Ahlan wa sahlan, is one of what I referred to as my five Arabic expressions at the start of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women / U.S. Department of State Entrepreneurship Program for Women in the Middle East and North Africa. Welcome!
It was my honor to welcome 29 extraordinary women entrepreneurs for a two-week exchange program in which they received training, mentoring, advice, and more than a little bit of snow (February, after all). What they brought, however, was much broader, much richer, and definitely more lasting than the winter’s snow.
We met over some icebreaker activities that involved throwing a ball of yarn around the room, rearranging (and eating) chocolates, and casually interviewing each other. We left with warm hugs and a few tears. It’s the in between times that I’d like to describe. These are personal descriptions because these wonderful visitors to my country welcomed me into their group much as I welcomed them to New York City, Washington, and Boston.
We took pictures in the Grand Central Station Terminal, and then a stranger asked if he could take our picture as well – friendly, welcoming, and typically American. Over Turkish food, we discussed accents, Arabic vocabulary from the Maghreb across to the Gulf, and different words used to describe the same foods. We shared success and failure stories in the House of Genius. Thoughts of NOLA Cupcakes, Mad Chips, imported Belgian chocolates, and online Arabic recipes kept us hungry (okay, maybe I was the only one who had dreams of designer Mother’s Day cupcakes…). Conversations, early in the morning and late into the night, were riveting and personal. Early in the program, the group was referred to as Sister Entrepreneurs. hese sister entrepreneurs welcomed everyone with whom they interacted into their “family.” We shivered together in Cambridge and were “wowed” by the experience at Harvard.
And we met so many people! Secretary of State John Kerry! The President of the World Bank! The Chairman/CEO of Goldman Sachs! We met (and became) geniuses with “sparkle,” everywhere we went. We learned, we taught, we listened, we spoke, we engaged. In short, we were empowered! Everywhere our visitors went, people told them that they were “amazing.” It became the buzzword of the visit, but in truth, it was really true. When one considers our international visitors’ lives and successes (and failures), when one considers the risks they take – time away from family, from home, from traditional work, etc. – it is amazing to consider the outcomes and effects they have on their families and on their broader communities. By about midway through the visit, we started to compare notes, and it became an inside joke (within the broader “family”) that this group of women is a-MAZE-ing.
It is amazing, incredible, fantastic, inspiring (choose your adjective) to consider how a group of 29 sister entrepreneurs met and bonded and learned from each other in just two short weeks. These women had never met and came from different countries, different backgrounds, different life experiences, and different ages. Some were single. Some were married with children. One will soon be a grandmother. Yet all have a vision of the business environment they want to create for themselves, their families, and their communities. Some were shy (at first) that they work in largely male-dominated fields and have to make a name and place for themselves in what is often considered the male workplace: mechanical engineering, freight forwarding, technology. Some are naturally un-shy (participants know exactly who I’m referring too)! But in the end, everyone shared and a strong network and an even stronger bond was forged.
Amazing women, sister entrepreneurs, Middle Eastern and North African women champions – I’m honored to have met you all and to have been welcomed into your broader family. Ila-lliqa – we will see each other again soon!