A reference among the new generation of entrepreneurs in Tunisia, Neila Benzina, Chief Executive Officer Business & Decision MEA, has the gift of convincing her partners as well as her employees. Convinced and convincing, she operates in the business world, between Europe and Africa, with success. She is also ambassador for Tunisia of WIA Initiative since 2017.
Before discussing your current business, tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? What is your education background? And what was your dream when you were a child?
I was born in Tunis. I was educated in a Tunisian school first, then in a French high school. So very early I was immersed in both cultures. I studied in Arabic and French. Very young, too, I imagined myself undertaking things. I did not necessarily have an example of an entrepreneur in my family. My father was a veterinarian and my mother was a French literature teacher. It was a kind of calling, I do not know where it came from but I saw myself doing something by myself. I wanted to play a role and change things. Besides, I was lucky to have a very supportive father and a very inspiring mother-which was a determining factor in my career. A successful woman is a woman who felt empowered as a child, who received encouragement and permission not to abide by socially defined or prejudiced boundaries. This gives a momentum.
What is your education background?
I attended school in Tunisia until the baccalaureate and then I integrated a preparatory school in Paris for the entry contest to the National Institute of Telecoms. During the oral interviews, when I was asked what I wanted to do later, I already had many ideas, the majority and many of them were related to my country: Tunisia. As a Tunisian, I thought that it was there that I could change things. We still had a virgin market in several areas. We simply needed to bring new ideas and innovative projects.
From the beginning, were you about certain returning home?
Indeed. I thought that the best medium-term playground for me was my country, where I could control the environment and culture. In Tunisia, there are opportunities and I could bring real added value. This reflection is still true today because we are experiencing a profound change both politically and socially and economically. It is exciting to have the chance to impact events, as a civil society stakeholder, as an economic stakeholder or simply as a citizen who makes his voice heard! Before returning home, I wanted to gain experience and expertise in France. I therefore decided to join a company in Paris, Business & Decision, as a trainee. Very quickly, I had the opportunity to participate in projects of implementation of decision-making solutions and customer experiences. Then, I asked to participate in innovation projects in the digital field. I was able to experiment “intra-entrepreneurship”. I created a start-up within Business & Decision. The CEO was very open and humane. He incited people to surpass themselves and give them their chance. He trusted me and gave me a project that met my aspirations and my desire to grow. The result was convincing. We were able to replicate the experience with other ideas. When my desire to return to Tunisia became more pressing, I proposed to Business & Decision executives to create a business in Tunis to have a presence in Africa and to realize optimized projects in ´co-located” mode. ª This was an idea probably too early for the decision makers of the group. I was then proposed to create a business under my own name and test the concept through it instead of directly engaging the brand.
And today, you running the business for Africa and in the Middle East for Business & Decision…
I formed a team. I used my parents place for interviews and I strived with my former employer – now my partner- to have special missions within their projects to be developed by my teams. It took a strong conviction to attain my goals! Our efforts were rewarded because we are entrusted more and more projects of French customers looking for ways to carry out IT developments with a “best cost” model. Besides, I surveyed the Tunisian market and I won a very important contract with a telecom operator. The combination of these factors convinced the Business & Decision Group to enter in the he capital of my company created three years earlier. This allowed me to grow the firm much more quickly with strong partners and bring our common expertise to the international market, and most importantly in Africa on advanced professions such as business intelligence, customer experience or e-business (the ancestor of digital). We became initiators on new topics, especially for African markets. In eighteen years, we have grown from a team of three people to 400 employees. Today, we have reached the majority, adulthood! We will get married (smile). An acquisition of the firm by the Orange group is on the verge of being inked. It will enable our organization to get to another and create winning synergies with one of the largest groups of CAC 40.
You have also joined the WIA Initiative Network, as ambassador for Tunisia. What is in your opinion the interest in connecting women entrepreneurs on the continent with one another?
I am convinced that we must, among women, support each another, inspire one another and not neglect the importance of networking. To see women piercing the glass ceiling, it is also necessary to adopt a proactive approach. In my organization for example, I make sure that there is always a high level of diversity, including at the highest level in top management. In executive committee, we have reached parity. As soon as I see that there is a potential in a woman, I do not hesitate to encourage her and encourage her to take responsibility. We must play this role and be the engines.
What advice or message do you have for young women who want to take the entrepreneurship track?
The first: do not try to look like our male peers! We have our own specificities and qualities. Among these, and without wanting to generalize, we have the ability to seek consensus, listen and soft management of situations, without seeking to play the game of domination. This is what generally appeals to teams and the ecosystem. The second: free your energy, feel able to reach your goals, the ability is in you. If you are convinced, you are convincing. Try to fail. We must also listen to those who can encourage you and who bring you motivation. Also rely on professional networks. They usually have so many men that finally, when a woman comes, if she is comfortable in his status, she is well received and also join women’s networks too. They are accelerators. You always need at one time or another in your career a boost. You should never forget to do the same when possible and seek this boost yourself in important and decisive moments. Last advice: be very organized. A woman must reconcile her role as wife, spouse, mother, and business owner. It is therefore necessary to organize and anticipate the major deadlines. One of the keys is to know to surround oneself well, to delegate, to trust in giving a room for mistakes in order to enable serene initiatives.