Maya Margie Younes is the Head of Marketing at BLC Bank with 20 years’ experience in the banking sector. Before moving her focus to BLC, she had spent several years at American Express Bank, involved in various roles such as business development, strategy and risk management. She played a pivotal role in the strategy and implementation of the Women’s Empowerment program encompassed by the We Initiative focused on gender equality at BLC. When Maya joined BLC Bank, there was no marketing department or strategic positioning in place, and since then she has restructured the brand image as one of the leaders in Lebanon.
We recently met with Maya at the SME Finance Forum in Berlin to learn more about her achievements in banking and women’s empowerment in Lebanon.
1. During your career at BLC, you have played an important role in the implementation of the Women’s Empowerment program. What motivated you to start it and what has been its impact so far?
It all started when we decided to strengthen our position and commit to supporting SMEs as a core competitive advantage in 2007, creating a full range of financial and non-financial solutions for business customers. Given that SMEs account for 95% of the Lebanese economy, it was a logical strategic decision to start supporting the sector.
As a consequence, in 2011 we conducted a national market research study to identify what the specific needs of SMEs were. Not surprisingly, it was clear that women entrepreneurs constitute an underserved segment in our society and face major challenges, and we wanted to address them. First of all, there were many socio-economic barriers, because of women coming into the workforce later, and there was a lot of unconscious bias when asking for business loans. Banks were still asking for a father or other male family member to be present as a guarantor. Women ended up taking out personal loans with multiple banks to collect money they needed to start their businesses. Secondly, there was still a lot of discrimination surrounding women; one of which was their inability to open bank accounts for their minor children. All these factors led to the creation of the We initiative at BLC Bank.
2. How has it transformed the internal culture at BLC Bank?
The decision to start the We Initiative had a huge impact both internally and externally. The bank realized that it needed to address women and their needs in all of the various economic roles they might have: whether they are individuals, existing or aspiring business owners, or female employees within the bank, seeking opportunities to join the bank’s leadership.
At first we thought it was quite a bold decision, since Lebanon is still a very patriarchal society and we did not want to alienate our male customers, who make up 70% of our client base. It prompted us to enter into a partnership with a team of consultants from the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation, allowing us to leverage their expertise to conceptualize the banking services that would assist SMEs, predominantly run by women.
In line with BLC’s mission to support small and medium enterprises, we launched the first Award of its kind in MENA, the Brilliant Lebanese Awards, which is now in its 6th edition. It is designed to honor entrepreneurs who have achieved excellence and demonstrated personal commitment to their business and community. It forms part of our strategy to help SMEs with consultancy, learning and development opportunities, access to markets and more importantly, nationwide exposure.
To conclude, after almost 6 years since the launch of our WE Initiative, not only have we succeeded internally in mainstreaming the program, training our employees to eliminate unconscious bias and delivering value service to the segment; we have also become a local and international reference for women economic empowerment and have trained more than 60 financial institutions thereby influencing the creation of women market programs across the globe.
3. In your experience, what are the key challenges working women face?
Entrepreneurship was once considered a man’s domain, but the perspective is changing, though there’s still a lot to be done to achieve full equality. Although more women are embracing entrepreneurship in Lebanon, they often face challenges not typically shared by male counterparts. The first barrier is the woman’s own decision when managing work and life. I believe that working mothers serve as role models for their children and set a real example for them in diligence and perseverance - that excellence can only be achieved through work, dedication and finding a balance. The second important barrier is discrimination. It may involve pay disparities - when women are paid less than men for performing essentially the same job and more difficulty getting investment.
4. Who would the person be who has most impacted your life?
My biggest inspiration and role model was my father. In a patriarchal culture, both my parents made sure me and my 4 sisters were not raised any differently than our brother - we were all equally encouraged to work hard and take pride in our achievements. That’s where my motto “I don’t know how to fail” comes from.
5. Last, but not least, what are your aspirations for the future?
Building on this success, there is an opportunity in the SME banking space in Lebanon, whereby only ⅓ of companies are run by women and I would be happy to see this number grow as a direct result of initiatives we carry out at BLC Bank. However, I believe to achieve gender equality and women’s financial inclusion across the nation, more institutions have to adopt such initiatives; more importantly we should have more men championing gender equality. As such, our priority is to continue being involved in the national efforts to support SMEs and women’s growth and expansion, and maintain our strong social and economic impact.