The Middle East and Africa (MEA) region is generally an up and coming region with respect to its wider economic development. Specifically, the region has seen a growth and importance in fintech, producing its own unique innovations, entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the space. As The Fintech Times in September celebrates the Women in Fintech we take a moment to hear more from some of the leading female leaders in both the Middle East and Africa. One of them is Mirna Sleiman, who is originally from Lebanon but has lived in the United Arab Emirates since 2006 and is an expert in fintech and specifically in open innovation and ecosystem development.
Mirna Sleiman is the founder and CEO of Fintech Galaxy, an open innovation and crowdsourcing platform that enables API-integration of financial institutions with qualified startups and developers.
Driven by passion for innovation and positive impact, Mirna has more than 15 years of experience in leading digital transformation projects, marketing comms strategies and global partnerships with public and private entities, with a focus on knowledge economy development, regulatory infrastructure and financial markets. She led the public sector business for Thomson Reuters across 22 MENA countries and spent more than 10 years as a financial journalist with Reuters, Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal and Zawya.
Mirna has an Executive MBA from City University of London in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She is certified from MIT University in Fintech and e-commerce, and in Digital Marketing and Communications from Columbia University.
Describe your career journey
My shift from journalism to business development and then to setting up my own company may sound a bit extreme, but if you think about it, journalists have everything it takes to excel in a business environment given their curiosity to learn more, their ability to connect with people and build relationships and of course their emotional intelligence which helps in managing teams, stakeholders and navigating regulatory complexities. I spent more than 10 years as a financial journalist where I analyzed balance sheets, dug deeper into M&A deals and understood the challenges facing banks and regulators in the region. I also learned a lot from market leaders who’ve left a mark in the global economy. Being a Lebanese who survived decades of civil war, during which I also lost my house in 2006, gave me the resilience and perseverance to drive financial inclusion into the MENA region. This passion to make a difference was the key driver behind allowing me to successfully set up Fintech Galaxy.
Finx22, by Fintech Galaxy, is an open platform that fuels innovation, drives collaboration and facilitates integration between financial institutions and fintech companies. The platform provides an Open Banking API sandbox that enables development, testing and deployment of fintech solutions, offers a marketplace that connects institutions to thousands of fintechs from across the globe, and delivers matchmaking and crowdsourcing capabilities that solve customer pain points, ultimately spurring disruptive and transformative innovation across the financial services industry.
As a recognised thought leader and a female, what difficulties have you faced in your career?
Despite what appears to the public eye as being an independent driven ambitious woman, I’m at my core a traditional Arab woman who believes in the distinct role of men and women in society. We as women like to play the victim sometimes and blame others for our shortfalls. Yes, there are plenty of challenges, especially when it comes to raising funds, taking board seats, work-life balance and dealing with harassment in many areas. However, any woman who has the character, the curiosity, the passion and the self-confidence can excel in any field. I’ve been called “intimidating,” “too aggressive” and “bossy”, sometimes even “polarizing”. I once spent a year with an executive coach who tried to tame the wild spirit in me to fit corporate life…this was the biggest mistake. Smart women should use these notions for their own advantage. Women are unique in their complexity, powerful in their femininity, and honestly…only when they appreciate their own beauty and vulnerability, they will break the glass ceiling and inspire the female leaders of tomorrow.
What are the future trends and predictions you see happening in the region?
Mobile banking is becoming more popular in the MENA region as it offers convenience and financial inclusion. This has now become even more relevant as we all start adapting to the ‘new normal’ and following social distancing guidelines issued by authorities. Open Banking will also lead the way as it allows for data sharing and better collaboration between the ecosystem players. Open banking is a system that provides a user with a network of financial institutions data through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs). Cross-border e-KYC solutions (potentially built on blockchain technology) to digitally verify customers as reliably as merchants can in face-to-face interactions is another trend we see rapidly emerging. We will also see many more serious and successful collaboration efforts between financial institutions and fintechs, supported by regulators and API platforms like Fintech Galaxy.
In addition to this, we are also observing a key shift in focus from policymakers across the region to implement more forward-thinking and agile policies related to the fintech industry. A substantial amount of effort is being put to develop more diverse, competitive and innovative economies and needless to say, fostering healthy FinTech ecosystems is seen as a leading pillar for economic diversification in the region.
What advice and recommendations do you want to give future female entrepreneurs and thought leaders who are based in the Middle East & Africa (MEA) region?
Many challenges women face are self-inflicted. Why choose between motherhood and career when you can successfully do both? I’m a proud mother of 3, a startup founder and I’ve successfully completed an executive MBA while managing all of my personal responsibilities. I truly believe that working mothers raise a more balanced and understanding generation.
Setting up your own company is an amazing way of following your dream while enjoying the flexibility between home and work. You also get your kids to be part of your “extended team” and you’ll be surprised what insights they can give you about the economy of future generations.
My advice to all women is as follows:
- Be proud of your imperfections – there’s beauty in vulnerability
- Don’t lose your self-confidence – it’s your identity
- Never underestimate mental and emotional intelligence – this is your secret sauce
- Don’t wear the pants at home – protect your femininity
- Don’t stop dreaming – you can achieve anything you set your mind on
- Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal – and drive forward!