Interviewed by Eimear O’Neill
Mireille Helou is Senior Vice President of MENA at Orange Middle East and Africa. In this interview, she discusses the changing nature of the telecommunications sector, the role the industry plays in empowering women, and her journey to her current position at Orange.
To kick things off, could you please give us a little background on how you arrived at your current position at Orange?
To answer this, I need to start from the very beginning: I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for my parents empowering the little girl I used to be and making me believe that I could be anything I want to if I put my mind and heart to it. This belief allowed me to embrace STEM, and to study mechanical engineering. It also nurtured a kind of inner drive to constantly look for new challenges, opportunities, environments, cultures, and teams. So, when I graduated from university, I was eager to leave my home country of Lebanon to pursue new horizons.
I decided to move to France, only to find out that the industry wasn’t ready to recruit a young female mechanical engineer from Lebanon. This attitude side-tracked me from what at that moment I thought I wanted most, and I had to change tack. I took a job as a project manager in a small company that worked on electrical projects for the Middle East and rapidly moved up the ladder, taking on more managerial responsibilities. This was a very formative customer-facing experience, especially when it came to agility, adaptation, organisation, and stakeholder management.
Six years later I was ready for a new challenge, and I found it in a sales and marketing department at a medium-sized company. There, I oversaw the development of new services and new business opportunities for key sectorial accounts. Three years later, at the dawn of the .com era, I leveraged my two previous experiences to help a German startup set up offices in Paris before joining Orange Group as a business manager.
All this to say that nothing was planned; opportunities and looking for new horizons led me here. Without knowing it at the time, when I joined Orange it was the start of a long professional journey in a sector that would constantly evolve over the years, and within a company that would face multiple transformations. Fast forward to today and I am the senior Vice President for the MENA region and a board member for three of the four operations.
I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for my parents empowering the little girl I used to be and making me believe that I can do and be anything I want to if I put my mind and heart to it…It nurtured a kind of inner drive to constantly look for new challenges, opportunities, environments, cultures and teams.
You’ve worked with Orange for over 20 years, including posts in San Francisco and La Reunion. What about the working environment and company ethos made you want to stay with the organisation for so long?
Orange is a big group. It operates in 26 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and is present in more than 120 territories across the globe. This offers a wide range of opportunities and exposure to diversity. My journey took me from functional to operational positions, from sales to sourcing and supply chain, to innovation, and now to my present position in governance. It led me from Paris to Nairobi, La Reunion, San Francisco, and finally to Casablanca where I am speaking to you from now, 22 years later!
Every time I embraced change and moved beyond my comfort zone, I found myself on a path to growth. Once you understand that, there is no going back; every experience becomes humbling and a learning curve, yet at the beginning, each one feels scary and, every time you come to something new, you know that other people will have their own expectation for it. There is a fear to fail others, the fear to fail yourself, and, when you’re moving countries, it just gets amplified by the personal stakes and adjustments you undergo. It is your duty as a leader to show up as your best, most authentic self in order to build trust and to build lasting relationships, which are key for any challenges you take on. You also need to actively listen to understand the dynamics, ecosystem, workloads, and culture of the business, because they will differ.
Every time I embraced change and moved beyond my comfort zone, I found myself on a path of growth. Once you understand that there is no going back, every experience becomes humbling and a learning curve.
At the end of the day, I’m very proud to be part of a group that has embraced a purpose that will give everyone the key to a responsible digital world. Valuable human capital and a wealth of competencies and expertise are amongst its biggest assets. Orange is also a group that believes in equal opportunities and actively promotes diversity and inclusion. All this is why I find myself 22 years later still in the group and eager to continue, to bring value, and to see the business and its people grow.
I’m very proud to be part of a group that has embraced a purpose that will give everyone the key to a responsible digital world.
In a 2019 interview with Line Pelissier, now director of Career Paths, Recognition and Services at Orange, she noted that “the telecommunications sector has made a massive contribution to women’s liberation through their work.” What, in your opinion, has made the telecom sector such a launchpad for women’s careers, and how can other industries take inspiration from this?
The telecommunications sector has been a game-changer when it comes to connecting people to each other and to new information. Telecoms have brought economic impact to everyone, but especially to women, and especially women in Africa and the Middle East. The advent of mobile finance, for instance, has been a key enabler for the financial inclusion of women. Studies show that mobile finance adoption has a positive impact on women’s economic empowerment, as it helps them to develop the ability to make life-determining decisions, including around their finances. A lot of women have been able to start small businesses to support their families and to better their lives and gain financial independence. This has benefited women hugely.
As a company a network of 30+ Orange digital centres which offer free digital programmes, with a special focus on young people and women, serving as another example of how Orange and telecommunications services have contributed to female empowerment. Over the last two years, more than 700,000 people have benefited from these activities and an additional 20,000 young people have gone through intensive training with these programmes, of which 40% are women. This has given them access to the job market and the ability to build their futures.
I think that this shows, overall, that we’re taking a more multifaceted approach than we did in the past.
It is often said that the historical lack of opportugnities for women in the professional environment and ‘seats at the boardroom table’ can, and in many cases has, created a certain competitiveness between women at work, straining professional working relationships between women. Increasingly, this is being dismantled by the existence of more opportunities for women, and by organisations like WIL which seek to encourage women to work together and share ideas through networking. Do you think we'll see more of this in the workplace going forward, and in what other ways can we break the cycles of the ‘one seat at the table’ mentality that have limited women for centuries?
Representation and role models are really important. We think that there is one seat at the table if we only see one person of that gender sitting at the table; that it’s the only space that can be occupied. As more companies commit to diversity and begin to understand that diversity is a factor of performance, and not diversity simply as representation, it gives me reason to be optimistic about where these things are headed.
When it comes to competitiveness, I would say that there is healthy and unhealthy competitiveness. It is healthy if used as a tool for betterment and if there is fairness. This is especially so when you see yourself as the first person to compete against, because this compels you to bring the best out of yourself. When people are insecure about their capabilities, they might see others as threats or obstacles. This can lead to toxic workplace behaviour and unhealthy competition.
As more companies commit to diversity and begin to understand that diversity is a factor of performance, and not diversity simply as representation, it gives me reason to be optimistic about where these things are headed.
At Orange we have done a tremendous job of building a community of women leaders and encouraging them to work together and share ideas through networking and mentoring. Promoting collaboration in the workplace and helping women to grow confidence is a way to fight against gender stereotypes and discrimination. I think there is a major shift that’s happening with the younger generations too – they are more driven by purpose. I’m quite optimistic that we’ll be seeing more women in the workplace, more women at all levels, in the coming years.
Telecoms is a dynamic industry that is required to continually evolve in line with emerging technological developments and trends. What are the most notable developments you’ve seen throughout your career, and how has the changing nature of this industry impacted your attitude to work?
The telecoms industry has seen tremendous growth. How we communicate, how we access information and how we interact with technology, have all transformed. Each technological generation has brought its share of improvement in terms of data speed and network capacity. When we first started using Skype, for example, there was a dial tone, which took a lot of time to connect to the other user. We have also seen the expansion of internet connectivity and broadband, the democratisation of digital access, all enabled by the explosion of data and content services and the proliferation of social media. Not to mention mobile money adoption, which has given new opportunities to the unbanked population and had a tremendously positive impact on societies and economies. Going forward, we can expect to see the exponential growth of cloud computing and AI and this contributes to the overarching idea that new developments are continually emerging.
In a nutshell, telecoms enable individual businesses and communities to connect, collaborate and thrive. They are the backbone of modern society. How has this impacted my role? I’ve seen disruptions, revolutions, novelties, technological evolution, and growth. This has made me a more adaptable person and given me agility, something you need to strive for. Being surrounded by uncertainties and in fast-paced environment has positively shaped me as a person and helped me to develop resilience.
Telecoms enable individual businesses and communities to connect, collaborate and thrive. They are the backbone of modern society.
If you could have a dinner party with anyone from history, who would you invite and why?
I would love to have a dinner party with trailblazing women from all domains who have had big and small achievements; women who inspire and empower the next generation. Names that come to mind include Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra, Ada Lovelace, Wangari Maathai, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil… but I’d also like to include all the mothers, sisters and teachers advocating and fighting for the empowerment of their daughters, pupils and communities. Ultimately, it’s the whole community of inspiring women that I’d love to have at a dinner party! So many female achievements are understated in history and I’m sure there are a lot of women who don’t appear in books that have yet to be discovered, and I’d love to invite these silent heroes to my dinner party too.
So many female achievements are understated in history and I’m sure there are a lot of women who don’t appear in books that have yet to be discovered.