“The people I work with are not my family, they are my sports team”


A 2021 study of women’s leadership from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women hold 41% of corporate leadership positions, and women continue to struggle with underrepresentation when it comes to board positions and CEO roles. They also face gender bias, harassment and opposition to their management styles.

Here’s how an MIT Sloan alumnus pushed back those statistics and used what she learned along the way to help those behind her.

Perihan Abouzeid, MBA ’15, serial entrepreneur, nursing startup founder PeriCare

How is your professional life as a working woman different from what you imagined at the start of your career?

When I started, I didn’t think much about what it was like to be a working woman. Today I know better. Throughout my career, particularly in the corporate world, I have been placed in good and bad contexts that have set me apart as a woman. I’ve won awards and spoken at major events for being a female entrepreneur, but I’ve also often been asked the wrong questions by investors or employers – Are you married? Are you willing to work long hours? — and even told me that I would quit my job as soon as I became a mother.

As I progressed in my career, I realized that my responsibilities extended beyond my functional role. As a professional woman, I am responsible for change by setting a positive example of leadership and changing the discourse on values ​​such as work-life balance and assertiveness (often described as aggression if they come from a woman). As a mother, I also realized that I had a responsibility to educate my co-workers and leaders about the need for a mother-friendly work environment – ​​for example, taking breaks for pumping.

Who has been an ally or mentor to you throughout your career? What made this person stand out and how specifically did they help you take your professional development to the next level?

My father was orphaned at the age of 4 and had to support himself. Growing up, I never heard my dad say something was impossible. In fact, at times his vision of our future seemed almost unrealistic – until it happened.

My twin brother, Seif, has always been my greatest ally and source of motivation. As a twin, I’ve always been subject to people’s comparisons (who’s smarter, who’s better at school, who’s better at sports, etc.). Fortunately, we had different dreams and parents who emphasized how each of us stood out on our own. As we grew up, we became each other’s companions. We shared dreams, challenges and advice, and lifted each other up when we were down. There is not a single business decision made by either of us without consulting the other.

My beloved husband, Khaled, became my backbone. Without his active participation in our household responsibilities and the parenting of our daughter, as well as his constant guidance on how to navigate company politics (he is much better than me at this), my professional career would have taken a different twist. I sincerely believe that I would not be where I am today without these three men.

Can you give an example of a time when you experienced or witnessed gender bias? How has this affected you professionally? What impact has this had on your work?

I can think of a lot. As the only female director of a nine-person management team, I found out I was pregnant. I was on a business trip and my pregnancy was high risk so the doctors wouldn’t allow me to travel for the entire first trimester. While everyone was still mostly working from home due to COVID, I was told that I was unable to influence decisions or engage in conversations with colleagues as I was not available at desk. It was kind of an “out of sight out of mind” argument, which seemed quite unfair and wrong..

Even before I got pregnant or became a mother, a venture capitalist I was pitching to asked me if I was planning on getting married soon (I wasn’t even engaged at the time) and how I saw myself balancing my career as an entrepreneur. as a married woman or mother. Such questions are never addressed to men in the labor market.

And just recently I met a woman in a professional setting who somehow felt compelled to share her “wisdom” with me about why women like me – who have babies in their thirties – can’t have it all and will inevitably have to sacrifice their careers. Such unsolicited advice would never be directed at men.

Some industries are more masculine than ever. Where do you see progress in your own work experience and how can we scale it up in your industry?

I recently became a member of a community organization called Crunchmoms, which is a group of professional women who help each other with positive conversations, access to opportunities, and holistic support. This allowed me to meet Sophie Smith, CEO of Nabta Health, who became my co-founder of PeriCare, my new femtech start-up focused on creating products to address the unmet needs of working mothers, including a state-of-the-art stand-alone solution. nursing pod.

I also joined Newchip Accelerator and started mentoring a few female-led startups. I believe my professional development will come not only from growth within my role in my company or another, but also from consulting and mentoring other female industry leaders to collectively change the status quo.. And the more women leaders there are, the easier it will be for this change to happen.

How do you support the women who come up behind you?

One of the things I focus on with the women on my team is explaining what I realized early in my career, which is that being a professional woman comes with more responsibility than her job requires. . I also advise each of them on their interpersonal development, especially their leadership and communication skills, as well as how to set their own growth goals. With the female entrepreneurs I mentor, I often find myself coaching them to be more confident in their financial aspirations, whether it’s the salary they budget for when raising money for their startup, or the goal even wanting to become wealthy entrepreneurs. I find that women – especially impact-oriented entrepreneurs – fear having financial aspirations.

What is the hardest lesson you have learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways have you grown from it?

As an Arab, I was raised in a culture that values ​​relationships, inside and outside the workplace. I always expected to be friends with everyone I worked with and treated everyone as family.. I would highly value trust when making decisions like who to hire or who to hire as an investor. It took me about a decade to realize that the people I work with are not my family, but my sports team. I don’t need to love them or protect them, but I should be ready to pick them up if they fall, so we can all keep working hard for victory. We make stupid mistakes for our families, but a team player would only make smart choices to keep winning.

Read: Forging a Path from PhD to MD to Amazon Web Services Advisor


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