A Women of Inspiration panel held yesterday at the headquarters of AWS Canada in downtown Toronto had upwards of 200 channel partners and customers spellbound as three senior female executives discussed the assorted personal trials, workplace frustrations, and ultimate successes each have experienced.
Organized to demonstrate the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in a lead up to International Women’s Day, which takes place next Wednesday, the panel was moderated by Rosie Seth, national channel leader for the organization, and featured Ruba Borno, vice president of worldwide channels and alliances with AWS, Rola Dagher, global channel chief with Dell Technologies, and Rania Llewellyn, president and CEO of Laurentian Bank.
To say that each has led an extraordinary life is not an understatement, and if any of the panelists wanted to write an autobiography – more on that later – it would certainly make for compelling reading.
Each has overcome challenges as a result of world events in the regions where they were born and raised. Dagher, who is from a small village in Lebanon and was married with a young daughter at the age of only 16, was forced to flee to Cyprus with her infant, in the back of a truck, during the start of the South Lebanon Conflict with the Israelis, which erupted in 1985. The two eventually made it to Canada where Part Two of her life began.
Borno was born in Kuwait, and her parents were both from Palestine. Like Dagher, she experienced war first-hand during the first Gulf War, after the invasion of her native country by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army, which resulted in the short-term conflict known as Desert Storm.
“When he invaded Kuwait, he stated anyone harboring a U.S. citizen would be a target. And one of my sisters was born in the U.S. and so was a citizen,” she recalled. “The U.S. Embassy called us and said, we have an airplane departing and one way tickets to the U.S., do you want to seek political asylum and become refugees. And we really had no other option.
“My parents just packed us all up — four girls under the age of nine — left everything, literally everything, because you couldn’t go to a bank and withdraw anything in the middle of a war, and came to the United States. The only thing my parents had was their education.”
Llewellyn, like Borno, was born in Kuwait, but she and her family had already moved to Cairo, Egypt when Hussein’s troops arrived in her home country. A gifted student, she finished high school at 14, and began attending the American University in Cairo. Two years in, the Gulf War erupted and it was then that her family decided to emigrate to Canada and they settled in Halifax.
The fact all three are Arabs was not lost on Dagher, who jokingly told the audience she is grateful for being able to kick off the first tour of the Arab Women On Stage before taking on a more serious tone in describing what it was like in those early days of being a new Canadian.
“When I arrived here and couldn’t speak a word of English, people made fun of me, people doubted me,” she said. “But every time someone doubted me, I proved them wrong.”
According to a bio, that ability to forge ahead has resulted in her “working with some of the brightest minds in the technology industry while honing her natural leadership style. She believes that no one achieves greatness in a silo and you have to learn it, earn it and return it.”
What it comes down to, she said, is treating people the way they should be treated, and providing opportunities for them to grow, as opposed to what she experienced first-hand early in her career with at least three terrible bosses. The mistakes they made, added Dagher, “helped me understand not what to do as a leader.”
In Llewellyn’s case, as the first female president of a chartered bank in Canada who, prior to joining Laurentian, held senior roles at Scotiabank, it was the age-old problem of being a woman working in a man’s world, a dilemma that started shortly after she began her career as a part-time teller in Halifax.
“The challenges and opportunities she has experienced, both as an immigrant and a woman in a male-dominated industry, have inspired her to build the bank she always wanted to work for,” her bio states. “One with a culture that views equality, diversity and inclusion as strengths and where everyone feels like they belong and has the chance to thrive.”
Self awareness, she said, is a critical attribute, and as a result, her goal in moving to Laurentian was to create what she described as an environment that is “inclusive.”
She recalled being in a meeting with male counterparts and being the only woman. “You say something and they ignore you. A guy says exactly the same thing and it’s the best idea since sliced bread.
“At one point, I was told I was too outspoken, I was too aggressive, so I turned it back. Then I was told you are not saying enough.
“I have publicly said, I am building the bank that I have always wanted to work for.”
That theme of inclusiveness and helping others is a key part of Borno’s leadership style as well. She recalled something from a past executive position where she was about to walk on stage in front of tens of thousands of people and deliver her first keynote address.
Frantically nervous and a “complete wreck,” she received some sage advice from the country manager of the organization she was working for, 15 minutes before she was scheduled to walk on stage.
“He said, Ruba, ‘just so you know, people want you to succeed, because they don’t want to come here and have a bad time. No one wants to have a terrible time at a keynote, no one wants to have a bad meeting with you. No one wants to really waste the next six months of their lives working on something that wasn’t worth it.’ And that really changed my mindset, actually, I mean, it was a pivotal moment. Because I started thinking they really do want me to do well, because they wanted their time to be worthwhile.
“We can work together mutually to succeed, whether it’s a partner, a customer or someone on my team.”
The panel concluded with Seth, who joined AWS in 2018, asking the three executives to name the title of their book, should they one day opt to write one.
Dagher replied that it would be called Being Me. “I didn’t try to fit in,” she said of those early days of her working career, “because if I had tried to fit in, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
As for Llewellyn, it would read the same as what appears on a sweatshirt she received one year for Christmas from a friend: Underestimate me, that will be fun, while Borno would call her book Force Multiplier, which, from a business sense, recognizes “people achieving more than they thought they could.”