'Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change'

'Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change'

Rama with her children

05 March 2013

DURING this time of reflecting upon inspiring women for cashy's 'Women in Business' Week, we sought out those contributors and friends of cashy that we considered to be great all-round life stories. As we planned this week, Team cashy were unanimous about the personal profile you are about to read - if we are talking about inspiring women? We MUST look at the life of Rama Chakaki; humanitarian, business woman, mother, survivor and all around SUPER WOMAN! We were so delighted to get the chance to chat with her, and our talk left us all feeling inspired, empowered and empassioned to reach for the stars! We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Rama, you are a true inspiration to women around the world. Thank you for taking the time to be profiled by cashy for our Women In Business week.

We’d like to start at the beginning. As a young graduate, what was your priority when moving into the world of work? I remember scanning newspapers in search for a job that required less than 6months experience, wondering how I’d ever make it to 2 years experience, something most job ads required.  The education I received (computer engineering) didn’t seem to fit any requirements, nor did it fit what I felt I could do best.  I had studied something I wasn’t particularly interested in on the advice of my family - “it is a good career, it has great prospects” they said.  Very quickly, my priority became finding something that could fit my family life. I had married young and was expecting my first child, so I needed a flexible job.

Did you find it difficult to establish yourself at first? I settled for a position at my university’s computer center. It offered me the flexibility of a work-life balance, the environment was inviting for my children to visit the office regularly and for me to work from home.  It also gave me tuition benefits, which allowed me to continue a master’s degree.

Looking back at the early stages of your career, if you could give yourself any advice, what would it be? Listen to the voice within.  If you feel you can do better at something other than what you’re doing, forge ahead and blaze your own trail. Don’t worry about confirmation from anyone around. And when you feel unsure, don’t go out for advice from others, take the time to listen to your intuition. It is in fact that best guide.

Do you think being a woman has had an effect on your career successes and struggles? Is sexism still present in the workplace? It did, in as far as I had to compromise to keep my family ahead. Although I was offered great positions in my early career, I declined several to ensure I could be home by 4, have the flexibility to be with the kids and avoid excessive travel, and have little after-hours work. I often worked in wonderfully supportive environments and had great employers. I believe in “change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change”.  If you see sexism, you will undoubtedly experience it.  Having said that, if you genuinely come across any form of gender discrimination, whether you are a man or woman, you should speak out, or move on. 

You’ve achieved some incredible things in the face of adversity, not only in your career but personally also. Have you always been a go-getter, or was there a moment of ‘empowerment’ in your life which helped you along your path? I spent “quality time” in an intensive cardiac care unit when I was 26. I had spent 2 years in and out of hospitals with what seemed to be a mystery cardiac condition.  I bounced right back every time and got right back into my life, pretending nothing was wrong.

This last time, was a turning point. My heart received 7 consecutive defibrillator shocks, the doctors seemed puzzled, and for the first time I was scared. I spent two days alone, refusing to see anyone, and reflected on my condition and my life ahead.  I drew strength from the images of seeing my children (3-4 at the time) as young adults, and recalled my grandmother who had been a glider plane pilot and survived a major airplane crash. At that point, I was convinced it was mind over matter. I drew on my faith, focused on health, and reflected on what matters most in life… Over the coming years, I made a lot of serious lifestyle changes that helped me focus, and boosted my career and personal life.

What has been your proudest moment in your career thus far? I’ve been blessed with so many moments of financial achievement, recognition for my work and satisfaction with the quality of work I delivered, particularly in the humanitarian development domain. My proudest moment is hearing my children say I’m a role model.  That is when I feel I’ve done it all.

Have you been able to look up to strong female role models in your life? Who were/are they? I’ve been fortunate to have many inspiring women in different phases of my life: my mother, grandmother, aunts and a generation of older Arab women. Their wisdom despite their education level was enlightening and their strength despite adversity has been commendable. 

The amazing Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad, my gorgeous sister who’s passion for cause has opened my eyes to a world I cherish to work in and my daughter who I was convinced since age 3 would grow up to do great things!

How important is it for young women to have mentors to look up to? Did you have a mentor? It is extremely important to have mentors who will listen and advise.  Shelly Heller was my mentor and a great inspiration. She was my University advisor and a woman whose strength of character taught me a lot. I learned that to be unwavering in speaking your mind whilst being fair and just is a valuable quality.  Her advice and guidance has helped me during difficult times in my life, we remain in touch and have annual get-togethers.

Your work of Baraka Ventures is both inspiring and courageous when faced with an unstable economy which challenges youth and young peoples’ opportunities more than ever. Could you tell us a little bit more about it and what compelled you to start Baraka Ventures? I setup Baraka to do impact investments – we invest in business ideas and start-ups that have both an economic value as well as a social and environmental impact. When we launched it, there was no other business regionally doing what we do.  We experimented with the model and I’ve learned a lot through it.  We’ve had our share of successes and failures, but most importantly, our lives have been enriched with the people we met along the way and the opportunities to learn about what matters most in the region.  

What are the biggest opportunities facing young people starting out today? What are the biggest challenges? The emergence of ‘green fields’ industries like organic foods, data visualization, volunteer-tourism, place-based education, alternative medicine, social ventures and much more are where opportunities lie.  The challenges are they remain moderately funded, and hence young people need to be creative in their approach and be open to starting at a lower economic-base, as well as be comfortable being different.

If you could give our community members one piece of advice for a financially empowered year, what would it be? Question marketing and advertising! You need very little to live a happy life; want less, spend less and enjoy life more.  Give generously to cause. It helps grow your fortune.

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