I just recently moved and was rummaging through some old journals. As I was reading some of what I wrote over the past 17 years, I realized that opening my own business was something I often thought about. There were lots of ideas: skin care products, spas, boutiques, there was even a thought about opening a microbrewery. For a long time, those ideas all stayed in journals. I always found a way to talk myself out of moving forward. Fear was probably the reason. Fear of failure, fear of losing money or not having enough, and I am sure there were plenty of other excuses fueled by fear. I also had a very successful sales career in high-tech, a husband who loved to travel (how could I travel for weeks at a time and run a business) and an overall comfortable life. And then it all changed…
I have been living and breathing fashion my entire life. I went to school for fashion and business management, determined to forge myself a career in the industry. Once I graduated, I started from the ground up, putting in my dues and gaining valuable insight along the way.
Robin Barrett Wilson
I began in retail management, then became a buyer, then a merchandiser, and, eventually, I turned towards the tech side of fashion, working alongside retailers (some of the best brands in the industry) to weave in software solutions that were right for their business. I have worked for and with some of the smartest people in their industry, from data-scientists developing AI solutions, to the most talented merchants and marketers. I have learned so much over the years that I have been able to take that knowledge and share it with others to help with their success. Truly rewarding.
In the prime of my career, I met and married my husband. It was love at first sight, at least for me. He was the love of my life. He was smart, funny and loved to travel. Our marriage was easy, supportive and loving. Filled with honesty and trust. He was my biggest cheerleader and advocate. He encouraged me to overcome my fears and take charge. From learning to ski at 32, to going after the career I wanted, to running ½ marathons, Michael was there for me. Always.
We learned of Michael’s illness in 2011, two months after we moved to North Carolina for his job. It was two days before Christmas when they discovered a blockage in his colon.
We had dealt with cancer before. A year after we were married he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but that was easy compared to this. He had the surgery and recovered without chemo or any further treatment. This was not going to be the same outcome, this was stage 4. The cancer had already traveled to his liver and lymph nodes. Look up Stage 4 colon cancer on Cancer.org and you will see people who are diagnosed have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 11 percent. Everything was about to change.
He had his surgery in January of 2012 and started chemo six weeks later. The side effects came quick. Everything tasted funny, the numbness in his hands and feet happened almost instantly and that damn chemo pump that came home with us for two nights in a row, every other week was a real downer. But in his normal fashion, Michael stayed positive, walked the dog daily and when he was ready he went back to work. Yes, he went back to work and he insisted I stay working, which I did.
Robin Barrett Wilson
What you don’t hear about is how much fear is coupled with this type of diagnosis. Of course, Michael was afraid. The chemo, side effects, how would he feel, etc. However, as the caretaker, I refused to express my fear. I wanted to be strong for him. I wanted to be the one who eased his discomfort and helped him cope. I came up with a plan, labels for pills, food I knew he would eat, clothing to keep him warm, journaling every doctor visit. I planned it all so we could collectively get over the fear.
We talked all the time about what was happening, we prepared for the inevitable and in the end (ten months after the surgery), he lost the battle. On a very quiet morning in October, two months after our 11th wedding anniversary, he left this world and me.
The New Normal
But I was prepared. Michael and I had discussed it all. The funeral, the estate and what I would do after he was gone. It was all wrapped up in a little package for me to execute and stay the course. Until I realized, I was completely devastated. The house was a shrine, I moved nothing. I drank and ate too much. I fell out of my routine of working out and socializing. I wanted to stay in the house and hide. I was afraid!
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis, and he was right. To show that I could handle the grief, I went back to work two weeks after his death. I wanted to escape, and working was the only thing I could think of doing. When my friends and family called, I lied about how I was doing. I wanted to be strong. All of this helped a bit, but not enough.
At some point, I realized I needed a plan. The fear and grief (although I couldn’t tell them apart) had me paralyzed. I decided I needed to find outside help. I needed someone who could “tell it to me straight” no matter what the thought or idea was.
It was a session with my counselor that pushed me forward, just a little bit. I was explaining how I had read all these books about being a widow (five to be exact) and every book said to do nothing the first year after a death. Don’t move, don’t make any big purchases, and keep everything the same. I thought my counselor was going to laugh herself silly. That was when she said, “Robin, there are no rules about grieving or what someone should or shouldn’t do after a loved one dies. Sell that house and move back to be with family”. You see, when we moved to NC, we knew no one. And then Michael died, so I was alone.
Overcoming my fear, I sold the house, downsized by selling some of my furniture and moved back to my home state, Rhode Island. A place I had promised, when I was 25 and moved away to pursue that fashion career, I would never move back to. Now here I was 45 years old, in an apartment and working a new job. Traveling every week and staying home on weekends, I found nothing had changed. I was still devastated and totally lost. I no longer loved my job (it seemed so meaningless) and I couldn’t find the motivation to get back to the person I used to be. Looking back, I know it was fear. Fear of starting over, of living without Michael, of not knowing what my future would look like.
Letting Go of Fear
I had to return to Montana to spread Michael’s ashes. It had been a bit more than a year since he had been gone and I found the trip to be therapeutic. Something I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. I found myself dreaming again. Thinking about my future differently. I started to journal about starting a business in the fashion industry. I started to scout out locations, shop in local boutiques, and I started a business plan. Almost as if Michael was there encouraging me (Montana was his favorite place) to move past the fear and start again.
In November of 2015, I opened my boutique in Rhode Island. I also launched my website at the same time, not something I would recommend. For the first six months, I worked by myself in the store, skipped a salary, and worked on growing the business, a situation that would’ve once been very scary to me. When I think of what always held me back, fear comes to mind, but somehow, when it came time to make the dreams from my journal come true, fear was the emotion that propelled me forward.
As I stood in the store day after day, the strangest things happened. I would meet many women, all who had their struggles; cancer, parents with illnesses, children struggling to fit in, and other widows. I would find that during those moments, I had the ability to encourage and advise. To show that there is life again, although different. One encounter really stands out. This beautiful, 45-year-old woman came in looking for a dress. After talking, very briefly, she shared she had just lost her husband (colon cancer) six months prior. My breath caught, and I had to push back the tears. I ached for her. She was just starting (it had been three+ years since my loss) and I knew how hard this was going to be for her. I was afraid to say anything to this stranger. Who was I to share some insight? I didn’t want to offend, nor diminish her grief. But in the end, I said what I knew to be true. “You will always love him, you will always miss him, but you will get used to him not being there.” I was surprised at her smile. Her response, “Thank you, finally someone who isn’t telling me everything is going to be alright.”
As I locked up the store that night, I vowed never to forget that meeting. And since then, I have met quite a few women who have lost their husbands. Every time I am amazed and encouraged by their strength. I am also reminded that fear, something that once held me back is now something that drives me. I embrace it, plan, and move forward.
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.