Women in Dealmaking: A Chat with Zein Semaan, Partner, Blake, Cassels & Graydon

In this interview with Zein Semaan, she encourages dealmakers to  embrace diversity in their networks and relationships.

In this interview series, we profile trailblazing women working in M&A, private capital and finance who are driving deals. We highlight their experiences and achievements, and share their insights on what the industry can do to ensure that we see more women on deal teams and at the dealmaking table.

Zein Semaan is a Partner of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP and is called to the bar in a number of U.S. jurisdictions. Her practice is focused on the Middle East region and she advises on general corporate/commercial law with an emphasis on financing transactions, mergers and acquisitions, corporate reorganizations, joint ventures, and private equity transactions. Prior to joining Blakes, Zein worked in law firms in New York and Milan. Zein speaks Arabic and Italian.

TOUCHPOINT: What one quality do you think is most critical to succeed in the investment world?

ZS: Professionalism, encompassing traits such as quality of work, dedication, and effective communication.

TP: In your experience, what’s the number one reason that deals go bad?

ZS: Unrealistic expectations that don’t evolve with changing economic circumstances, particularly in the emerging market context with which I am most familiar.

TP: What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?

ZS: The ability to work with interesting and intelligent people.

TP: The industry is changing rapidly: what do you think the investment landscape will look like in 10 years?

ZS: I think emerging markets will continue to grow in importance although I expect that significant volatility will remain a critical issue.

TP: Did you have a mentor or role model that encouraged you to enter the investment world?

ZS: There is no particular person that prompted me to enter the sector although I have been very fortunate to have had a number of mentors along the way since. Frankly, I have had relatively limited opportunities to mentor other women as gender parity is not quite as progressed in this region (The Middle East) as some others; however, I do see this continuing to change quite rapidly and look forward to contributing thereto.

TP: According to a leading financial services recruiter, when they post an entry-level investment banking or private capital job opening, typically only 8-10% of the applicant pool is female. What do you think scares women away, and what can be done to attract more women to the profession?

ZS: Given the strides made by women in terms of educational achievement, this entry-level point is often the first time that young women are faced with a predominantly male environment and a highly competitive one at that; for some (but not necessarily all), this can prove to be a challenge. Greater access to mentors, be they male or female, who have an appreciation for some of the unique challenges faced by women may help attract more women to the profession. 

TP: What do you see as the biggest barriers to gender parity in your profession?

ZS: In my own experience as a lawyer operating in the sector, the gaps have been narrowed significantly at the entry-level point. However, I have also seen that the challenges increase as women progress in their careers, and for this, ready solutions have yet to be found. 

TP: Does your firm have initiatives in place to encourage gender parity and diversity?

ZS: Yes, very much so. The firm has a Diversity and Inclusion Committee that I have been a member of and I have participated in a number of their initiatives.

TP: How is more female representation changing your industry?

ZS: I think that gender differences are fairly marginal, and in my experience the quality of the individual is paramount. Having said that, as more women gain access to the industry, it only increases the pool of qualified individuals from whom to benefit and this is a great development.

TP: What positive changes have you seen since you started in your career?

ZS: In my Middle East-focused practice, it’s still quite rare to see ‘someone like me’ at the table, but when I look at the industry more broadly, I am happy to say that I continue to see the growing acceptance of females in the boardroom and in positions of influence.

TP: Are there encouraging signs that make you hopeful for the future?

ZS: In my personal experience, if the woman has the desire and the ability, I am confident that she can achieve her goals and that there is no longer, as a matter of course, an arbitrary glass ceiling in place.

TP: What advice would you give the next generation of women preparing for a career in M&A, private capital or finance?

ZS: Ultimately, the most critical factor to success is delivering for your clients and providing superb advice. In my view, this matters more to clients than any externalities like culture, age, or gender. I can’t stress enough how important it is to ‘step outside your niche’ and embrace diversity in your networks and relationships. In finance, the connections you make with colleagues and clients, many of whom you may assume you have little in common with, can be incredibly enriching both professionally and personally.


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