Interview with Rawan Issa, Issa Holding, Lebanon
You have been with the family business for quite a while. How did you join the company and how has your career developed so far?
I joined the family business in late 2006, in Dubai, and started by opening up a branch for one of our IT companies, that is based in Lebanon. I founded the office, hired 6 people and started establishing relationships with suppliers and customers alike.
It was very exciting for me and extremely insightful. The branch, however, did not make it through the 2008 economic crisis. Our newly established business just came to a halt and we had to close this branch and had to layoff the people that I came to care about so much. It was a huge lesson for me so early in my career: separating emotions from business decisions.
Later, I started working directly with our holding company in Lebanon (ISSA HOLDING) alongside our Financial and Strategic teams as a Business Development Executive.
At the time, I was travelling between Lebanon, Dubai and Saudi Arabia spending equal amounts of time in each country. I continue to work as such now but with the obvious decrease in my travels, since I got married and had a family. Now, my main focus is business development, strategic management for the group, and implementing corporate and family governance in the next 5 years.
Did you work elsewhere before the family business?
Yes, I worked as a junior IT Consultant for an IT firm in Paris for two years.
Working outside the family business is crucial. It helps the individual to build personality, adds new ideas and techniques to business acumen, and enhances responsibility and independence. Having to report to a superior, being reviewed, negotiating your raise, fighting for your own bonus, these are actions that can be quite different when you have to do them with a relative such as a father or an uncle.
Moreover, I gained a lot of experience, built important connections, and have learnt not to take things for granted. In my current position, I understand that I have the privilege of being the daughter of the CEO, but I never take “advantage” of it. I set the same quality standards and business ethics for myself as I do for the people I work with. I actually have much more to prove, because people tend to think that I am where I am because of who I am. I think I have become more mature in business now. My colleagues consider me as their peer instead of the “spoiled daughter”.
You are a working mother, do you feel it is an advantage to work for the family business?
I feel it is an unmeasurable advantage to do so. I took six months of maternity leave, with no worries about whether my job would still be there when I came back. I am a strong believer that mothers need to be with their new born children for at least that period of time, especially breastfeeding mothers. Going back to work as early as 45 days, was a horrible thought for me.
My deepest wish is that governments in the Middle East and the Gulf will one day be in line with Europe, Canada and even Asia and North Africa (who have a minimum of 13 weeks).
Another advantage is the flexibility. Now I am back at work. However, I do not have traditional working hours. I often leave the office around 4 pm to be able to spend the afternoon with my daughter. Some days I come in around 10 am and leave at 6:00pm. I have learnt to be extremely productive; I do not waste time and do not take lunch breaks if I don’t really need to. I keep all distractions to a minimum. Every working mother knows exactly what I am talking about; we run at 200km/h almost all the time and juggle all the aspects of our lives: work, family, friends and running a household.
I realize that I am only second generation member, in other words the first generation founder is my father, hence the added flexibility. Working with and for my father is a blessing, as he is considerate and understanding but most importantly supportive.
How do other family businesses compare to your own in this respect?
I cannot speak on behalf of other family businesses and their practices when it comes to family members becoming mothers. I do have a few friends and acquaintances that were in a similar position and did indeed take as much leave as they thought necessary.
I can perhaps venture that it is very specific to each company and probably influenced by the founder’s mentality and values.
I recently stumbled on a research paper on “Family business daughters” that said: “perhaps family business are less flexible with mothering than with family emergencies because motherhood is a feminine marker for family business daughters. (…) women engineers who perceived their industry as intolerant of working mothers avoided using language that would draw attention to their status as a mother.”
Now, imagine a woman engineer in the Gulf countries.
What would you advise a young woman who is trying to decide whether to join the family business?
I believe that many factors come in play when making that decision, most have to do with individual career choices (i.e. if I want to become a doctor or a painter and my family business is Electro-Mechanical contracting). My most honest and important advice however is: do not make that decision based on your emotions. Feelings of guilt or duty will be of no help if you are unhappy working in the family business.
When I joined the family business I was 25 years old, unmarried and did not have children on my mind. So my decision was not based or even slightly affected by being a working mother. However, in retrospect, I think it would’ve helped to tilt the balance in favor of joining the family business.
I do not think I would have the same sense of security and support working for another company. I do have to put out a word of caution though: you have to have strong self-discipline and dedication to avoid falling in the unproductive trap and drift away from your work. When you have flexible timings and no one counting your vacation days, things can go astray.
I am very lucky that we have built strong TRUST and TRANSPARENCY in our family; and if you attend any family business forum they will tell you it is one of the key success factors of a family business.
Rawan Issa is a Computer and Communications Engineer and holder of a Master’s of Science in Business Management from HEC, Paris.
Having worked for two years in Paris as an IT consultant, she then joined the family business in 2006. ISSA HOLDING is a group of more than 25 companies in the Middle East with the core business being Electro-Mechanical Contracting.
Currently based in Dubai, Rawan focuses on business development and governance within the group.