The framed photo of a clean-shaven, lanky young man dressed in a dark suit hangs in the hallway. There it is again, inside his sister’s office, affixed high against the wall. And again, propped atop her filing cabinet.
Leila Belkhiria Jaber became the president and CEO of Tunis-based Netway BSB, founded by her brother Karim Belkhiria, after he died of cancer. Already an entrepreneur in her own right, she had been a pioneer in website development for Tunisian companies, through her company Stelfair Tunisia. It was the mark of her ability to stand on her own, without relying on the network of firms that her Belkhiria side of the family runs under the umbrella BSB Group. But upon her brother’s passing, the sense of duty tugged at her. She reluctantly — in a state of mourning and having spent her career striking an independent path — joined the family operation. She has since not only settled into the position, but also sustained Netway’s success in the sector of highly specialized, integrated technology solutions.
To her, it is a feat for which she derives much meaning, in memory of her brother. “He is my guide,” she says. “Because this firm is still here, it is as if he is not gone.”
Jaber has a weakness for technology. She had gone to business school and worked at an outfit that managed communications for major companies. Then in 1996, when the Internet debuted in Tunisia, she says it was like “love at first sight.” She and her husband headed to Italy for a six-month training course on the Internet. They returned to Tunisia and founded Stelfair Tunisia, with one computer, to make websites for companies. “We were amongst the first to do so,” she says. They picked up a diverse client portfolio and their web portal served as a “virtual fair,” where they grouped businesses by sector, creating a one-stop site for consumers to find companies within Tunisia. Their lists range from textiles and commerce to tourism and culture. That upped the visibility for companies that were just establishing their online presence.
In those early times, however, Jaber recalls the doubt people cast on the Internet. When she would discuss cyberspace, she says it was as though she was speaking Chinese to this Arabic and French-speaking population. “It was a new channel of communication, so it was very difficult,” she says. “Tunisians did not really believe in Internet tools as a means for communication. At the time, people did not believe in it.” She and her husband were told it was a losing venture. But she considered it pregnant with potential.
“When I and my husband discovered the Internet, we understood that it was the chance for developing countries like Tunisia to attain the same level as other countries,” she says. That meant access to information and no need to travel to far-off places like the United States or Europe for knowledge or clients. “Now, with the Internet all has become accessible. That is to say, you can have access to information; promote one’s product without moving.” Previously, only companies that could afford expensive foreign travel had such reach.
Jaber and her husband had to start from point zero with businesses. “We were transformed into trainers, explaining to them what the Internet was, what the use of having a website was, what was the use of investing in a website,” she says. “People invested and preferred to go abroad, participating in workshops, spending money, but they did not want to allocate a little budget for a website, though that was very useful.”
In an era that now feels eons ago, but was in fact less than 20 years ago, Jaber also faced problems in securing the initial capital for founding Stelfair. As part of her lifelong quest for autonomy, she didn’t want to turn to her family for financial help. When she made proposals to banks in Tunisia with the idea of a web-based business, the intangible nature of it all made them incredulous. “The bank did not believe in this project,” she says. For them, an initiative with raw material, say a factory, made business sense, but she says a service, a website didn’t give them a guarantee on their investment. Eventually, around the years 2000 and 2001, she says the government became aware of the Internet’s utility and started to encourage people to invest.
As part of the convincing process, Jaber gave clients free websites to show them the Internet’s impact. She targeted leaders in each sector and they grew to more than 300 clients. That initial disbelief has been replaced, of course, with mass Internet penetration and websites being a staple for companies. Others also went on to mimic the Stelfair Tunisia model, but Jaber says because they were the first, they remain at the top. As trying as that time may have been, Jaber says she and her husband stuck with it because of the thrill.
“We did not have children, so we were adventurers. We did not care in the beginning, we did not have money. We worked and a little was sufficient,” she says. “All that is new excites me. All that is adventurous excites me. It’s not only the Internet; now we have new technology, more developed than the Internet.”
Seated at her desk, a painting of a sailboat is suspended behind Jaber. Suited in a black sweater and skirt, she flips through catalogues featuring large machines and booklets of printed meal tickets. Netway offers an array of integrated solutions, from providing equipment, software and technical support to businesses. That includes desktop and electronic publishing services, mass-mailing machines, ATMs and inventory and asset management solutions, among others.
Among the brands the company represents in Tunisia, include Toshiba, Böwe and RICO, in areas like high-volume printing and automated paper-enveloping and barcoding. For instance, for their client Tunisie Telecom, Netway prints bills funneled through a database on a server, and the bills are then put into envelopes and mailed out, all by machine. From start to finish, they’re responsible for carrying out that specific service and the technical maintenance. And for products that they don’t represent, such as Hewlett Packard servers, they help negotiate prices for their clients to obtain those goods. Other clients include Sodexo Inc., oil companies and banks.
The technology-lover says she keeps up with these extremely specialized fields by learning from engineers at the company, noting that they are younger than her. (“What I always say to my team: never say, ‘I know it all.’”) She keeps innovation integral to her enterprise. “I am always trying to look for experimental products,” she says. She’s introduced new items such as biometric identification tools that allow users to make remote payments or access databases to perform distant financial operations.
Being in this spot was not something Jaber had sought. “I did not want it in the beginning, because I had been doing very well in my company,” she says. “And I was free.” That is, free from the obligations of being part of the Belkhiria family business. Meanwhile, her brother Karim had followed the typical course of young men in his family. After studying in Canada, he worked at the BSB Group headquarters and came up with the idea for Netway BSB. Jaber, both of whose parents belong to the family, says that’s how the system operated: the family sent the boys abroad; they returned and worked in the family operations; then proving their competency, the sons who came up with a venture received guidance and investment. Over time, the son would redeem shares in the enterprise he started.
But then, Karim became sick. After battling cancer, he died at age 36. The shaken family’s “council of wise men,” which makes decisions for the businesses, convened and concluded they needed a leader from within the family who had IT expertise. The only person to fit that description was Jaber. With no other choice, they selected her. When they approached Jaber, still grieving, she declined. “I did not want it. It was like taking the place of my brother, it was very difficult,” she says. “Then they said, ‘If you don’t want that, the firm will be closed, because we do not want an outsider. We do not care. Money can go.’”
Her parents implored her, saying it was her responsibility, that she wouldn’t want all of her brother’s work to go to waste. In 2008, she became the first woman to serve as CEO for one the family’s enterprises. After Karim’s illness had kept him away from the company for more than a year, Jaber had to pick up the pieces, and rebuild. Her initial reservations have been substituted with the fulfillment of honoring her brother’s legacy. “Now that I look back, I feel proud,” she says. Having spent her life toiling not to be defined by the family business — from marrying outside the family to starting her own company — she is now part of it. And things are changing. They are thinking of founding an enterprise for the women of the family, she says.
Her commitments at Netway have mostly eclipsed her involvement at Stelfair. The same kind of drive that fueled her unyielding belief in the Internet all those years ago, continues to serve her today. She wants to take Netway beyond Tunisia. She has her sights set on countries like Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Morocco, toward the western coast of Africa. Instead of those countries hiring expensive engineers from France, she says she has the products and necessary know-how that can be exported to such places. She says there are many young Tunisian women who are pursuing IT. For the tech sector, she envisions e-learning as a potential growth area.
Following the Tunisian revolution though, Jaber acknowledges the economy has taken a heavy hit, with markets halting work and investment. Luckily, she says maintenance contracts and other work have helped her out. But by no means would she want to return to the previous times, when she experienced submitting bids for projects, only to later learn that the work had gone to the family of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or one of the families complicit with the regime. Sometimes, she would be told the project was canceled, when it really had been swept up by one of those families. She says she would prepare the bids, and the soliciting board would tell her that she has all the corresponding skills and services. “Then you wait for the order to come, but it never comes,” she says.
Economic woes aside, she says the revolution is a positive development on the political end. “We weren’t free. You couldn’t say what you feel,” she says. Even as ideological wedges beget divisions, for Jaber, the promise of change will continue to reveal itself.
“The mistake of Ben Ali is he thought Tunisians were sheep-like,” Jaber says. “Tunisians cannot be like sheep, they can’t stay that way; they are a very open-minded people. What is happening now is good, even if we have the Islamists now in power, it’s fine. We have a people that is very emancipated and open and progressive, etc…that they will force all that is fanatic to adapt itself to the people. We are open, we are open to the outside, we are Muslims, we practice but we are progressive. All that you hear is a passing wave. They are people who were never free and are free all of a sudden… There is freedom of expression. We’ll have the real Tunisia, not the one we had before.”