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This article is a part of the 2023 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East’s annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.

It was the kind of situation that any entrepreneur would have dreaded. There Dena Almansoori was, just 11 days after launching her UAE-based tech startup, WhiteBox HR, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the world stopped. Today, Almansoori refers to this as one of the most challenging moments in her career. “I had a team counting on me as the CEO to figure out the strategy and make it happen,” she recalls. “It was a scary time for so many reasons, but also a very pivotal moment in my career.”

Despite it seeming like the odds were against her, Almansoori persevered, and worked her way through the challenges. She could have easily called it quits, and gone back to the corporate world where as an experienced practitioner in the domain of human resources (HR), her talent was in very high demand. She could have taken the easy way out. But she decided not to- and that points to her belief in the importance of resilience and adaptability. “You don’t grow without adversity in life,” she notes. “It’s through mistakes and failure that you really understand what you’re made of, and who you really are.”

Almost a year after founding WhiteBox HR, which harnesses the power of artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, and people science to help organizations make data-driven talent decisions, she was also appointed Group Chief Human Resources Officer (GCHRO) at Etisalat in late 2020, which later evolved into the global technology brand known as e&. As the first female C-suite executive in the company, and one of the youngest in its history, she was given the mandate to transform the enterprise. Today, she leads the talent and culture transformation for more than 60,000 employees spread across e&’s operations in 16 countries.

So, who is Dena Almansoori really? An HR leader? An entrepreneur? The first woman to hold a C-suite executive position at one of the world’s leading technology companies? As it so happens, she’s all of these things, and so much more- a dynamic and compassionate leader with a global perspective.

Armed with an MBA from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and a BSc in management information systems and finance from Boston University in the USA, it was during her tenure at Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil and gas services company, where she found her calling. Initially starting her career in the data and consulting services department, she made an unexpected detour into HR in what she thought to be a short rotation for learning purposes,and that’s when everything clicked into place.

Recognizing the pivotal role of people, and the importance of cultivating the right talent and culture for a successful business, Almansoori decided that her path lay within the HR space, and thus set about dedicating her expertise to driving large-scale transformative change, and positively impacting lives. Now, it’s no mean feat to manage both a C-suite position at a multi-billion-dollar company, as well as an entrepreneurial venture.

Indeed, Almansoori says that doing what she does requires effective discipline, time management, delegation, and a strategic approach. She believes in pushing boundaries in both roles, and emphasizes the importance of bringing fresh perspectives to everything she does. “Passion has always been the driving force behind everything I do,” she explains. “If you’re passionate about what you do, there is no mental clock in and clock out. Passion is energy; it will drive you to overcome any obstacle, and push you to continuously innovate to make an impact.”

Dena Almansoori, founder and CEO, WhiteBox HR, and Group Chief Human Resources Officer, e&. Source: WhiteBox HR/e&

Almansoori did exactly that: she identified a significant gap in the market for comprehensive HR tech solutions beyond basic payroll and recruitment systems. “HR lagged dramatically in the data and analytics space, while other disciplines benefited from advanced systems with robust analytics platforms,” she recalls. “This really bothered me. In a world where music, movies, and shopping recommendations are personally curated for you based on algorithms; yet, in the world of work, where we spend most of our time, it is devoid of personalization, real-time data driven insights, and support for improving employee experiences and organizational health. It just didn’t make sense.”

Rather than waiting for someone else to solve the problem, Almansoori decided to tackle the issue on her own. Combining her experiences in HR and technology (she learned how to code during her undergrad years), she founded WhiteBox HR. “All our decisions around who the best candidate is to hire, the most productive employee on your team, the most under resourced department in your company, etc.. all these questions were left to subjectivity, and often biased opinions,” she says. “I knew there was a better, more efficient and scientific way of making these critical decisions.”

Almansoori asserts that WhiteBox HR was purpose-built for the future of work, and so, when the COVID-19 crisis hit, it only accelerated the need for the solution it offered. She says, “The sudden shift to remote work left many companies with unanswered questions: Were employees burning out? Were they still collaborating effectively? What happened to productivity? WhiteBox HR provided answers to all these questions in real-time, enabling companies to make data-driven decisions quickly, address challenges proactively, and adjust policies as needed. While in many ways launching a tech company right before a pandemic is not ideal, in retrospect, the timing played to our advantage. It allowed us to stress test the product very early on, and validated that it aligned perfectly with the evolving needs of organizations. In short, we got lucky.”

After generating its first revenue stream in April 2020, WhiteBox HR witnessed consistent month-over-month revenue growth for the subsequent months and year-over-year growth since. Last year, the company expanded operations to Saudi Arabia, continuing on its rapid growth trajectory. In parallel, she was also disrupting as GCHRO at e&, playing a crucial role in transforming the company from a regional telecommunications company into a global technology leader.

Commenting on her role at e&, Almansoori says, “I partner closely with the leadership team, board members, and business stakeholders to shape and transform e&’s talent and culture. By understanding technology trends, market dynamics, and evolving customer needs, we develop comprehensive strategic plans that outline the skills, policies, structures, roles, and competencies required to support e&’s digital vision, and the culture that will enable it.”

Related: Lessons On Leadership: Natalia Vodianova, Co-Founder, Locals.org

Additionally, Almansoori drives initiatives for continuous learning and development, and leads efforts to foster a culture of innovation and a growth mindset by creating initiatives that encourage risk-taking, experimentation, and knowledge-sharing. Upon her entry into the company three years ago, one of her immediate actions was to launch three new functions within the HR department: employee experience, people analytics, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“These are crucial pillars in building an engaged and productive workforce,” Almansoori explains. “By launching these teams, we effectively shifted the entire focus of HR to being a strategic player, able to directly influence and prioritize our employees, and create a positive and productive work culture that ultimately fueled our transformation efforts and results. In the last couple of years, we hit record net profit, record revenue, lowest voluntary resignations, highest gender diversity, highest engagement scores… This is what happens when you focus on people.”

When asked her thoughts on the region’s burgeoning tech ecosystem, Almansoori points out that e& plays a significant role in shaping the sector by both driving innovation and contributing to the industry’s overall growth. “Our transformation journey was necessary, and it highlighted the importance of creating a more progressive business model to sustain our ambition. The UAE has always been at the forefront of innovation, and turning challenges into opportunities, and now, it has truly become the leading tech hub in the region,” Almansoori notes.

Dena Almansoori, founder and CEO, WhiteBox HR, and Group Chief Human Resources Officer, e&. Source: WhiteBox HR/e&

Indeed, it’s this very tech hub that has allowed e& to make impactful investments in entrepreneurial brands such as Careem and StarzPlay, and it continues to actively seek partnerships with startups and technology companies that align with e&’s strategic goals. “Our investment pillar, e& capital, plays a significant role here by investing in ideas and people that want to build a better and brighter digital future,” Almansoori adds. “We are supporting visionary tech startups by investing into the company’s success, partnering to help them scale, and enabling meaningful progress that moves our world forward.”

Given her roles at both e& and WhiteBox HR, Almansoori’s view of the regional startup sector is quite positive, and she recognizes its potential for innovation, job creation, and economic growth. “The MENA startup ecosystem is currently one of the most promising in the world,” she says. “The region’s young and tech-savvy population provides a strong consumer base that embraces new products and services. Additionally, many governments in the MENA region have changed to actively support entrepreneurship through various programs and initiatives, fostering a favorable environment for businesses to thrive.”

Almansoori also believes that the MENA region has an abundance of talent and innovation. “I strongly believe the MENA region will be home to some of the most successful startups in the world in the years to come,” she declares. And as an entrepreneur herself, she knows exactly what their success will feel like. “There’s an undeniable and inexplainable feeling that happens when you spend years building something that was once just an idea in your head,” she says. “A problem you desperately, passionately and obsessively believe needs to be solved. Not just letting it sit there, but actually taking that idea, doing the research and the hard work to execute on it, and then building and scaling to generate a profit. To have it come to life. There are no words to describe that feeling. It’s really phenomenal.”

The Executive Summary: Dena Almansoori’s tips for entrepreneurs in the MENA region

Never compromise on talent or culture “We are sometimes so desperate to fill a role or achieve a deadline that we’re willing to overlook red flags or tolerate poor employee behavior. This is the one area you should not compromise on. The talent decisions you make today as to what is or isn’t acceptable for your company will ultimately make or break it in the future.”

Lead with passion and compassion “If you don’t love and believe in what you’re building, you’re likely to give up at some point along the way. Also, never forget the people that supported you in your journey. Recognition, kindness, and gratitude is everything.”

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable “I can absolutely guarantee that launching and scaling a startup is going to be a bumpy road. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Embrace the unknown, and master your ability to be resilient and adaptable.”

Continue to raise the bar “Staying up to date with emerging trends and disruptions will give you a competitive edge. You have to always stay curious, humble, and hungry. Be prepared to adjust your strategies based on market dynamics and evolving customer needs, and pivot as, and when, required.”

Always give back “Consider incorporating sustainable practices into your business model to find ways to become more conscious of environmental and social responsibility. Think about how you can benefit the communities around you for impact.”

Do your homework “Take the time to deep dive into specific market segments, understand the problem you are solving and assess the demand for your products or services in the country you are in. What works in one market may not work in another. What you think is a great idea may not be in demand. Do the research upfront to avoid wasting unnecessary time and energy.”

Take care of yourself “I think we are all experiencing a level of cognitive overload like never before, and it’s very hard to switch off and disengage. Being mindful about unplugging, and resetting every now and then is critical in order to keep your mental and physical health at its peak at all times. It’s a long-term play, and you need to stay in the race.”

Related: Follow The Leader: Salama Mohamed, Founder, Peacefull

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