A Minority Everywhere I Go: Leading in a Global Mosaic

Wafi-Pyramid Mosaic

Photography by Lucy Shenouda


A Minority Everywhere I Go

Leading in a Global Mosaic

By Lucy Shenouda

Global Living Magazine – Issue 14 | Sept/Oct 2014

As I prepare to step into a new life, new role, new team in an ancient country and culture, I do so with a deep sense of self-assurance. This feeling is strong in spite of the objections of my family, quite vocal in their protests. For them, I am taking a ‘backwards move’.

“How can I turn my back on my parents’ self-sacrifice to establish a life in Canada?” 

“How can I leave behind a ten-year advertising and marketing career in Toronto?” 

“How can I leave Canada’s greener pastures, a better future?!” 

I feel a simple and calming response, a differing perspective altogether.

“How can I not go?” 

In making the decision, curiosity and courage are my guides. I feel a sureness that grounds me. There is a convergence in my life path, a coming together of life choices that lead me to transformative new beginnings. 

I am moving to my home country of Egypt, a place I know only in pictures and documentaries and through the eyes of a tourist. 

It is risky. Yes, and I am going on an adventure of a lifetime. 

It is a harder choice to make. Yes, and, I choose to change my life and move forward. I make a decision so different for my generation and culture.

I am a minority, I am moving in a different direction. 

Looking back over the years, I’ve learned the most about myself through noticing the patterns and qualities of leading in a global mosaic. These qualities evolved over time. They were fostered through childhood, youth and professional experiences alike through keen observation and a sense of who I am and what I want from life.

For me, global travels began with a trip from Asmara, Ethiopia (currently Eritrea) where I was born, to Khartoum, Sudan, where my parents lived. I was two-weeks-old on my first airplane journey. This would be the start of many global journeys that take me to live and visit across five of the seven continents.

I am a second-generation Third Culture Kid (TCK) – a term coined by American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem who observed a trend, a surge in and phenomenon of families living and working across borders, particularly during the years when identities and values are formed. Both of my parents were born and lived in a host country, a country other than their home country of Egypt. For them, as it was for me, living a multi-cultural life, traveling, meeting and working with people of various backgrounds, beliefs and cultures is a natural course of life. We feel more connected with fellow global travelers and global nomads than with people of our native and host cultures.

In 1972, we left my birthplace and home in Asmara when rumblings of a civil war between Ethiopia and Eritrea began. My father left behind a stellar career as a surgeon, to start over. Before we moved, he traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to take the necessary medical exam allowing our family entry to our new host country, Canada.

We struggled through four years of uncertainty as, year after year, my father rewrote the exam for his Canadian medical license, missing the passing mark by a fraction of a percentage. It is not a matter of knowledge, skill or competence – he was a casualty of a government quota for foreign resident passes. He passed in his fourth year. We took the news with a great sense of relief as the threat of leaving Canada to move to Sudan hung over us.

We lived in Kingston, a small town of just over 60,000 residents at the time. My siblings and I stood out as clearly different; we spoke a different language, mistaken for many ethnicities other than our own of Egyptian. I had dark curly hair and was stick-thin, with a dark olive complexion. I was a minority in my school, bus and neighborhood.

Yet, being a global nomad is natural to me. I am a minority everywhere I go. It’s what I know. Every different choice made for me and by me forms like pieces of glass in a global mosaic. Each is unique and necessary in my path as a global leader. Each experience is a part of the bigger pattern, creating a spectacular portrait of life. I make different choices than ‘the norm’.

Unbeknownst to them, my adventurous and courageous parents set the example of making difficult and different choices. Their own courage, perseverance and self-assurance are mirrored in me. Although not conscious of this as an influence on me at the time, I now feel the strength, the gift of their guidance as they led our family with much resolve. As I make choices, decisions personal and professional, against the grain of my culture, gender or generation, I carve my own path of leadership, one mosaic piece at a time.

Aptly said by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

As global leaders, our capacity to persevere through the dark times, to shine our own light from within ourselves, is critical to leading, with agility and grace, through the crossroads in a global mosaic. The intangible qualities exemplified in strong leaders are the ones that I have found to matter the most. Global leadership calls for us to go on a quest for knowledge, and this takes a mindset of various qualities: curiosity, courage, tolerance, independence, self-assurance, influence, and a thirst for absorbing new learning.

The openness to different cultures, mindsets and ideas comes gracefully through taking a stance of deep curiosity, asking questions on a pursuit to bridge understanding and forge relationships. It takes courage to ask the tough questions. As differing points of view arise, tolerance, independence of thought and an inner and outer self-assurance keep us grounded to our values and beliefs. Above all, we are learning and teaching in almost every moment as leaders and as influencers. The mindset of global nomads primes us for leader challenges, and it is our inner strength, the light that shines from within, that amps the impact on our world.

Over 15 years ago and the memories feel as fresh as the crisp air in the fall of my current home east of Toronto, Canada.

We arrive in the bustling city of Cairo. I feel a paradoxical familiarity and alienness in the air. It is not with trepidation; rather a sense of belonging that belies the strangeness around me, the ringing sounds of objections still fresh in my ears. Yet, I feel grounded, calm, sure that I am on track, personally and professionally.

I start a new role in business development with an international organization based in Cairo. The journey begins. I bring with me structure and organization. The projects come my way, calls to Asia, Australia, and the excitement and anticipation of a promise to represent my work and travel to exotic places. Then the excitement wanes. 

Four months into the role, I struggle with my eight-year-old Arabic vocabulary, stifled laughter at my attempts to speak Arabic, and a direct report who presents my work as his own. I am shocked, disappointed. 

I do not travel. My work, from weeks of development, research and analysis, gets on a plane without me. Yet, deep down, I am still sure I am doing the right thing, despite the struggles, despite the disappointment, despite the betrayal. 

One evening, my husband turns to me, a light of curiosity in his eyes, and asks a tough question for him to ask, “Do you regret moving here, Lucy?” he asks gently, softly. 

I take a deep breath, take a moment to respond, search inward. With self-assurance and a deep-down feeling of courage, I answer: “No, absolutely not. I am sure we made the right decision.”

Even I am surprised by the sureness of my response. I feel there’s something else coming my way. Self-assurance takes over from a momentary and brief brush of self-doubt. I move quickly through the honeymoon and denial phases of culture shock and move straight into the adjustment phase. 

Sure enough, the path expands in ways I could not prescribe, or even aspire. The path unfolds and in my fifth month in Egypt, an ‘Angel’ appears, the person who held the business development position prior to me calls me saying a position is opening up in her organization. I am thrilled. After a first interview, I am offered my dream job.

I accept a role as Account Manager in a thriving local advertising agency, affiliated internationally. I am assigned the Unilever Skin Care account and a team of account executives, and join a professional team of young and seasoned peers of Egyptian and non-Egyptian descent. 

I feel the significance that taking the path of tolerance, the path of courage and of staying the course, head up and eyes open, ensures I see open doors. This mindset brings big opportunities, prepares me for even more, greater opportunities yet to come! The significance of trusting in my inner sureness does not escape me. I am deeply grateful. You see, as a fresh graduate of Queen’s University back in 1986, it was my ultimate dream to work in an advertising agency. 

I enter the dynamic world of advertising in Cairo, Egypt. At first glance and from a distance, I look like I belong. I have the hair and features of a typical Egyptian. I am not a typical Egyptian. 

I bring structure and show up to meetings early. I start work the moment I enter the office and sit at my desk, folders neatly piled, a prepared list of tasks at the ready. To me, I am being a typical advertising executive. I am not the typical advertising executive in Cairo. 

In a culture where morning greetings are sacred before any other activity, I stand out as distinctly different. I am a minority within my chosen profession, my new chosen home. Yes, and I am a part of the global mosaic, leading forward, forging new relationships and opportunities, and living the only way I know how, one mosaic piece at a time.

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