How did you begin your career?
I have a BA and MA in English & Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo as well as another MA in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental & African Studies. Before Diwan my sister and I worked in the fields of development and women’s rights. In 2001, we were at a crossroads in our lives, we both resigned from our jobs and decided to fulfill one of our dreams: to open a bookstore. We both have degrees in Literature and always loved reading so one day we sat with our friends and started talking about this dream. The hope was that if we didn’t lose all our money in this project, it would be acceptable. We didn’t expect it to do so well, we hoped it would. When we embarked on this project people told us no one reads in Egypt and no one cares about culture – hence Diwan is doomed to fail. Today I can tell you that one of the real problems is that we don’t give people enough credit. Our experience shows that our costumers know which books are coming out, and they pre-order them and they do read and they are up to date.
How do you manage between your personal life and your work?
(Laughs) I don’t manage, I have to say it clearly I don’t manage and I love women that do manage but some how I’m skeptical. I am very impressed when I see women that have aspects of their lives systematized and under control. I doubt I’d be happy with the attitude of "I have the whole thing under control: perfect mom, perfect wife, and perfect business partner. That would definitely freak me out". I would rather be the woman that feels like she is not doing it all perfectly so that I always have the aspiration to do better. Perfection is, frankly, over-rated. In my experience, life is what happens when you actually have other plans. I have two little daughters: Zein is 2 years old Layla is 6 months old; it is not very easy (even with the assistance of fabulous nannies) but doable and joyful. And I have to say, when they behave like little monsters, there is a rebellious part of me that is proud of them.
Do you think if you were still an employee, not a business owner, your life would be different?
Absolutely, if I was an employee I’d go home at 5pm and forget about it, now I don’t have that luxury anymore. As you can see we have inventory at the moment and we are here since 6 am and this will happen tomorrow as well and in the middle of all this I had to leave to pick up my daughter from her pre-school and came back again to continue.
I wish I could manage my time better. Once you manage your own business it is difficult to draw the line and say work stops here. If you were employed somewhere, the worries are much less.
Did you face any obstacles in your career because you are a woman?
No, the only problems I have ever faced in my professional life, even before Diwan, came from me not being prepared. If you walk into a situation having done your homework with some potential strategies worked out, the usual barriers of age, class, and gender are easily overcome.
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for the only real lesson: making mistakes. I know I sound like some crazy woman trying to convince herself that everything is going to be alright, but for me my work is really is about making mistakes, learning from them, having a good laugh, and moving on. When I look at Diwan today, I don’t see the achievements. I see all the mistakes that we made. And believe it or not, I am proud of these mistakes and the effort that it took to acknowledge them as mistakes, to fix them and to try something else.
Who’s your role model in life?
Definitely my parents and my sister have been extremely influential. I am so proud of each of them and admire different characteristics and qualities about them. My husband continues to do the hardest thing of all: giving me the space to be myself and watching me make mistakes in work, while resisting the urge to correct them for me. On another scale, when I think about it I admire a lot of Egyptian women. 30% of all Egyptian families are headed by a woman. Women support their families, raise the kids, work, and shoulder so many other responsibilities single-handedly. I admire that tremendously. It’s such a hard existence and there is something so admirable about taking on the challenge day-in day-out regardless of what your options are. I don’t feel enough credit is given to women for that.
You go through negative experiences and positive ones, even the ones which were negative I’m grateful for as I learned from them. I learned something about myself, what I wanted to be or what I didn’t want to be. I mean where would you be if you had this perfect, smooth career without any struggling, moments of self-doubt and the like? There is a quote that I love (and I’m about to misquote it): something about doubt being uncomfortable, but certainly is surely absurd.
What about your hobbies?
I used to love reading, but since we opened Diwan, I barely get the chance to read as much as I used to… "Bab el Nagar Mikhalaa" for sure. I have to say I am addicted to TV series like West Wing, Alias, Without a Trace… I love just getting lost in that stuff. I also really enjoy cooking. That is one activity my husband and I love to share. We used to take cooking classes together. It was a lot of fun.
What advice can you give for young people who want to launch their own business?
Do what you love and what you are passionate about. Take calculated risks, don’t be scared to admit that something is a mistake and have the flexibility to change it. Look at what’s going on around you and try and make changes to adapt to the situation you are in. And definitely, enjoy it!