Life with purpose
Women helping women: Nancy Speidel’s mission to elevate women in business
Equality

Women helping women: Nancy Speidel’s mission to elevate women in business

We talk to Nancy Speidel, Founder and Chief Executive Officer for iSAW, about how we can achieve gender equality in industries worldwide.
26th Aug 2021

For thirty years Nancy Speidel has been paving the way for working women around the globe. Spurred by frustrations with gender inequality in her own career in information technology in the oil and gas industries, she decided that things had to change. 

Initially focused on the Gulf Region, in 2016 she co-founded GROW (Gulf Region Organization for Women), a network of over 80 companies, sponsored by Saudi Aramco, positioned to create work environments for women to thrive. 

Three years later, she expanded her attention to touch women directly and on a global scale, setting up iSAW (International Smart Advancing Women). Utilising her own expertise in technology, the iSAW organisation has developed a digital platform designed to connect women all over the world, providing them with a uniquely innovative experience. Its mission is to raise awareness on gender equality locally, regionally, and globally, to enhance personal power, and provide women a business edge tailored to their personal and professional interests. The platform converts to 30 different languages, enabling female career progression and awareness of gender parity opportunities across the globe.

We spoke with Nancy about the moments in her own life which inspired her to help women, and her hopes for gender equality in years to come.

TBT: Can you tell me about a time in your life that you’ve felt unequal as a woman?

Nancy: I spent 27 years in information technology in the high tech and oil and gas sectors—both of these industries are male dominated. I was able to accomplish a lot, but I felt that there were glass ceilings for me. I had to outwork every man that sat next to me. Other people were going home at five o’clock at night, while I was going home, putting my daughter to bed, then back on the computer, working until one in the morning.

I had to outwork every man that sat next to me. Other people were going home at five o’clock at night, while I was going home, putting my daughter to bed, then back on the computer, working until one in the morning.

TBT: How did this imbalance impact your career?

Nancy: I’ve always been a go-getter, but my insecurities pushed me to outperform. 

It’s funny, because even though I spent 27 years in information technology, I don’t actually have a degree in computer science. I was initially hired by Intel as an artist, to draw pictures for a piece of software they were implementing in factories all over the world. Within five years, I found myself automating Intel’s supply chain, leading major programs across 30 factories throughout the world.

Yet while I had all this responsibility, I still wasn’t a manager. I was an acting manager without the title, with a large team, leading a major program. Eventually they agreed to make me a manager, but I was informed they were worried I wouldn’t be effective because I was “too nice”. It was horrible for me. I felt like I couldn’t be myself. And so I tried to be somebody I wasn’t—to have this standoff relationship with my employees.

I finally figured out that they gave me the worst advice ever, because my niceness was my superpower. Gradually, I became more comfortable in my own skin. I found I could be kind and strong, friendly and direct, caring and results orientated at the same time. It was such an important lesson, and something I always share with other women: don’t lose your authentic self. 

It was such an important lesson, and something I always share with other women: don’t lose your authentic self.

TBT: That’s brilliant advice. Can you take me back to the moment you decided you wanted to fight for gender equality globally?

Nancy: In 2014, I asked a question that changed my life. I was in a meeting in Saudi Arabia, with senior IT leaders of the top ten oil and gas companies in the world. I put up my hand, and said, “I have a question, but I’m going to start my questions with a story. Whenever I am at a meeting like this, I look around the room and count the number of women; today we have five women and 25 men. We need to increase these numbers, not just to be nice to women but because it is good for business.” I then shared some data and statistics on how women help maximize business outcomes.

I then turned and looked at the leadership teams around me, and said, “now for my question: what are you doing to help the women within your organization?

You could have heard a pin drop! They couldn’t believe that I’d ask this question, yet the response to my questions was sincere and inspiring, demonstrating a commitment to support the advancement of working women

This question became a catalyst for me to return to Saudi Arabia as a keynote speaker on Women in the Workplace, sponsored by the CIO of Aramco. The event led me to partner with Aramco to co-found GROW, along with Lynn O’Connor, from the UK, Reem Al Ghanim and Professor Amal Fatani from Saudi Arabia.

GROW was the catalyst for many other questions: how can we do something for women directly? How do we connect them internationally? How can we use technology to advance gender equality, connect women all around the world and help them realize their own personal power and value?

During this time I was mentoring Ebtehal Alrewaily, a woman from Saudi Arabia, who was studying for her masters in the United States. The two of us brainstormed these questions and that’s where iSAW came from. We then brought in Lynn O’Connor, Director of DE&I in the United Kingdom and began building a support network for the vision. As the vision moved into a reality, I decided to leave my corporate job that I had worked so hard for, and refocus a hundred percent of my time and energy on my purpose. It’s a decision that I will never regret.

How can we use technology to advance gender equality, connect women all around the world and help them realize their own personal power and value?

TBT: How did you find working on gender equality in Saudia Arabia compared to other parts of the world?

Nancy: We’re all on a journey of gender equality—every single country in the world—we’re just in different places. When I think back to my grandmother’s generation—the percentage of women who worked was miniscule. During World War II, women started working and my mother’s generation flooded the workplace – yet they were mainly in lower level positions. Now with my generation, and the generation after, we’re pushing up into more senior level positions.

There’s actually more highly educated women with graduate degrees in Saudi Arabia than there are men.

Other places in the world might be a generation or two behind. In Saudi Arabia right now, this is the first generation coming into the workplace. But the advantage they have is, they’re highly educated. There’s actually more highly educated women with graduate degrees in Saudi Arabia than there are men. 

The other thing that they’ve got going for them is that the whole world is talking about gender equality right now. They’re not going to take the generations we did to get to where we are now. At the rate they’re going, they might even leapfrog us. 

We’re all on a journey of gender equality—every single country in the world—we’re just in different places.

TBT: What does purpose mean to you, and how does your personal purpose play out in your life?

Nancy: For me, purpose means making decisions based on what benefits the greater good, not just what’s good for me. I could just sit back and enjoy my comfortable life, but now that I have the financial means, international exposure and experience behind me, I think: how dare I just rest on my laurels and just enjoy this. I have a responsibility to do something with it, to give back, to do more. Through this I can fulfil a purpose that is meaningful for others by accelerating gender equality using a unique approach through innovative technology for women now and generations to come on a global scale.

Banner Image & Main Page Image: Margot Duane

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