A few months ago, I had lunch with a colleague who was curious about how I got started with my company, MommaStrong, in hopes that it would help him launch his own venture. As I sat down to eat, I noticed that he had a notepad out and an organized set of colored pens at the ready. I knew immediately I was in for a serious brain picking.
This guy wanted to know a formula. How much capital did you raise? How did you develop your content? How much research did you do on e-commerce platforms? When did you know it was time to launch? What sales strategy did you apply?
The questions poured out of him, but my answers were as chopped as my salad. The more I talked, the more I felt a tug on every word and so I quickly interrupted myself and said, “Look, you will never start if you are spending all your energy trying to get ready.” Needless to say, he left that lunch with a blank notepad.[thb_image full_width="true" alignment="center" image="9774" img_size="full"]
The reality is that my work in the world didn’t happen because I had some sort of grand plan or because I had spent time developing business acumen. Some nights - well, most nights - I wish I had more of both of those, but the truth is my company happened because I was desperate about solving a problem.
After having my second child and finding myself in the fog of the postpartum experience, I realized that there was something terribly wrong with my situation. I was in excruciating physical pain every minute of every day. I was isolated in my house with tiny children and a bunch of plastic toys and the churn of social media as my most frequent company. I was stressed about finances. I was in an abusive marriage. I was suffering from postpartum depression. And I lacked all energy and motivation to do anything about any of it.
But, the thing that sustains MommaStrong to this day is the same thing that made me get up, rather than give up: It was a decision to live inside the solution, rather than submit to the problem.
And, so, I focused myself on the most basic, least emotional obstacle I was experiencing: My physical pain. As a certified Pilates teacher with years of experience, the fact that I was in so much discomfort didn’t make sense. Nothing I had been taught about pelvic rehabilitation and core strength was helping me, no matter how hard I tried to do it “right.” And that’s when the golden curiosity hit me: Maybe it’s not that I am doing this wrong, maybe there is something wrong about the modality. Maybe we’re not strengthening and healing the female body the right way.
From there, I started to break down the supposed authority of all my years of training and began to see some incongruencies with the anatomy of the modern female body. For example, methods like Pilates wherein we are encouraged to strengthen the abdominals through crunching (flexion) movements were created before the Industrial Revolution, when people were far less sedentary. This means that their spines were naturally more extended just by doing daily manual labor and, so, crunches were vastly more effective and certainly not damaging. Today, with the fact that most of us have desk jobs and are driving more than walking, our spines spend way too much time in forward flexion. Crunching, therefore, not only becomes ineffective, it also proves harmful. This realization prompted me to dive head first into research and hands-on experimentation with my own body. I soon discovered that my hunch was right: The female body needed core work in extension, along with pelvic floor work that taught elasticity, rather than just static kegel powers.
Photo Courtesy of Edutopia
This detective work lit me up. It gave me breath. It gave me vitality. And it also started to give me access to solutions that would heal my life in every way imaginable. By starting with my pelvic floor and recovering my body from years of pain, I released my nervous system from unnecessary stress. That release allowed me to behave more powerfully on a very primal level. That powerful behavior helped me make drastic changes to my life, including divorce. And from that freedom, my company came to be. I wanted to share what I learned, in an accessible way, to women who were in my situation and perhaps were beginning to believe that their bodies were broken. My mission was crystal clear: Revolutionize strength protocols for women and reduce their physical pain, so that they can show up in the world as they choose.
Today, five years after that tender time, MommaStrong serves thousands of online customers from around the world. Via streaming videos, these customers are able to access effective and efficient strength programs that address their pain and buoy their lives. In just 15 minutes a day and for just $2 a month, we are helping members to lead stronger lives, strengthen their core, and to have access to the playful part of them that makes them a better mother. Along with that, my customers and I have developed an outreach program that serves women-in need (i.e., incarcerated women and victims of sex trafficking) by providing them the same physical rehabilitation tools so that they too can heal their lives. I call this Share to Show up.
My business works - and not just because of the numbers, but because my initial curiosity is still the strong thread that weaves a solution to a widespread problem.
Now, while all of this is inspiring, there’s an important postscript in my story, one that I think encompasses the entirety of entrepreneurship. In the five years of building this venture, I have made every rookie mistake in the book. It has been harrowing, exhausting, and ridiculously humbling. And I’ve found myself back to the drawing board oodles of times, in a full-on depression and ready to quit.
This is the life of an entrepreneur: Burnouts. Not a single burnout. Plural burnouts. But, guess what? Are you ready for this? I am an advocate of the burnout. Why? Because, if we look at my story and the stories of countless other CEOs, all ventures start because of a burnout that leads to an idea and all ventures continue because of burnouts that lead to invaluable lessons learned.
The delicious, yet ugly truth is that there are many times that I have a trembling finger hovering over the “I Quit” button coupled with guts of steel that pull it back. And up until recently, I was so afraid and ashamed of this saga. But, what I have come to understand is that if we choose to be a dreamer that is also a do-er, than we are choosing also the saga of the burnout.
So, instead of pathologizing burnouts and speaking about how to properly organize your business life so catastrophic and humiliating events don’t occur (ahem, they will), I instead would like to offer a new take: How to Befriend Your Burnout.
Here’s my 5 step guide for how to face and make valuable a burnout:
1. Get used to saying: “This is what it looks like.” When someone (read: your mother) tells you how much she wishes you had a stable job, repeat back to her: “I appreciate your concern, but this is what it looks like to be me.” When friends start giving you grief for not having enough time for them, say: “I totally hear you and I can’t wait for that to return because it will. Until then, this is what it looks like to be me.” When your own dear, amazing monkey mind starts criticizing you for not being perfect, simply pad those thoughts with, “This is what it looks like to do the hard things.” The point here is that your hustle, your struggle, your late nights, your mistakes, your lack of money, your inability to be a good friend are part of the process. They are temporary, if you let them be. But, they are 100 percent normal and they are 100 percent surmountable in time. For now, this is exactly what it looks like to make amazing things happen.
2. Nix the tasks that you are not good at. Many times, burnouts happen because you are trying to do things that you are simply not good at. And while I know you are gifted and I know you could figure it out, I promise that it won’t be for the benefit of anyone. And, the longer you ignore this fact, the more likely it is that you will cause irreparable harm to your business and your life. Walk away from the stuff you can’t do well and focus on things you are good at! You are enough exactly as you are right now and you do not need to expand, develop, or broaden until you have the right resources to support that.
3. Surround yourself with positive role models. When I’m in a low spot, it’s easy to find lots of folks around me who will echo the need to quit. It’s not their fault, they are concerned and they are expressing care. However, you have to be discerning and choose to surround yourself with people who support you and your goals. If there isn’t anyone, cut out magazine articles of people who are doing the impossible and of warriors who have pushed through the hard parts of their journey. Write quotes on post-it notes that remind you to stay attached to your mission. Listen to podcasts like Tara Brach, Tim Ferriss, and How I Built This every time you feel a pang of darkness. Cancel out sources of negativity like it’s your job. During a burnout, you are a sponge and you will absorb what is around you. It becomes essential that you protect your vulnerable state and fill it up with inspiration only.
4. Shove off traditional notions of self-care. When I’m in a burnout, a spa day isn’t going to save me. Everyone will tell you to go on vacation and to get a massage, but I will beg you not to do that. I believe that burnouts are symptoms of you pleading for perspective and creative space, which means they require exertion outside of your normal routine. Find an adventure. Exercise every single day. Go on a hike in nature. Unplug from social media. Go take a weird dance class or head to a boxing gym. Watch your favorite classic movies all in one day while eating cheese puffs and chocolate. Get wild. Your burnout will become instantly friendly.
5. Say to yourself on repeat: I can handle this. I leave this one instruction for last because it is the most important. I know that you can handle this burnout. And I know you know you can. However, with all the stress coursing through your body, the reality is that your nervous system might start to feel like it cannot handle it. And then your mind will start sending alerts along those lines and you’ll start to have tangible evidence for why you can’t handle it. Panic attacks. Giant stress breakouts all over your beautiful face. Insomnia. Headaches. Heart palpitations. Etc. However, if you can remember that growth is designed to challenge your nervous system to become more evolved, then you can say to yourself, “I can handle this.” The moment you do that, your beautiful spine can stand up tall and get in the fight with you, instead of slinking away. And then the next burnout will just be another training session for yet another layer of success.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.