"The biggest benefit of working in an international cross-cultural context is perspective."
Mariam Al-Foudery is confident, fast speaking, and determined, mixed with a dose of humor and care for all she does. She heads global digital marketing, corporate communications, and corporate social responsibility at Agility, one of the world’s leading logistics companies, ranked in the top 4% of its industry by Ecovadis. She has helped shape the company’s sustainability strategy, which today has reached more than 1 million people in need through education support and humanitarian logistics. Mariam started her career in international development, working for non-profits in India and Egypt, as well as with the UNDP in the Middle East.
1. Can you tell us where you are from and which countries or cities you have called home, including where you live now?
My mother is Greek and my father is Kuwaiti. I grew up in Kuwait, spending long and happy summers in Greece (I speak Greek fluently). I went to university in the US and the UK, and then lived in India and Egypt before moving back to Kuwait for a number of years. About nine years ago, I moved to Singapore.
2. Your work is very inspiring. Tell us about yourself in short. How did you arrive where you are and what are you doing now?
There is no straight or linear path in line. At the time, nothing makes sense. It is only retrospect that you see the pattern. After I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to do field-level international development work. Despite my two degrees from Stanford, no one would give me a job with a NGO. Investment banking, yes. Development work, no. So I moved to India and volunteered until I had enough experience to do the work I was passionate about. After India, I ran a microfinance program in low-income neighborhoods in Cairo, Egypt for a couple of years. After a few years in the field, I went back to graduate school in the UK for a second time to study international development formally. London is an expensive city, so I came back to Kuwait to write my dissertation, to save some funds while I was finishing up my degree. It was there that I first heard about the company that would later be rebranded as Agility.
I joined Agility because I was excited about the idea of creating a sustainability strategy in a green-field environment. To be honest, I had no idea that I would still be there fifteen years later. Or that I would take responsibility for the marcomms function along the way. I wouldn’t have been able to predict most of how my professional life has played out actually. But that’s half the fun.
3. What are the biggest challenges and benefits you face when working in an international cross-cultural context?
Above all, the biggest benefit is perspective. There are so many ways of being, living, working, and the opportunity to live and work in many places and with a company that operates in 100+countries really allows you to experience that for yourself. There’s no “one way” on absolutely anything in life.
4. Has a sense of local identity played a role in the way you work in terms of values, ethics or creativity?
For better or worse, I was never fully local anywhere. I grew up in a mixed family – with mixed religions and mixed languages spoken at home. I went to university far from home – it would take me more than a day to get there with the multiple flight connections. I have started a family in yet another continent – one that I didn’t know well before I moved here. But that said, the country I have spent the most time in and consider home is Kuwait. And I think there are things about Arab culture that are extremely important to me – courtesy, hospitality, and an appreciation for artistry. Also, that family is the bedrock of life and that there is tremendous meaning and purpose that stems from that family unit.
“Despite my two degrees from Stanford, no one would give me a job with a NGO. Investment banking, yes. Development work, no.”
5. What’s the biggest border to creativity and innovation in your work, and how do you try to overcome it?
Emails and phone calls! The key to being creative and innovative is the time and space to think deeply. And I think that we have to create mental space free from distraction to be able to do that deep thinking. In my current role, I lead a large and global team and my constant challenge is to try to give enough time to the people I lead and other stakeholders, and to find enough time to be able to look over the horizon. How do I overcome it? With ruthless scheduling. I put thinking and creative time on my calendar, just like I do my meetings. It forces some discipline around space to think.
6. What advice would you give to other women starting in positions like yours?
To be aware that there’s no such thing as a perfect balance in your personal and professional life – and this is true for both women and men. Having an intense career will always mean some tradeoffs personally. Having a family will have some tradeoffs professionally. Accepting those tradeoffs early, practicing self-compassion in all aspects of your life, and building a support network (your village) is the key. I would also say that a level of determination is important – if you know what you want, you can overcome the obstacles. The nature of life is that it will throw you curves, that’s normal. Your life will be defined by what you do with them.
7. In terms of having an impact, tell us something you’ve done or are doing to make the world a better place.
I guess my contribution to the world has been to plant an idea in a specific context: our 30,000 person company. It’s the idea that we can make a difference in small ways individually and that it adds up collectively. At Agility, it’s our employees around the world that have helped us make community investments in 80+ countries, reaching 1.6 million people over the last fifteen years. It’s not me that did that. But I like to think that I have helped empower our people and help harness that energy.
“I care deeply about the development of the people I work with, of all generations.”
8. What are you especially proud of in your career?
At the end, it’s always about people. What matters the most to me is that I make time to mentor and coach, to help people grow in their careers, and to champion them. I care deeply about the development of the people I work with, of all generations.
9. Do you have any future plans, projects or goals you can tell us about?
Someday I am going to write a romance novel. Light and fluffy and sweet – something that will make you smile when you read it on a beach. There are many ways to spread a little joy!
10. What do you think are some important qualities brands of the future will need to embrace in order to succeed?
I think values play a role. Sustainability – including ethical and inclusive supply chains – will only gain power and importance over time. I think mindset plays a role. For example, speed to adapt to a changing world is key – COVID-19 has shown us how quickly things can shift under our feet. And I think customer-centricity will play a role. Online and offline, the brands that succeed will be the ones that put the customer at the heart of everything they do. The broad dimensions will be important: irrespective of what the future looks like.