When Leila Fakih and her partner Hana Alireza created Qi Juices in 2011, Leila had twins who were a little over a year old and her youngest daughter, born with a mild special needs case, was three months old. When Qi Juices was in its fifth year, Leila started seeing signs that it was time for her to move on to begin a more personal challenge. That is when she left Qi Juices and joined Step Together Association Riverside, an NGO that works with special needs individuals. It offers a comprehensive and holistic approach to education, care, and therapy for around 200 special need individuals ranging in age from 3 to 60 years old. We speak to the inspiring Leila to learn more about her journey.
You co-founded Qi Juices, yet left it to pursue a career in special needs education. Was it difficult making that decision?
When I look back, the most difficult part is the thinking process until you make the final decision. Once you make it, it’s a relief. Yet, I had a plan. I resigned from my company and applied to the American University in Beirut, to complete a Teaching Diploma in Special Needs Education. It was a learning path I set myself out to, to learn more about my daughter and how I and the rest of my family, friends and community should treat her, and help her develop life skills and handle challenges as she grows up.
What triggered that switch?
When my daughter’s seizures began to increase in frequency and duration, I reached my first major trigger. The second trigger was my own emotional breakdown. I did not recognize myself any longer, and realized that a drastic decision must be made and that a new cycle of my life is unfolding and I must simply embrace it.
Your work with Step Together has been truly inspiring. Tell us all about it.
I combined my business and education backgrounds in my role, which comprised of three main responsibilities. The first was to assist our adult group of students to allocate jobs. The second was to build a sales model for our products to be sold at select retail outlets whereby creating a sustainable revenue model for our workshops. The third was related to fundraising events and alliances. I would describe Step Together as a little haven in the jungle that we live in: Lebanon. Sadly though, with the current situation in Lebanon, Step Together is downsizing its classes, staff and workshops to survive these turbulent times.
What were the greatest obstacles you faced? And how did you overcome them?
On a professional level, moving from being a corporate employee to an entrepreneur was more challenging than I expected. On a personal level, I was the mother of three toddlers under the age of two when I set up the business. Women are expected to fulfill two full time jobs. I had difficulties focusing, clearly due to my multiple responsibilities at work and three toddlers at home, one of whom had special needs. So, to set a path for myself, I started to see a life coach. I began to set clear objectives for myself and pushed myself to reach them. And more importantly our youngest daughter gradually began to progress and blossom.
How can powerful female figures in the Middle East join forces and support each other in your opinion?
I believe if we join forces and invest in the development of women’s role on the economic, legal and social levels, we can see some progress.
Do you see yourself one day getting back into entrepreneurship and starting something of your own? Perhaps in special needs education?
While demonstrating, we came to discover the negative effect of the economic crisis. So, in response, myself and two friends embarked on a humanitarian mission to help collect, distribute and donate food, blankets, mattresses and medicine to impoverished families across Lebanon. This led us to meet dedicated individuals and organizations across the country that needed our help. So, up until this moment, we remain dedicated to the Lebanese people on this mission. If I was to start a new chapter, it would be within the social development mission towards a healthier happier secular community and nation.
How do you believe strong women such as yourself can influence the coming generation of girls to be change-makers?
I began my corporate career in the IT industry where the majority of the workforce were men. Moving into the field of education, I realized it’s the complete opposite, where the majority in this field are women. So, to begin with, don’t ever feel intimidated by your ideas, thoughts and dreams. Currently in Lebanon, since the protests began, women have been on the front lines fighting for their rights, condemning the ruling elite and protecting male protesters from the army and police.
What are your plans for the future?
I am currently completing a degree in Special Education to become a certified Special Needs teacher in Waldorf Steiner schools worldwide. Between my volunteer work at Step Together as well as my more recent volunteer work with NGOs handling the humanitarian crisis, it has been quite time consuming. So, I try to take each day as it comes. I do not resist change, on the contrary I embrace it.