MEET SHEREEN TAWFIQ
Shereen Tawfiq, WG’12, grew up in Saudi Arabia in a family of 4 daughters and no sons. Her father, considered unlucky by many family members, insisted that Shereen and her sisters all get the best possible education so they could be financially independent. Shereen became The Wharton School’s first ever female student from Saudi Arabia (!!!) and she has courageously challenged a culture that has been rooted in male dominance for centuries.
Shereen became one of the first women to work in banking, at a time when men and women were not allowed to mix at work. She then became an advisor to the Ministry for Economy and Planning in Saudi, where she helped embed an entrepreneurial and venture capital culture within the country.
Shereen’s passion is to empower people through education. She is the Founder and CEO of Balinca, an Edtech company that teaches business fundamentals through games and simulations. Balinca strives to transform organizations through improving employees’ decision making by understanding the numbers behind the business. Balinca is delivered in 28 countries, 15 languages, across 61 companies globally, with over 2,800+ alumni.
Shereen says — “If humans want to walk on their hands, they will. They just need perseverance.” This advice came from a colleague when she was struggling with her application to get into Corporate Banking. The concept was very simple, but it sparked faith in her soul that you can dream as much as you can and make it happen if you are resilient.
Tell us a bit about your company
We teach business professionals business fundamentals in an intuitive and fun way via simulations and games.
What inspired you to start your business — what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?
In an organization, every professional decision — no matter how big or how small — has a direct impact on the bottom line of a company. Yet, I have seen that people at all levels of a company are not aware of business fundamentals and finance. This leads to decisions that can be costly for the company.
In my 22 years of experience in finance and education, I realized that many people mistakenly believe that finance is not intuitive and is difficult to learn. I started my company for a very simple reason: I want to change the way people look at finance. Traditionally, finance is seen as something for management and the C-level of a company, but the modern reality is that employees want more than just a salary at the end of the month. Employees want a sense of ownership and shared accomplishment. They want a culture that is the catalyst to their growth and wellbeing. I would like to bridge the skill gap I have discovered and empower people at all levels of organizations to make wiser, bolder decision and have an equal voice. My company, BALINCA, makes financial concepts intuitive, accessible and actionable.
What is it about your personal background, experience, or perspective that fuels your passion for this venture?
When I was growing up in Saudi Arabia, there were no jobs for women. Considered unlucky by many family members, my father had 4 daughters and no sons. He never made us feel inadequate, on the contrary, he insisted on my sisters and I to have the best-possible education so we could be financially independent. A forward thinker, he never wanted us to rely on family or to have to stay in a bad marriage because of money. At 12, my father gave me a small book in which I had to track my own personal finances. I wrote down what came in, what went out, how I “invested” my money, and what I gave to charity. I still have this little blue book today. It is a symbol of how critical it is to learn financial fundamentals and to teach them to our own children. By the age of 28, I was managing my family real estate business plus my banking job. I have seen many businesses and entrepreneurs fail because of lack of knowledge about simple fundamentals, and that is what I plan to change.
What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?
Back in 2000, I became the first Saudi woman to work with men in one of the international banks in Saudi Arabia. I was a little paralegal with big ambitions that at the time was forbidden. Three months in, I saw an opening in Corporate Banking. My application was rejected more times than I can remember. It seemed near impossible because I knew that the bank wouldn’t want to risk its reputation by allowing women to work, but I persisted.
I remember asking the head of Corporate Banking at that time what tests would you like me to take? He put three very big textbooks on my desk and said, “Come back when you finish these, and we will see.”
He probably thought he had gotten rid of me. Three months later (and 9 pounds heavier from stress eating), I went to his office, asked him to ask me anything and I had that look on my face that I will not walk out of that meeting without a “you are hired.” I became a corporate banker. Learning finance the traditional way is not fun nor is it intuitive, let alone having to teach yourself the concepts. I often observe people relying on experimentation to build their business acumen and learning from expensive mistakes. Imagine if there was a way to learn finance in a fun and intuitive way and in one day? This is what we offer at BALINCA. A second experience that has been foundational for me was seeing how much high-level executives need the work we do. I know a COO of a prominent refinancing company who was being considered for a CEO position. He contacted me because he was concerned that his financial knowledge might be too rusty or inapplicable for the new position. He spent all day working around financial professionals but was too self-conscious to ask the questions he needed to really understand. I ran a private training session for him using BALINCA simulations, and he was shocked about how intuitive finance can be. He had worked with many financial tutors and taken all kinds of training, but he still felt lost and overwhelmed. After the work we did together, he finally felt confident to apply for the CEO position. This experience helps me know that we’re on the right track. A study showed that two thirds of people are insecure about their ability to make decisions based on facts and figures. But very few will admit it. BALINCA is making a difference in people’s lives and that is a cause worth all the blood, sweat and tears.
What has been one or two of your biggest learnings so far?
Shut out the negative noise. Many entrepreneurs want to make it big the first time around and as a result put unrealistic expectations on themselves, but the reality is different. BALINCA is technically my third business. I learned to control negative self-talk and celebrate failure by focusing on the learning and making sure I don’t make the same mistake twice. By distancing yourself from your own negative energy, and those who contribute to it, perhaps from jealousy, you can stay focused. I’ve learned that we have to protect our focus as if it was our own baby.
Get support! Don’t try to do everything on your own. It is a more effective use of your time and money to hire experts who can help you move from vision to reality. I’ve had to learn to ask for help from my teammates and mentors when I felt stuck. I have also been fortunate to be surrounded by a network of outstanding professionals who love to help. I found women tend to be very supportive of other women and give high quality specific advice that transforms businesses.
Perfectionism is the enemy of “done”. Many women want to be 100% sure of what we say before we say it, and we want our product or service to be perfect before we launch. But it will never be 100%.
Learn to improve your work while you’re getting traction with revenues. Your work may never be as perfect as you wanted it to be at the start, but imperfection is better than sinking. We’ve got to jump and then learn to swim.
What is an obstacle that you are grappling with as you continue to build this venture?
- Finding talent is a constant struggle. I got to see firsthand how good people take you from average to awesome, and I am in a constant search for engineers, instructors, and course creators who embody our mission and values. If you like what you read and wish to join our crew, please email me.
- I feel the tension between my role as a mother and as an entrepreneur. Building and operating BALINCA means travel, and I dread these days. When my son turned 7, he blew out the candles on his cake and wished that I had so much money that I didn’t need to work. But my drive is not about money. For me, money is a byproduct of success. I am driven by my desire to help as many people as I possibly can to obtain financial freedom and help companies avoid expensive mistakes. I still struggle to find a healthy balance between these two roles, but I know I’m not alone in this, nor would I give up one or the other.
What surprises have you encountered as an entrepreneur? Something out of left field?
I’ve learned that both your lawyer and your accountant should become your best friends the minute you want to start a company. I had to learn this one the hard way. Life is not kind to the naïve. Despite my 22 years of experience and stellar education, I still got burned a few times, consult a lawyer in every early step.
How can the WAFFA community help you?
1) Connect me with Mentors please. I would love to connect with entrepreneurs who have made it and scaled (at least raised 10+m and series B) who are willing to mentor me as I scale.
2) Connect me with Talent please: I am hiring and very flexible in working style (don’t mind remote working) especially in creating training modules and product development.