GE’s all-female business center in Saudi Arabia opens eyes and opportunities

Two women looking at booklet (Courtesy TCS/GE)
Staff members confer at the GE-Tata Consultancy Services all-female business process service center in Riyadh, a first for Saudi Arabia. (Courtesy photo)

Nourah Al Zaid didn’t expect to work full time after graduating from King Saud University in 2010. But a friend told her that General Electric (GE), the manufacturing and digital innovation giant, was looking for talented women.

Portrait of woman wearing black head scarf (Courtesy of Nourah Al Zaid)
Nourah Al Zaid (Courtesy photo)

Today Al Zaid, 30, is a senior project manager with an all-female global business center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that GE and Tata Consultancy Services created in partnership with Saudi Aramco. The staff of 1,000 handles finance and accounting, human resources, supply chain and information technology management, and more for GE and other companies.

The busy center aims to hire 2,000 more women as the kingdom seeks to diversify its economy, grow private enterprise and encourage more women to work. Although a majority of Saudi university graduates are women, only 20 percent are in the workforce.

In six short years, the situation “has changed completely,” says Al Zaid. These staffers have shown “they are as good as our male and female colleagues all over the world.”

For its commitment to diversity in the workplace, General Electric is among six winners of the Secretary of State’s 2016 Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) for exemplifying the best of American values in how they conduct business overseas.

A conversation between Jeffrey Immelt, GE chairman and CEO, and Khalid A. Al Falih, then-president and CEO of Saudi Aramco and now Saudi energy minister and chairman of Aramco, sparked the initiative.

In the planning stages, says Hisham Albahkali, president and CEO of GE Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, “we talked about whether we’d get the right people. Guess what? The Saudi females were amazing.”

Group of seated women clapping (Courtesy of TCS/GE)
This business center handles accounting, human resources and other work for many companies. (Courtesy photo)

The business center staff, 85 percent Saudi, underwent more than 600,000 hours of training. It regularly attracts admiring, high-level visitors from inside and outside the kingdom, including Narendra Modi, prime minister of India.

“The talent pool is huge. We do job fairs at universities and have CVs [résumés] lined up for potential openings,” said Al Zaid, who has had assignments and leadership training in the United States, Egypt, Dubai, France and Turkey.

The center’s employees often refer sisters, cousins, and other relatives and friends, which is always a sign that it’s a good place to work, she says. “I’ve been surprised by commitment to their jobs and their careers. I don’t know that it existed six years ago.”

The other 2016 ACE winners are Bureo and Interface, which recycle fishing nets into skateboards and carpets; McDonald’s Germany, for hiring hundreds of refugees; Andela, which trains software developers in Lagos, Nigeria; and copper mining company Sociedad Minera Cerro Verde, majority owned by Freeport-McMoRan, for sharing a new wastewater treatment plant with the city of Arequipa, Peru.