Saana Azzam is an economist, author, speaker, performance coach and founder of Mena-Speakers, a UAE based company that helps you find the right speakers for your events. She also recently launched knowhomarket.com, a global platform focused on matchmaking speakers and knowledge seekers for events, conferences, workshops
We had a sit down with Saana in this week’s episode of the NigeriansInDubai podcast to have a discussion about the many things that make her tick. She is an interesting personality and we can’t wait to hear how she was able to turn her passion to profit.
Download the podcast episode: Saana Azzam on NigeriansInDubai or listen to it below
Saana was raised by immigrant parents, migrating from Palestine to Sweden like many Africans in countries like Ethiopia and Sudan who have experienced war in different phases over the years.
By the age of 26 she had lived in six different countries, worked within private banking at SEB Group and done an investment banking internship at Barclays Capital in London during the financial crisis in 2008. She also had an internship at Nike, American Express and has held 32 innovative speeches around Europe.
Saana has a Masters in Economics from Stockholm School of Economics. Her adept skills and knowledge in market analysis, investments, research and finance has earned her the prestigious title of ‘Female Economist of the Year’. As a global speaker, her goal is to educate, empower and impact through her speaking and direct engagements.
To start off, Tea or Coffee? If you could eliminate one, which would it be?
Right now, I’m having a cup of coffee but this is a tricky question. I’m Swedish and we are massive consumers of coffee. We have a culture built around coffee. In Sweden, in the middle of the day, during work hours, we have something called Fika which is basically a coffee break. Everyone literally drops everything, gets a cup of coffee, a bun and has a chitchat. So, I guess that answers the question. But then in the Arab world, you have a cup of chai so I’m a big fan of both. And it helps that the health benefits of both are tremendous. Coffee has been getting a bad rep lately due to excessive caffeine and you shouldn’t drink it too much but the matter of fact is it does help prevent diseases like Type II diabetes, it’s good for peak performance and it can actually increase your physical performance by 12%.
Tell us a bit about yourself; background, influences etc
I was born in transit, in between countries. My parents fled the war in Lebanon in 1987 and I was born on the way. I was born in Germany. While trying to settle, my parents got word that it was easier for immigrants and refugees to settle and get citizenship in Sweden and we moved to Sweden. When we got in and wanted to be placed, my father was adamant about the family being placed in a local community. It was important to him that we integrated and assimilated the culture there. He wanted us to fully adapt and I think that was a brilliant move. We were the only Arab family in the neighbourhood. Sweden was generous and welcoming but when you are a minority, there is a need to prove yourself and I found that doing and performing well even from the first grade was a way to get recognition, acknowledgement and almost become untouchable. That’s where the desire to work hard came from.
How did growing up as an immigrant affect you?
I have the typical immigrant stories. The mean teacher who tells you you’d never amount to anything, getting teased in school, but those experiences taught me resilience and I’m grateful for going through that earlier on in life because now, I’m pretty unfazed.
Why did you pursue a career in Economics?
When I was in high school, I had phenomenal grades and I got a scholarship to go to boarding school in Wales. I had good grades in everything except maths and economics. It was a situation where your parents want you to study something clever. But I’m grateful for what I learnt.
How did you get into public speaking?
It was accidental. In 2010, the year I won the Female Economist of the Year award, huge, unexpected honour it was by the way, and I was getting a lot of press coverage then I got a call asking me to join in a conference as a speaker and I was in a Yes mode where you just go for something and do it, so I said yes. I asked them what I should speak about and I was told to come up with a topic. I went up on stage and did this largely improvised speech with a few talking points and spoke from my heart. I was so nervous, my knees were shaking and I was feeling nauseated. I felt way in over my head but as I stepped off the stage, a lady walked up to me, complimented my speech and offered to pay me to come give the speech to her management team. At this point, I was working at American Express and doing economic research. That first speech opened the door and I was repeatedly getting booked to come speak at events. An agency began to represent me and I travelled and spoke professionally for a year.
With MENA Speakers, how does being a woman in this industry differentiates you?
MENA Speakers is the leading speakers agency in the region. We represent over 200 expats from the Middle East that talk about various topics. It could be finance, economics, motivational speaking, psychology etc. We have the best speakers and we send them out on speaking engagements. Contrary to general perception, being in this region and working as a female business owner, I have been well received. I find that I have had a lot of male supporters and sponsors.
Our main question is can you make money doing what you love?
Like I said, I did the one year of public speaking but there was something that told me I could do more. So, that’s why I moved back into finance and started working in banking. I worked as a physical gold trader. I did that for a while. Working in finance was fun but it wasn’t really for me and I when I realised that, I resigned quickly and went back to the drawing board. I figured out that my values were to help people with collective effort. There was a gap in the market that aligned with my passion so yes, I am living proof that you can make money doing what you love.
Jante’s Law, Sweden and a changing world
Jante’s Law is a code of conduct that is socially ingrained in Scandinavia that says you shouldn’t think you’re anything special or better than us. So coming to the Middle East which is the direct opposite, here if you got it, you flaunt it, be proud and acknowledge your achievements. Looking at both cultures, there are benefits to both. It was nice to be raised with the Swedish humility, being respectful, not being ostentatious and being mindful of others. However, you should acknowledge your own greatness, you should applaud yourself and it’d be great if people could applaud and support you. I respect the Swedish Jante’s Law, I understand it but I prefer the style where we can hi- five each other if someone has done a great job. There are pros and cons with every culture you come across and there are aspects of it that will resonate with you. I think Sweden is such a great example of a society that is high functioning. When it comes to gender roles and gender equality, we’re really lucky. We’re in a country that is really promoting that. The fact that we have a young female minister, the Minister of Youth, a 23 year old is a testament to the values of the UAE and Dubai and the vision of His Highness here, I think it’s visionary.
Is there a mindset shift involved in making money doing what you love? How do you differentiate between fun passion projects and profit passion projects?
The Japanese have a concept called Ikigai and it’s a reason for being. They look at the intersection of your passion (doing what you love), your mission (what the world needs), your vocation (what you are good at) and your profession (what you can get paid for). When you are at the intersection of these 4 things, then you are operating from a true place of passion and fulfilment. If you’re not getting paid for doing what you love, it would deplete you. If you’re pursuing your passion and you can’t pay your bills and live a comfortable life, you’re going to end up giving up on it. So, the meeting at the intersection of all four elements is key. Luckily, in this day and age, it is possible to meet all four. The digital world has enabled us to create pockets of special interests.
You can hear the full dialogue by listening or downloading the episode in the link shared above.
Ifeanyi Abraham is a creative storyteller, life hacker and Digital Influencer.
He is a Public relations & Digital Marketing executive that helps companies, government agencies & NGOs leverage the power of marketing & communications.
He is the Founder of NigeriansinDubai.com, a knowledge sharing and transfer platform focused on harnessing the lessons, spirit and power of Dubai to the benefit of Nigerians. We tell the stories of Nigerians living, working and visiting Dubai.
He is also the Co-founder of The Beverage Room, a digital community for Beverage Lovers.