You Will Show Me Myself Anew (Part 3 of 3)

Part III of III of series on how networks can enable onlyness, featuring Fortune’s MPW community (links for full series, below)

“Here’s the thing. And it’s a real thing.” Manal Elattir is talking in a dramatic rapid-fire whisper over Skype, trying not to wake her 9-month-old twins. It’s nearly midnight in Morocco, and she is leaving in a few hours for a meeting. She talks and packs at the same time. “What the (Fortune MPW) conference really was – for me – what really hit me hard was that it was a room of women owning their power.” She pauses and lets that sink in. “That’s what is missing in Morocco. That is what needs to scale here.”

You cannot be what you cannot see is the truth Manal is speaking to.

Manal had worked in international development, training women, working with NGOs that operated near the State Department’s orbit in Morocco. It was her first taste of disappointment with the aid process. “It can be so frustrating,” she says. “You do this work, good work, and then the funding disappears and the work stops.” But she wants to do something with women and economic empowerment. She has some ideas and some strong convictions about what works and what doesn’t. “Education isn’t enough,” she says. “Education doesn’t produce leaders. It produces people who follow.” “We actually have a pretty free civil (democratic) society,” says Manal. But poverty is still a huge issue. Women in Morocco are triply burdened: Most likely to be illiterate, with no professional training and beholden culturally to their husbands. If they do create an income, the work – typically crafts or marketplace sales – is often exploited by their husbands or other middlemen. But traditional practices, things that define what a woman’s role can be, still hold women back. “There is no place where women get together and talk about big ideas and what makes us powerful, and how not to be afraid.” Women in Morocco, Manal explains, have to go at it alone, often in a lonely way.

Alone is not the way to make ideas powerful enough to dent the world.

at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, CA.

Manal is extremely fortunate in many ways. Her father is a professor – he has his PhD in horticulture, and her mother trained in the law. They sent her to Minneapolis when she was 16 to attend school; she ended up going to a Lutheran college in the small town of St. Peter, Minnesota. Being the only Muslim in a small town college was no big deal, until 9/11. “Suddenly the lack of diversity where I lived became an issue, a big issue,” she said. Someone published something out of place about the Koran in the school paper, and it stung, awakening a voice of advocacy she didn’t know she had.

She became an explainer-by-choice. “I organized during Ramadan, I reached out to the chapel, talked to the priest. I wanted to create dialog about where we stood together on the universal values of kindness and helping each other.” After that, she stumbled upon a job that took her back to Morocco, working for a network of civil scientists and entrepreneurs. There, she met a group working specifically with women and youth activists. The lack of access to education and employment was shocking, but it was more that a culture of creative connection was lacking. “This is where I got my understanding of what is really going on in Morocco. I could see clearly that if you wanted to accelerate development in Morocco, you had to focus on women and youth.” [It was associated with MEPI, the US Middle East Partnership.]

But something else happened to Manal at the same time. She got married. “It was a Moroccan guy. I was in love! I had my dream job, my parents so proud.” But, she says, after the wedding, it was like a mask came off. “He was… he wouldn’t let me out after 8pm. He said I had to stay in the kitchen now. I was… I was subject to violence. And I was this ambitious positive person full of life, and then I became dead inside.” Deeply ashamed, she told no one. She was able to summon enough courage to tell her father that she needed to leave the relationship, something that is very difficult to do in Morocco. “I didn’t tell him about the abuse,” Manal says, barely above a whisper. “But he just said – ‘I want my Manal back,’ – so I left. It was a very scary step for me.” The experience sobered her to the reality that many women face in Morocco – with no money, no power and no network, they remain locked in a traditional system that diminishes their capacity. “It is so hard for them,” she says. “If they are in a bad situation they cannot leave, often their family won’t take them back in.”

Manal saw what life was like for women in Morocco through her own eyes.

The poverty, and gender oppression and seeing what worked and didn’t economic development was all part of her Onlyness. And it shaped what she wanted to do next. In 2011, Manal left the mentorship program at MEPI to take a risk.

Manal knew she wanted to do something with rural women, helping them grow a traditional business like crafts, and parlay that into income and increased leadership status within their communities. “And we were not going to give aid,” she says firmly. “This is not a non-profit, let’s build viable sustaining businesses, by connecting them with broader markets.” Kathi Lutton (a key hub in the Fortune MPW program) connected her to Ruth DeGoya of Mercado Global who had launched something similar in Latin America. The ability to see someone else “like her” emboldened her to act. A dream became a business plan which ultimately became a new reality: Anarouz. “It means ‘hope’,” she explais.

Anarouz connects rural women artisans – while offering business training, leadership development — with wide market reach. The team of five now works with 25 co-ops, employing some 300 women. They have no investors. Instead, they match big-ticket buyers with products they need – like conference bags and corporate gifts. (An e-commerce site is coming next.)

But Anarouz jumpstarts their community in an unusual way. To get them out of the familiar, they take them on a week-long caravan ride across Morocco. “It’s magical,” says Manal.” “We introduce them to other women leaders who have done great things, and get them to talk about their real lives and barriers. And we have fun. That’s not something that we do in Morocco, believe it or not.” With this comes bonding, connections, and solidarity. None of the women are now alone. “ We also introduce them to community leaders wherever we go, who give them information on how to run a business.” But these introductions serve a dual purpose: They give the women status. “We gossip a lot in Morocco,” says Manal with a laugh. Suddenly these ‘unimportant’ women return home with stories, information and buzz about the meetings they took. Word spreads fast. “Magical,” she says again. “We shift the way people look at them, including their kids,” she says.

Anarouz is still young, and Manal is learning a lot. She plugs into the Fortune network often – she also shadowed Megan and Susan – looking for feedback and coaching. She drops names like a real insider. “Marissa told us that if you are going to be an entrepreneur, you have to find the right guy to support you. You don’t have to be with someone who doesn’t.” Her second husband is that person. “He is very secure,” she says pausing to bounce one of her burbling toddlers while her husband wrangles the other one. “I learned that I have to value myself. I didn’t do that before.”

Manal’s story reminds us that none of can create big ideas in isolation.

None of us are “self-made”. Instead, we respond to our situation, our surroundings. What surrounds us, affects us. We imagine what is possible by seeing examples, or templates. It’s not that we will use those exactly as they are. Hardly. But just seeing them, they change us. Their very existence means something new for us. Examples can show you a silhouette of the idea that might work in your own situation, sparking in you a new pattern, a deviation … and based on your onlyness, you build an idea that’ll work where you are.

Also, in community you develop a new sense of your own role. The people who already know you will think “you can’t do” or “be” this new thing because they’ve never see you do it. But when you are in relationship with new people, you can transform your own understanding of what is possible, by declaring what it is you WANT to do, not just what you have done. These relationships with others then are key to developing, and to bring forth new ideas, new outcomes. Onlyness is both who you’ve been AND who you aspire to be, because we are always two. In community with others, your Onlyness can find its fullest expression.

But of course this transformation is grounded in the doing, not in any navel gazing self-reflection moment of clarity of ‘what should I do??” Herminia Ibarra describes in her book, Working Identity (2004) that the idea of ‘communities of practice” was coined to describe a kind of social participation that is crucial for “learning to be”. The social process, she writes, is key to how any of us become something (a professional, a writer, an entrepreneur). These connections / community help us by apprentice, through moral support, or skills development as we practice doing the new thing.

Manal has seen the power of learning to be.

Because she connected with others like her at Fortune MPW, her ideas of what she could do grew. And then, like a chain reaction of growth, she’s reproducing the benefits of community in Morocco. Born out of her own history, experiences, vision and hopes, Manal saw her power and place, and started making a dent in the world around her. Here’s a formal interview with more of her ideas, with a prof at a conference at the Australian National University.

With this piece, you’ve just read a three-part story on Fortune MPW’s program, something that is more than a fancy dinner and do-gooders gathering. Part II (Let me Change What You See In The Mirror, and Part I, A Different Tipping Point elaborate on how networks enable onlyness.

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What do you see in Manal’s story, that mirrors your own? How does your culture (family, church, sports team, neighborhood, whatever) affect the way you express yourself? In sharing your ideas, thoughts, and stories, you will undoubtedly help the extended community of Yes & Know, just as Fortune MPW did for Manal. Together, we’ll make our ideas even better, perhaps even big enough to dent the world.

(Next week, I’ll share the powerful gifts that Equinox – It’s not Fitness, it’s Life – is giving our Yes & Know community.  Subscribe, if you want to learn the latest on how to navigate the Social Era, powerfully.)


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