Leila Hoteit: 3 Lessons on Success from an Arab Businesswoman
“Mom, who are these people?” It was an innocent question from my young daughter Alia around the time when she was three. We were walking along with my husband in one of Abu Dhabi’s big fancy malls. Alia was peering at a huge poster standing tall in the middle of the mall. It featured the three rulers of the United Arab Emirates. As she tucked in my side, I bent down and explained that these were the rulers of the UAE who had worked hard to develop their nation and preserve its unity. She asked, “Mom, why is it that here where we live, and back in Lebanon, where grandma and grandpa live, we never see the pictures of powerful women on the walls? Is it because women are not important?”
This is probably the hardest question I’ve had to answer in my years as a parent and in my 16-plus years of professional life, for that matter. I had grown up in my hometown in Lebanon, the younger of two daughters to a very hard-working pilotand director of operations for the Lebanese Airlines and a super-supportive stay-at-home mom and grandma. My father had encouraged my sister and I to pursue our education even though our culture emphasized at the time that it was sons and not daughters who should be professionally motivated. I was one of very few girls of my generation who left home at 18 to study abroad. My father didn’t have a son, and so I, in a sense, became his.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I hope I didn’t do too badly in making my father proud of his would-be son. As I got my Bachelor’s and PhD in electrical engineering, did R&D in the UK, then consulting in the Middle East, I have always been in male-dominated environments. Truth be told, I have never found a role model I could truly identify with. My mother’s generation wasn’t into professional leadership. There were some encouraging men along the way, but none knew the demands and pressures I was facing, pressures that got particularly acute when I had my own two beautiful children. And although Western women love to give us poor, oppressed Arab women advice, they live different lives with different constraints.
So Arab women of my generation have had to become our own role models. We have had to juggle more than Arab men,and we have had to face more cultural rigidity than Western women. As a result, I would like to think that we poor, oppressed women actually have some useful, certainly hard-earned lessons to share, lessons that might turn out useful for anyone wishing to thrive in the modern world. Here are three of mine.
In my previous job, well before my current firm, I was working with a man we will call John. I had teamed up with John and was working hard, hoping he would notice how great I was and that he would come to support my case to make partner at the firm. I was, in addition to delivering on my consulting projects, writing passionately on the topic of women economic empowerment. One day, I got to present my research to a roomful of MBA students. John was part of the audiencelistening for the first time to the details of my study. As I proceeded with my presentation, I could see John in the corner of my eye. He had turned a dark shade of pink and had slid under his chair in apparent shame.
I finished my presentation to an applauding audience and we rushed out and jumped into the car. There he exploded.“What you did up there was unacceptable! You are a consultant, not an activist!” I said, “John, I don’t understand. I presented a couple of gender parity indices, and some conclusions about the Arab world. Yes, we do happen to be today at the bottom of the index, but what is it that I said or presented that was not factual?”
Time stood still for a long while, and all I could think and repeat in the chaos of my brain was: “You can forget about that partnership, Leila. It’s just never going to happen.” It took me a couple of days to fully absorb this incident and its implications, but once I did, I reached three conclusions. One, that these were his issues, his complexes. There may be many like him in our society, but I would never let their issues become mine. Two, that I needed another sponsor, and fast.
I got one, by the way, and boy, was he great. And three, that I would get to show John what women with children can do. I apply this lesson equally well to my personal life. As I have progressed in my career, I have received many words of encouragement, but I have also often been met by women, men and couples who have clearly had an issue with my husband and I having chosen the path of a dual-career couple.
So you get this well-meaning couple who tells you straight out at a family gathering or at a friends gathering, that, come on, you must know you’re not a great mom, given how much you’re investing in your career, right? I would lie if I said these words didn’t hurt. My children are the most precious thing to me, and the thought that I could be failing them in any way is intolerable. But just like I did with John, I quickly reminded myself that these were their issues, their complexes. So instead of replying, I gave back one of my largest smiles as I saw, in flashing light, the following sign in my mind’s eye.
You see, as a young woman in these situations, you have two options. You can either decide to internalize these negative messages that are being thrown at you, to let them make you feel like a failure, like success is way too hard to ever achieve, or you can choose to see that others’ negativity is their own issue, and instead transform it into your own personal fuel. I have learned to always go for option two, and I have found that it has taken me from strength to strength. And it’s true what they say: success is the best revenge.
Some women in the Middle East are lucky enough to be married to someone supportive of their career. Correction: I should say “smart enough,” because who you marry is your own choice, and you’d better marry someone supportive if you plan to have a long career. Still today, the Arab man is not an equal contributor in the home. It’s simply not expected by our society, and even frowned upon as not very manly. As for the Arab woman, our society still assumes that her primary source of happiness should be the happiness and prosperity of her children and husband. She mostly exists for her family.Things are changing, but it will take time.
For now, it means that the professional Arab woman has to somehow maintain the perfect home, make sure that her children’s every need is being taken care of and manage her demanding career. To achieve this, I have found the hard waythat you need to apply your hard-earned professional skills to your personal life. You need to work your life.
Here is how I do this in my personal life. One thing to know about the Middle East is that nearly every family has access to affordable domestic help. The challenge therefore becomes how to recruit effectively. Just like I would in my business life, I have based the selection of who would support me with my children while I’m at work on a strong referral. Cristina had worked for four years with my sister and the quality of her work was well-established. She is now an integral member of our family, having been with us since Alia was six months old. She makes sure that the house is running smoothly while I’m at work, and I make sure to empower her in the most optimal conditions for her and my children, just like I would my best talent at work. This lesson applies whatever your childcare situation, whether an au pair, nursery, part-time nanny that you share with someone else. Choose very carefully, and empower.
If you look at my calendar, you will see every working day one and a half hours from 7pm to 8:30pm UAE time blocked and called “family time.” This is sacred time. I have done this ever since Alia was a baby. I do everything in my power to protect this time so that I can be home by then to spend quality time with my children, asking them about their day, checking up on homework, reading them a bedtime story and giving them lots of kisses and cuddles. If I’m traveling, in whatever the time zone, I use Skype to connect with my children even if I am miles away. Our son Burhan is five years old, and he’s learning to read and do basic maths.
But this is not just about surviving in your dual role as a career woman and mother. This is also about being in the present.When I am with my children, I try to leave work out of our lives. Instead of worrying about how many minutes I can spend with them every day, I focus on turning these minutes into memorable moments, moments where I’m seeing my kids,hearing them, connecting with them.
Arab women of my generation have not been very visible in the public eye as they grew up. This explains, I think, to some extent, why you find so few women in politics in the Arab world. The upside of this, however, is that we have spent a lot of time developing a social skill behind the scenes, in coffee shops, in living rooms, on the phone, a social skill that is very important to success: networking. I would say the average Arab woman has a large network of friends and acquaintances.The majority of those are also women.
In the West, it seems like ambitious women often compare themselves to other women hoping to be noticed as the most successful woman in the room. This leads to the much-spoken-about competitive behavior between professional women. If there’s only room for one woman at the top, then you can’t make room for others, much less lift them up.
In my previous job, I was the most senior woman in the Middle East, so one could think that investing in my network of female colleagues couldn’t bring many benefits and that I should instead invest my time developing my relationships with male seniors and peers. Yet two of my biggest breaks came through the support of other women. It was the head of marketing who initially suggested I be considered as a young global leader to the World Economic Forum. She was familiar with my media engagements and my publications, and when she was asked to voice her opinion, she highlighted my name.It was a young consultant, a Saudi lady and friend, who helped me sell my first project in Saudi Arabia, a market I was finding hard to gain traction in as a woman. She introduced me to a client, and that introduction led to the first of very many projects for me in Saudi. Today, I have two senior women on my team, and I see making them successful as key to my own success. Women continue to advance in the world, not fast enough, but we’re moving.
The Arab world, too, is making progress, despite many recent setbacks. Just this year, the UAE appointed five new female ministers to its cabinet, for a total of eight female ministers. That’s nearly 28 percent of the cabinet, and more than many developed countries can claim. This is today my daughter Alia’s favorite picture. This is the result, no doubt, of great leadership, but it is also the result of strong Arab women not giving up and continuously pushing the boundaries. It is the result of Arab women deciding every day like me to convert shit into fuel, to work their life to keep work out of their life, and to join forces and not compete.