Dubai’s Lean In Circle Helps Women Speak Up and Stand Out

Dubai’s Lean In Circle Helps Women Speak Up and Stand Out

Meet Hanane Benkhallouk and Amel Murphy. They are the co-founders of a pioneering female consultancy firm called Sustain Leadership, which is dedicated to helping private and public sector organizations improve their work culture and create more advancement opportunities for female employees in the UAE.

However, that’s not the only way that Murphy and Benkhallouk support the growth of women in the UAE. They are also passionate about helping women grow on a personal level, which is why they founded the first Lean In circle in the GCC. But before exploring what this movement is all about, let’s learn a little more about the Dubai circle’s co-founders.

Two journeys that begin in Africa

Hanane Benkhallouk was born and raised in Morocco and was greatly influenced by her entrepreneurial father, who always tried to play an active role in empowering community members from his village. After completing a bachelor’s degree from L’Institut Superieur image1de Commerce et Administration des Entreprises, a prestigious business school in Morocco, Benkhallouk moved to New York city to pursue an MBA in Finance and Marketing at the New York Institute of Technology. During her time in New York, she became very active in the field of human capital and entrepreneurship development and eventually moved to the UAE, where she worked for different organizations in marketing and brand development. Combining her passion and education, Benkhallouk started working at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation in 2008, where she was in charge of innovation and entrepreneurship programs across the Arab world. A life experience that made entrepreneurship the next logical step in her personal and professional growth.

On the other hand, Amel Murphy, who is of Algerian descent, took a different path to social entrepreneurship. Growing up in different parts of Africa, Murphy was exposed to the ideas of community living and value creation with limited resources from an early age. So, throughout her life, she alwaysfullsizerender understood that collective wisdom was the “currency” that created change. After more than a decade working in various leadership roles in male-dominated workplaces, mainly in the energy sector, Murphy decided it was time for a change. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from IE Business School in Spain and a master’s in Organizational Capability and Development from the University College of London, Murphy decided that she wanted to start using her knowledge to help empower individuals in organizations and organizations through individuals.

Eventually, Benkhallouk and Murphy’s paths crossed in Dubai, where they co-founded Sustain Leadership in 2013 and have worked passionately together ever since to empower global communities using their unique life experiences. In this interview, Benkhallouk shares the purpose of the Lean In movement, how it is unique and how women in Dubai can benefit from joining the GCC’s first Lean In circle.

1) What is the “Lean In” concept and why did you feel the need to create a chapter in Dubai?

The Lean In movement, inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book by the same name, is a not-for-profit organization and community platform that focuses on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions and achieve their dreams by changing the conversation from what they can’t do to what they can do. The Lean In movement supports women in 3 main ways.

Firstly, it provides members with an active and supportive community of women that share inspirational stories and profound teachable moments.

Secondly, it offers members an ever-growing library of free online lectures on topics including leadership and communication, which is produced in partnership with the Clayman Institute for Gender Studies at Stanford University and other well-known experts.

Thirdly, it encourages women to meet on a monthly basis in small groups, also known as circles, “to encourage and support each other in an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust.”

The Lean In Arabia chapter with its main circle, Lean In Without Falling Over, is the first Lean In circle in the GCC. Amel and I started the circle in October 2014 with six ladies, and now we have over 300 members, who are all eager to be active members in the community.

2) What makes the “Lean In” circle different from other female empowerment networks in Dubai?

For Amel and I, engaging community is what we do best and we have been involved in so many international community building exercises that we both felt the need to bring a different culture of empowerment to Dubai. We know that there are a lot of networking events here in the UAE. However, the prime focus of our Lean In circle isn’t networking.

For us, it’s all about creating a space for open and honest conversation that addresses the issues that women face on a daily basis. In the process of fulfilling personal and professional expectations, we have found that many women feel that they have only partially developed their personal abilities. Despite their significant external achievements.

“We wanted it to be a space of ‘being’ rather than doing”

When we first created this space, we weren’t sure how it would be perceived. However, what we did know was that we wanted a space where women could get together to explore, reflect and support one another. We wanted a space where women felt comfortable enough to explore their “professional and personal blind spots” so they could grow. Far away from any pressure or fear of competition.

How the Circle works

Lean In circles are run as a dialogue, where storytelling is at the heart of the exchange and the learning experience. We don’t run workshops or educational sessions as such, because we prefer to learn through conversation and exchange. Ultimately, the Lean In circle is all about listening. It’s about listening to what women are actually saying and hearing what women need when they speak.

4)How many members does the Dubai “Lean In” circle have and what does the profile look like? 

We currently have 333 members, and our membership is growing on a daily basis. Our participants come from all walks of life and backgrounds. They are board members, senior executives, entrepreneurs, fresh graduates and much, much more! We are grateful for this diversity, because it creates a rich dialogue and sparks conversations that are enriched by our participants’ different perspectives.

5)What can women who attend a “Lean In” session look forward to gaining?

The Dubai Lean In circle meets every third Tuesday of every month and our gatherings are usually based on a specific theme. Our conversations topics, which are suggested by our members, typically relate to common challenges that our female members face and want to learn about.

After meetings, the outcomes of the discussions are usually summarized and circulated by the moderators of the circle, so the attendees can continue to benefit from the knowledge and perspectives gained during our different sessions.

In past sessions, we have explored questions, such as can women have it all? What is success? And many other topics. By being in our circle, our members learn how to take the time to pause, reflect and listen to their own voice and needs.

Amel and I are proud to say that many of our circle members have told us that they feel more confident, because they feel that they can share their fears with other women in the Lean In circle. Over the past year, we have had the great privilege to witness the growth of this tight community and we hope that these women can always support each other.

6) Can you share a transformation story that occurred in one of the Lean In sessions that stands out in your mind?

On October 29th of this year, the TEDxDeiraWomen event held in Dubai was spearheaded by Image result for TEDx DEiraone of our members, who felt the need to “lean in” and challenge herself to put together an inspiring event. Not only did the Lean In circle help her increase her own level of self-
confidence, it also inspired her to create an event that would inspire others to grow and improve themselves.

I am very proud to say that our fearless TEDxDeiraWomen event organizer also motivated other members of the Dubai Lean In circle to join her cause. Thus, promoting a beautiful and self-perpetuating culture of empowerment that I hope she will continue to channel in her personal and professional life.

7) How can women join the Dubai “Lean In” circle and how can they help you support the growth of this network?

You can join the Lean In Without Falling Over circle at any time by visiting the Lean In website and requesting to join the circle.

8)How can readers learn more about your Lean In circle and what you do?

You can learn more about our Lean In circle by visiting this website and joining our group. sl-logoIf you are interested in learning more about the work that Amel and I do, you can visit our Sustain Leadertship website and check out our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. We look forward to sharing all the work that we do with organizations and individuals, as well as our community engagement and public events!

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How to be Happier in 3 Simple Steps

How to be Happier in 3 Simple Steps

Throughout modern history, most people have been forced to accept dissatisfaction as a “natural” part of life. They expected to work endlessly to survive until they could work no longer and die shortly thereafter. Contentment was the most that people could hope for, because wishing for true happiness would only lead to disappointment. Social mobility was limited by restrictive socio-economic structures and professional satisfaction wasn’t really a thing that people expected to have. Now, you might think that I am exaggerating or being unnecessarily negative, but I only highlight this reality to underline that fact that for many people across the globe, despite all of the advancements of the 21st century, these attitudes towards personal and professional happiness haven’t really changed. In many places, dissatisfaction is a synonym for duty and it is paramount to any individual need or desire.

Global youth want change.jpg

While I am a strong advocate of community and family cohesion, I am often disappointed by how many “modern” educated families still use emotional blackmail to manipulate their members into a life of dissatisfaction. In the MENA region, where I grew up, quiet resentment is a natural state of being. A lot of people marry people they don’t want, work jobs they don’t like to buy things they don’t need. However, this isn’t only the case in the Orient. In the West, where I pursued my higher education, a life of dissatisfaction isn’t forced upon you by a collective culture, it is forced upon you by a powerful media establishment that sets the standards of what happiness “should” look like. Either way, for centuries, ideas of personal and professional fulfilment have often been ridiculed as being “fanciful” or “irresponsible,” because somehow being unhappy was a measuring stick for “success.” According to this “global logic,” the unhappier you were the more likely it was that you were following society’s pre-approved plan of how your life needed to unfold.

However, one only needs to look at the current state of geo-political affairs to see how this philosophy is endangering our economies and communities. In the age of the internet, millions of people have access to the world and are becoming more and more aware of the way that other people are living. They are starting to realize that happiness doesn’t have to be an unattainable dream. Our global youth are tired of living in “auto-pilot mode” and if we don’t establish “ecosystems of success” that allow them to be fulfilled on a personal, professional, social and spiritual level, then we risk the possibility of them looking for meaning and purpose in communities or organizations that don’t have their best or our best interest at heart. In his book, The New Leader¸ Daniel Goleman defines 3 steps that all of us can use to identify who we want to be, who we are currently and how we can synthesize the two entities into a single, stronger one.

1) Identify your Ideal Self

 When you lay awake at night thinking about your day, what do you wish you were doing? When you sit down with a friend to complain about work and you tell them this isn’t what you thought your life would be like. What “naïve” vision do you share with them? Whatever that is, that is your ideal self. The person you wish you could be or the thing you wish you could do if there were no financial or social expectations. If you think that happiness has a cost, believe me unhappiness has costs too. Reduced motivation, creativity and productivity just to name a few. Unfortunately, many of us underestimate the financial gain that can come from doing something that you’re actually passionate about. When you love something, you will take more risks, work harder and longer to make it a reality, without losing motivation. So, take a moment to think about who you want to be 5 years from now. Once you have discovered who that is you’re ready for the next step.

2) Understand your Real Self

Who are you in your personal and professional life? Are you a people pleaser? Are you afraid of taking risks? Are you the office “downer?” As you think of your real self, or who you are now, you should avoid being overly generous or critical. You have to be as honest as possible with yourself for this to work. Having said that, it’s not always easy to dismiss years of “protective apathy” or self-deprecating thinking. But if you’re serious about changing your life, you have to be willing to be truthful with yourself. Self-awareness is the antithesis of living in auto-pilot mode. So, if you’re really tired of being unhappy, you will have to deal with the uncomfortable truths that have allowed you to live in auto-pilot mode for so long. Once you identify who you are now, you need to compare it to your ideal self. Are these people similar or are they polar opposites? What are the biggest gaps between these 2 people? What are the most surprising gaps? When you’re able to answer these questions you’re ready to create your “road map to success.”

Discovering your real self.jpg

3) Map your Path to Self-Fulfillment

 Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of being their true self without dire consequences. If you’re one of these people, then you need to find ways to incorporate the synthesis of your ideal and real self into your daily life. If you can’t change your life completely, then you should start changing parts of it. Are you a corporate executive who is passionate about empowerment? Find ways that you can weave that passion into your work life. Spearhead a new HR initiative. Mentor a social enterprise that works in your passion. Fund community building projects and initiatives that are meaningful to you. Are you unhappy with your volatile personality? Identify your triggers. Work on being aware of why these triggers exist. Create “mental blueprints” to deal with your outbursts. Replacing “I should” with “I am “or “I am becoming” is the most empowering feeling in the world. At the end of the day, your ability to find personal and professional happiness ultimately comes down to your willingness to be honest with yourself and those around you. If you can find the courage to do the former, the latter will follow.

The Honest Truth

Throughout my life, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a family and a community that allowed me to discover and be who I wanted to be. However, even for people like me, who possess this freedom, you have to be willing to fight for it. As a young, Arab Muslim woman, there will always be people who insist on “reminding me” of what is “proper” or who and what I can be. They see my strength as a weakness, because it makes me “less feminine” or “culturally awkward” and they wish that I was more “agreeable.” In other words, they wish, to some degree, that I would just tolerate certain patriarchal or self-deprecating norms, which I believe have no place in my Islamic faith or modern society. However, I must accept that if I wish to be my true self that I will always make those who want to maintain the status quo anxious or uncomfortable. But, if you want to be happy in your personal and professional life, then you have to find the courage to respectfully deflect criticism and hack your social structures to create a new status quo. No matter what, it should be all of our collective responsibilities to create new paths of fulfillment for ourselves and others, so we can create happier and more stable societies and economies.

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Do I have what it Takes to Be an Entrepreneur?

Do I have what it Takes to Be an Entrepreneur?

With unemployment  rates as  as high as 40% and above in some Arab countries, many people are looking for new ways to make a living, especially young people. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Middle East and North Africa have the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, at 28.2% and 30.5% respectively. When you consider the aforementioned numbers, it’s no wonder why an increasing number of young Arabs are seeking to found startups and generate profits on their own terms. That being so, that’s not the only reason that some young people are taking the startup path.

In 2014, Deloitte published a survey that found that millennials, individuals born between 1977 and 1997, feel that the success of a business shouldn’t only be determined by profits. They felt that businesses should also “focus on improving society.” The survey also indicated that 50% of the respondents wanted to work for a business with ethical practices. Considering that millennials will form 75% of the global workforce by 2025, it’s about time that we capitalize on their passion for “doing well, by doing good,” so we can drive innovative problem-solving, create more employment opportunities and affect positive change in the MENA region and the world.

Deloitte Millennial Survey 2014
Source: Deloitte Millennial Survey 2014

Well…. if you feel that that’s easier said than done, then I would completely agree with you. Entrepreneurship is not easy and it shouldn’t be a decision that is taken lightly. Everyone wants to be like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but here’s the thing. That is not the typical entrepreneurial experience. With a little bit of luck and A LOT OF strategizing, your startup might not completely drain your savings. With a lot of luck, you could become the next Snapchat, Instagram or Airbnb. It ultimately all depends on your idea and the market, but don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to discourage you from choosing the startup path, I’m just trying to make sure you understand that it is stressful, messy and unpredictable. But it can also be exciting and extremely rewarding if you do it “right.”

“How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.”      

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia

I put right in quotation marks, because I don’t think that there is just one way to be an entrepreneur, but there are a lot of wrong reasons to enter the game. If you’re ready to take responsibility for your life and make a change, whether it be starting your own business or just a career change, then I’m here to help you out. Now that I’ve given you the pep talk, it’s time for you to get your pep walk on by working on the Soukie Speaks: Getting Your Entrepreneurial Dream on Track form. A form that I created specifically for young people who don’t know if they’re ready for the startup path or if it’s the right path for them at all. As you work through this exercise, you should be able to identify your strengths, weaknesses and most importantly your OPPORTUNITIES for growth! Send the voice in your head packing for a couple of hours and focus on what YOU want to get out of your life by downloading the form [available in PDF or Doc formatbelow] and reflect deeply on your answers. Happy dream hunting!

[PDF] SS- Getting Your Entrepreneurial Dream on Track Exercise [P1]

[Doc] SS- Getting Your Entrepreneurial Dream on Track Exercise [P1]

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#RaiseYourHand and Change Your Life

#RaiseYourHand and Change Your Life

It was the end of the first day of the Empower 2016 youth conference, hosted by Reach Out To Asia in Doha, Qatar, and everybody was ready to be done. The only thing standing in their way was the panel discussion that I was scheduled to be a part of. After a short presentation from the moderator, all three panelists, myself included, walked on stage one by one and sat down. The first panelist took the microphone and gave a brief introduction of herself and quickly passed the microphone to me. As I looked out into the crowd, I could feel their exhaustion and restlessness and to me that only meant one thing. I had to do something worth paying attention to. And that’s exactly what I did.

“Hi everyone, my name is Soukaina Rachidi and I am the founder and author of a blog called Soukie Speaks, but today I’m here to talk about a community project that I worked on last year. But before I do that, there is something you need to know about me. I HATE sharing attention with people and if you’re talking, that means you’re not listening. So, I don’t have your full attention. Can you raise your hands if you can hear me? (Some hands go up in the crowd)  Can you please raise your hands if you can hear me? (More hands go up in the crowd) Can you raise your hands if you can hear me? (All hands go up in the crowd). Excellent, now I’m ready to speak.”

Throughout the conference, I used that tactic to get people’s attention. In fact, it was so effective, that people started getting quiet any time they saw me getting on the stage. I became the #RaiseYourHand girl. But it wasn’t until I left the conference and I went home13077191_10153973012021839_1348453522_n that I realized the power of that phrase. I realized that it wasn’t just a tactic to get a restless crowd to settle down. It was a powerful mantra, the key to a better life. How many times have you been afraid to put your hand up in school, because you didn’t want the other kids to think you were too smart? How many times have you been afraid to raise your hand in a work meeting to share an innovative idea, because you didn’t think it was good enough? How many times have you shoved your hands in your pocket when somebody asked for volunteers for an amazing opportunity, because you were just too scared to take it?

The #RaiseYourHand movement is a call to action, not to silence, but action. That day, when I asked the crowd to raise their hands, I didn’t do it because I wanted them to be silent. I did it because I wanted them to be fully present in the moment. We all have moments in our lives, but not all moments are created equal. Some moments decide who we are and some decide who we aren’t. Every time we decide not to raise our hands, is a moment that we allow mediocrity to rule our lives. While blending in might give you some sense of security, standing out gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment that cannot be rivaled. We need more people to raise their hands, because we need more leaders to empower our communities. But this change can’t begin, until our community members feel they deserve better opportunity themselves.

Most of my life, I have chosen to speak first, go first, volunteer first etc. Whatever it was, I chose to be the first, because thankfully, somewhere deep in my psyche, I knew that I deserved it. Now, it’s time that our Arab youth and you, my dear reader, believe it too. I’m inviting you to join the Soukie Speaks #RaiseYourHand movement, so you can be a stronger version of yourself, both for yourself and your community. This is your chance to take pride in your accomplishments, no matter how big or small, and stand out! I want you to change the world by changing the only thing you can change: yourself.

If you have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn, please share this article and use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand. I also invite you to share a decision, moment or achievement that makes you feel proud, empowered or accomplished on any of these social media channels with the same hashtag! Share your accomplishment with me and I will share them with the world. Who knows, maybe your #RaiseYourHand moment will inspire somebody else’s!

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How the Fight for Gender Equality Needs to Change

How the Fight for Gender Equality Needs to Change

I dedicate this piece to my father, may he rest in peace, because he never thought of me as “just a girl.” He believed I was capable of great things and I intend to use everything he taught me and gave me to do just that.  

Growing up, feminism always seemed like an alienating movement to me, because it felt like it eroded the social cohesion of our communities and family units. I was confused by the word, because it was supposed to be a movement that advocated for women’s right, but I wasn’t always sure I understood, or even agreed, with the rights that were being fought for. Somehow, feminism came to mean divided unity. Women against men or women versus patriarchy. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the fight for gender equality is much, much bigger than we ever imagined and that’s why the movement must change.

After graduating from college and joining the workforce, I quickly realized that patriarchy doesn’t only oppress women, it also oppresses men. But the manifestation of this oppression differs from culture to culture and country to country. Superficially, patriarchy seems to offer men more social currency, because it offers them more political, professional and economic opportunities. Thus, allowing them to gain the social mobility they need to consolidate more power and political influence in society. However, the question that is conveniently left out of the conversation is: how does patriarchy disenfranchise the men in our communities?

Unfortunately,  patriarchy equates masculinity to a sociopathic lack of humanity and empathy. While a man might rise more easily to the rank of CEO in a corporation or have less barriers to face in the world of entrepreneurship, our current definition of masculinity expects them to face all trials and tribulations with a heroic stoicism that forbids them from showing weakness. It denies them the right to need people or even feel needed. Ultimately, it deprives them of their fundamental right to be human and access the full spectrum of human emotion. In many ways, the fight for gender equality is still in its infancy, because while women are fighting to be acknowledged as economic, political and social agents in their own rights, men are also fighting to be recognized as human beings who deserve to be more than just economic, political and social agents.

No definition of masculinity

They are fighting for the right to be human.

Nowadays, I hesitate to call myself a feminist, not because I am afraid of being punished for advocating for women in a patriarchal world. I hesitate, because I believe that the fight for gender equality isn’t exclusive to women anymore. I will always advocate for women’s empowerment, because I am a woman who has had access to countless privileges throughout my life, which are still considered a dream for many women in the world. However, nowadays I prefer to label myself a humanist, because I believe that regardless of our gender, race or beliefs, that we all deserve to find a life balance that enriches us as individual human beings.

Where many governments, NGOs, universities, companies and startup ecosystems have implemented incentive programs, competitions and mentorship initiatives to support the rise of women in the world, the men in our communities remain woefully overlooked and under-served. Patriarchy doesn’t offer men a better deal, it offers them a different one. One that forces them to accept the cards they have been dealt, because they have been shamed into silence for fear that they may lose the label of masculinity if they ask for help. Unlike men, women are allowed, even encouraged, to be emotional and seek support networks. A powerful asset, when you consider the power and strength that comes with numbers. On the other hand, men are expected to suffer in silence. Or worse, not at all.

I am not a man, but this fight is personal, because I believe that the men in my life deserve to be confident in who they are and what they do. They deserve to live without the constant fear of someone questioning their masculinity. They deserve to know that we won’t think less of them if they act human. Today and everyday, I stand for the right of every person, man or woman, to ask for compassion and receive it. To need people and be needed. To live with dignity and encourage others to live with dignity too.


Today, I use my social agency, as an emotionally intelligent, economically and professionally empowered woman to call on all decision makers, social influencers and community leaders to create more empowerment networks, programs and initiatives to support the men in our communities. The 21st century, with all of its historic shifts, has changed the definition of masculinity indefinitely. Leaving millions, if not billions, of men trying to figure out what it means to be a man and be successful with almost no guidance at all. They need our help, the question remains, how will we show our men that we don’t expect them to stumble through life alone trying to figure out how to be a good man, son, brother, husband, father, friend, employee and so on?

If you believe in a holistic human experience for all, please share this with your family and friends, so we can start a different gender movement, fight against patriarchy and create more quality social, economic and political opportunities for all.

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5 Ways Self-Leadership Can Change the World

5 Ways Self-Leadership Can Change the World

When you become an entrepreneur, you take ownership of a specific problem or need in your community by imagining a solution, which makes you a leader in change. And, unlike any time in our history, we need more leaders to start tackling the problems facing our communities, so we can nurture more diverse and sustainable economies in the future. However, in my experience, gathering the courage to take the entrepreneurial leap is only half the battle. The other half relies heavily on a person’s ability to take full responsibility for their actions and decisions, good or bad.

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned since I joined the world of entrepreneurship in 2014, is that self-leadership is the first step to changing the world around you. Anyone who’s been down the startup road knows that it will test you in every wayHigh Self-Confidence. So, if you’re not confident enough to have every decision you’ve ever made questioned or every conviction you have undermined, then you’re not ready for this journey yet.

I knew I was ready to blaze my own trail when I realized that my convictions outweighed my fears. But to assume that anyone can eliminate fear is unreasonable, and unnecessary, because it’s the mechanism that allows each one of us to assess the need, danger and value of our decisions. But for me, my path has been less about mitigating external criticism and more about managing the critic within. Here are 5 things that can help you take ownership of your life and promote change with your entrepreneurial spirit.

1.  Don’t accept or make excuses

Although our innate humanity will make us to falter at times, you should always try to find a way to accomplish your goals, if only partially. The minute you start blaming others for something you couldn’t accomplish, you give them power over your destiny and you undermine your social agency. While I can’t deny that there are many people out there who face very real and demoralizing challenges, we all know in our heart of hearts the difference between when we get in our own way or somebody else does. Ultimately, the blame game doesn’t really help anyone, because regardless of how much you point the finger at someone else the problem will remain until you decide to find an alternative, a creative solution or you give up. If you consider the aforementioned odds, you still have a 2 out of 3 chance of accomplishing your end goal if you’re willing to put up a good fight.

2. Don’t undermine the power of your actions

The biggest disservice I ever did to myself in the past was to downplay the impact of my actions on others, no matter how big or small. I believe that even picking up a piece of trash can cause a ripple effect. Why? Well , who knows? Maybe the person who threw the piece of trash that you picked up was raised in a family that didn’t teach them that littering was bad or how to value the environment. However, by modeling the correct behavior, you can disrupt their behavior model and create some form of cognitive dissonance in their mind, which may  lead them to alter their ways. Or at least question them. Change might not happen overnight, but if you choose to be a consistent ambassador of correct or new behavior, people will start to pay attention to what you’re doing. Regardless of what anyone thinks, I believe that every action matters, because I choose to give my actions meaning. Anybody is capable of changing the world, and if we’re lucky, hopefully one of our actions might be the reason someone finds the inspiration to change their community.

3. Don’t seek external validation
A core part of taking responsibility for your life is realizing that defining your self-worth is an internal process. Having said that, that doesn’t mean that you can’t accept the praise and encouragement of people whoHostile entrepreneurs.jpg truly care about you and have your best interests at heart. In my journey, I have discovered that insincerity is the death of entrepreneurship, because entrepreneurship is not about conforming. It’s about being genuinely passionate about change and changing a consumer culture is hard enough, even when you’re not trying to use your startup as a way to boost your self-esteem. It’s easy to get caught up in the “sexiness” of the startup world and crave the attention that comes with it. But if that’s the only reason you’re in the game, believe me, there are way easier and more cost-effective ways to satiate this need for attention than founding a startup. If you really want to be content, find out what makes you happy to be you and why your business is important to you before starting your startup journey. That way, you can always assess whether you and your startup are on the right track, regardless of what other people think.

4. Don’t be flustered by ruffled feathers

Personally, I ascribe to the “shoo fly don’t bother me” school of thought when it comes to haters and doubters. I won’t say that I haven’t EVER been discouraged in the past, but when it comes to facing critics you have one of two options. You either evolve or you give in. And well, let’s just say that giving up isn’t in my genes. So, whenever I receive criticism, I always try to see if there is something that I can learn from it. If I can’t extrapolate ANYTHING of value, I toss it into the “ain’t nobody got time for dat” pile and carry on with my life. You can’t expect everyone to understand your vision, but that doesn’t mean that you should let them make you doubt it. If you believe in something, talk about it with so much conviction that you leave your listener questioning their logic, not yours. In my case, I believe that Arab youth and entrepreneurship will be vital to building stronger societies and economies in the MENA region in the future. But I’m sure that there are plenty of people out there who think that my ideas are far-fetched, or worse, naive. What they call naivety, I call vision, and in my heart I know that change is inevitable. So, whether my critics believe my vision or not, I have chosen the side of history that I want to be on and they can join me when they’re ready, because I’m not changing my mind anytime soon. Choose what you believe in and stand your ground.

5. Don’t get lost in the “politics” 

While I understand that this can be difficult to avoid at times, you should try to avoid unnecessary or frivolous squabbling at all costs. Entrepreneurship is hard enough as it is, without turning it into a battle of the egos. Having said that, there will always be Office Politicsentrepreneurs who delight in making everything in their life a competition or a zero-sum game. There is nothing you can really do but stay away from these people and hope that the universe’s auto-correct mode will adjust their behavior. However, once you’re able to leave these hostile entrepreneurs, who are stuck in their own private hamster wheel, behind, you will find a wonderful global community of people who are willing to help you and your startup grow. If you want to be a part of this community and contribute positively to the growth of your startup ecosystem, make sure that you share your resources, networks and startup lessons with the people that you feel would benefit from them the most. Because you never know what opportunities might come your way when you pay it forward!

In sum, not only is self-leadership a key element of being a happier person, it’s also an important part of being a resilient and successful entrepreneur, because when you change your inner world you inevitably change your outer one.

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How to Optimize Conferences in the MENA Region Series: Part I

How to Optimize Conferences in the MENA Region Series: Part I

In the past couple of years, the number of international conferences being hosted in the MENA region has increased steadily, especially in the UAE. These conferences cover everything from female empowerment to entrepreneurship, development, sustainability and much more. While these platforms offer a wonderful opportunity for decision-makers and thought leaders to connect with people with similar interests across different industries, I believe there is still more that needs to be done by conference planners to ensure that these events are effective and provide a long-lasting impact.

That being said, the responsibility of optimizing these conferences should not only fall to the planners themselves, because each sponsor, speaker and attendee also play an important role in ensuring that they add value in their own way. But before we can ask these stakeholders to provide more value in their respective roles, we need to ensure that we optimize these platforms first. Having been both a participant and speaker in various conferences in the UAE, I would like to share what I believe conference planners can do to improve these events in this exclusive Soukie Speaks writing series:


1. Set Clear Outcomes

Problem #1: “Post-Conference Amnesia”

Many of the conferences hosted in the MENA region attract some of the world’s best and brightest in various fields to shed light on the biggest problems facing our people and governments. During these conferences, everyone becomes an instant activist who is riveted by the topic, whatever it may be, and feels like they are capable of changing the world. However, once the conference ends, every goes back to life as normal and all of the inspiring conversations and innovative solutions return to the realm of intangible idealism. An unfortunate reality that raises an important question. How can we, as organizers and participants, maintain the momentum of these conferences once they are over? Simple. We have to set S.M.A.R.T (sustainable, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) objectives for each conference that is hosted.


So what would this look like? For a women’s entrepreneurship conference, a S.M.A.R.T goal could be to use the conference as a platform to connect 50 recent female graduates with 50 mid-career female mentors. For a sustainable development conference, the goal could be to use the networks, skills and finances of conference participants to fund two sustainability projects in every Arab nation for one year. For a youth conference, the goal could be to invite sponsors, SMEs, the private and the public sector to create 100 paid internships for Arab high school students in 10 schools for one year. The possibilities are endless, but we have to organize the experts, knowledge and passion at these conference to ensure that these efforts are tangible, sustainable and long-lasting.


2. Diversify Speakers and Participants

Problem #2: “Conference Demographic Incompatibility”

I have attended countless conferences over the past 2 years and I have frequently encountered one of two discrepancies. Either the speaker’s personal or work experience did not fit the topic they were invited to speak about or the audience who would benefit the most from the conference were not represented in the crowd. These discrepancies are grave and they must be addressed, if we hope to promote effective policy-making in the region. After all, how can we talk about the future of Arab youth if we do not have any youth represented in the crowd, workshops or panels at a conference? If we are going to create comprehensive cultural, socio-economic and political policies, we need to invite the relevant stakeholders to join the conversation, so they can provide their crucial input. That being said, even when opportunities are made available to the relevant stakeholders, many are still unable to attend, because they are prohibitively expensive or hosted at inconvenient times.


More conferences in the region need to diversify their speaker and participant profiles to include both current and future decision-makers. Furthermore, if we hope to promote more robust public policy-making and development in the MENA region, we also have to invite people from every demographic to the discussion table, so they can help decision makers make more holistic public policies. In addition to that, conference planners also need to look at the timing and pricing of these events to ensure that they are promoting inclusive participation practices. In this respect, the leadership of the UAE has set an excellent precedent by establishing the Ministry of Youth, which aims to “represent the aspirations and affairs of the youth before the Government.” Using the restructuring of the UAE’s ministries as an inspiration, we need to start incorporating more women, youth and entrepreneurs in all policy-creation processes, so we can promote community building and shared accountability for the fulfillment of public policies. Whether it is in a conference or a government setting, both decision-makers and stakeholders need to work together to create more platforms for shared brainstorming and public policy discussions.

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