“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment; ‘Happy’ is not a destination – it is the way we do things. We are here to add value – one way or another. The way your energy affects the world and the people you encounter in life.” Mennah Ibrahim, Director of JWT Intelligence MEA, tells us how she lives her life boldly and how Shine has helped her to do that.
“Who would have thought that 30 years ago I graduated as a dentist in Egypt. That was in the days that you didn’t argue with your parents. They wanted me to go to med school and so I did – after all, it was unheard of to go against your parents. And because I’m not a quitter, I took that challenge and saw it through to the very end. But the day I graduated I hung up my white coat – literally – and I told my family that I didn’t want to be a dentist. They were mortified, but I just knew with every fiber of my being, that being a dentist wasn’t what I wanted in life.
But what was next? I was lost and didn’t know what to do. I was fortunate though, to find guidance in a remarkable woman, who was Marketing Director for a big multi-national (quite unique back in the day!), and who also happened to be the mother of my best friend. She looked at me one day and said; “A bright young girl like you, sitting around and doing nothing?! What are you going to do with your life?” I looked at her and thought – ‘I have no clue!’ I said to her; “I don’t know how to be anything but a dentist – and I don’t want t be a dentist!” “Ok”, she said, “on Monday you are going to work in Advertising.” Through her contacts, I started work that very next week with a local firm (there were no multinationals in the market back then) and the moment I walked into that office I knew this was what I wanted to do. In those days, advertising was super sexy.
A year and a half later, I got a job at Leo Burnett, Cairo and stayed with them for many years before moving on to what I do today which is carving-out business opportunities for brands through consumer intelligence. I left Cairo and moved with Leo Burnett to Saudi Arabia when I got married. It was there that my future took the direction it has today. I noticed how research and insight processes were flawed, to say the least. Where valuable information was lost in translation via expat teams that did not speak the local language, and that did not have direct access to women consumers. It really didn’t make sense and I truly believed that there had to be a better way.
So, I made a bold move! I left Leo and started my own insight practice – working solely with women. Because of my experience with Leo, designing research methodologies and moderating consumers came naturally to me. And the business just grew because it was the first time clients could get accurate, first-hand insight into the lives of Saudi women because it was all being done by an Arab. It was truly unique.
I spent six years in Saudi and we then moved to Beirut where I took a break from advertising for 3 years. and instead, wrote 5 books. It was the first time in a very long time that I had taken a break from work. It was a conscious decision because at the time my children were both very young and I wanted to be present; I needed and wanted to be with my children during their early years.
But those years were not idle. I ended up writing a series of 5 books – religious books for children. At the time, they were asking all sorts of existential questions like, am I a Muslim? What does that mean? And how does that make me different from the rest of my friends? I wanted to find literature that was interesting and engaging and fun to read, but I found nothing. So, I decided to write these books myself. But, in order to do that, I had to study Islam, straight from the Scholars, and then interpret that in a way that was appealing to young children. The ‘Little Moslem’ books were written to be moderate and fun to read. It was a challenge because they were the first religious books – fully illustrated – ever. They were printed – all over the Middle-East, and today, are sold on Amazon – basically all over the world. Today, the books are in their third re-print.
I do believe I am living my life boldly. I feel very confident about my career and I am always trying to evolve and stay ahead of what I am doing. I’m not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but I am always super curious about everything around me! I often think that I intentionally look for things that I haven’t done or haven’t experienced, to keep myself challenged. It doesn’t matter how difficult a task is to me, if I feel strongly about it then I’ll get it done.
The days that I don’t feel so bold? Well, those days are many. But they don’t scare me enough to stop trying. Those are the days that you just have to take things one moment at a time. I think that living body actually comes from a certain degree of fear – or not feeling bold enough. It pushes you to push yourself!
When I came to Shine, I came as a bit of a skeptic. Not really knowing what it would add to me – because I view myself as being self-empowered to a large degree. But, the fact that I continue to speak about the experience months after, illustrates its impact. It was very powerful and had a lot of effect on me.
One of the epiphanies that I had during the workshop was that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. And seeing all these wonderful women leaders pointed me to the possibilities of what I could achieve. Another thing I learned, is that developing your own style is absolutely crucial in leadership. In fact, the more disruptive you are – the better! We know that disruption is a trend in the world today – but as a leader, this trait is incredibly important. You can’t do the same things over and over again as a leader and expect different results. Shine was an acknowledgement of everything that I hoped I was – and a validation of the fact that I was on track. I left with a clear direction of what I needed to do and where I wanted to go; clarity on my bigger game. Having the courage to speak about what I wanted during SHINE and seeing how it was well received, I was able to act upon it back home, and things have been snowballing ever since.
I have always said that to have equality in life or the workplace, you must consider inequality. Gender inequality is man-made, a construct that we humans we have created. To me it is mind boggling that men and women can co-exist and live in this world, but that in some people’s minds, it is not ok for them to co-exist in the work place or in certain jobs. Women have the same responsibility as men when it comes to enforcing their place in the world or in the workplace.
Women have to want to push themselves forwards. They have to want to be extraordinary or seek the spotlight. It is just as much our right to be there as any man, and I think once women make that mental shift they can do anything they want – they just have to believe they can and be resilient enough to work on themselves to get there.
We always ask ourselves ‘why am I here?’ And I find there are usually one of two answers: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I just want to be happy’. But for me, happy is not a destination – it is the way we do things. I’m here to add value, to make things better – one way or another. The way you influence people’s lives and the way that your energy affects the world. That’s what I mean by making things better. I look for new conquests just to make things a little better. If there’s one thing I loathe, its complacency. if things can be done better, then I need to make sure that I bring that sort of betterment to whatever I am doing.”
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