Nevine Wefky is CEO of Corporate Credit & Investment at Commercial International Bank [CIB]. Throughout her career, Ms. Wefky was chosen to represent CIB as a board member, Managing Director, and Chairman at several affiliates. She is an active member in several committees within the Bank, such as the Management Committee, High Lending and Investment Committee, Asset and Liability Management Committee, Non-Financial Risks and Compliance Committee, and Pricing Concession Committee.
Tell us about your childhood. What was it like growing up?
I come from a small family. I have a brother, sister, and an amazing mother. When I was nine years old, I lost my father to an unfortunate car accident. As a result, my mother took on the role of both mother and father. I have various roots: my paternal grandmother is Turkish, while my maternal grandmother is German. My German maternal grandmother moved in with us after my father passed. I was raised in Egypt and studied at a well-known German school in the country with a history that goes back over 100 years. I met my husband there and my son graduated there this year. I graduated in 1981, having met the requirements for both the International Baccalaureate of the school and Egypt’s local baccalaureate. The reason for this was that the school taught both the German and Egyptian curriculums. And I’m proud to say that I ranked fourth in Egypt that year. This gave me an important privilege: a scholarship to study at the American University in Cairo in 1981. I majored in Business Administration and minored in Psychology. At that time, Business Administration was a new major in Egypt and you had to have a 4.0 GPA to join. Thankfully, my score in the international and Egyptian baccalaureate were enough. Four years later, in June 1985, I graduated with the highest honors.
Back then, CIB was not called Commercial International Bank, it was Chase National Bank. It was a joint venture established in 1975 between the Chase Manhattan Bank and the local public sector bank, the National Bank of Egypt. It was an important institution, newly introduced to the Egyptian market, that combined the American and Egyptian cultures of doing business.
In another stroke of luck, I was selected to attend a credit course designed by Chase Manhattan Bank when I joined the bank in 1986. I’m proud to tell you that during my 34 or 35 years with CIB, we offer a constantly updated credit course to 30 – 40 ambitious young women and men with excellent grades every year. CIB is well-known for this credit course. It’s a one-year program, where we study and learn how to extend credit. We get to know about banking and its different aspects, like what’s a letter of credit, what’s a letter of guarantee, etc.? It’s like doing an MBA, but majoring in corporate credit and investments. I ranked fourth in the course and was appointed as a senior credit analyst at the corporate banking division of the bank upon my graduation.
And that was where my long journey started. From a small analyst position, I climbed the ladder to assistant manager, senior manager and so on. In 2017, I was promoted to the role of Deputy CEO, Institutional Banking. Apart from overseeing the corporate and investment side of the bank, I also handled an area we created called Global Customer Relations. It involved managing the relationships between the large corporations within the bank and its affiliates. Then, I was appointed to the Management Committee. This committee is in charge of running the bank. It has six members and is headed by the bank’s CEO.
Finally, I was promoted to the role of Chief Executive Officer, Corporate Credit and Investment. It’s been a long journey with CIB but I feel privileged to be part of this institution.
Can you tell us more about your mother and the role she played in who you are today?
My mother was a role model and had a successful career. She started working when she finished university. Even after she got married and gave birth to me and my siblings, she continued working. She started her career as a translator and translated German, English, and French – which she spoke fluently – to Arabic. When my father died, she had to switch careers to earn more income and provide for the family. She worked as the Guest Relations manager in various hotels. Her job revolved around solving problems for the guests who stayed at the hotels she worked and ensuring they had a wonderful stay. Her last job was at the Holiday Inn: a big brand name back then.
Early enough, we were taught to be independent and hard workers. She worked long hours – sometimes more than 12 hours – and never complained. She would receive calls at home and try to help people solve their issues. And she did all of these with a smile on her face. Having such a mother put a lot of pressure on me and my siblings: we always wanted to be as hard-working as her, to get good grades at school and make her proud. We depended a lot on and helped each other so we could ease her responsibilities at home.
When I attended American University of Cairo, my first priority at all times was to keep my scholarship because I didn’t want to add to my mother’s financial responsibilities. However, doing this meant working hard. I worked to earn an income. Apart from my mother being a role model, I think the attitude is related to my German education. Germans are known for perfection. You have to do your best and that means giving 100%. I finished university with this mindset. I would have gotten the cup if not for a mistake: my professor at the time wrongly gave me a B plus instead of an A, which was why I finished second at the American University of Cairo. This is a situation I will never forget, but it did not break me. A few months later, I was accepted by CIB and joined the credit course that was well sought after then.
Working hard, trying to be one of the best, and not settling has helped me a lot. I learned all of these from my mother and owe her everything. I probably wouldn’t be a CEO today if she hadn’t worked hard and been a role model.
How do we help women achieve a balance between work and family commitments?
Personally, I believe institutions like CIB, as well as others that are part of corporate Africa have to pay attention to this issue. We need to promote mentorship programs and help women find the right balance that will enable them to excel at both work and family duties.
Because I know you’re going to ask me, “Nevine, why do you think there are less female CEOs in Africa compared to Europe and the States?”
The answer is simple: Egypt and most of the countries are third-world countries with limited resources and poor economies. As a result, the percentage of educated men is much higher than the percentage of educated women, as not every woman has the opportunity to go to school. Even if they do, and are great at their work, they will face this issue of balancing work and family commitments. Successful and ambitious women will reach a point where they will ask themselves “Why not move to a job that is less demanding?” Many of them will opt for this, because while they need to work, they also have to care for their families. And it’s hard to do this with a demanding job.
So, I believe CIB, the private sector, and the rest of Corporate Africa have to do more about this. This year, the HR department at CIB started a mentoring program for women. Their first targets are women who just had babies and are coming back to work. The program aims to help them achieve this very important balance.
As the female CEO of a very important financial institution in Egypt, what challenges do you face that your male counterparts don’t?
The banking environment in Egypt is a male dominated environment. Most of the large corporations have male CEOs, CFOs, and so on. This puts more pressure on myself and other female CEOs to be more convincing. I have never attended a meeting without proper preparation. I have to be well informed, think of the likely questions I will be asked, and prepare my answers in advance. Sometimes, these questions are cynical and male competitors ask difficult questions with malicious intent. I guess it’s the same all over the world.
So it’s a challenge but it’s also a catalyst for me to improve on my own qualifications, and become a role model for my female colleagues and subordinates. I put more effort into my preparations and I am more convincing when I answer questions. I accept the criticisms and ask for proposals on how to mitigate problems. This approach has worked well for me. Also, I am not only a CIB employee, but also a mother and a wife. Many of my male colleagues finish work, and then go out to mingle with others at restaurants and bars. I don’t have this advantage; I have to go home because I have other duties. Many times, when I finish my household responsibilities, I sit and continue working. This is because I have a lot of things to do, usually at the same time. As a result, I have to put in more effort to be effective.
Fortunately, I’m privileged to work in an institution that is gender-conscious and constantly working to tackle gender inequality. What’s more? We have numerous men who support women and I’m lucky to be surrounded by them. This is another issue I think Corporate Africa needs to address: How to promote gender equality and support junior female leaders. I think your initiative has a huge role to play in these discussions. By sharing the stories of successful women in African countries, it provides role models to young women. I think it is very inspiring, as these women will relate to myself and other women that you are interviewing.
In our conversations with women who hold positions like yours across Africa, we found that men, after work, socialize with other men in the business community, and this isn’t so for women because of several reasons. You’ve made mention of it yourself. Could you shed more light on this from an Egyptian perspective?
It’s uncommon in Egyptian culture for a female CEO to sit and socialize with male CEOs and clients. However, things are changing. At CIB, when we go out and meet clients, I make it a point to attend with a small team of two or three people. In Europe or the States, you could use a bar. In Egypt, a restaurant is more acceptable. In many cases, I tell the client to invite people they are comfortable with, whether it’s their CFO or their wife. I once had an important client who had a serious back injury and couldn’t leave his bed. So we had a meeting in his bedroom. Everybody found it funny. But then, I had no choice because it was a very important meeting and life needs to go on. In such instances, you improvise. Yes, women are at a disadvantage, but I don’t think our inability to socialize is much of a problem. I think the major problem is maintaining the balance between work and family commitments. For example, if I have a business dinner, and my son has an important exam and needs me with him at night, what do I do? There is no easy decision in such a scenario. And that is why it is necessary to have an understanding husband who is always ready to help at home, as well as a supportive family.
So, I believe there is a way for female CEOs in Egypt to find time for their business meetings. However, they need to discover the right time that works for them. Fortunately, things are much easier these days than in the past. Besides, because of COVID-19, we hardly do physical meetings with clients these days. Most meetings are on Zoom and similar applications.
Do you think being a female CEO in Egypt gives you any special advantage?
This is my 35th year at CIB. Over the course of my career, I’ve come to realize that the best working relationship is a male/female relationship, whether the female is the CEO or the subordinate. A female/male relationship is the best, because each gender has its limits and a male/female pairing ensures they can complement each other and have a more successful working relationship.
Furthermore, women are more meticulous, more patient, more enduring, and multifunctional. We can do several things at the same time. Men don’t have this privilege as they can only concentrate on one thing at a time. However, successful young women learn to do several things at the same time and very well, too. They learn to put in more effort and dedicate more time to ensure they have the capacity to do their jobs well and even better than their male counterparts and competitors.
Also, I believe women bring a more pleasant atmosphere to meetings. When you have tough business meetings, I think the presence of clever and intelligent women introduces a more pleasant atmosphere and, as a result, increases the chances of success. In my experience, it works, even in other cultures. By the way, women working with other women can be more challenging than women working with men.
So, yeah, having female CEOs has numerous advantages but it is equally important to pair them with somebody they can work with who will enable them to excel at their roles.