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Female Disruptors: Marriam Mossalli of Niche Arabia On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Women are judged more emotionally. Certain attributes that both men and women share can be received quite differently based on gender. The whole “Bossy versus Bitchy” dilemma. People see a woman walk into the room and if she’s too pretty they assume that’s why she’s there, or if she has a certain last name, its proof of nepotism. I don’t see my male counterparts facing similar superficial judgement.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marriam Mossalli.

Marriam Mossalli, former news journalist with 15 years experience as a contributing editor for international titles, is the young Saudi entrepreneur at the head of the prominent luxury consultancy firm Niche Arabia and leading voice for Saudi Arabia fashion. Labelled by the international media industry as “Saudi Ambassador of Fashion” she earned global recognition for her innovative activities in the Kingdom, particularly for the role she plays in elevating the Saudi fashion industry by working with local and international clients.
Marriam is also the founder of the Saudi Style Council, a reference point for Saudi Arabia creative scene, aimed at guiding and promoting local talents while putting Saudi Arabia the international fashion map.
Since 2018 Marriam Mossalli is included in the global BoF 500 list, the prestigious award that recognizes key players in the global fashion industry.

Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My career path was quite serendipitous: I started writing scripts for TVCs and corporate videos, and would freelance some articles to the newspaper. Then one day, the editor-in-chief asked to meet me and I was hired on the spot as the youngest editor for the leading English newspaper in the Middle East. From there, I made a name for myself, co-founding the LifeStyle section of the newspaper. Together with an amazing team of Saudi writers, we focused on local narratives of young Saudi. It was a new concept as most of our lifestyle news was still being copy-pasted from international wires.

From there, I saw there was a large disconnect between what people thought of the Saudi consumer and the reality of who the Saudi consumer is. Niche Arabia was established as an attempt to bridge that gap while portraying an authentic image of Saudi. Today, ten years later, we continue to help international brands enter the Saudi market, while championing the exportation of our own culture through fashion, art and music. Niche arabia continues to set benchmarks in what is possible in the Kingdom, while highlighting the amazing local creatives behind such achievements.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Ever since I was a little kid, I never accepted the status quo. If you told me not to touch that porcelain bowl, the next minute, I’d be parading the bowl around as a hat. Those terrible twos morphed into a pretty rebellious teenage phase, and then into who I am now — a disruptive industry insider. If there’s no place for me, I’ll make sure to carve my own niche.

My company isn’t just the first; in my very biased opinion, it is also the best. We conceived and executed the first ever female sports day in Saudi Arabia, gathering 10,000 young girls and women in a stadium that until that point was only reserved for males.

Because my country is built on “implied” restrictions rather than actual laws, many things are taboo rather that explicitly prohibited. I’ve been able to push the envelope and open doors that have allowed to mixed runway shows, female sport days, and individual expression to no longer be a taboo.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I worked with family! [she laughs]

Definitely not smart, but also hard to avoid in a country like Saudi Arabia, where you’re seven degrees of relation to everyone!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve had many amazing people I consider mentors, who I’ve tried to absorb every ounce of experience and knowledge they may have to share! One such bold and inspiring woman is Her Excellency Saudi Ambassador to the US, HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar. But ten years ago, she was just a friend commending me on my commitment (as at that time many young Saudis would gain their education abroad and then stay there to pursue their careers). Most professions, especially those in the creative fields, were limited in the Kingdom. Reema saluted my drive and told me that I was too smart for staying home and setting up my roots. And now that Saudi is open, and everyone is wanting an in, I’m sitting here with a company that’s over a decade old, and a career that spans almost two. Her advice to fight the good fight always pops up in my mind, especially on those hard days where I find myself thinking, “God this could be easier if I were trying to do this anywhere else.”

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

That’s a great question because you’re right — some things should be retained. I think that disrupting an industry has a negative connotation when its foundations are demolished, and its original values are given little consideration, or worse, are neglected. From this perspective, I believe Saudi Arabia is doing a great job of showing the world that being traditional and contemporary are not mutually exclusive. We can still be a progressive country that retains its cultural identity and is proud of its heritage.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Lama Alsulaiman, one of the first females to be an elected official in the Saudi government, once told me that if you want to truly be effective, you don’t always have to go against the grain. As female amongst a room of men, which is often the situation I find myself in (as the luxury sector worldwide is predominately run by males in c-suite roles), that you have to speak in their language and mannerisms. I learned very early on how to mimic my male counterparts in business meetings and negotiations, which I fully attribute to my success today as an entrepreneur.

Somayya Jarbati, the highest-ranking female in media in the Middle East (she was then Deputy Editor of Arab News), told me as a woman we have to be stronger than men. That as women, if we are seen as “complaining,” they will say we don’t deserve to be here. So, I would have to learn to deal and solve my own problems, when perhaps a male in the same situation would have his superiors to go to.

Dr Lillian Khan, a dear friend and badass dermatologist, is another female in a profession dominated by males. She never gave me advice, but I look to her as inspiration. She continues to fight for her place and never gives up. Her drive and ambition is something I admire and I hope that I can inspire the young women who work for me in the same manner.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Right now, while I am coaching, mentoring and supporting young Saudi talents in the creative industry through the Saudi Style Council, I’m working on multiple projects with the support of our government — a clear shift compared to ten years ago, when it was the private sector making the moves. My hope is to continue to be a clear and articulate a voice for my country as a patriotic capitalist.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women are judged more emotionally. Certain attributes that both men and women share can be received quite differently based on gender. The whole “Bossy versus Bitchy” dilemma. People see a woman walk into the room and if she’s too pretty they assume that’s why she’s there, or if she has a certain last name, its proof of nepotism. I don’t see my male counterparts facing similar superficial judgement.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

WomenPowerPodcast by Wafa Obaidat, who is basically my Bahraini twin when it comes to our careers.

Womena by Elissa Freiha, a young feminist whose Instagram platform is awesome!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Through my two nonprofits Under The Abaya and Saudi Style Council, I believe I’m doing what I preach: I’m connecting people and giving them a platform to narrate their own stories. As a writer and journalist, I always found it odd that in Saudi, our stories were told for us. The media would morph and edit to fit their brand of sensationalism. Saudi women were depicted as submissive mutes that wore only black, while the reality was a colorful contradiction.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The closest thing I have to that is my senior yearbook quote, which was an Oscar Wilde quote: The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

I still have that same unflinching curiosity and drive, which I believe has been a catalyst to my success today.

How can our readers follow you online?

@marriam.mossalli @nichearabia

@under_the_abaya @saudistylecouncil_

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Female Disruptors: Marriam Mossalli of Niche Arabia On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.