Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women from various sectors.
BEIRUT: About the eternal dilemma of balancing work and family life that women have faced ever since entering the workforce, entrepreneur Zeina Yazbeck Awwad is candid, saying that striking “the ideal balance” is impossible.
“A woman who tells you otherwise is lying,” she quips. “Also, all this talk about quality time and super women is nonsense.”
Awwad argues that one will surely come at the expense of the other, adding that often it is the family that will be left neglected because there is no one to hold you accountable and because in Lebanon, according to her, it is easy to delegate family tasks.
“But in the end it’s stupid because you end up holding yourself accountable when the household is not in the best shape,” she adds.
Generally bold and upfront, the graceful Awwad admits that she renounced the top posts she occupied during her long career every time she felt her kids Rabih and Soraya – now aged 19 and 17 respectively – needed her.
But the most powerful wakeup call happened when a friend of Awwad’s who volunteers with the Um Al Nour organization to combat drug addiction told her that lack of affection from parents – namely mothers – was found to be the number one cause for substance abuse among youths.
“I was general manager at Obegi Better Home and the team was very successful, but I submitted my resignation,” she recalls. “My kids were 14 and 12 at the time. It’s a vulnerable age group and I felt that I needed to be fully dedicated to them.”
Originally an optometrist, Awwad introduced renowned French eyewear chain Alain Afflelou to the Lebanese market back in 1999.
“I was scared and anxious and that was my drive,” she says. “You know changing the diapers and socializing was becoming very boring.”
Awwad was 26 and eager to restart her successful career after her move back to Lebanon from Montreal confined her to the home.
Awwad was so eager she even returned to her university in Paris, the Ecole Superieure d’Optometrie, for 15-day training before she embarked on the Alain Afflelou endeavor.
“I was so excited and dedicated I barely had any sleep for six whole months,” she says.
“I had to impose myself intellectually and professionally.”
Determination and perseverance are two qualities she learned from her family. “My father advised me never to use my status as a woman to set myself barriers.”
After getting Alain Afflelou on the right track, Awwad got an offer from retail group Magrabi Optical, but the long hours came at the expense of the family.
“When you work in retail you must abide by mall opening hours and that wasn’t convenient,” Awwad discloses. “I quit once again.”
In 2002, Awwad rode the plastic surgery wave when she became the director in Asia and the Middle East of Medica, a cosmetic and aesthetic medicines firm.
Awwad, who long nurtured a dream of doing medical studies, says she found her niche at Medica.
For the next few years, Awwad saw herself hopping planes to Dubai, Jakarta, Singapore and other faraway destinations. “The kids used to complain: But Mom, you’re always on the phone!” she remembers.
Once again she gave priority to the family. “Thankfully, I quit when the teams I train are fully ready to take over,” she says. “I believe that once you transmit the knowledge and skills to the team, you’ve succeeded on the task.”
She adds that in every job she has taken, she has put a set of conditions before accepting the offers, “just to be clear from the beginning.”
“I admit that my conditions were sometimes ludicrous and I always insisted that the job be flexible in order to devote enough time to my husband and kids.”
But Awwad believes that in a patriarchal society like in Lebanon, where the law does not protect women, being financially independent was an obligation rather than a choice.
She explains that although her husband Toufic Awwad - a banker- was very supportive, being in a situation of total dependence and sacrifice was just inconceivable to her.
In 2009, she settled on starting her own business. “I was mulling the idea of a nail bar for quite some time,” she reveals. “I was looking for the lighter, more frivolous side of the cosmetic field so I enrolled in an aesthetician school to learn the skills.”
Emak Urban Spa started off as a tiny 25 square meters shop in Sodeco and quickly evolved to one of the country’s best nail care centers.
The beauty parlor – that also offers services to men – also helped Awwad reveal her true nature and weave friendships with other women.
“I adhere to sisterhood now,” she says. “Animosity between women is self-destructive, it consumes them.”
Awwad, who strikingly excels at self-deprecation, says she has no recipe for success for other women. “I abided by two rules in my life: knowledge is power and success is not an option,” she divulges. “It worked for me, I don’t know if it will work for others.”
Recently, the entrepreneur earned a degree in management from Beirut’s Ecole Superieure des Affaires.
Even when it comes to Soraya, Awwad does not obsess about her daughter becoming a career woman. She adds that kids, in general, emulate the behaviors of their parents.
“If your children see you work, they’ll grow up cherishing the culture of hard work.
“I don’t want Soraya to be like me; I want her to become herself,” Awwad says, before concluding: “Soraya is a magician; I learn openness and independence from her.”