Noha Hefny, humanitarian, corporate leader and entrepreneur, speaks with ISJ

Noha Hefny

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ISJ Editor, James Thorpe, speaks exclusively with Noha Hefny, Founder & CEO, The People of Impact and Sr. Consultant, Strategic Partnerships & Communications, UN Women.

Disclaimer: The opinions and perspectives presented in this article solely reflect the personal views of Noha Hefny and do not represent or endorse the stance of any organisation.

To impact the lives of thousands and become a force for social good, you need to be a dynamic individual dedicated to universal human values and driving positive change.

Noha Hefny embodies this pursuit, having firmly established herself as an innovator, synergist and systems thinker.

With a relentless focus on promoting issues facing women and youth and reducing inequality across the globe, Hefny – Founder & CEO of People of Impact and a corporate and UN veteran – has helped form impactful partnerships that have had the power to transform communities and advance crucial causes.

Hefny’s journey as a humanitarian, corporate leader and serial social entrepreneur has spanned two decades.

Named one of Asia’s Women Power Leaders in 2023 and one of the Top 100 Women in Social Enterprise by the European Euclid Network (supported by the European Commission) in 2021, it is evident that her consistent efforts have left an indelible mark on the global landscape.

In this exclusive interview, Hefny sat down with ISJ to discuss her leadership philosophy and the importance of strategic thinking and communication when looking to navigate business challenges and mitigate emerging issues, crisis and operational disruption.

A leap of faith

In her current role at People of Impact – a consultancy firm specialising in social impact and sustainability centric communications and events – Hefny is committed to advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

A firm believer in the role of effective communication, thought leadership, stakeholder engagement and event management, she recognises the potential to foster innovative and disruptive dialogue whilst engaging with stakeholders to address pressing social challenges.

“I’m fortunate to have had, at a very early stage, a very rich career across three distinctive sectors,” explained Hefny.

“This includes international development and the humanitarian sector, the private sector and social entrepreneurship.

“Pivoting across these sectors really has enabled me to experience the importance of sustainability, social impact and communications across different organisational settings and contexts.

“It has enabled me to grow into a mission driven, purpose driven, impact driven leader, bringing ideas that can transform the world and advance sustainable development whilst delivering impact for people all over the world across different organisations.

“This was my mission in the corporate sector when I was Director of Corporate Affairs & CSR, MEA, Head of Department at PepsiCo and Director of Communications, Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa (EEMA) at McKinsey & Company.

“It was the same later on when I was working with UN Women and the same before that when I was with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in field locations as far as the south of Algeria and East Sudan.

“These were remote, challenging environments. I’m really fortunate for this journey; my entrepreneurial background is fuelled by this passion for social impact.” 

Throughout her career, Hefny has established three entrepreneurial ventures: One focused on addressing women empowerment and the under representation of Arab women in leadership; the second about ethical marketing and how to integrate social impact into marketing; the third, an advocacy platform and communication and events agency focused on sustainability and social impact causes.

“Across the three sectors, what I learned is that there are no obstacles that are too difficult to overcome – but it takes a lot of preparedness, courage and faith to navigate the challenges that you confront.

“But, if you have this ability, boldness and belief in your mission, you can achieve anything you set out for and can succeed in any field of your choice.

“For me, leadership is centred around the notion of purpose and impact.

“I believe that as a leader, it’s essential to have a clear sense of purpose that goes beyond your personal ambition.

1-ISJ- Noha Hefny, humanitarian, corporate leader and entrepreneur, speaks with ISJ
Business professionals discussing corporate strategy

“At the beginning of our careers, we’re all driven by ego, that zeal to grow and move to the next level. But, at some point, when we reach the leadership level, we realise that there is a bigger meaning to all of this.

Hefny thrives to identify and communicate a vision – a purpose that can inspire others and motivate them to work towards a shared goal.

“Most of the time, that goal should not only be beneficial for the organisation, but it should have a broader societal or global impact for people,” she added.

“I see my success in the impact that I’ve had on an individual level in the humanitarian sector.

“Moreover, I see it in the ideas that I conceptualised to life in corporate settings in the social entrepreneurship space. Having that perseverance is something I’m really proud of.

“Venturing from one sector to another and achieving success in each is not easy – for me, this is an achievement.

“I was therefore proud to be recognised as one of the Top 100 Women in Social Enterprise by the European Euclid Network.

“I was one of three Arab women represented on this list. Despite the fact I see many accolades as labels – a way that society ranks success – I also see them as a validation that I’m on the right track; that my leadership is effective and that I am delivering my impact and the purpose that I was created for.

“Ultimately, however, my work with refugees in camps in Sudan and Algeria on humanitarian operations, to support displaced populations and refugee populations, is the greatest achievement of my life.

“It has a significance much greater than any project that I have done in any other sector.”

The value of communication in leadership

Communication is one of the most important traits of a successful leader.

An individual that can articulate and differentiate effectively can, in turn, define a clear vision and direction.

In the security industry particularly, no organisation can succeed without vision or direction. The ability to inspire and motivate others is directly correlated with communication and if you are a leader that can communicate this in a business or organisation – you can achieve your goals.

“A lot of people say your network is your net worth,” Hefny noted. “Building relationships requires effective communication and knowing how to establish a connection with other people.

“When it comes to security, conflict resolution is worth discussing. To resolve conflicts, whether it be between individuals, groups or countries, you need effective communicators.

“Likewise in crisis management, communication creates agility and flexibility during times when we need to navigate difficult situations.

“In times of crisis, there’s things that are critically important.

“The first is instilling trust and confidence in the organisation in the actions that we are taking as leaders.

“The second is transparency. Beyond the power of communication and leadership in terms of vision, in crisis situations, we need to coordinate responses.

“Often this comes in the context of dealing with many different entities who have different interests.

“In my experience, many crisis situations involve the public and often involve emotions or concerns that need to be addressed.

“When it comes to transparency, particularly in corporate settings, many are centred around communicating positive news.

“In fact, they always try and frame things in a way that is positive. However, in times of crisis, I think it’s important to highlight our learnings.

“We need to communicate our lessons learned and address the areas for improvement.”

Crisis management is broader than communication.

Ultimately, you need to exercise foresight, because effective crisis management within an enterprise setting, for example, is also “about moving into the realm of practical implementation – not to take proactive action, but sometimes we need to be reactive, certainly to prepare the type of messaging and actions that would go out in a time of crisis or be implemented should a situation arise,” elaborated Hefny.

“Anticipation of crisis and training is vital. But, how do we empower teams and train them to respond to different scenarios that we have anticipated?

“Having clear lines of authority and assessing the safety of facilities and people in different scenarios is critical.

“Moreover, looking at how we engage different stakeholders, whether it is partners, suppliers, government and others is critical to maintaining business continuity and fostering a culture of resilience and learning.

“Interacting with alliances in our industry, getting insights from non-traditional sources and talking to other companies in the same country or context is extremely valuable.”

Staying agile and adaptable

With the advent of accessible and powerful AI platforms contributing to an ever-evolving risk landscape, securing operations against digital threats should be high on the agenda for every business and organisation.

Cybersecurity threats pose a global challenge, impacting not only those directly involved in security, but across various domains.

The consequences of a breach can be devastating for any organisation.

Therefore, safeguarding data must be a priority.

Whether you manage a whole community, organisation or oversee a specific database, it becomes imperative to take proactive measures when looking to secure information.

Adopting the right technology, allocating the right resources and implementing robust systems are essential steps in defending against ever-evolving threats.

“I’m not an expert in tech, but this is definitely one of the main issues in 2023,” Hefny reaffirmed.

“We also regularly encounter physical security challenges in the humanitarian field.

“We face these everywhere, from corporate organisations to conflict environments – as a result, we have to protect our facilities and our people and ensure that we have emergency response plans at all times.

“You can stay ahead of emerging threats by communicating, networking and engaging with industry alliances.

“By attending events like the ISJ Leaders in Security Conference, you can learn about potential issues and gather information.

“By building a strong data, information and security culture, you can reinforce a mindset of ownership where everyone is responsible. 

“Collaboration is key to addressing issues – understanding roles in an organisation during a time of crisis can enable continuity and growth because it doesn’t rest on one function, but it’s owned by everyone. And everyone plays that role in prevention and response.

“In terms of continuity, cracking the code and understanding how we’re going to embrace automation and AI across the board is critical for growth.

“Moreover, regulatory compliance is also vital, so staying informed about privacy regulations that apply to different organisations and regions can help you stay agile and adaptable.”

By implementing strategic planning measures, reflecting on leadership styles and keeping an open mind, businesses and organisations can position themselves for continuity and growth despite the myriad challenges they face.

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