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 de 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 always 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 one 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. If 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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