Global and Regional Centers of Excellence Highlighted in Lubna Olayan WEP Keynote

Lubna Olayan, CEO of the Saudi-based Olayan Financing Company and one of Saudi Arabia’s most influential businesswomen, gave the first keynote lecture at KAUST’s 2015 Winter Enrichment Program.

Olayan, the daughter of Suliman Olayan, the founder of The Olayan Group, a multinational enterprise established in 1947 in Saudi Arabia, discussed how businesses and academic institutions like KAUST can actively promote excellence both in the region and internationally.

“I am a strong believer that centers of excellence in all fields are a prerequisite to the development of a robust and competitive economy, and that countries with multiple centers of excellence derive an enormous benefit from them. They are catalysts for innovation and job creation,” Olayan stated.

In her view, centers of excellence share common characteristics, including adopting a multidisciplinary approach; operating as meritocracies; and creating an environment in which ideas can flow, people are encouraged to “push the envelope,” and where no one is afraid to fail.

“In relation to Saudi Arabia, centers of excellence are an important tool,” Olayan noted. With the Kingdom’s goal to create a knowledge economy, and with a high birth rate and an increasing need for more jobs for higher-skilled workers, centers of excellence are needed in the public sector, in banking, in the private sector and in academia “at all levels,” she said.

“Saudi Aramco was one of our first centers of excellence, and is a great example of a center of excellence whose culture has benefited all of us,” said Olayan. She noted that her father began his career in 1937 with the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, the precursor of Aramco.

“In 1947, my father embraced the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, and based upon all he had learned in Aramco, took a huge risk,” Olayan said. “He took a one-year leave of absence from Aramco, mortgaged his house, and established a company called General Contracting Company.” Olayan’s first project in the company laid the foundation for The Olayan Group’s establishment.

Although centers of excellence in industry are important, Olayan observed that “one experiences something special at academic centers of excellence,” like KAUST.

“[Academic centers of excellence] are knowledge-producing powerhouses that bring together some of the brightest and most inquisitive minds in creating what can only be described as an incredibly dynamic and inspiring atmosphere,” she said. “There is a constant flow and exchange of ideas that lead to innovations that play an important role in shaping the future of our world.”

Olayan noted the successes of two world-renowned academic centers of excellence: Stanford University and MIT. Alumni from these institutions have created thousands of active and successful companies that employ millions of people and generate enormous revenues.

“There is no question that the investment made to establish, nurture and maintain centers of excellence gives a great return on investment, benefiting us all,” she said.

Although KAUST is still in its infancy, Olayan noted, “we are already seeing the University’s remarkable achievements,” such as patents, startup companies, industry collaborations, and job placements. “This is phenomenal, given our age,” she said.

KAUST has been successful, she believes, because it embodies the characteristics of centers of excellence. “KAUST is a meritocracy. It brings together men and women of different ethnic backgrounds and religions. It is an environment where there is mutual respect…and it provides space to constructively engage with one another in producing innovations that ultimately benefit our knowledge, our well-being, our society and the world,” she said.

However, Olayan noted that the task of creating centers of excellence also lies with each individual person in a company or in academia.

“You are all innovators,” she said, speaking to the students in the audience. “Your passion, combined with all your hard work, will take you where you need to go, granted with an occasional twist or turn. But do not let the occasional failure or setback throw you off. Go find your passion, follow it, and work hard at pursuing it. We need you and your passion to make this country and each of your home countries a better place for all.”