as they, with calculated prowess, provided the audience with insightful details and predictions about the financial market. As a fresh grad, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event and I still can’t believe I was given the chance to actually attend and listen to the views and opinions of such great minds. This experience is definitely something to tell the grandkids someday.

Next stop on our agenda was Thomson Reuters! We kicked-off with an exclusive office-tour. Meeting the amazing people behind the multinational media & information power-house was an absolute treat. This was followed by the piece de resistance – an awesome workshop on Governance, Risk & Compliance (GRC) conducted by Thomson Reuter’s very own Compliance Services Director, Hala Abou Alwan, along with several other dedicated consultants.

It was a riveting interactive session that underlined the crucial role corporate governance plays as a catalyst in keeping all stakeholders satisfied whilst maintaining the business’ credibility. It also touched upon the challenges of corporate governance in family-owned businesses. This was a particularly fascinating topic especially since family businesses are known to generate a mind-boggling 80% of GDP outside the oil sector in the Gulf region. Here it was noted that the biggest barrier was, in fact, not changing rules and regulations, rather it was “changing people’s mentality” that was the toughest challenge of all. The workshop closed with an emphasis on how to combat anti-money-laundering and the keys to building a robust corporate governance program. Altogether, our afternoon at the GRC workshop was upbeat, instructive and very enlightening!

Another note-worthy company on our agenda was Aramex. Besides getting to know about their admirable work in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility, it was utterly heart-warming and inspiring to hear about the various initiatives and campaigns that the company started. All to provide support to marginalized members of the community. I was especially impressed with their quiet dedication to lending a helping hand to people in need. Unlike most other businesses we see that practically thrive on bragging about their brand’s philanthropic pursuits, Aramex lies on the opposite end of the spectrum – they are a discreet yet effective squad of do-gooders in society.

In addition to the company visits, the Pearl Initiative team managed to squeeze in a surprise tour of the Abu Dhabi Women’s College in our oh-so-busy schedule. We were graciously received by a pair of student representatives and a faculty member who enthusiastically gave us a lovely tour of their college facilities.

Business aside, I bet you’re probably wondering what we did for ‘fun’ during those three days. Hard to believe, but despite our busy schedule, we managed to do the following:

  • Power-walk around the inconceivably ginormous Dubai Mall.
  • Spend the evening being mesmerized by the spellbinding fountain show by the Souk Al Bahar.
  • Visit the Burj Khalifa (The view from the 124th floor was breathtaking in all its glory! Washed over with a sudden sense of calm and with everything looking so miniscule from high above, I felt like Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’.)
  • Savour the halcyon beauty and splendor at the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
  • Grab gigantic scoops of Cold Stone Creamery ice-cream at the Atlantis Hotel. Diabetes, anyone?
  • Take pictures by the sea at Palm Jumeirah during the sunset.
  • Go to the movies at Mall Of The Emirates after a long day and have nachos & guacamole for dinner.
  • So there you have it! All in all, it was quite a superb adventure, and dare I say it, AWESOME.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

― Margaret Mead

Superheroes come in all different shapes and forms and not necessarily with an ‘S’ on their chest. But sans bright-red capes and go-go boots, once you meet them, they’re hard to miss. Throughout this epic journey, I have come to appreciate that corporate governance is more than just a system of rules and good practices. It is a worthwhile endeavor and championing such an admirable cause across the Arab world is a truly commendable feat.

The Pearl Initiative team is comprised of amazing individuals, all striving to make a difference in the world. They are a remarkable driving-force and an impetus of change. I would like to say a huge thank you to Imelda Dunlop, Nikki Youlden, Celine Schreiber, Mel White and Jiana El-Khatib for making our Pearl Initiative experience a truly unforgettable one. It was an honour to meet you. You, ladies, are the real superheroes! I only hope that I can one day get the chance to follow in your footsteps.

Many thanks to Dar Al-Hekma College and Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital for supporting us all the way. Last but not least, I want to thank our incredible mentor, Dr. Maryam Ficociello, who never stopped believing in us and so patiently stuck with us throughout this whole journey. The world needs more educators like you, Dr. M!

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