Interview with Dina Karim

Sousou Partners were delighted to sit down with Dina Karim as part of our new series ‘View from the Middle East.’ In these interviews, we’ll be looking at the transformation happening in the region through the lens of real assets, showcasing the unique perspectives of individuals on the ground. 

Dina Karim is an executive HR leader with multicultural, diversified experience in local and multinational organizations. In her 17+ years’ experience, working predominantly in Riyadh, she has led across the spectrum of human resource functions including organizational transformation and development, talent management, recruitment, and strategy, support services, change management, and enterprise-wide innovation. Throughout her career, she has developed coaching and mentoring programs at all organizational levels, led the creation of customized executive leadership development programs, and established diversity and inclusion programs.

Dina Karim
PIF Projects

Dina has grown her career across different business sectors in a variety of roles with increasing responsibility. She started her career in the banking sector holding key HR roles at Barclays Capital & Wealth and the National Commercial Bank (NCB). She then moved into the pharmaceutical sector where she was the HR country leader for Saudi & Sri Lanka. Dina then transitioned to General Electric (GE) where she served as the Executive HR leader for Saudi and Bahrain. Following her role at GE, Dina became the Executive Vice Director for the Executive Leadership Development Center (ELDC) at the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC). Dina returned to the banking sector as the head of talent management for Riyadh Bank. She then moved to the Public Investment Fund (PIF) at a subsidiary Project serving as the chief HR officer. Dina holds a Master degree (M.Sc.) in Public Administration in the field of Human Resources Management from the University of Colorado and a Bachelor’s degree (B.Sc.) in Business Administration from King Saud University.

You’ve been in a wide range of businesses and sectors, but it’s always been in human resources and people management. Did you always want to get into that area?

It was an interesting journey how I got into HR. I was raised with the mentality that we needed to work, needed to learn from a young age and hold ourselves accountable to understand life and its challenges. When I was 13 years old, and my parents owned multiple businesses, my father said, “the best way to know what you want to study is to work, and then you develop your interests”. Later, I was very much influenced by my computer science teachers at school. In university, I studied computer science for a year and a half. But I realised that it was not my major; my mother said, “this is not your major, Dina, you’re more of a people person”. I had to take a break and work out what do I really want to do. During this break, I was managing my family business and started developing an interest in HR.

How did you get started on the more specific human resources track?

I applied for my Master’s in the States and did my Master’s in Public Administration, majored in HR. I got credit from my professor, where she said, “Dina, HR is you, you should continue to pursue your career development throughout your career journey”. That is how I started.

What brought you back to Saudi Arabia?

My family and I decided to go back to the western region of Saudi. It was shocking for me when I went back after living in the States for almost five years, I had the enthusiasm of wanting to change everything. The culture shock hit me, and I realised the differences, reminding myself that I’m not living in the US anymore, you are now in Saudi. I started thinking how and where I would start my career. It was very tough, especially as I had young kids.

How did you cope with that? You talked about settling in, but that must have been a real challenge.

I started comparing the accessibility for women. I started comparing equality and asking why men are treated differently to women. I couldn’t apply to jobs except for certain specific sectors (financial, hospitals and education) and it was very limited. I had very little flexibility in where I could apply. I felt the segregation for example in offices where I was told to work in a female environment. Although, my mindset remained positive and motivated to make and drive impactful changes and that’s where I had to be realistic. I had to say, “okay, let’s focus, let’s prioritize, what do you want to do?”

You are almost the embodiment of the modernisation journey for all Saudi women. Do you see that in yourself? Do you see that you’ve been a pioneer or a trailblazer? Or a role model?

Absolutely, this is what I’ve been in different industries that I have worked for. I’ve been called the pioneer in establishing HR and a pioneer for being a female executive leader among 30,000 plus employees. I was the first Saudi female of the Saudi electricity company. I’ve been driving culture and mindset changes. I’ve had many challenges as a Saudi female in executive management. I had to present myself among other female leaders to show that things are possible with determination, we need to face it and continue to prove ourselves capable. Never give up. Believe in yourself, everything is possible. Nothing is impossible. This has always been my motto and I have shared it all throughout my career with my team and friends to keep motivating and inspiring them. I say we are the catalyst in the kingdom. We’ve been doing a lot and we are transforming. We are generating a new generation. We are building them, we’re developing them. This is what I want to see. I’m working to create a new generation of young leaders, I’m really proud of what I’m seeing and how things are progressing.

I want to ask for a little report card. So obviously, the outside world knows that Saudi is quite conservative, the religious beliefs and cultural norms are very strong. Traditionally that has constrained women’s rights. How much has changed and what still needs to happen?

Many things have changed. There has been a profound change in the last 10 years. It’s impressive. Women leaders in general have been very empowered and they’ve been expressive and outspoken. They’re very courageous. I’m very proud when I see that, and I wish I had that opportunity at a young age where I could’ve expressed and shared my ideas, my creativity, my innovation, my thoughts, yet it’s never too late to embrace this change and make an impact. They now have limitless opportunities.

I’m really interested to get your view on the work you do for the Saudi Public Investment Fund. What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Attracting and retaining top talent. The market is very competitive. Everyone wants to attract young talent and it’s becoming very challenging. I started my career in the banking industry. At that time, I did not have that many options, and that’s where you would find top talent in the banking or the financial industry. Unlike in tech, hospitality, or especially in utilities, because when I used to work for GE and SEC, you wouldn’t find female engineers, this is very new. Colleges have started to introduce engineering programmes for Saudi females. In GE I hired the first Saudi female engineer. So, it depends on the industry, and how to find the talent, but now with the younger generation coming in, you’re finding more diversity in different disciplines that will help to develop talent in a very viable market that offers any opportunity you’ve dreamed of.

How is the Public Investment Fund doing with promoting a more diverse workforce and in a more inclusive workforce?

I would say we are very much in the era of having all the support to hire female leaders. Diversity has very much changed, and they are very supportive in equality in different industries. They’re putting a lot of effort into hiring more female executives, engineers for example. In other industries we are seeing something similar, for example promoting music schools, that was for me a surprise, sponsoring education in music. You see women playing soccer, they are allowing women to access and to enter the stadiums. So, it’s all creating opportunities for women. So, we are definitely on track in achieving vision 2030.

Does it feel like a burden for you? Are you aware of the responsibility?

Absolutely. Wherever I can be more supportive of women and the younger generation, I’m there. Every time they have said, “Dina, we want to learn from you, you’re our role model”, I have said “nothing should stop you from getting to where you want to be”. I keep saying: ”keep up the good work and whatever you’ve been dreaming of, pursue your dreams and pursue your passion”.

Is there one story that you can tell us that illustrates the change that’s happened that has moved you from being initially shocked to now being proud?

I have a very good story of when I joined the Saudi electricity company as the first Saudi female, among 30,000-plus employees. At the beginning, everyone was wondering why I’m here. You don’t belong here. It is designed for men and not for ladies and they had the guts to tell me that. They would comment, a lady like you, how would you even add value to the organisation. I said, be patient and give me some time, then let’s talk. So, after a year and a half, their whole demeanour changed because they sensed something had changed. I drove culture change and shifted their mindset. They saw things they never expected to see. They saw first-hand many achievements and accomplishments that impacted them. They came back to me saying, Dina we have all the respect, and it is interesting how you as a first Saudi leader you faced all those challenges and had the guts to confront us. That was for me a huge recognition. That was the best experience I ever had. It was a distinctive and outstanding experience leaving a memorable legacy.