Shireen Shelleh “Women have to put much more effort than their male colleagues to prove themselves”

Shireen is a civil engineer by education. She started her career as a technical engineer, and climbed the ladder over 12 years, until she became the executive director of the company, CEP, which is one of the oldest and biggest engineering consultancy companies in Palestine. Only a few years after she joined the company, she became a shareholder with a little number of shares at first, until she became the sole owner of it. With all that experience, in 2017, she collaborated with her sister, who is a pharmacist, and established their own Medical and Pharmaceutical supplies company which they named after their family name. In 2016, she was selected as a Young Global Leader (YGL) by the World Economic Forum (WEF). We speak with her to learn all about her inspiring journey.

Tell us more about your work in the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum offers me many yearly opportunities in to cooperate with the best universities, institutions and communities all over the world, which improves my skills and increases my exposure. We do regular meetings under different themes; we prepare initiatives that help our communities and others in the world; we work collectively to support each other and our communities and countries. We arrange adventure trips in areas facing challenges. We try during these trips to provide support to the people living there and to help them sustain. 

Would you say the planning and infrastructure field is male dominated? If so, how did you deal with this?

Yes. However, for me, it makes it even more exciting, I love challenges. I went through several occasions in which I was not accepted by the other participants because I am woman, young and manager. It wasn’t easy to handle but I managed gradually. You gain respect when you show seriousness, capability and competence. 

Being headquartered in Palestine, has that ever been a challenge due to the sensitive nature of the political situation?

Running a private business in Palestine is extremely challenging. We provide our services mainly to the government through different donors who support the implementation of these services. At any point if donors reduce their support or stop it due to political reasons, that affects us drastically. We Palestinians, keep working on our independence by creating new businesses which strengthen our economy and make us less dependent on donation. However, the occupation makes this very difficult. We have very limited access to our natural resources, high limitation on land for developments, strict accessibility to most areas within our country, Palestine has no control at all on borders. So, sustaining the business is very challenging and requires us to always have several backup plans to make sure that we stay in the market and keep our staff operating.

Do you believe successful, inspiring women such as yourself have a responsibility to set a good example for young girls? How do you believe this can be accomplished?

Yes. Successful women should have a mission to spread positive messages among their communities and even in the Region; conducting regular meetings with young ladies, supporting female employees in their companies, mentoring young ladies who are starting their career, advocating more for women in the workplace, and increasing their presence in executive positions. 

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of young female entrepreneurs in the Middle East? And how can they collectively overcome them?

In the Middle East, it is more difficult for females to succeed than males due to reasons related mainly to the culture, traditions, and the communities’ perception that puts less faith in female competence and capability to deliver. Women have to put much more effort than their male colleagues to prove themselves.

We are hearing more and more success stories of Arab female entrepreneurs. These stories should be given more attention and be the source of inspiration. A platform that connects these successful entrepreneurs with other ladies in the Middle East working on their projects should be a great start. Long term mentorship programs also proved to be efficient. The above will not be enough without also securing some financial support to these ladies. 

Successful women can contribute to this by helping in connecting these female entrepreneurs with potential investors, by sitting on their companies’ Boards of Directors and providing them with the required support and direction, and by advocating within their capacities for these ladies’ ideas and inventions. 

What are your future plans for CEP?

We in CEP started to expand our operation in the Region, Iraq, UAE and Libya, since the year 2007 and we are still working on making this strategy more successful and sustainable. We are currently exploring opportunities in farther areas, such as the developing countries in Asia and Africa. My ultimate goal is to help prevent the waste of talented people in Palestine and to increase the exposure and experience of our young engineers and professionals. 

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