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‘Don’t be afraid to aim high – if you can see yourself getting there, you’re not aiming high enough!’ – this is one of the guiding principles that has shaped my life and that I recently shared in my acceptance speech for the Pinnacle Awards at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce celebration event on January 27th.
The Pinnacle Awards honor Greater Boston’s dynamic leading women for their contributions to the workplace and their commitment to every community. I never expected to win such an award, let alone be standing on the podium surrounded by more than 1,000 highly accomplished individuals – mostly women – sharing my reflections on what got me to where I am today.
The reaction I got from the audience when I spoke those words and the social posts and private messages that followed surprised me even more. I honestly never imagined that this would resonate with so many people and that me sharing it would get others that believed in it to amplify it. After all, I knew they meant something to me, but I didn’t imagine they would mean so much to others.
The reactions I got made me realize that we often underestimate the impact that our stories and the stories of our lives can have on others. This is why as the month of March comes to a close and we conclude Women’s History Month, I feel the urge to call on every woman out there to not shy away from sharing your stories – because you don’t know whose life one of your stories will touch and what that life will become because she happened to hear one story and be touched by it.
So, here I am walking the talk and sharing one of my stories – the result of my reflections as I was preparing the acceptance speech for the award.
As I reflected on my career and life so far, I realized that I had never really taken the time to think through all the things that may have played a role in shaping the woman I have become and reach this point in my professional and personal life. As I let my thoughts guide my pen, I found myself writing a list of fifteen principles that did have an impact on me – not one, not five but fifteen and I am sure if I were to sit down today and reflect more, I would come up with more! – because what got me to where I am today is not a fixed set of principles but rather a dynamic collection of beliefs, shaped by my environment, my personality, and my experiences. At the awards, I only shared five of these principles due to time constraints, here I share all fifteen and the anecdotes that got me to come up with them – maybe one of them will resonate with one of you, and if it does, this article was worth writing!
If I had accepted the millions of NOs I have gotten in my life, I would not be where I am today. I mean, a Syrian, Muslim, Woman growing up in Syria loving math and physics in the 80s pre-internet and pre-cell phone, I am sure you can imagine how many NOs I have gotten and continue to get, especially now as an entrepreneur!
No guts no glory! When my uncle, on a visit to Damascus in the summer of 1993, told me that if I loved math and physics, I should apply to MIT but that I will never get admitted–especially with a high school degree from an unknown school in Damascus – that automatically pushed me to try to aim for it! One thing is certain: if I had not tried, I would not have found myself one year later on a flight from Damascus, alone, landing at Logan Airport, stepping foot for the first time ever in the US, being greeted by people I had never met to start the greatest adventure of my life.
If I look at my career so far, I can rewrite the story to make it all make sense and connect the dots. After all, if you wanted to be a founder of a health tech company looking to improve outcomes and accelerate innovation in cancer, it would make a lot of sense to study Biology and Electrical engineering & Computer Science as undergrad, and then earn master’s degrees in Bioengineering and Signal Processing and a doctorate in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Systems Biology. Then, it would also make sense to pursue business training at a top-tier consulting firm, such as the Boston Consulting Group, before building your operational experience and network by being a pharmaceutical executive. But that would be re-writing history to say I did all those things deliberately. The one thing I can tell you is at each bifurcation in my career my key question was ‘would I regret not having tried?’ – I knew that the next thing I was embarking on, was helping me develop and learn something, even if it didn’t work so the two dots were connected, but I didn’t know the ultimate path I was on or how all the various dots in my life would ultimately come together. I just trusted my instinct and myself.
Recognize that life is first and foremost a self-discovery journey. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, true story: when I was a sophomore at MIT, my advisor asked me if I knew what I wanted to do as a career. My answer was, I am not sure but here are three things I think would make me fulfilled: winning the Nobel prize, being the president of a renowned, world-class university, or creating and running a multi-billion-dollar innovative company. (As I said, AIM HIGH!) The point is: I had no idea what I wanted. But digging deeper, I realized all these things had things in common, which were: science & innovation, legacy, and leadership & impact. As I matured, I discovered that what keeps me running is a mix of intellectual challenge, the excitement of the unknown, the adventure, and the opportunity to have an impact on others. That is where I get my energy.
In fact, your uniqueness is probably your secret superpower – what will make others notice you. Make sure you leverage that. But also, don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability, it will make people trust you and know that you too are human. When I first came to the US and decided to study electrical engineering at MIT, I noticed that, as a woman, I was a minority in class – but that ultimately meant that people remembered me, they noticed who I was! Then, a few years later, when I moved to the Paris office of the Boston Consulting Group, not only I was among only 3 senior women in an office of over 400 consultants, but also, being a Syrian coming from the US, made me a rare breed (a breed of one!). Clearly people noticed and they were curious – what I learned during those years is that, by fully embracing all the aspects of who I was, I ended up not only being noticed but it helped me connect to many different people I would have never connected to if I had not fully embraced the multidimensional and multicultural facets of who I have become. And, perhaps more importantly, I was helping to pave the way for a generation of first-year consultants to see that it was possible to be different, and succeed in the senior ranks.
Different stages of life and circumstances bring different constraints. What is important is that at any point you know why you are doing what you’re doing. If you do not, then it is time for a reset. In the first chapter of my life, I was doing things to give myself an opportunity in life. In the second chapter, it was to build my skillset and competencies. Today, I do what I do because of all the patients we touch at Outcomes4Me, it is the drive to fundamentally democratize healthcare and give back the power to the patient that keeps me going.
Do not try to please everyone – otherwise you will end up with the most common denominator and not do anything. Deep inside you know the right decision, don’t wait too long to just make it. Probably the toughest decisions I have ever made, both professionally and personally, was when existing relationships had to come to an end. I agonized and worried about it, but every time, I found that ultimately if we took the time to talk through what has changed and why the decision was made, with respect, sincerity, and allowing the time for closure, everyone came to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do.
Founder and CEO,