By Tamara Pupic
Saana Azzam, founder of MENA Speakers, believes in creating a culture of social awareness from day one.
“There is so much incredible talent that I wish to showcase and prove that the region has a strong renaissance movement of high-intellectual voices,” says Saana Azzam, founder of MENA Speakers, a Dubai-based specialist agency for keynote speakers, corporate trainers and moderators, and our latest Entrepreneur of the Week.
MENA Speakers is a regional resource for corporations and public sector institutions, providing more than 100 keynote speakers, event hosts, and moderators, including Claire Woodcraft Scott, CEO of the Emirates Foundation, and Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi female to climb Mount Everest, among others.
Furthermore, the Dubai-based start-up offers public speaking and presentation skills training as well as executive guidance tailored for people looking to improve their soft skills in the areas of sales, marketing, negotiation, and much more.
“We know that every time a great speaker stands on stage, something in their words creates a change in us,” Azzam says. “Thus, we ultimately aim to create an improved state of the world through dialogue, which is our mission statement. And we aspire to be the biggest exporter of Middle Eastern voices to the world.”
Azzam left her successful corporate career, during which she worked for Barclays Capital and Saxo Bank Middle East, to set up MENA Speakers at the beginning of 2016, relying on nothing but her talents and personal savings.
“I have been received immense support throughout this start-up journey from fellow entrepreneurs, womenpreneurs, the Chamber of Commerce, and many more,” she says. “I can definitely say that there are many individuals and organisations that support ambitious people here. We have received mentorship, help and even clients through social-media, referrals, and much more. The market is so dynamic. However, you need to keep a close eye on news updates and changes in legislation.”
MENA Speakers has organised a series of educational and networking events. In addition to being entrusted to host the visit of HE President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa in the UAE, they also provided a number of highly-sought after international speakers for the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, supported the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, among other engagements.
“At some point we were growing so quickly that I needed to find a team urgently, and so ended up not prescreening talent extensively,” she says. “I learnt the hard way that I needed to be disciplined and patient in finding the right talent.
“Furthermore, finding the right talent at start-up salaries has been a huge challenge. However, I have opted for several freelancers that specialise in niche assignments and hired members that are passionate and understand the very demanding nature of a start-up business.”
Azzam was listed as one of Sweden’s 101 Supertalents in 2012, and recognised as a Top 30 Under 30 Influencer in 2015. She is also a certified NLP Practitioner, which enables her to incorporate this skill-set in her training. Azzam also undertook numerous public speaking assignments in Europe and the Middle East with clients, such as Ericsson and Spotify.
Even as a start-up founder, she says, one should set the tone of conducting ethical business and creating a culture of social awareness. MENA Speakers has signed the UN Global Compact Principles, and actively supports the United World College and LifeTalksLive platform.
“Don’t be afraid to cut your losses and avoid the sunk-cost fallacy,” Azzam advises fellow entrepreneurs.
“I have sometimes wanted things to work out so badly that it has been hard to let projects or even people go, but, in this whirl-wind of passion, you need to try to stay level-headed and call the tough decisions sooner rather than later.”
A great story and buckets of information to learn from. Congratulations, Saana Azzam.