Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Mentoring an Egyptian in the U.S.

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It was back in November 2009, when I received an email, from an NGO I am part of, announcing an opportunity to attend a mentorship program for women only at a Fortune 500 company in the United States. This program was sponsored by the U.S State Department in partnership with the Fortune magazine, as well as a non-profit organization called Vital Voices which implemented this program. The women who were to be selected for this program, would be invited on a paid for trip to the United States, where they get to spend four weeks with a host mentorship company, that is related to their field of work.

According to the information provided, this was a very competitive program targeting women successful in their professional careers, with strong potential leadership abilities from developing countries around the world. This in turn, meant the women who would be chosen would be representing their countries. How many women would be selected from each country, how many women are accepted into the program as a whole, how many were accepted last year from Egypt, I had no clue. Although, I was slightly intimidated, and a bit cynical, on how selections and competitions are run in Egypt, I decided to apply. I decided to apply, as I found out, that the selecting committee would be the American Embassy in Egypt, who then make their nominations to the State Department in the U.S. and the decision is made there. They seemed like a lot of people, but I thought, yes, a lot of people, but hopefully non-biased objective people are involved in the selection process.

So, I applied, and went through a screening process, at which at every milestone, I was expecting to be eliminated although hopeful, that I would be chosen by some miracle from God.

In March, I found out, I was chosen, after a series of suspense incidents, one of which, that I had changed jobs, and I was afraid I would be rejected after being selected, but….thank God, it did not matter to the Committee involved, what mattered to them most, was the person.

The final email, confirming my selection, stated that because of my work experience and profile, I was going to be placed at Accenture, where I would be mentored by the Chief Marketing Officer Roxanne Taylor and the Chief Financial Officer Pam Craig. I was told, I would be receiving more information, once the team from Accenture gets in touch with me. Further details about the program were then sent from Vital Voices – the organization running the program. I received a letter from Alyse Nelson  the President congratulating me and welcoming me to the program, as well as an information pack via email, about what to expect and how I could prepare. In the meantime, there were  logistics that needed to be taken care of such as the visa application and the tickets reservation. The cultural affairs section from the Embassy, helped with the visa process and they handled everything from A to Z.  It felt like a warm welcome by the United States Government for me to visit.

Within a couple of weeks from the announcement of my placement at Accenture, I got a call from Stacey Jones, who said she was the assistant of the Chief Marketing Officer Roxanne Taylor, and that she was calling on her behalf. I thought she was the Executive Assistant, Office Manager or even Personal Assistant. It turned out to be that she was the Communications Director at Accenture! The reason for her call was to welcome me – and to try and help prepare for my visit as much as she could, by finding out more about what I would be interested to learn more about and to find more about my work, so she could make suggestions of what could be relevant in terms of trainings. We did this through multiple phone calls and emails. I was impressed with the amount of preparation work being done, yet cynical, if all this preparation would actually materialize into relevant training or meetings. I assumed a lot of it was just for show and to impress the mentees that were going to go through this program.

It turns out, I was wrong. The program was what I had hoped it would be, and so much more. It was truly a lifetime experience. The program started with an orientation program in Washington DC, for one week, where we were invited for sessions, lunches, and dinners and the White House, U.S. State Department and at the World Bank. This was also the place, where I got to meet my fellow mentees from Ghana, Jordan, South Africa, Pakistan, Argentina, Nigeria, Russia, Kyrgyz Republic, China, Rwanda, Tanzania, Palestinian Territories (Jordanian Citizenship, Jerusalem ID), Zimbabwe, India, Haiti, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Thailand, Brazil, Afghanistan, Morocco.

They were all amazing women, each unique, accomplished and powerful in her own way.

At the end of our orientation, we had established strong rapport and started friendships built on the strong grounds of mutual respect, and recognizing the challenges we face as women both in the workplace and personally, while trying to balance both lives.

After the Orientation at DC, we all went to our respective mentors. Some of us, went to California, and some went  to Iowa, Minnesota, some stayed in DC and many of us, went to New York. I was one of those to go to NY, where the Accenture headquarters are. I stayed there for nearly 10 days, where I attended meetings, workshops, off-site meetings with advertising agencies, I even made a visit at Thomson Reuters. My visit in NY, also included New Jersey where I got to meet the remainder of the Executive staff at Accenture. This of course, aside from the lavish lunches and dinners at the most expensive restaurants in New York and at an exclusive country club, where the rich and famous of New Jersey go to.

After New York, Accenture my host company set me up to go to Chicago, where the marketing hub was and later on to Boston, where their center for Corporate Citizenship was. There I met, Executives in all fields, whom have openly tried to give me as much information and help in their fields based on my request.

The conclusion of this program took place in New York city, where we had more trainings together as a group, with all the mentees, and we were also invited to the closing ceremony of the program.

Having to travel often, in a very short time, and meeting new people, was very interesting as well as very challenging. As I always had to be ‘On”. I had to always be “On” i.e. alert and focused, for two reasons; the first reason being,  that I represented Egypt,  they all knew that I am from Egypt, and a lot of the people whom I met, do not know much about Egypt, and were immensely surprised that I spoke English fluently. The surprise was multiplied, because it happens that I wear Hijab, which to some initially implied, that I would not be able to speak the English language very well, and would not know much or anything about the world for that matter. It was extremely interesting to witness the surprise in some of the people’s eyes, but it was even more pleasant, when the barriers broke and ice melted between, a woman coming from the Middle East, Egypt, who happens to be Muslim and is identifying herself as a Muslim by wearing hijab  and –  the west. The humanity that I felt at these moments were incredible, in sensing that we are all the same  despite our superficial differences and despite what we each believe in. The willingness to try and understand and learn more about one another, definitely was an amazing part of my experience. The second reason, I had to be always “On” was the fact that, I was here to learn, so I had to be awake and concentrating to try and grasp and absorb as much as I possibly could from everyone whom I met. A lot of people put an effort for me to be in this place, and a lot of people have given up some of their time, to help me, whether this was part of their job or it wasn’t, it was still time, and I had to make the best of it. Even if something was irrelevant, I had to learn what I could from it, because maybe one day, it could be useful. In addition to that, some of the people I was introduced to, assumed I might not find their work or meeting them interesting, as they were less senior to the people whom I had already sat with. This made me feel a little bad, hence, I had to show extra enthusiasm not to disappoint them.

Finally, this mentorship program was an amazing experience for me, although I came back home with the extra responsibility that now, I have to “Pay it Forward” by helping other women like I have been helped through this program; giving back a little of what I have received but to others. Regarding work, I learnt, how women can actually have a successful marriage with children and also climb the social ladder to the very top. It was all about prioritizing your needs at every stage in your life, and an amazing piece of advice I got, was to “Make your work fit in your life, and do not try to make your life fit in your work”. Meanwhile, I was impressed to see that all of these women executives emphasized to me, that your family always came first; they realize that this is what lasts, and this is what they are working for. Something else, which was amazing, was the modesty of these women; none of them were stuck up, or belittled or were generally mean to other people, simply because of their status. This was very evident not from the way, they dealt with me, but from the way they dealt with their subordinates, taxi drivers, or people we had to deal with whether on the streets or at restaurants.  

In addition to all of the above,  I was told by one of my mentors, that every person who I was to meet, probably has a negative perception or misconception about me- whether it was because of my ethnicity, skin colour, or my religion. This misconception could be because of the negative media, personal experience or just simply human preferences, that did not matter. However, my mentor stated, that I had to accept this fact, and work on changing it. So, I would go into each meeting, “knowing” that probably the person I am meeting, thinks I am very likely to be a narrow minded backward female from the Arab world. This was my starting point, and I would take it from there, by telling them about myself, Egypt, the women in Egypt, and if they asked, I would tell them about Islam and why I was wearing hijab (which was a common question). Many of the people whom I have met, assumed that women in Egypt are oppressed and discriminated against, which is true to some degree, but in all fairness, I felt that in Egypt, we women are much better off than women in the United States sometimes. Occasionally too, the discussions would go to belly dancing, the “Hubbly Bubbly”  and how marriage works in Egypt.

On a final note, when I shared some issues of What Woman Want magazine with some of my mentors, they were completely shocked with the liberal discussions, some even stated that it was like an Egyptian Cosmo,  and the fact that we have enough people who speak and read English that well to the extent that we have a woman’s magazine in English baffled them.

When we first started this program, they said it was not a vacation, and that we would go back home transformed. They were right, it was not a vacation, and I believe my fellow mentees and myself, went back to our countries transformed, and with more responsibility than we had before- to simply “Pay it Forward”.

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