The Leading Event for the Project Cargo and Breakbulk Industries in the Middle East

Women Leaders Inspire Next Generation

Four Female Professionals Recount Their Remarkable Journeys

By Simon West

Abir Leheta admits she had no pretensions of leading Egypt-based project logistics specialist Egytrans when she began her career at the family-owned business nearly two decades ago.

But when her brother passed away suddenly in 2015, Abir, who had been serving as the company’s chief strategy officer, was asked to take over the helm. She soon realized she was missing some of the skills she needed to be an effective leader, so she hired an executive coach and found new ways to develop her influence.

“Not for one second had I planned or thought of the possibility of becoming CEO,” she said. “When my brother died, it was a shock. A lot of people began questioning whether the company could continue at the same level, especially as my brother was really recognized as an industry leader. At the beginning I did not want to do it, it felt like too big of a challenge.

“It took me a long time, and for a while I just wanted to appear very strong and capable. Then I realized that success would come through reaching out to others, asking questions, and building a strong team.”

Abir was one of four female professionals at different stages in their careers speaking on the main stage at Breakbulk Middle East 2024 during a “Women in Breakbulk: Becoming a More Influential Leader” panel session.

The session, hosted by Breakbulk’s media director Leslie Meredith, featured some inspiring stories about how the speakers shattered glass ceilings, overcame challenges, and stirred countless others with their leadership journeys.

Returning to the workforce after an extended period of leave, Dalia Farahat secured a challenging role at DHL Global Forwarding. Her first client, who worked for a major oil and gas firm, made no effort to hide his lack of confidence in Dalia. Undeterred, the executive’s professionalism paid off and the project was deemed a resounding success.

Dalia, now DHL Global Forwarding’s regional control tower manager O&G – MEA IP, said she initially felt “lost” and “incapable sometimes of doing the job”. She told listeners: “I felt like quitting. But with patience and resilience and hard work, I made it.”

According to the executive, “life is not what happens to us. Life is how we see it, how we define it. Having the courage to face challenges and even turning them into our favor. I was able to do this by using the competencies I have, setting goals, assessing my options, and changing the negative attitudes that comes on the surface of this journey.

“But I consider myself a lucky person. These challenges would have been much harder if I didn’t have friends next to me, I didn’t have a supportive team, and I didn’t have a company ensuring that their values of respect are always being followed and investing time and effort in women empowerment and development.”

Also on the panel, Simona Peter, business development at Fleet Line Shipping, who spoke of how hard work and dedication have enabled her to carve out her own path to success after joining her father’s business from university in 2020.

Simona has made rapid progress. But her family connection has brought both big benefits and big challenges as she strives to become an influential leader in her own right.

“(My father) was insistent that I did my journey from the ground up, just the way he did,” Simona said, who began her career at Fleet Line Shipping working in operations and pricing before joining the company’s project department in 2022, getting to grips with the different methods of loading, lifting, and lashing breakbulk cargo.

For Simona, leadership is a “journey, not a destination”. She pointed to the “personal bonds” with colleagues and clients that are crucial for success and how respect is not something that can be demanded or imposed; rather, it is earned through actions, integrity, and knowledge.

“There is so much more learning to do,” she said. “With the support I’m getting from my teammates, who are looking after me and guiding me, and vice-versa – we all rely on each other. At Fleet Line Shipping, there has always been a culture of collaboration and a mindset of working together to achieve the common goal. That has gone hand-in-hand with my development over the last four years.”

The session’s final speaker was Alia Janahi, vice president of HSE at DP World in the GCC and the first female Emirati to join the company’s HSE department. Alia recalled her “tough” first interview and being asked if she was ready to work in a “male-dominated environment”. 

Working in the office and out in the field, Alia quickly realized her abaya – the long, loose-fitting, robe-like garment worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world – was an unsuitable attire for her job. That prompted her to design a new work uniform that met the specifications of the job, which was then reproduced for other females in the company. 

“Being the first Emirati in this position was not only new to me but the environment in which I was in,” said the 33-year-old, who now leads a 60-strong team responsible for workplace safety and environmental compliance across DP World’s entire Middle East operations. “But I was lucky as I was supported by my colleagues – even my male colleagues!”

Assessing the challenges for female professionals in the sector, Alia pointed to the “many hats” that she and her colleagues have to wear. “We have to be true to ourselves – we are not only female employees, but we are also mothers, we are daughters, we are employees. We have so many roles day-to-day that require a lot of energy, dedication, commitment and adaptation as well.

“In my experience, having ladies in the department makes a difference. And you should be really proud!”

Our Women in Breakbulk platform brings together women from across the supply chain to share their experiences and talk about the challenges they have faced while building a successful career in the breakbulk, project cargo and maritime industries.

Our program of Women in Breakbulk events and discussions will return to Breakbulk Europe 2024 on 21-23 May at Rotterdam Ahoy.