Golden Girls: Saudi’s First Female Employment Agency


Khalid Alkhudair, founder of Saudi Arabia’s first female employment agency, has ambitious growth plans as the kingdom liberalises. Alicia buller reports.

When Khalid Alkhudair casually lists his achievements, you could be forgiven for thinking he was a man twice his age. At just 32, he has not only run a national department for a Big Four company, but he’s also helping to transform thousands of women’s lives in Saudi Arabia.

Four years ago, the plucky 28-year-old left a high-flying job at KPMG and set up Glowork, a social enterprise to address the growing problem of female unemployment in his home country. “Aim big and aim high,” Saudi national Alkhudair says, “you have to take risks to change things.”

In Saudi Arabia, women have limited rights and are banned from driving cars, or walking outside without a veil. While traditionally there has also been a conservative attitude to women in the workplace, government policy has quietly softened in recent years. The threats of increased US oil production and a volatile global economy are likely to have brought the kingdom’s attention to the value of women in the workplace.

For Glowork, today’s timing couldn’t have been better. Alkhudair’s social enterprise is focused on connecting flexible employers with the kingdom’s 1.6 million women who are currently looking for work. By his own estimates, the company has found employment for 26,000 women, while many more have found support through the firm’s advice services and events. The CEO says this year’s Glowork career fair attracted around 60,000 women and 300 companies, including McKinsey and General Electric.

Across the kingdom four years ago there were just 68,000 women working in the private sector, today that figure has grown more than seven times to reach 496,000. “It’s difficult to measure the impact of the things we’ve done. But I think we played a great role in ensuring that the women in retail law is not overruled – the law only just came out,” Alkhudair says, somewhat understatedly.

The CEO is referring to an incident in 2010, when Alkhudair advised a client to hire 11 women to work at Panda supermarkets in Jeddah. That decision resulted in a backlash from conservatives, including prominent cleric Yusuf Al Ahmad, who called for a boycott against the stores, which decided to reassign the women.

Just a few years later, the idea of women working in retail is far more widely accepted. But the Panda episode caused Alkhudair to rethink his strategy. Gloworkinsteadfocusedoncreatingvirtualoffices,allowingwomento work from home – which is particularly beneficial for the kingdom’s many rural areas.

“Instead of outsourcing your call centre to another country, you could outsource it to a city three hours away and monitor and track it just like any other centre,” Alkhudair says.

The government warmed to this idea and then asked the company for advice on legislation related to women working in the retail sector.

The subsequent publication of the law, which required that only women could work in lingerie shops, left Glowork as the go-to company for female recruitment, working hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Labour.

Numbers game

The official unemployment rate among Saudi nationals, according to the Central Department for Statistics and Information, is 11.7 per cent. For women, however, the figure is much higher, at 32.5 per cent, as of the end of last year. That is a slight decline on the 34 per cent figure for 2013, and reflects efforts by the government to encourage more private firms to employ more women.

Currently the government spends a whopping $10.6 billion a year on unemployment benefits, which are paid via the Hafiz programme, to a database of around 2.2 million people. Of those, roughly 1.4 million are women.

Alkhudair says: “The government pays a monthly stipend of 2,000 Riyals (US$533) to each jobseeker. The Hafiz programme gave them statistics that they never had before – like how many women are unemployed and how much they are spending on job seekers. There was a big debate. We said ‘instead of paying them why not give us access to the database and we’ll find them jobs and match them to their capabilities’.”

So today Alkhudair is working closely with the government’s information to help reduce its costs and integrate women into the workplace.

“Before we launched, interaction between employers and employees was very limited, and there were communication barriers,” Alkhudair says.

“We worked on bridging this gap, it’s been like a social experiment. It’s a very wonderful thing to see men and women starting to work side-by-side and getting to know one another. Mindsets are changing and behaviours are changing.”

Alkhudair, who is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and Steering Committee member at the Ministry of Labour of Saudi Arabia, has a habit of never giving up.

“We innovate on requirements based on the kingdom’s needs. If we come across obstacles, then we turn them into opportunities,” he says.

“It’s been a very important journey where I did really struggle for a long time because the concept and operation was challenged – from all angles, from the community, companies and my family.

“It was not an easy path but, at the end, when you sit down and see the number of women that are being employed, you know, we always remember the person that helped us find our first job.”

Alkhudair says that the types of roles he fills for employers vary enormously from non-skilled to highly skilled. Lately he’s even had a job vacancy for Jeddah manager for controversial taxi app, Uber.

“The only inhibitor to a woman getting a profes- sional job might be purely experience. I know women have been working for some time but it’s not yet a huge mass, although there are some experienced women that are able to come and take this job.

“It also takes women that are willing to take a risk and want to jump into that mindset. It’s a mixture between the experience part and the perception part for these jobs.”

The CEO says many architectural engineering jobs have come into the market for both sexes, while positions that have traditionally been held by men for the last couple of decades are now open for competition with women.

While the social enterprise goes from strength to strength, Alkhudair also has his eye on commercial brand extension through leveraging his database of 1.9 million women. To start with, he’s working on a new social app that will connect recruiters and women in real-time.

“We will soon establish a social recruitment community so you will be able to see and chat to one another, you will be able to sit in a virtual coffee shop and see all the employers in the area – it’s a really nice feature.

“Then on the employers’ side they can post searches, as well as market to individuals based on their age and educational background. They are not just employers, they are marketers. We could expand into other areas from that.”

With a population of over 30 million, Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s most populous country, but commercial avenues are still largely untapped in many areas. This is why Alkhudair rolled out Glofit in May, the kingdom’s first all-female gym that’s not affiliated to a spa.

“We launched in Riyadh, it’s a boutique centre for women. We are looking at all areas where we can balance work and life for women.”

As another aspect of lifestyle balance, the CEO says he will also be introducing Glocar, a female-only Uber-style taxi app that will help the ladies of the kingdom travel to work and beyond.

Alkhudair pauses, and then says: “Financially I used to be well off. I used to make a lot of money. I left that to work on something that was very social, which is rewarding because we opened up incomes for families and it’s great to see the changes.

“We thrive on creating transparency between employers, candidates and ourselves. I can see it’s a matter of time before everyone will have their right of place inside the labour market.”