Updated: 4 days ago
“We've never really been taught to be kind to ourselves; the focus has always been on being strong and competitive. Perhaps we were conditioned to embody masculine traits for survival, which can be exhausting for women and often conflicts with our innate feminine nature.” Mona Makkawi
The fight for gender equality still has a long way to go, with half of the world’s population facing cultural biases sedimenting over centuries. Our guest for this episode is Mona Makkawi, founder of Konsult, a consulting, advisory, training, and coaching firm based in Beirut, Lebanon. Mona highlights the importance of entrepreneurial ideas greater than fear and limiting beliefs. With a persistent, stubborn, and culturally aware attitude, Mona has successfully positioned herself as a kind and strategic voice in a male-dominated consulting world.
Stephen Matini: Mona, for our listeners who may not be familiar with you, could you please share a bit about your background and where you grew up?
Mona Makkawi: I grew up in Beirut, amidst the Civil War. My parents frequently relocated us, either within Beirut or to safer mountain areas. This led to me changing schools quite often. Consequently, I became skilled at connecting with new people. While it meant I didn't maintain friendships for long, it also equipped me with valuable social skills I later used in my career.
SM: Were there any people or events in your past that led you to understand your desire to dedicate your life to serving others?
MM: I'm the eldest among my siblings, and you know, when I was little, my mom always encouraged me to take care of my brothers and sisters. I think I did it quite well, and I enjoyed it. So maybe this early experience played a role in shaping who I would become later on, especially since I ended up working in HR for nearly 20 years. It seems that the roots of my career choice were somewhere in my past.
SM: Were you aware of any gender disparities growing up?
MM: To be completely honest, I never experienced it. In my family, we were raised with a strong sense of equality. My mom and dad never assigned specific tasks based on gender, such as preparing food or other chores. It was always a matter of doing it yourself. So, I grew up without having to confront this kind of differentiation. Even when I entered the workforce, I never felt that being a woman resulted in being treated differently or receiving lower pay. It simply never happened to me.
SM: Would you say that the way your family raised you contributed to this perspective, or is it something that women in Lebanon commonly experience?
MM: Specifically in my household, it's because my dad and mom believe in equality. However, to be fair to my country, our labor laws clearly state that women should receive equal pay to men. While there might be isolated instances of unequal practices, the general understanding is that you earn what you deserve.
Returning to the topic of breaking the glass ceiling, I've heard from colleagues and friends about the significant challenges they face, particularly when striving for higher positions. Interestingly, I never encountered these issues, possibly because my career choices were well-defined, and I firmly believed in the value I brought. When it came to negotiations, I always knew what I wanted and wasn't afraid to ask for it. Perhaps this mindset influenced how I was treated at work.
SM: Have you ever hesitated to voice your opinions or concerns?
MM: I've never hesitated because I always come prepared, ready to express myself whenever I see an opportunity to assist someone or contribute to the development of those around me. So I've never felt hesitant or fearful when dealing with my managers. I consistently prepare myself and approach these conversations with a well-structured plan for articulating my thoughts and needs.
SM: Is there anything specific you do to ensure that you enter these conversations with a structured mindset?
MM: I'm a meticulous planner. I often rehearse conversations in my mind beforehand. I prepare for various scenarios and anticipate potential responses. If someone says a particular thing, I have a ready response; if they reject a proposal, I have alternative arguments ready. In my mind, I work through all possible scenarios to ensure I am well-prepared for any conversation.
Sometimes our fear of being judged is what stands in the way of us asking or saying what we want to say. I trained myself not to listen to this part of the brain that's telling me you are being judged.
SM: What led to your decision to start your own business?
MM: The idea began to take shape in 2008 when I was in a job I detested, constantly frustrated. I had a demanding manager at the time, which led me to consider pursuing further education in HR to enhance my knowledge and skills.
I enrolled in an HR program at the university. As soon as I started the course, I felt a transformative shift in my life, a sense that I needed to take action. I had the opportunity to connect with exceptional individuals—trainers, HR professionals, and even my HR professor, who held a doctorate in the field. I realized I had to make the most of this serendipitous gift from fate.
That's when I began laying the groundwork for my first business, "Management Solutions Lebanon," an HR consultancy aimed at providing HR solutions for small to medium-sized businesses.Given the complexity of the venture, I sought help from my colleagues and my professor, and they graciously offered their support. It all started quite organically.
In 2009, I had my own business for a couple of years before returning to the corporate world. I was headhunted by a Canadian company to oversee their operations in the Middle East, focusing on people development. I saw this as a significant opportunity to further enhance my skills and knowledge.
It took me 12 years to return to entrepreneurship, but this time, I reimagined the concept, rebranded it as "Konsult," and expanded our services to encompass consulting, coaching, and training, all aimed at developing individuals.
SM: When you decided to start your business the second time, did you feel a significant difference in your desire compared to the first time?
MM: I've never considered myself the perfect employee throughout my career, even though I've genuinely enjoyed my work and put my heart into it. I always had this idea of doing things my own way, of not working for someone else. It's a different experience having your own practice.
SM: If someone aspires to start their own business, what practical advi ce would you offer them?
MM: I'd advise entrepreneurs to be incredibly persistent and unwavering in their commitment to not give up. Not stubborn about the process, because sometimes we need to adjust, change course, and be agile. It's about persistently pursuing their goals, not accepting "no" for an answer, and challenging the economic and financial challenges of their country. Their idea needs to be bigger than their fears.
SM: When we first met, you mentioned that, as a female entrepreneur, you had to work exceptionally hard in a male-dominated field.
MM: In Lebanon and the region, consulting is traditionally a male-dominated profession. It's possible to work in a consulting company, but owning one and securing large projects can be challenging for women. I had to prove myself repeatedly in this domain.
Sometimes, when working with clients in the Gulf, they preferred dealing with men, although I must acknowledge that this is changing gradually. I had to exert tremendous effort and attention to detail because any mistake could have significant consequences.
Building a reputation in this field is a time-consuming and arduous process. I had to prepare myself, engage in lobbying efforts, and cultivate numerous connections to become known and heard. Joining organizations that support and empower women-led businesses was also essential for my visibility and growth in this industry.
SM: As a woman, do you believe you have any advantages over your male counterparts?
MM: To be completely honest and objective, I've had both good and bad experiences with female and male managers. During my time in recruitment, I never showed favoritism or bias towards any gender. In the workplace, what matters is having someone who can do the job effectively, excel in their role, and stand out in their field.
Gender doesn't factor into my work. I approach it with complete neutrality, and people can sense that. I see myself as a competent individual with expertise in certain areas, ready to contribute and provide solutions to my clients.
SM: It seems from what you're saying that when it comes to addressing discrimination, perhaps the most significant step is the work we need to do within ourselves.
MM: It's not solely an individual matter; it's also a cultural issue. While it's true that we need to work on ourselves to some extent, it's equally important to consider the broader cultural context. I wouldn't be entirely accurate if I claimed that self-improvement alone will resolve everything and open all doors. Culture plays a significant role. In certain regions, there are cultural biases that persist against women.
Even on a global scale, the glass ceiling for women has not been shattered completely, and women continue to face discrimination that has existed for ages. In my career, I've worked extensively with family businesses and observed how they often favor their sons over their daughters in the workplace. My approach is to not internalize these biases but to recognize them as societal issues. I focus on what I can change and influence within my sphere of control.
SM: Throughout your career, have you noticed any differences when coaching individuals of different genders?
MM: At times, women seem to have a clearer sense of what they want compared to men. Perhaps it's because they perceive having fewer options, leading them to work harder to achieve their goals.
SM: And what about male leaders?
MM: Perceptions are evolving, especially in my work with young Saudi leaders. You can see they hold entirely different viewpoints on various matters. They are more diverse and inclined towards concepts like diversity and inclusion. They are more receptive to the idea of women working alongside them and even participating in decision-making. Surprisingly, some of them have no issue being led by a woman, which is intriguing, as being led by a woman can sometimes trigger an ego battle within some men.
SM: Based on all that you've learned as a woman and as a leader, what are the most significant lessons you pass on to your daughter?
MM: She's even stronger, and her character has developed remarkably in recent years. I always advise my daughter to be kind, starting with herself and extending that kindness to others. We've never really been taught to be kind to ourselves; the focus has always been on being strong and competitive. Perhaps we were conditioned to embody masculine traits for survival, which can be exhausting for women and often conflicts with our innate feminine nature. So, I always encourage her to show kindness and love to herself, to appreciate her womanhood, embrace her uniqueness, and understand that it's perfectly okay to be different.
SM: Being kind requires immense strength. How do you manage to maintain kindness towards yourself and others?
MM: Some practices that help me stay grounded include meditation and prayer. They allow me to detach from whatever may be happening. Additionally, I journal; it helps me process and release any issues that are bothering me.
SM: For those who aspire to start their own businesses, what would be your first step based on your experience to move forward?
MM: The first step is to clarify what you want and conduct thorough research. Sometimes we have ambitious ideas, but we fail to do our homework properly, leading to setbacks. Preparation is essential; it allows you to understand the full picture and anticipate challenges. While it may not eliminate all obstacles, it keeps you prepared to adapt or pivot when necessary.
Consistency and persistence are also crucial. These qualities make a significant difference in any endeavor. I've encountered people who doubted my abilities and told me I would never succeed, but if I had listened to those negative voices, I wouldn't have achieved anything in life. Trust your instincts and intuition, and try to filter out the noise.
Sometimes, we get too caught up in others' opinions and forget our own voice, so it's vital to stay true to yourself. Recognize your weaknesses and work on your strengths, regardless of your goals.
SM: Mona, have you ever doubted your instincts?
MM: I've always trusted my instincts because I'm a highly intuitive person. However, there were times when I experienced significant fear, and I couldn't pinpoint its source until I learned about limiting beliefs. So I began to analyze whether this fear stemmed from a limiting belief that was holding me back or if it had a different origin. This realization made a significant difference.
SM: How do you go about identifying your limiting beliefs and distinguishing them from reality?
MM: I start by asking myself where these thoughts are coming from and whether there's any evidence to support them. I also consider how I would react or respond if the situation were different. These questions help me dig deeper into my thoughts and feelings. Nobody knows us better than we know ourselves, and all the answers lie within us. We just need to ask the right questions.
SM: For someone who may not be naturally intuitive or lacks self-confidence, what is the first step to become more intuitive?
MM: Seeking the help of a coach can be incredibly beneficial. A coach can assist individuals who may not be adept at structuring their thoughts, struggle with limiting beliefs, or face obstacles. Coaching is a powerful tool for shifting one's perspective and mindset. Everyone possesses untapped capabilities and potential waiting to be discovered.
SM: For individuals who may not consider themselves particularly courageous, what initial steps can they take?
MM: I believe they need to redefine courage within themselves. Sometimes, we have varying definitions for things, as what courage means to one person may differ from what it means to another. By exploring and clarifying this personal definition, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of courage and, in turn, either embrace it or overcome their hesitations.
SM: Do you think your daughter will pursue the same career as you, or something different?
MM: I don't know. She's quite influenced by me. Currently, she's studying business at university. I would love for her to choose whatever she's passionate about. It doesn't necessarily mean she has to follow in my footsteps. Of course, she'll be welcome to join if she wishes to. If she decides on anything else, I'll support her. She has a natural ability to coach people, even though she hasn't pursued coaching herself.
SM: Mona, you joined the BARKAT Entrepreneur program created by Puneet Sadchev, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for the podcast. The BARKAT program is a social initiative to support female entrepreneurs in Africa and the Middle East. What motivated you to apply for the BARKAT program?
MM: I actually learned about it through an organization called LLWB, Lebanese League for Women in Business. They regularly inform their members about opportunities for development, training, and gatherings. When I read about the BARKAT project, I found it very interesting. Firstly, it was not limited to the local scene, and secondly, it was my first exposure to coaching at the business level. The program's concept of connecting women leaders, business owners, and SME owners in Lebanon was a fantastic opportunity for me on multiple fronts.
SM: How has participating in the BARKAT program influenced your personal growth and leadership skills as a female entrepreneur?
MM: The group coaching aspect is truly unique and beneficial in many ways. During the sessions, we work not only on the issues we have in mind but also learn from the group. It's a learning experience for everyone involved. The real difference comes from the work we do outside the coaching sessions. We have assignments and support each other by creating support groups, sending morning gratitude messages on Slack, and engaging in various activities. These elements have made a significant impact.
SM: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
MM: Thank you, Stephen. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Listen to Mona Makkawi on the Pity Party Over podcast to learn how to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams despite limiting beliefs and societal expectations.