Like most girls growing up, I had an ever-changing list of what I wanted to be when I grew up. The list was chock full of the usual suspects: ballerina, actress, singer...I think magician was even a consideration around the third grade. But as nature would have it, I’d soon learn that I didn’t have much talent for singing, or dancing, or pulling a rabbit out of hat, and those occupations eventually fell from the list. There were two professions, however, that never wavered and made the top of my list each year: mom and teacher.
After graduating from college with a dual major in Elementary Education and Special Education, I began working as a teacher. I soon met my future husband and on our first date we discovered that we shared a mutual desire to become parents. We married three years later and immediately began trying to grow our family. All seemed to be going just as I had planned as a child.
In the beginning, I was surprised each month when I failed to yield a positive pregnancy test. But as the months passed, my once initial surprise grew into absolute devastation. Over the next 3 years we endured 7 failed IVF’s (3 resulting in miscarriage.) I became angry, depressed, and hopeless. I frequently found myself on the receiving end of pitying expressions from friends and family as they gently broke the news that they were expecting. I found myself reacting with overzealous enthusiasm so as not to reveal my secret pain. I would then dart to the nearest bathroom to sob. Meanwhile, my husband and I were also anxiously waiting to be matched with a child through adoption. We began experiencing conflicting information and delays from our agency. My hope of ever having a home full of children began to fade and my passion or enjoyment for just about everything faded right along with it.
After a heart-to-heart with my father and a refocusing on the unconditional love and support of my husband, I realized the pity party I had been throwing for myself wasn’t changing anything about my circumstances. In fact, it had wiped out everything else good in my life.
A Bright Signs Learning Customer
There was more to me than infertility and it was time to start living again in spite of it. I took the attention off of what I could not control, and began focusing on what I could. With that, I started investing in myself, one day at a time. I began by simply exercising again. Then, I turned my attention to my tutoring business. I took on new students and I continued to improve my sign language interpreting. I found so much joy as I developed in my professional career, and took pride in developing the skills, games and techniques necessary to teach students to read and love learning.
In August of 2010 we got the call we had been waiting for: we had been matched with a beautiful baby girl. That Fall, my husband and I flew to Ethiopia and our world changed forever. I was finally a mom. I could physically feel the fullness in my heart when I held my baby girl. I knew without any hesitation that if I was called to become a mom through adoption again, it would be my greatest honor and my blessing. As irony would have it, I would discover merely nine days later that I was pregnant (naturally) with our son, Jack.
Having waited so long to become a mom, each day with my kids was like living a dream. Using the skills I honed during that time of professional investment, I began making educational home videos that I would play for my children when I was cooking dinner or taking a rare shower. These videos included sign language, phonics, art and calming music, and my children loved them. We would also play basic educational games together. Both of my children began reading by the age of 2, which attracted the attention of friends and strangers alike. After several inquiries wondering how to buy my videos, my husband and I decided bring these videos and flashcard sets to a larger audience by creating our company Bright Signs Learning LLC. I’m proud to say that Bright Signs Learning now is a thriving and award-winning business that has brought the joy of learning to kids across the world.
Looking back at my infertility, I wouldn’t change any of it. It forever altered the way I live my life. I learned to control that which I can control and to let go of the things I can’t. I am now the mother to four beautiful children who each came to me exactly when and how they were meant to come.
Reinvesting in myself during my darkest hours resulted in the birth of my company. I am proud that my children get to see me in the role of mom AND entrepreneur. It is never lost on me that each and every day I am living out my childhood dreams of being a mom and a teacher.
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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.