At age 37, Sabrina Bouzidi has already accomplished more than many people do in a lifetime.
She is the CEO of IFAConseil, an engineering consulting company that she built from scratch. She capitalised the company as a joint venture to become a subsidiary of Diana Holding, one of Morocco’s largest private companies and one of only a handful with a female chief executive. She earned certification as a professional director from IFC and the Institute of Moroccan Directors. She sits on the boards of four organisations, where she is a vocal advocate for greater gender balance in the workplace. She’s also a wife and the mother of a son.
Determination and ignoring the negativity
Sabrina’s independence, keen sense of market opportunity, and willingness to take calculated risks – classic entrepreneurial characteristics – have guided the company’s path from the start. After apprenticing at several manufacturing firms to finance her engineering education in France, Sabrina seized on an important moment in the French industrial marketplace: the increased emphasis on quality, occupational health, safety, and the environment.
As heavy industrial firms clamoured to improve their performance, demand for support services rose. Sabrina started IFAConseil, a provider of quality, health, safety, and environment services, to meet this rising demand. Soon, the company won contracts with some of the nation’s major players in infrastructure, transport, and energy.
In those early days, Sabrina says she faced a dual-pronged credibility challenge: her youth and her gender. “I started my business when I was only 20,” she says. “Getting men to take me seriously was a major hurdle to overcome.” Often the only woman in the room and the youngest by far, she drew from a well of inner strength to convey confidence. “I knew that I couldn’t let on any hint of feeling intimidated,” she says. The can-do attitude helped her win the business initially. But it was the company’s ability to deliver concrete results that did away with any enduring scepticism, solidifying the company’s status and earning the loyalty of its clients.
Not content with the company’s early success, Sabrina demonstrated a continued willingness to take business risks – as long as they were grounded in market fundamentals. When Colas Rail, one of IFAConseil’s major clients, won the bid to build the Rabat tramway in 2009, the Colas team invited IFAConseil to be a part of the project. Sabrina agreed, setting up a new, Rabat-based branch of the company so IFAConseil could serve its client while retaining the French operations.
Working around discriminatory banking norms to access growth capital
Of course, such expansions cost money. Sabrina realised that company growth was seriously constrained by lack of capital. Here again, she faced challenges. “In Morocco, accessing finance is very difficult for female business owners, in addition to the fact that it is really expensive to finance the kinds of projects we work on.”
At the same time, Sabrina was in the process of streamlining the Moroccan company’s board structure, creating the single management council that typifies limited liability companies in the country. She insisted on adding an independent director to provide an objective and outside perspective – a key learning takeaway from her IFC director training, she says. The result of these efforts, according to Sabrina: more collaborative, effective, and efficient decision making.
This restructured board moved quickly when IFAConseil received an equity bid from Diana Holding, voting to approve the 50-50 ownership offer. The action enabled the company to access funding that otherwise would not have been available, given the obstacles to bank financing faced by female business owners in Morocco. “Our ability to acquire this infusion of capital from Diana Holding really made the difference in our ability to take advantage of growth opportunities,” Sabrina says.
The combination of adequate capitalisation, strengthened board, and enhanced controls have led the company to even greater success as it grows and evolves, according to Sabrina.
Today, the company’s multidisciplinary teams offer engineering, training, audit and consulting services across a range of areas, including quality, safety, hygiene, environment and corporate social responsibility. The approach has clearly worked, as evidenced by the company’s rapid expansion, collaborations in six countries, and impressive client list.
Boosting pathways to female leadership
For too long, women in the region have lagged behind others in pursuing business careers, starting their own businesses, and ascending to senior executive and boardroom ranks, Sabrina says. “We women in the Maghreb have to believe that we have a legitimate place in corporate leadership and business ownership. We shouldn’t be shy about showing what we can do.”
Sabrina champions the cause of women in all levels of business. IFAConseil has achieved complete gender parity, with a 50-50 balance of men and women throughout the company ranks. The company’s management steering committee is two-thirds female. To alleviate the stress in balancing work and home life, Sabrina instituted a telework policy, enabling increased flexibility for employees, many of whom are working parents. “Basically, our culture is one of results. As long as people are getting their work done and delivering, we are less concerned with the where and when,” she says.
Addressing gender imbalances in Morocco’s business culture
Less than 3% of Morocco’s startups are helmed by women, by some accounts. This is due in part to a conservative culture that discourages women from being too independent and to broader deterrents to overall entrepreneurial activity: Morocco ranks at the bottom for business conditions conducive to startups, compared to other countries, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.
The lack of support for female entrepreneurship comes at a significant cost to the Moroccan economy, Sabrina believes.
At a time when a growing body of evidence correlates a healthy small business sector with economic vitality, the nation is losing out on an important opportunity. “Think what would be possible as a nation if we took down the barriers to entry and encouraged more women to start their own businesses,” she says.
This article was first published in the IFC’s Trailblazers–Portraits of Female Business Leadership in Emerging and Frontier Markets publication.