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start-inspiration

Surviving Hijab: Challenges & Opportunities – Manal Rostom

Mountaineer and Marathoner Manal Rostom is the first-ever veiled woman to be a Nike model.

In 2014 Manal Rostom wrote to Nike to ask why none of their ads featured women who looked or dressed like her: Arab women who wear the hijab. Nike got in touch and Manal not only ended up featuring in their international advertising campaign, but also became involved in developing Nike’s Pro Hijab, a head scarf designed for veiled women who participate in sports.

But growing up Manal didn’t plan on wearing the hijab: her attitude towards covering was negative due to the stereotypes of veiled women being timid or uneducated. Manal talked about these perceptions she once held and how determined she is to change the stereotype: enter our power-house runner, mountaineer and fitness coach!

While Manal Rostom originally trained as a pharmacist and spent 14 years in the corporate world, she is now a full-time fitness coach who has summitted 7 mountains and run 11 marathons! She is the first Egyptian woman to summit Mont Blanc. There is even an Apple playlist called “Run with Manal” and she is the first Arab to be featured on the Global Nike+ Run Club App. Manal started wearing the hijab aged 21 but almost gave it up in 2014 – that is when she created the Surviving Hijab Facebook Community Group for which she recently won an award – it has grown to over 600,000 members.

During our chat Manal opened up for the first time about her experience dealing with horrific cyber-bullies, blow-back from a tolerance message she posted on her facebook group. We discussed how society can place a heavy burden on women, judging them on things that lay outside their control. Finally, we talked about motivation and what drives her up the mountain when she is physically drained.

My favourite quote from the episode: “I love it when little boys look at me and I’m their role model.”

If you’d like to follow Manal you can find her on Instagram and Facebook.


Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Hello ladies and gentlemen, my guest on today’s show is the first ever veiled woman to be featured in a Nike ad campaign. For listeners who may not know the veil or Muslim headscarf is called the hijab. While Manal Rostom trained as a pharmacist and spent over a year in the corporate world, she’s now a fitness coach who has summitted seven mountains and run 11 marathons. There’s even an apple playlist called run with Manal, and she’s the first Arab to be featured on the Global Nike Run Club App. Manal started wearing the hijab at 21, but almost gave it up in 2014, when she started Surviving Hijab facebook community group for which she recently won an award. Manal opened up for the first time about her experience dealing with horrific cyberbullies blowback from a tolerance message she posted on facebook. She talked about the negative perception of Hijabi women and how determined she is to change that stereotype – enter a powerhouse runner, mountaineer and fitness coach. We discussed how society can place a heavy burden on women, judging them on things that lay outside their sphere of control. Finally, we talked about motivation and what drives her up the mountain when she’s physically drained, so let’s get into it. Manal, welcome to When Women Win, it’s so great to have you on the show.

Manal Rostom: (01:22)
Thank you so much for having me.

Rana Nawas: (01:23)
Congratulations on winning an award from facebook for Surviving Hijab, your facebook community group.

Manal Rostom: (01:30)
Thank you so much, Rana. Thank you.

Rana Nawas: (01:32)
Can you tell us more about it?

Manal Rostom: (01:33)
So basically in March 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, he launched this new initiative called the facebook community leadership program. Someone was adding – almost bringing change to the world basically by their causes that they feel very strongly about. So I found out about the initiative in March, and I applied, I presented our application as Surviving Hijab, as you know, a forum or a platform that has become a safe haven for women to go online and share their doubts, their fears about what it’s like to wear the hijab, whether it’s in the Middle East or or abroad. And what are the current struggles and issues that women face. And, we’ve been chosen out of the 6,000 applications, it’s been like 114 community leaders and I’m one of the 114 community leaders

Rana Nawas: (02:26)
And, that’s not all that came from that story, right? There’s been a bit of an aftermath, in Surviving Hijab, and the award. Could you tell us a bit about that? If it’s okay to go there?

Manal Rostom: (02:38)
Did you mean the, what’s currently happening?

Rana Nawas: (02:41)
Yeah.

Manal Rostom: (02:42)
So basically I did not, I did not foresee, you know, the storm coming with the good news and, and you know, I, I thought I’d be celebrating or spending these few days celebrating, but I had met this beautiful girl who works for facebook and she is Jewish and we sort of wanted to like, you know, spread peace and love to the world basically. And she wanted to try on my hijab and she did. And we actually look very similar. Like if you see us with Hijab on, you’d actually like mistake us for sisters or you know, the pretty much the same person. We have thick eyebrows, you know, we have the same color eyes. So she suggested that we post it to facebook as like a means of like spreading peace and love, and I did and a lot of people were angered by it. So clearly there are a lot of, you know, viral posts of negativity going around about me and my motives and my intentions for having set up the group in the first place, which is very, very hurtful to come from people that you’ve worked with and helped for many, many years. So I’m currently dealing with this, and it’s a hard time for me to be honest, but this too shall pass, insallah.

Rana Nawas: (03:59)
I was really shaken by your instagram posts. I’d never seen anyone. I mean you have 51,000 followers and you shared with them that you’d spend a lot of time crying because of cyberbullying. Now you’ve been influential for some time now. Have you been cyber bullied before and how have you dealt with it?

Manal Rostom: (04:18)
Honestly, like this is the most extreme cyberbullying that I’ve ever faced in my life. I mean, I have been attacked verbally on social media in the past, like every time Nike releases a campaign that I’m featured in, and people are always saying, this is not a hijab, you know, this is not modest where she’s only covering your hair. She’s not covering her body because I’m always featured wearing tights while I run, which is the most convenient thing to run in as a runner and you’ll only get it if you run. If you don’t run, you will not understand the science behind why women and men, similarly, have to run in tights. So I’m always being attacked by don’t call yourself a hijabi or you don’t represent me, you know, these harsh and hurtful comments. But honestly, like the past couple of days I’ve been losing sleep. My facebook messenger does not stop like the messages, the messages, you know, keep coming in mixed. To be honest, a lot of people have been supportive, but there’s one post that’s currently going viral and it’s unstoppable. Like, you know, people are sharing it and sharing all of it. All of it is false information. First of all, they’re saying that I don’t live in Dubai, that I’m not Egyptian, that I’m being supported by Israel that I’m supporting, you know, the killings of Palestinians, and where did all this come from? I mean, it was a very peaceful photo of me and a Jewish girl. That’s it.

Rana Nawas: (05:52)
What I find extraordinary is the source of all this bullying is your “own”, you know, I say in quotes, do you know what I mean? So like women, like, you know, in theory, like you right? Egyptian women wearing the hijab, you know, and that’s where the attacks are coming from. I find that extraordinary.

Manal Rostom: (06:10)
It’s very sad as well to be honest, you know, to becoming from a fellow Egyptian and a fellow hijabi, and someone who’s been on the group for some time, it’s, it’s really sad.

Rana Nawas: (06:21)
Okay, well let’s shift gears because you’re so much bigger than that and your life is so much bigger than that. So let’s, let me ask something very basic, but I do have my reasons. So what exactly is it that you do Manal?

Manal Rostom: (06:33)
I worked as a pharmacist for about 14 years and I lost my job two years ago, and at the time before I lost my job I was sort of like balancing it out, so I was doing fitness on the side. I was working part time for Nike and I had like a few fitness classes that I was running, you know, on the weekends. So when I lost my job I wanted to venture into that industry a little bit and I’ve been doing okay. So I’m currently a personal trainer and a fitness instructor. My parents are not very happy, of course. My Arab parents are not very happy about it. They want me to go back to being like a corporate person with a nine to six or nine to five, steady income, insurance and all the security. But I don’t know, like, I feel like I’m 38. I’ve tried that, you know, for a bit. I don’t know, I may or may not go back to corporates at the moment, things are working out for me. I’m not going to say quite well, but enough to give me the standard of living that I want.

Rana Nawas: (07:29)
Okay. Now that’s your job, but you do a lot of other stuff too. I mean mountains. Marathon. How many mountains have you climbed?

Manal Rostom: (07:35)
I’ve climbed seven mountains, I’ve run 11 marathons.

Rana Nawas: (07:38)
Okay. And do you have a goal in doing these marathons, for example?

Manal Rostom: (07:43)
Honestly, when I first started off with specifically mountain climbing, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. I was looking at pictures, pretty pictures and I thought it was going to be a pretty experience. You go take photos and you come down, turned out to be a brutal experience. Thought I would never climb a mountain again after Kilimanjaro. Never, like, I mean I climbed. I was like, this is, this is not for me. Like, you know, you’re camping. There are no toilets and like, how do you say it in English? But as someone who grew up in the Gulf, I’m a very, I used to be a very spoiled girl. You know, I need my wipes, I need my water. I need my.

Rana Nawas: (08:19)
That’s funny that you should mention that because I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2007.

Manal Rostom: (08:22)
Oh Wow. Nice.

Rana Nawas: (08:24)
Yeah. And I summitted and all of that. But what I found was the boredom got to me, walking hours and hours every day. I found it really, really boring.

Manal Rostom: (08:33)
No. It doesn’t bore me. I just get very, it’s very therapeutic for me. I reflect on so many things. I come out with a lot of epiphanies, I feel like I’m completely, completely like replenished, you know, like my whole identity and things that have been hanging on my mind, you know?

Rana Nawas: (08:52)
So after that horrible experience in Kili, what took you to the next mountain?

Manal Rostom: (08:57)
Yeah. I mean, you know, you come down and you don’t realize how proud people are of you, you know, and then the messages keep coming and I’m like, hm, I’ll see. Like, you know, they keep asking you. So like what’s next? What’s next for you? And honestly, I didn’t think that there’d be anything next for me. But then the summer after a group of friends were going to Mount Kenya, and Kenya is the second highest peak in Africa, and honestly I had nothing to do in summer. So I was like asking my dad, like, what should I do, you know, this group of friends, they’re going. And he was like, okay, go with them. Like, really? Okay, let’s go. And then it became a second mountain. Then I sort of felt like, wait, this is becoming my thing, you know? And then I did my third mountain, Mount Elbrus, which is the highest in Russia. And then after that I did Everest base camp, and then I attempted Mount Aconcagua, but I wasn’t a very successful across South America. And then I did Toukbal, and then I did Jebel Shams in Oman. And then I just came from Mont Blanc in the Alps, last September.

Rana Nawas: (10:01)
Ah, great. And you summitted?

Manal Rostom: (10:03)
Yeah, Hamdullah. I had the perfect, perfect weather conditions. First Egyptian woman, you know, to summit.

Rana Nawas: (10:10)
So you’re the first Egyptian woman to summit Mont Blanc?

Manal Rostom: (10:12)
Yes.

Rana Nawas: (10:12)
Amazing.

Manal Rostom: (10:13)
With a lot of pride, I say it because honestly it was, it was so tough.

Rana Nawas: (10:17)
Because you need crampons. I mean it’s a technical climb.

Manal Rostom: (10:19)
Yeah, yeah, 100 percent technical, and then there’s a bit where you’re properly like rock climbing and it’s in the dark, like I remember coming down after we summitted, and I kept asking the guide, are you sure, we came up this way because when we went up, it was like 3:00 AM and w,e couldn’t see anything, and we were properly like, rock climbing. He’s like this is the exact route that we went up from.

Rana Nawas: (10:38)
When you were on Mont Blanc and you broke down, what kept you going? You know, when you thought, I can’t go on, how’d you keep going?

Manal Rostom: (10:47)
So I have like nieces and nephews who really look up to me and for them to have like an auntie who like climbs mountains. I remember, my cousin’s son, I call him my nephew because he’s obviously like my nephew. But I remember when he knew that I was going to climb a mountain. He’s like, make sure you eat a lot of chicken and drink water. And, you know, and it just touched me so much that he was saying it with a lot of heart, and his voice was just like ringing in my head. Like I was like, oh my God, like, imagine failing this little boy, you know. And, what I love about it the most is we grew up with male icons, like role models, for the longest time, but here I am changing that a little bit. Like I love it when little boys look at me and I’m their role model, you know, as opposed like, do you know what I mean? And it’s really amazing for a little boy to have a female role model. I think it’s, I think it’s fascinating.

Rana Nawas: (11:49)
You’re known globally as a cool and hip hijabi wearer. I don’t know if you know that. For listeners who don’t know the hijab that we’ve been talking about for some time, it’s the Muslim headscarf. What prompted you to put on the hijab?

Manal Rostom: (12:05)
So honestly, just just for people to know, like I grew up in a British school, like I actually grew up hating the whole hijab thing and I never saw myself wearing it and, I remember like we would watch documentaries and I’d look at the women that were featured who are Ara,b and I’m like, I don’t want to ever look like that or be perceived this way. But then when I was 19 years old I had an accident, so it sort of like turned things around for me because it was like a wake up call. Like I didn’t know, you know, like how to say thank you to God. Five minutes before the accident, I had swapped seats with my cousin, so he moved backwards and I moved ahead and when the front tire blew up, five minutes later, Mohammed broke his two bones in his spine and he was paralyzed on the spot. Nothing happened to me. My Dad broke six ribs and his shoulder bone. So the whole family was impacted and then Mohammed passed away like three months later. So for me that was like, wait a second, like God gave me a second chance in life and a second chance to live, why? You know, and how am I dealing with it. So it was very hard for me to face my community and be like, you know, I’m going to wear the hijab because I was like known as the loudest. I had my own band, you know, crazy hair.

Rana Nawas: (13:29)
Band? What did you play?

Manal Rostom: (13:32)
I didn’t play. I was a singer.

Rana Nawas: (13:33)
Oh fantastic.

Manal Rostom: (13:35)
I sand. I kep,t like, you know, like researching and, and getting familiar with why we actually were and it made sense to me for the first time ever. It actually made sense and I started to feel like naked without it. But it took me about a year and a half. So when I was 21 I decided to wear hijab and it was a shock to everyone, including my parents who were not really on board.

Rana Nawas: (13:56)
Really, Your parents? So your mom doesn’t wear it?

Manal Rostom: (14:00)
My mom wrore it when she was about like in her late forties. So for me to go to her at 21 and be like, you know, I want to wear, it was a bit of a shock, you know.

Rana Nawas: (14:10)
Now it’s not been an easy road for you, because in 2014, you nearly took it off. But instead of taking it off, you started a facebook support group we talked about earlier, the Surviving Hijab group. So the choice of the word survive is obviously very poignant. For people who don’t wear the hijab, maybe you could explain to us, what are the challenges for today’s woman in wearing the Muslim headscarf?

Manal Rostom: (14:34)
I think, like in a nutshell, you judge a woman by, by how she looks and you know, if a woman covers, I feel like immediately, you know, she’s perceived as uncool or uneducated or unapproachable, things that are not true for the everyday hijabi woman. I’m not like that. I’m very approachable, actually. I will come and say hello to you and I hate these stereotypes like surrounding hijabi woman. On a more serious note, women are still banned in Egypt and Dubai and Europe from either entering certain places or having certain jobs. I’ll give you examples, so for example in Egypt, some posh hotels, they do not allow women to swim in their burkinis and this still is going on and on and it even though it hasn’t actually affected me directly, but via the group, a lot of women are always complaining, you know, that they’ve gone to X hotel and they were banned. What can we do?

Rana Nawas: (15:29)
Well that’s really interesting because they tried to do that in the south of France and it didn’t work. In France, they had to repeal that ban. And yet it exists in Egypt.

Manal Rostom: (15:37)
It still exists in Egypt.

Rana Nawas: (15:38)
Which is a Muslim country, western sort of secular or Christian heritage countries are more tolerant of this than actual Middle Eastern Muslims.

Manal Rostom: (15:47)
They have like a different pool for if you want to swim in your burkini, you can go swim in a different pool. So these kinds of things, they really bother me, like whether I was a hijabi or not, I don’t think it’s right. When I was in Geneva, I met up with a few girls in Switzerland and they were telling me that they were banned from jobs like journalism just because they cover and, I also met a Swiss convert and she’s also suffering because she’s white and she covers and she still doesn’t get, you know, the same sort of treatment as a normal Swiss citizen. In the UAE, according to the law here, I think there are some places that do not allow Hijabi woman in, if alcohol is served. I would disagree with this law because you’re flying on Emirates. Let’s say the guy next to you, you’re on a 14 hour flight. The guy next to you is drinking. What are you going to do? Stop the plane in the middle of the air and ask to come down because you’re Muslim and you can’t be around alcohol. So we tend, we have to bend the rules. It doesn’t work like that. You know, you’re offending people, you know, by it. Like for example, our last summer, this summer, I was actually told to take off my hijab before I enter a certain place here in Dubai. And I was like, excuse me, what? Like this is like my bra. Yeah, you can’t tell me to just like take it off. He wasn’t an Arab and obviously like escalated to management and the management came back to me and they apologized. But I mean it’s the 21st century. I am who I am and these things still happen, you know.

Rana Nawas: (17:20)
I get it. So let’s talk a little bit more about Surviving Hijab. How did your group of 80 friends grow to a 600,000 strong community of women around the world of whom my understand many are veiled and some are not.

Manal Rostom: (17:32)
So basically there was, I felt like there was, like a plague in 2014, that was hitting, you know, the community, like women were taking off their hijab and it was going to affect me, but I chose to like, you know, stand up against it, and you know, we added like we hand picked 80 women and it was based on like women adding women adding women. And I remember waking up the next morning after I created the group and it was a thousand women. I’m like, wait, where did they come from? You know, I didn’t, I didn’t really understand how these groups work. Now, we obviously have like a certain restriction on who is to join the group or not. But I have a very tolerant tool. You don’t have to be Muslim, ,you don’t have to be covered. You obviously have to be a woman and you have to support other women, and their choice to one, exercise their faith in whichever way they want and look the way that they want. So even if you walk naked in the street, you’re not hurting anyone, you’re not harming yourself. I’m cool with that. And that’s it. So I think because like, there was an issue in the society, and people were too scared to speak up, so when Survigving Hijab came through,

Rana Nawas: (18:45)
you gave them a voice.

Manal Rostom: (18:46)
Exactly.

Rana Nawas: (18:46)
Okay. And so what do you have any practical tips you can share with listeners on how to build a community group on facebook?

Manal Rostom: (18:55)
I would like up until last Friday, I would say just be as transparent as you can possibly be, even though, you know, my transparency is now working against me because I think I give them zero filters and too much transparency, and now that’s working against me. I hope I don’t lose that still. But yeah, I would, I would say like definitely, definitely just try to keep that real, you know, speak from the heart, always have strict rules and a strict policy and the kind of people that you want in your community. Because at the end of the day, these are not their personal accounts, you know? So no, it’s not okay for you to come and like harass other members or no, it’s not okay for you to come in and you know, like judge or call people names. It’s not right. You know, you can do that on your account and you can get away with even though you can’t actually because people can report to you, but I’m trying to keep it clean. It’s super hard to manage right now and I’m really suffering. But just keep it, you know, happy.

Rana Nawas: (19:55)
I’m sorry, when you say it’s super hard to manage right now. Do you mean because of the number of people?

Manal Rostom: (20:00)
Like as we speak, we have pending 4,800 posts pending that needs to be reviewed and approved.

Rana Nawas: (20:07)
Who reviews all these posts?

Manal Rostom: (20:08)
So I have two other admins who are working with me. Obviously we work for free. They don’t really like me right now because I haven’t been listening to them. So I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. And then I have three moderators

Rana Nawas: (20:21)
And every single post has to be reviewed?

Manal Rostom: (20:23)
You have to, you know, because you don’t want to be offensive or offending anyone. And a lot of people use the platform for their own advantage to like advertise, you know, because it’s a great platform to advertise. So it’s very hard for us to like monitor all this.

Rana Nawas: (20:37)
Yep. So you are the first hijabi model of Nike, which is huge and awesome. How did that, how did that come about?

Manal Rostom: (20:47)
So when I founded Surviving Hijab, I felt like it gave me a voice and it made me very strong, like whatever thoughts that I had or doubts. You know, you keep asking yourself, for example, if you can’t find a pair of trousers that you’ve been wanting, let’s say it’s a weird color, like let’s say one side is pink, the other side is blue, but you don’t have the courage to ask someone why aren’t you making that. Because it’s weird. Right? So for the longest time we’ve been looking at campaigns that featured zero covered women, you know, zero Arab women even. And it’s always like women either with the hot shorts, exercise bras. This is not me. I climb mountains, I run marathons, I can’t see someone who looks like me in these campaigns. So up until Surviving Hijab, I had the courage to speak up, so I sent them an email, and I obviously attached a link to the group. I attached a few photos of myself and I said like, my question to you is why aren’t you featuring Muslim hijabi women. I’m not talking about perhaps global campaigns, but at least in the Middle East. And I found, I got the email by someone who worked with them and she was very kind. Her name is Selma, she was very kind to pass on the email of Coach Tom Wolf, he’s the Head of Coaches in the Middle East, and he picked up the email and he responded and that’s how the conversation started. And then he invited me wanting to meet up with me. We met up, and then I became the first ever model to appear in Nike Middle East Campaign in January 2015. And then they offered me the role as first ever hijabi trainer and Nike run club coach in March 2015 based on the certifications that I was working on besides my pharma, you know.

Rana Nawas: (22:24)
Of course you were still employed in pharma at the time. Wow. So, you became a Nike model while you were still in pharma. Let’s talk about your pharma experience. What was that like and what was it like wearing the hijab in, in the corporate world?

Manal Rostom: (22:38)
It never really posed honestly any, any problems for me to be honest. I was working for one of the top multinational companies. They really promoted diversity a lot, you know, they supported women and they supported people from different walks of life basically. So I was never told you can’t do this, or you can’t do that. It was a bit weird when I first got in because they were like, I don’t know how, you know, doctors are gonna take you seriously or not because you’re too serious. I’m like, what’s that supposed to mean? You know, like, because I started off as a rep, so like a medical rep or sales rep, I feel like it’s offensive for women in general to, to tell her that if you’re not veiled, you know you’re going to be taken a different way as a woman who veiled, who does the same job. It’s so wrong. I don’t know what happened towards the end actually. I felt like I started to become stronger in my own right or have a stronger opinion and not be scared to share it. And I think that pissed off a lot of people and, where I could be perceived as strong, I was perceived as aggressive and I hated that.

Rana Nawas: (23:42)
Yeah. Well unfortunately that’s an affliction of the corporate world, where strong women are often branded as aggressive, because men and women don’t know how to deal with that.

Manal Rostom: (23:54)
Yeah. I don’t know. It really bothers me, you know, like you strike up a conversation with a man and then all of a sudden, I don’t know if it’s their way out of the conversation is like why are you being aggressive. It’s like, wait a second, I’m not being aggressive, I’m just telling you how I feel and I’m trying to like, you know, bring my point across to you in a very neutral tone but serious. And the first thing they say is like, ah, you’re being very aggressive.

Rana Nawas: (24:20)
No. So honestly, it’s not you, it’s them. It’s the corporate world. Did you learn much from your 14 years in corporate?

Manal Rostom: (24:30)
Yeah. One hundred percent.

Rana Nawas: (24:31)
What did you learn?

Manal Rostom: (24:32)
I don’t know, like a lot of communication skills, you know, like, I became very independent, you know, like as I worked my way up, you know, like up the career ladder, I became much more independent. They gave me the strength to move from Kuwait to Dubai. I live on my own and I’m still living on my own, something that I would have never ever, ever imagined. So I came here when I was 31 and I’m 38 now, so it’s been about seven years on my own. I obviously visit my parents and they come to visit, but like the bulk of the time I’m by myself and that’s something that I never ever, ever thought.

Rana Nawas: (25:08)
And you don’t have any family at all in Dubai?

Manal Rostom: (25:10)
No. Zero. Yeah. And you know, it’s, it’s quite shocking because you know, you would think that you’d be married by a certain age or when these things don’t actually happen for you, and then you’re still by yourself and you’re still working it out and you’re still successful. You’re still paying the bills on your own. It makes you feel very proud, you might get a little bit sad, you know, maybe sometime around the time of the month or whatever, but like you’re very proud, you know. So I feel I owe this to being a corporate employee for, for a long time.

Rana Nawas: (25:45)
Well let’s talk about this sort of mythical path of every woman that every Arab parent wants for their daughter. So is it the parents or is it the world at large?

Manal Rostom: (25:58)
I think it’s society, you know. I think like, so I’m turning 39 end of the month and, it’s shocking because it’s the last year in my thirties and you know, to be quite frank, like I never thought that, you know, my twenties would go without me being married and then my thirties are going without me being married. So it’s kind of sad. But at the same time, who made it sad? Society, you know, society is the one thing that said, oh, you need to be married by 30, in whose books? I don’t get it. Like when you think about it

Rana Nawas: (26:33)
Or at all?

Manal Rostom: (26:34)
Yeah, exactly. Well, I mean I am for marriage, like I do want to get married and I obviously want to have kids, but like these things are really uncontrollable, you know, I’m not going to go into tinder, one because I’m famous a little bit, you know, but like I don’t want to use these apps. I try to be as outgoing as I possibly can, but I don’t know, like these things are really out of your control, just like the sun comes out, the moon comes down, whatever. I just feel like that. So yes, obviously my mom must be a bit, not a bit, but quite disappointed that I probably failed her, you know, like you spend your twenties trying to check boxes. So I checked, you know, the university that I didn’t really like, but I did it anyway. Masters degree check, got the job, you know, but then my twenties flew, and I’m like, wait a second, you know, I didn’t do anything for me. Like where are the mountains, where are the marathons. And by the way I was told when I was 28 or 27, I don’t remember that I’m never going to be able to climb mountains that I’m not allowed to climb mountains and I’m going to say it in Arabic, “ma fish banat batitla3 gibal” Okay, meaning like there are no women who climb mountains. Who put these rules and,

Rana Nawas: (27:43)
Sorry, who told you that?

Manal Rostom: (27:44)
My Dad. Having said that, now he’s completely on board. I managed to convert him. I managed to make the shift. So now he’s actually completely on board. He’s willing and happy, you know, to support me in my journey because you have an open conversation with them, you know. So you ask open questions and what are you scared of? Ah you’re going to be out of reach? No, I won’t. We have satellite phones. We have this, we have that.

Rana Nawas: (28:08)
It is extraordinary. It is extraordinary, really that society and parents and everybody looks at a woman and judges her success or failure based on things that are indeed completely out of her control. Whether you meet someone or not, you know, whether you can have children or not. You know, I myself, I met my husband at the age of 33. We got married, I was 34, at my last kid, I was 37, maybe. So, it is extraordinary, these parameters that we live by. You’ve confronted Nike on their diversity agenda. You’re trained to climb Mount Everest. Are you fearless Manal? Or is there something that scares you?

Manal Rostom: (28:46)
I am scared of the mountains, like I was very scared of Mont Blanc, like, I was very slow and because I’m anemic, my hemoglobin drops rapidly when I’m on the mountain, and I tend to lose all my strength. Like I can start off being one of the strongest and then towards the end like my strength really really diminishes. So I was quite slow and I remember the guide looked at me and he said we are turning around at 10:30 and it was like 10, and we still had like peaks and peaks because like, you know, mobile is like up and down, up and down until you reached the top. It was horrific. And then I just started crying like there, I was trying to make history by becoming the first Egyptian woman, you know, by the way I’m claiming it because I put it out there on social media and I said if no one claims it within the first 48 hours because as an active member of the mountaineer society, like I know obviously like I know of all the Egyptian mountaineers, male and female and, no one claimed it. So that’s what I’m claiming it with an open heart. I don’t know if she exists, she listens to this. If you’ve climbed Mont Blanc, please let us know. I’m happy. I’m happy to take a second place. So yeah. So I was scared not to make it because of the way that my body was performing. But you know, the dream is there, other people have done it. The question is why can’t I also do it?

Rana Nawas: (30:07)
Fair question. So if you could change one thing in the world to make life better for women, what would it be?

Manal Rostom: (30:14)
Just stop judging, like women based on color or religion or their choices in life. You know, so what if they’re divorced? So what if they’re single, so what if they’re covered? So what if they’re naked, you know, like as long as they’re not harming anybody, you know, so what if they have like 10,000 tattoos all over their bodies. I feel there is so much more stress and pressure on women than there are on men. And I just don’t think it’s fair, you know, and, but I feel like there’s a change that’s coming through and, and I feel it coming and I’m, I’m very happy with the change.

Rana Nawas: (30:51)
Yeah. Are you a reader, Manal? What’s a book that everybody should read?

Manal Rostom: (31:01)
So, Eat, Pray, Love changed me a lot. Like it just like really opened my horizons when I was, I think I read it when I was 29 or 30. I just really liked this whole open perspective about being fearless and taking time off work and you know, just adventuring in the world, learning a new language, gaining weight than falling in love in Indonesia and Bali. Like I just felt it was, it was so amazing. I read a lot of self help books, so I just read Crushing It. Yeah, which, I really, really loved also because it links how we can always hustle to make things work. Whether or not you decide to give up your corporate job or not, you know, especially that we are in the social media era where everything is basically working via social media.

Rana Nawas: (31:53)
Who’s the author?

Manal Rostom: (31:54)
Um, what’s his name? Gary V.

Rana Nawas: (31:59)
Oh, I love that guy. Who is a woman that’s influenced you?

Manal Rostom: (32:03)
Madonna.

Rana Nawas: (32:04)
Really? No, that’s not what I would’ve expected. Tell me why.

Manal Rostom: (32:08)
I feel like Madonna, like she had to literally eat crap to reach where, you know, she reached and she’s still up there even though she’s like 60 years old and she has not come down the throne. She’s the queen and she continues to be the queen. I love how she’s super self-made. You know, her parents are not rich or famous. I love her collaborations with other singers. You know, she’s very confident in her own skin. Very outspoken. Doesn’t care. Say says it as it is, whether or not the, you know, there are naysayers were haters. She, she makes it happen.

Rana Nawas: (32:45)
I mean, she dealt with a lot of haters coming up. Remember when she was in the eighties and what she was doing was extremely controversial. Right? She’s definitely, she’s one of my heroes too, all through my life. So this has been amazing, Manal. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Where can listeners find you?

Manal Rostom: (33:06)
So, instagram, I live there pretty much like day in, day out. I’m always on my instagram. It’s @manirostom. We also have a Surviving Hijab instagram account, it’s @survivinghijab. And, of course my facebook page, and my personal page.

Rana Nawas: (33:26)
Awesome. Well thank you again.

Manal Rostom: (33:28)
Thank you so much.

Rana Nawas: (33:29)
Thank you. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you. So please head over to WhenWomenWinPodcast.com to give feedback. While you’re there, you can find all episodes and show notes and sign up for a monthly newsletter. Wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes and please write a review when you can to let others know what to expect. Thanks and have a great day.

End Of Transcript

Lina Khalifeh on Building Confidence Through Martial Arts Training

Lina is a tour de force! She set up her training studio SheFighter to help women in Jordan defend themselves against physical assault. She trains all ages – even grandmothers.

Lina Khalifeh has more than 17 years’ experience practicing martial arts like Taekwondo, Kick-boxing, Kung Fu & Boxing. She is a 3Dan black belt in Taekwondo and has represented Jordan in many international tournaments. Appalled by violence against women, especially domestic violence, Lina decided to train women in self-defense. She started in her parents’ basement, and in 2012 set up her first SheFighter training studio, the Middle East’s first self-defense studio to empower women both mentally and physically. Lina is also an international businesswoman and is growing the SheFighter brand globally.

In this episode we discussed how training can make women more confident and better able to defend themselves against violence. Reaction time is critical! Lina also mentioned a couple of specific things to do when faced with an attacker: target the throat or groin. If you want people to help you catch a fleeing culprit, shout “He’s a thief!” It was interesting but not surprising to learn that gender discrimination and sexual harassment exist in the word of martial arts – we talked about speaking up “even if your voice is shaking”.

We covered the online abuse that Lina and SheFighter are receiving from the patriarchy due to the powerful social impact of her work, and how to react to that bullying. We also talked about her personal ability to switch off from the daily intensity – as an introvert, she prefers to recharge alone through individual sports like swimming or running.

One must point out that self-defense training is relevant to men as well as women, boys as well as girls.

If you would like to get in touch with Lina or learn more about her work, please visit https://www.shefighter.com/ or find her on Instagram @shefighter.

A huge thank you to Naseba and the WIL Economic Forum for making this interview possible.


Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas:  (00:01)

Welcome to today’s show. I’m thrilled to have as my guest, a real fighter. Lina Khalifeh has more than 17 years experience practicing martial arts like taekwondo, kickboxing, Kung Fu, and boxing. She’s a three dan black belt in taekwondo and has represented Jordan in many international tournament’s. Appalled by violence against women, especially domestic violence, Lina decided to train women in self defense. She started in her parent’s basement and in 2012 set up her first She Fighter training studio. The Middle East’s first selfdefence studio designed to empower women both mentally and physically. Lina isn’t just a fighter, she’s also a businesswoman and entrepreneur and is expanding the She Fighter studio globally. In this episode we talked about how training can help women become more confident and better able to defend themselves against violence. Lina talked us through a bunch of practical tips on how to manage your own safety and security and we also discussed speaking up, even if your voice is shaking. Lots to talk about. Let’s get into it. Lina, thank you very much for coming on When Women Win.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (01:16)

Thank you so much for having me.

 

Rana Nawas:  (01:18)

So excited to meet you in person.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (01:20)

I’m excited too.

 

Rana Nawas:  (01:20)

So this podcast is about giving professional women everywhere access to awesome role models like yourself so that we can be inspired and also learn practical life tips. So let’s start with practical life tips like self defense, which is obviously your specialty. I mean, if a man starts pushing a woman around, what should they do? And you can talk about different scenarios if it’s in the street or if it’s at home.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (01:44)

Yeah, of course. It depends on the scenario but she have to be really confident. That’s number one. She has to make sure that it’s okay to be afraid but she has to react if he tries to touch her. But if it’s, it was just only verbal, let’s say harassment, she can actually stop him by using some body language in order to just stand up for herself and just ask him to leave in a very firm way or if she, if there’s like a police cop around, she can actually tell him like, I’m going to go report you. But she has to take an action. She cannot deny the fact that she’s being harassed or being stalked or being attacked. About the, let’s say, physical abuse, like if he’s, you know, touching her, she has to defend herself. I mean, she has to react really fast so the training sometimes can be working with women on how to be really fast in their reactions because usually the attackers, they didn’t expect that a woman would react directly. They will expect that she will just take some time in order to negotiate what’s going on, but in order to end it directly, she can react and attack weak points in the human body.

 

Rana Nawas:  (02:52)

Okay. Like what?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (02:53)

Like a throat. I would suggest that’s number one attack. Go for the throat. If he’s really close to her, if he’s not she can hit really hard with her leg on the groin or if he’s grabbing her or choking to her, she can actually reach any area, even his hand and try to bite it or clench or scratch his arm and then attack the throat again. But she has to be really fast and trained to do that, to knock the attacker down and she can escape.

 

Rana Nawas:  (03:22)

Yeah. So a lot of your training at the She Fighter studio in Jordan is about speed.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (03:27)

It’s reaction and building self confidence. So we empower and train girls how to be confident also in their daily lives and taking decisions and becoming leaders, in being involved in society and at the same time in defending themselves and standing up for themselves.

 

Rana Nawas:  (03:43)

Amazing. Now the ladies who come to you, what ages are they?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (03:47)

We have different age groups. So we start with kids from four to 11. Yeah, they are cute. Usually we have, the kids are mixed between boys and girls. So the boys also learn more about the atmosphere of how the girls are trained by a female trainer and to accept that the girls are being trained in martial arts as well. Above 11 years old, it start becoming all girls. So we have the teenagers. We have above 19 years old, up to 75 years old. So we have grandmas at the training. So the nice thing is also we’re a family atmosphere. So the grandma can trains at the same time, her granddaughter can train, and her daughter can come join the training. So we have different age groups and we have different studios to have the classes separately.

 

Rana Nawas:  (04:34)

And what’s that like training a 75 year old in martial arts?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (04:38)

Oh really, really awesome. Actually because when women start getting older they realize their worth, I would say, and women’s worth and realize that it is important for women to stand up for themselves. But being a teenager and, let’s say university students, they will didn’t see all of this, but if they have been through life experiences, they realize that this is really important. So that old woman, that grandma we have, she actually believes that she needs to start training self defense. She actually, she has been training with us for two years because she realized that her husband died and her neighbor was being assaulted many times. She saw this during all her journey in life and her daughters are not living with her anymore in Jordan. So she wanted to feel safe. So she found that the best way to do it is to train some techniques. If somebody tried to, you know, to steal her bag, attack her, she lives alone. So she wants to feel safe and secure and she’s also trying to spread the word with older women. We have like couple of older women, but it takes time also to spread the awareness.

 

Rana Nawas:  (05:49)

It’s true. I mean, if I think about my mother, she’s a grandmother and she lives alone.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (05:52)

Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (05:53)

It’s scary for them and I think it’s 90 percent of women outlive their husbands. So there’s a lot of single older women out there.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (06:01)

Yeah, it is really important, especially it builds their confidence as well. So if they get really afraid of staying by themselves, they become feeling more, you know, like we know at least some techniques on how to defend ourselves in case of any attack, like if a thief crashes the apartment or in the street trying to. Usually with older women, they try to steal their bags so they get dislocated shoulders from that if they try to resist. So we give them also tips like it’s different training than teenagers. Teenagers are more and university students and adults, it’s more energetic.

 

Rana Nawas:  (06:41)

So most of the ladies that you train, is it more preventative or have they already been assaulted and they’re reacting to that situation?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (06:48)

Yeah. So depends on the girls, of course. I would say most of the girls have been harassed in Jordan or in other countries. So when they come to an academy like She Fighter, they actually look to have solutions like what to do in that situation. How can I build up my self confidence? But we do not push girls to talk about what they have been experienced. Some of them come and share stories with us, but there rest they like to be involved in the training and this is really important to build up their self confidence.

 

Rana Nawas:  (07:19)

And so do you find that the training you give is, you’re talking about definitely the physical tools but also self confidence across all walks of life. I mean, do you work with corporations?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (07:30)

Yeah, we work a lot with the NGOs and corporations. We give workshops on leadership sometimes and social innovation, social enterprises, how to do an impact on society, how to stand up for yourself, even for youth. We also care a lot about the youth, so we deliver sometimes workshops for men and women at the same time. We also train Syrian refugees, so we have been training. So far we trained about 2000 Syrian women.

 

Rana Nawas:  (08:00)

Wow.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (08:01)

Yeah and we, we’re getting a lot of projects related to Syrians and Palestinian refugees as well. We focus a lot on the social impact. We focus on empowerment in general. Even if they do not want to join the physical training, the self defense, it’s totally fine. They can listen to the lecture and then they choose to stay or leave for the training.

 

Rana Nawas:  (08:25)

I mean for refugees, Syrian or Palestinian, they need it the same reasons we do, right? Refugee camps are just microcosms of our normal society.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (08:33)

Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (08:33)

So things we experience everyday they would experience.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (08:36)

Yeah and you actually get surprised that they are even stronger than girls living in the city because they have been through a lot and facing all these experiences, coming from this background, they believe that they should do it, they must do it, but in the city you have to negotiate. Why is it important for the girls because they’re not facing the same situations like in the camps, for example. In the camps, it’s horrible. They have different situations and they have child marriage. They have diseases. They have many things. But to empower the young girls and the girls to do a physical activity first, it actually helps them a lot to overcome what they have been facing every day. We actually create a system the day they start believing that they can be something in the future, even if they are refugees. So we try to empower them a lot. Even if you have somebody who’s negative that they don’t support what you believe in and try to, you know, tell you that this is not going to work for Syrians. You almost find the majority are supporting you.

 

Rana Nawas:  (09:41)

I find your work with the refugee camps, refugee youth incredible and so important.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (09:48)

Yeah, it is important.

 

Rana Nawas:  (09:49)

I’m gonna to come back to corporates etc. and your work with them, but let’s talk about the ladies who come to you who have been assaulted. I’m just curious, is it mostly domestic violence or is it kind of stranger in an alley?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (10:03)

Mostly domestic violence or mostly somebody they know. Let’s say.

 

Rana Nawas:  (10:07)

Your circle of trust.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (10:09)

Yeah, circle of trust. Like let’s say a guy who wanted to propose, but suddenly he raped the girl so she will be really, she will go through depression. He would change his mind about engagement or marriage. So they usually go through, a mental disorder or depression, feeling insecure, feeling that they are worthless, they cannot do anything and it actually affect them that they start believing they want to commit suicide, you know, they want to kill themselves. But with the training, it actually can help them stop thinking about this bad thoughts because it comes from one experience only and it doesn’t mean that they’re gonna face that experience in the future and if they face it, they’re going to be stronger than the first time. So that’s how we work on women. Usually, the girls who I would say get emotionally exhausted or tired, usually they’re in their twenties or early thirties, so we try to tell them that this is just experiences. You’re going to get stronger in the future. So we work a lot on also building their self confidence during the training.

 

Rana Nawas:  (11:26)

Well, okay. Can you share a positive story about She Fighter? I’m sure you have many. You brought many young women from the brink of suicide. Can you share a story or two about success?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (11:37)

She Fighter has been growing enormously, I would say. I didn’t expect it will have such a demand, especially in the Middle East and the Arab region. I’m getting also a lot of demand outside the region but I was really happy that the arab girls and the mentality in the middle east is changing a lot. So we have a lot of girls who support this, especially the youth. So focusing a lot on youth can help a lot in scaling up the business. But one of, let’s say, successful story is one girl, she was training at She Fighter and she got attacked at the elevator in her own building by a stranger and when she got attacked, it was like 6:00 PM in Jordan and it was still, the sun was, it was day. So she got attacked. He choked her and he wanted to rape her in the elevator, but because she’s well trained, she started pushing him away and she started to defend herself. But, of course, she told me I couldn’t breathe because she was in a shock. She was panicking. So that’s why most situation sometimes doesn’t work with screaming because you’re panicked. You are in a shock. You couldn’t believe it. So she started resisting until he was afraid to be caught and he escaped the elevator. So she chased him to the street because she was really pissed off that he touched her. He tried to tear her clothes off. Then she asked some men, you know, to help her catch him, she said it’s a thieve catch him and everybody was running after him. So they did catch him and the police came and she put charges against him in court for sexual assault. Actually what happened is when they called him, she started punching him in the street. Yeah. It’s really funny that she started attacking him in the street until he was bleeding. So she was really pissed off that he actually touched her. So he put charges against her in court for beating him up in the street but she won the case. He’s in jail for three years now for sexual assault. But it’s funny that he actually tried to use this against her and they do that because he doesn’t want to be in jail. He thought he’s not going to be caught and he, the police told her like he’s wanted. So thank you for bringing him for us. He has other cases. Yeah. If a woman didn’t know that, didn’t feel like she wants to stand up for herself. She has to think about all the other ladies that will be attacked by this guy. She has to do something.

 

Rana Nawas:  (14:14)

And so this guy was wanted for prior sexual assault on women?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (14:20)

Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (14:20)

Oh, wow.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (14:20)

Yeah, prior sexual assault. There has been many reports, but they didn’t find him. Of course, there’s something also I would say because we live in a male dominated society and countries usually when you would report a sexual assault, they do not take it seriously until, you know, you find better evidence. Whereas the guy, what’s his name, give me his phone number and they usually ask about this and sometimes if I file a report, for example, they tell me, do you have his phone number? Like, seriously. I don’t even know his name. He’s like, so how can we get him? Guess what, you know, it’s your job. It’s not my job, so they’re a little bit lazy. They want. So if you actually get, you know, catch him is like you’ve done their job, so.

 

Rana Nawas:  (15:10)

If you do their job for them, they’ll help you.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (15:12)

Yeah, they’ll help you. They’re like, okay, great. That guys wanted, you know, same descriptions. So yeah, it is funny.

 

Rana Nawas:  (15:18)

But what was interesting in the story you just shared was the lady who tried to get people to help her said that he was a thief?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (15:24)

Yeah and everybody ran after.

 

Rana Nawas:  (15:26)

So, it’s a really interesting tip for women. If you want to catch someone, say it’s a thief.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (15:31)

It’s a thief. He stole my bag. Anything.

 

Rana Nawas:  (15:35)

Harami.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (15:35)

Harami. Then everybody will start running after him because they feel that, especially if there’s, we still have this and our culture, like men who wants to feel like, yeah, we’re the men, you know, we can catch him. So it’s good. Use that for your own advantage.

 

Rana Nawas:  (15:52)

I love it. Tab Lina, you’ve been a fighter for a long time. 17 years. Did you face any gender discrimination in the world of martial arts? It’s not a world I know very well. I’m from the corporate world. I don’t know is martial arts patriarchal like every other industry?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (16:06)

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’ve been raised in training taekwondo since I was five. Every time all the classes were full of boys, like 50 boys and two girls and it’s something I hated a lot because usually when you’re growing up, you get also harassed from some coaches, which is really bad because you’re very passionate about that sport and some coaches use it for their own benefit.

 

Rana Nawas:  (16:31)

You mean sexually harassed by your sensei?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (16:33)

Yeah. Even if they touch your shoulder, they tried to touch you in a really in, I found it in a really inappropriate way. So if you cannot feel comfortable in that martial art center, you have to change it. So I changed about six martial arts dojos in Jordan just because of this. I did not feel comfortable with the male coaches growing up, just being passionate about the sport until I found a good trainer who believed in me and he had a big respect for me and he trained me for like seven years. But before that it was just changing centers and since was really, really young, I felt that there’s something wrong, but of course I couldn’t explain it to my parents because it was like, it gets complicated because they know the, you know, the coaches and so what I did is I was like, just, let’s change the academy. I don’t like it, I don’t like this dojo anymore. So my parents used to change a lot the martial arts dojos. So it was, yes, male dominated. If you’re not fit, if you’re not good, they will kick you out of the training. If you’re not competing, you know, to go for the olympics, it means that you are just a waste of time. So do not show up in my classes. At She Fighter it’s different. It’s, we accept all kinds of women, all, you know, body sizes, all conditions, even disabilities, even autism, down syndrome. We have all different women, you know, there is no, you know, women who are fit or women. How do you expect, you know, to change the society where you want all the women to be fit. You have to do, you have to work on the awareness first and we accept all kind of, I would say, yeah, females, even if they are, for example, transgender. Even if like a man became a woman, he can actually access the training or she, she will become like she will access the training. So we have this case as well. Like we had a man who was come a woman and he could join the training totally normally. It depends on the administration. Like if you implement this with your team, they will accept it. If you had backward mind, you’re unable to realize differences, then your team will follow what you believe. So I’m glad we have a open minded team and more flexibility.

 

Rana Nawas:  (19:02)

It comes from the top, right? It comes from you, the founder.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (19:04)

Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (19:04)

So you have, it’s transgender?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (19:08)

Yeah, yeah. We, do have in Jordan because

 

Rana Nawas:  (19:12)

That’s incredible.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (19:12)

Yeah, because they usually, like it was just I would say we had like just two cases, but like one of them was at the army, US army and he became a female because he felt like he’s comfortable with his body as a woman. At the beginning, the girls, you know, because they’re wearing hijab and they felt like, is he a man or a woman? Should we take off hijab? And we had a meeting and I told him, she’s a woman. She feels like totally fit in the culture and then they started to feel that, yeah, she’s totally like, she feels weak sometimes, like I cannot do this. I have a really low self esteem. So she became like part of the family, as well. So it’s just how you, even if you have a people who never realized this or never experienced, it’s just you as a manager, how to have it, build it in your team. Just have meetings and negotiate it, give them examples and then they will accept it, but it will take some time.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:14)

Sure. Now when did you set up She Fighter?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:19)

It was, so the idea was in 2010 then the launching of the first studio in 2012.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:26)

And you have more than one studio?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:27)

I have one, I have now a location in Ramallah, Palestine.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:32)

Wow.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:32)

It’s recent, in 2017 and we’re now expanding to Hong Kong and I’m checking also UAE for expansion.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:44)

Well, best of luck.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:45)

Thanks.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:46)

I can imagine that would go really well in Dubai.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:48)

Yeah, yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:49)

Just cause women are so open.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:50)

Yeah, I know. It will be easier than other countries, of course.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:54)

Yeah, for sure and so did you have a job before She Fighter or did you go straight into it?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (20:59)

Yeah, I was first in sales. I was, that was my position. I mean, sales executive, and then I became marketing coordinator, then marketing manager, then I left the company after four years. I gained a lot of experience and then I took a lot of enterpreneurship courses and I decided to start my business, a business plan, all the strategic planning, and everything else. So it helped me a lot having an experience in the also corporate companies.

 

Rana Nawas:  (21:33)

Yeah, what industry was it? What company was it?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (21:34)

Manufacturing. So it’s like factories and I learned a lot about export, import, engineering, something that I’ve never studied, but I mean, I learned a lot from experience.

 

Rana Nawas:  (21:48)

So what is a leadership lesson that you learned from that experience, from the corporate world that you brought into SheFighter?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (21:55)

So, leadership. I learned that you have to be involved with your team. I wouldn’t say all the time, but if you cannot do the same task, do not give it to other people to do it. You have first to do it. You have first to feel everything about that task and then train your team and do not hire people for skills. Hire people for passion. Train for skills and I would say fire for attitude because skills you can actually teach them and I’ve been teaching, I have about 250 certified trainers at SheFighter. We have about 20 employees. My team has been training trainers all over many areas. So training can happen, it’s just attitude you cannot control. So if, let’s say somebody wants to destroy everything and they start feeling hate toward all the company, you have to let them leave directly without even thinking about it. So yeah, you have to hire for passion as well.

 

Rana Nawas:  (22:55)

So now I’m going to shift gears, really, and talk about more you as a person. So give me your favorite quote.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:02)

One of them is speak up even if your voice shakes. I’m thinking about some quotes. When life punches you and knock you down on the ground, you stand up and say you punch like a baby.

 

Rana Nawas:  (23:15)

Yeah, I like that one. Punch like a baby. Who said that?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:17)

I have no idea. But this was an anonymous or, yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (23:24)

Ah, okay. Well, I love the fact that the quote says when life punches you in the face, say punch like a baby and not punch like a girl.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:34)

Usually, they used to say punch like a girl.

 

Rana Nawas:  (23:35)

Right?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:35)

But like, girls can punch really hard.

 

Rana Nawas:  (23:38)

Exactly, exactly.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:38)

So punch like a baby.

 

Rana Nawas:  (23:40)

Brilliant. I love that.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:41)

So yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (23:42)

Okay. So, Lina, are there, can you name a few women who’ve inspired you and tell us why these ladies have inspired you?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (23:49)

There are many women who inspire me. One of them, I would say I was always looking at myself in the future. That’s one woman I would look up for. I’m actually having like a vision of who I might in the future. So I’m always proud of what I’m doing and achieving. Another thing, my grandma. She has been running a hair salon for about 30 years. She has been into business, she knows a lot now. She’s, of course, retired. She has been, you know, she built everything from scratch. She inspires me a lot and when you talk to her even though she’s not educated at all. She knows exactly like, some, you know, business terms or like she tells me, you know, to keep it good with the clients. So she inspires me a lot. Other than that, you know, powerful woman like Queen Elizabeth, that I think she was the first, first Queen Elizabeth because she’s also powerful and she has to make decisions by herself. Oprah Winfrey as well because, but Oprah Winfrey, she’s stand ups a lot with the women’s rights but African women’s rights. So it’s really good. She’s standing up for her, you know, people. So that’s really and she has a really strong personality and yeah. Those are the women I guess.

 

Rana Nawas:  (25:15)

Well, I mean, definitely Oprah Winfrey is one of my personal heroes for a lot of reasons. What fills you with energy? What excites you? What drives you forward?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (25:26)

Many things. First, when I make a big difference and sometimes I’m really involved into work that I forget I’m doing a social impact and the little girls approach you and tell you, you know, thank you or give you a hug. It makes my day. If somebody just, you know, tell you thank you during the day and you’re just being crazy working and you don’t expect it or somebody tells you, you saved my life. I’ve been in a taxi and this happened. I feel like, okay, I’m doing a change and it’s actually, I’m doing it, but there’s slow steps to ending violence on women. Other than that, I always think about the why, you know. I keep reminding myself why did I started it. Sometimes I get tired and then I take a break and then say, why did I started all of this? And then I would get motivated suddenly and just I continue working.

 

Rana Nawas:  (26:22)

You talked about little girls actually, you flagged something I wanted to ask you about earlier. Little boys, you said you trained little boys. Are little boys and little girls, 4-11 years old, are they different? Do you find?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (26:34)

Depends on the parents a lot like how you educate the kids. So some kids they do not. They feel home at SheFighter, some boys. But it’s all the colors and the atmosphere is very girly, by the way. It’s like pinkish and a black and gray. So some boys if they feel that their mom is talking a lot about separating everything between boys and girls. Like this is for boys and this is for girls. So the boys come and they’re like, oh this is that place is for girls and I don’t want to stay here. I feel like I’m a girl or I’m trained by a female coach so they actually feel that they don’t fit in. But it’s also, it’s depends a lot on how you educate and you raise the kids at home. Yeah. So some of them, they actually even get the t shirt that is written on it SheFighter. They do not mind having even like pink and black gloves, they wouldn’t mind. So this summer we had about around 60 boys coming for the summer camp and they were, I mean, when they’re younger usually they just love the atmosphere because they feel so happy and they do not care about, you know, gender. They wouldn’t even think about it. But if you install it in their head, once they are born like this is for boys and this is for girls, then they would start thinking about it. So it depends on the parents.

 

Rana Nawas:  (28:03)

I’ve seen your branding and I think it’s amazing. I love the colors, I love the logo. It’s really, really fun. So everybody should check it out. SheFighter. Now, this might be a crazy question, but technology, you know, and the rise of technology, does this have any impact on your industry? I mean, or maybe an adjacency like cyber bullying. Do you have, which is a big problem I think for the youth.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (28:30)

Yep.

 

Rana Nawas:  (28:31)

Well, do you have any tips on how to handle that or how to manage, help your children manhandle that?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (28:37)

You mean when they get like videos of also like they get harassed online?

 

Rana Nawas:  (28:42)

Yes.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (28:44)

I would say, for example, we get harrased a lot and I know it by a lot of men from our word, like the middle east. When we have an interview or we post the training, they usually make fun of us all the time and they say a lot of dirty words all the time. When it comes to women, they start, you know, saying really bad words. I would say ignore it. Do not respond, do not even read it because it’s negative energy and it’s just a waste of time. So focus a lot on the positive. So for example, if I get a video, I would report it to the police because we have now an online cyberbullying and reporting. You can actually report it to the police. That is in Jordan. I don’t know, I think UAE is the same. You can just.

 

Rana Nawas:  (29:29)

Yes.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (29:29)

If you can get the name or the account of the person sending you. We actually had this a lot at SheFighter because some people they do attack us because of what do. So they either attack me in person or attack my team. So either they get like bad images or they get hacked on some of the accounts. But what we did is we reported many times to the, I think they called it electronic online something police. So they actually were really helpful. But I mean they didn’t catch the person again. But reporting is really important and for kids, you have to I would say monitor what they watch. Especially if they’re really young, like especially Youtube and if somebody’s probably trying to talk to them or send them messages, you have to be careful about that a lot because he might be a pedophile or you know, like he might be just he likes kids and he’s just sending messages to kids all the time and they’re responding. So it’s a little bit, you know, scary but you have to just monitor what’s going on and you have to educate your kids as well that this is actually happening. So be careful or tell me or let me know about it and I would say do not give iPhones or mobiles for kids under, I don’t know, 12, 13 years old because all the kids I see them now, they have iPhones and mobiles and I got my first phone was at university. But they do not need it. Do not give it to them because they can easily be influenced by the media.

 

Rana Nawas:  (31:16)

And Youtube especially.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (31:17)

And Youtube especially, yeah and these, you know, older men who keeps stalking the kids. They are just mentally sick.

 

Rana Nawas:  (31:26)

Okay, well let’s shift gears now. So how do you relax? I mean, what you’re, you’re dealing with intense stuff all the time. I mean, you, these women come in with stories and you’re fighting all day long, you’re training. So how do you relax?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (31:48)

I realize I’m an introvert. That’s what, I don’t know but. So, usually introverts they have to reenergize by themselves. So I usually, you know, go swimming, I swim three times a week. For me, water is the best for energy and motivation and keeps me happy all the time and I run also. Sports has been always the best therapy for me. I did skiing one time. I tried to do now extreme sports because I just love it and I love to, you know, break all my fears. Anything that I’m afraid of, I’m going to do it. I did paragliding. It’s amazing. Yeah and that’s how I reenergize. You have to know that you cannot be sad all the time about these people because they simply live in a really bad situation, but you’re going to help them solve a really bad problem and you have to be all the time positive or you will be taking drawn with all these feelings. So you learn it by experience, how to take a time off for yourself. Focus on yourself a lot because at the end you’re managing and you’re running everything, so, and you are the leader and influencer and all these things so you have to be, you have to be, I would say present most of the times and yeah. It depends on the person. You can reenergize in many different ways.

 

Rana Nawas:  (33:19)

Yeah. But it is important to recharge your batteries yourself cause as you say you can’t eminate positive energy if you’re not feeling positive.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (33:28)

Exactly. Exactly. You can actually feel sick at some point.

 

Rana Nawas:  (33:31)

Yeah.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (33:31)

Like sometimes I was having a lot of, you know, presentations and trainings and lot of just, it was crazy, like in one month I would just speak maybe 20 times, train like 100 times, which was really crazy. So at some point I felt really sick and then I realize I’m not just sick because I just got a virus or something. I’m sick because I’m not having time for myself. Then in 2017, because the business usually in five years, it’s an establishment, it’s like your own baby. So you have been raising that baby for awhile and it’s just started to grow older. At the fifth year you created a team which you can delegate the work to them and you can have time for yourself and focus a lot on reenergizing and becoming healthier because you’re going to be running growing companies maybe.

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:24)

Well while you’re in dubai, I highly recommend iFly if you haven’t been yet.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (34:29)

iFly.

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:30)

Yeah. So there’s this indoor skydiving.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (34:33)

Oh, yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:34)

It’s incredible. So like you, I do all of these, you know, I try all of these extreme sport, so I’ve done skydiving and the paragliding.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (34:42)

Is it like with the wind.

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:42)

Yes it’s a wind tunnel and it’s by far the most fun thing I’ve done in the last decade.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (34:50)

Really?

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:50)

I like to break these fears and do something extreme and get that rush. Definitely. Okay. So what’s the question that you wish people would ask you more often?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (35:01)

How can I convince my girl to join the self defense classes?

 

Rana Nawas:  (35:06)

Oh, wow and how, and what’s the answer to that? How can I convince my niece, for example, to join your self defense classes?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (35:12)

Let them try a free class, free session. Let them try. I would say just try, you know, try. You’re not gonna lose anything by trying and then they can decide.

 

Rana Nawas:  (35:23)

Fair enough. Fair enough. Great. Thanks. Thank you, Lina. So if our listeners would like to find you, how can they do that?

 

Lina Khalifeh: (35:30)

SheFighter.com. We have a website and we’re all social media on Instagram @SheFighter, Facebook is SheFighter official and they can find us on everything. SheFighter.

 

Rana Nawas:  (35:44)

Amazing. Well listen, thank you so much again for taking the time to be with us. It’s been such fun.

 

Lina Khalifeh: (35:48)

Thank you, Rana.

 

Rana Nawas:  (35:50)

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at RanaNawas.com or search When Women Win on Itunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on Instagram @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day.

 

 

End Of Transcript

How a Deaf-Blind Lawyer Chooses Her Own Story – Haben Girma

In this episode we talked about reframing disabilities as another driver of innovation to meet the needs of the world’s largest minority.

Haben Girma is the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School. She advocates for equal access to information for people with disabilities, and because of this work she has been honored by President Obama, President Clinton and many others.

In this short episode we talked about her own journey with disability and the support network that has helped her grow and excel in various aspects of life, from advocacy to salsa to surfing. We also discussed the enormous market opportunity that people with disabilities presents: at 1.3B, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority. Imagine the impact if we could include and harness diversity that created solutions for such a vast market. Haben educated me on “situational disability”: eg when a mother carrying a child has only one arm available, in that moment she is disabled – so solutions for disabilities can apply far and wide.

We talked about the great technological things happening around communicating with people who are blind and / or deaf, and also got Haben’s wish list to improve the experience!

If you would like to get in touch with Haben or learn more about her work, please visit www.habengirma.com or find her on Instagram @habengirma

A huge thanks to Naseba and the Global WIL Economic Forum for making this interview possible.


Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas:                      Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our first show of 2018. I’m absolutely thrilled to have on today’s episode a lady who is both deaf and blind, and it is the first time I personally meet someone who is deaf and blind, and interview them. Haben Girma has earned recognition as a White House champion of change. Forbes 30 under 30, and BBC Women of Africa hero. The first deaf-blind graduate from Harvard Law School Haben advocates for equal access to information for people with disabilities. Because of her advocacy, she’s been honored by President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, and many others. Based in San Francisco, Haben enjoys salsa dancing, surfing, and traveling the world. In today’s episode, we talked about her own journey with disability, and the support network that has helped her grow and excel in various aspects of life. We also discuss the enormous market opportunity that people with disabilities presents. At 1.3 billion people, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority.

                                                Imagine the impact if we could include and harness diversity that created solutions for such a vast market, so let’s get into it. Haben, thank you so much for being my guest on When Women Win. It’s such a pleasure to meet you.

Haben Girma:                    It’s great to meet you too. I’m thrilled to be here.

Rana Nawas:                      Can you tell our listeners how this is happening, because you’re deaf and blind, so I’d love for them to understand how we’re communicating today.

Haben Girma:                    We’re communicating through technology called a digital braille display. Digital dots pop up on a device, and I run my fingers over the device to feel the letters, and my friend is typing on a wireless QWERTY keyboard that uses Bluetooth to output to the digital braille display, so as you speak, someone is typing. I’m reading it with my fingers, and then responding back by voice.

Rana Nawas:                      This has been an incredible learning experience for me. I’m really enjoying it. Thank you so much for broadening my horizons in 10 seconds.

Haben Girma:                    You’re very welcome.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, let’s talk about practical advice. Many of us don’t encounter deaf and/or blind people every day, so when we do meet someone with such a disability, we can become easily intimidated, and not know how to communicate with them, just because we don’t want to offend them. What’s your advice on handling such a situation?

Haben Girma:                    First of all, be careful of casting all deaf-blind people into one group. We’re very, very diverse, even in communication strategies. Some people use digital braille, some people use sign language, some people use other techniques, so it’s important that when you talk about disability, remember the group is very diverse. Some people are open to talking about disabilities. Some people don’t want to talk about it. I’m very open. That’s why I’ here on this podcast with you, and I prefer that people ask their questions rather than making assumptions. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Be a pioneer. Embrace the unknown. The unknown is scary when you let it stay unknown, so go and ask questions. Figure it out. Find a way to connect. It could be through text. It could be through emails, maybe gestures. Everybody could always find a way to connect.

Rana Nawas:                      Sticking with the theme of connecting or communicating, let’s talk about accessibility to information. In the digital age today, how do people with disabilities get information? How do they read books, and I know I hear you. There’s a lot of diversity of course amongst people with disabilities, but are there some popular technological advances that are really helping?

Haben Girma:                    There are some technologies that are helpful, like the device that I’m using, a braille computer, but for the most part, people with disabilities want to use the same devices and apps that non-disabled people are using. Separate is never equal. We don’t want separate websites for people with disabilities. We want one website that everybody can use, and the way to make that happen is to have web developers design the websites with accessibility in mind. The web content accessibility guidelines is a great resource for web developers. For app developers, there’s the Apple and Android accessibility guidelines, so it’s up to companies to keep their apps and websites accessible.

Rana Nawas:                      Right. Okay. Let’s talk about market size. There are one billion people with disabilities in our world today, making it the world’s largest minority. What do you believe that this means for business?

Haben Girma:                    It’s an incredible opportunity for businesses. If they’re smart enough to invest in this opportunity, so 1.3 billion people with disabilities throughout the world, you can grow your audience, increase customers, increase business in the long run if you make your services accessible, so it benefits companies to make their services accessible.

Rana Nawas:                      What apps do you find yourself using most often?

Haben Girma:                    I use all the native apps on Apple products, so mail, messages, weather, Safari, all of those have been built with accessibility in mind. They are compatible with voice over, which is a screen reader used on Apple products. The vast majority of apps are not accessible, though, so when I need something that’s not native to Apple, I have to search around for a long time to try to find one that works, and that’s frustrating. I wish more app developers would make their apps accessible, so that more apps were available to people with disabilities.

Rana Nawas:                      No, I understand, and I was amazed when I heard about your fashion workaround. Can you please tell listeners how you buy your clothes.

Haben Girma:                    That’s such a huge conversation switch from technology. I use a service called Stitch Fix, which combines tech and personal assistance, so in some ways this is connected to technology, and I can order things through Stitch Fix. They send about five things in a box, and you can try them on. I can feel when something feels good, and if it fits properly, and then I could send a picture to friends, and they could give visual feedback. It’s really, really important give visual feedback that’s not subjective. For example, someone could say, “That’s a blue dress,” or they could say, “That’s a hideously blue dress.” There’s a difference, and it’s really helpful to give information without pushing your own opinions and pushing your own agenda, so I have friends who are thoughtful and can give descriptions without trying to influence the outcome.

Rana Nawas:                      Your friend typing right now I think is not one of those ladies. I think she’s always giving you positive feedback, according to her.

Haben Girma:                    She and I will have a conversation afterward.

Rana Nawas:                      Nice one, Haben. I don’t often quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, but there’s one statement he made that I found so powerful, and given what you just said about how you rely on friends, I want to share it with you. His thesis is that nobody makes it on their own, no man, no woman gets there alone. What are ways your network has helped you achieve all the great things you’ve achieved?

Haben Girma:                    When I was in elementary school, I did not have advocacy skills. Kids don’t have advocacy skills, but I had an amazing network of teachers and community members who said, “Yes, you can. Yes, you can read. Yes, you can get a job. Yes, you can graduate from high school.” There are a lot of communities throughout the world where if a disabled child expresses interest in learning to read, learning to become good at math, they’ll say, “You can’t do that. Don’t even try.” That’s harmful, so a lot of my success is steered to the fact that I grew up in a community that told me from the very beginning, “Yes, you can. Go for it. Try,” even if they didn’t know the solution. They still encouraged me to try, so it’s all about communities. You can call it friends, work colleagues, family members, but essentially a community that encourages and supports individuals.

Rana Nawas:                      That’s amazing, that you have so many friends and family, that you had that exposure to such a supportive community, to get you where you are today, which is, I would like to ask you, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Haben Girma:                    I work as a public speaker, consultant, and I teach organizations about disability rates and inclusion. I’m also an author, and I’m writing my first book, which is going to be a memoir.

Rana Nawas:                      When you help corporations become more disability-friendly, what do you advise them to do typically, whether it’s in hiring, or innovation?

Haben Girma:                    Definitely hire more people with disabilities. There are so many people with disabilities who are talented, yet employers overlook them. Employers miss out on a lot of the technologies we use today, from email to keyboards, have been developed and inspired by people with disabilities, because disability is another way of living in the world. When you have another way of living in the world, you’re more likely to come up with new, innovative ideas that drive innovation, so companies that have diverse teams are more likely to build the next big thing. Invest in having a diverse workforce. Hire people with disabilities. Make sure you remove barriers in your workspace which could be physical barriers. Make sure wheelchair users can access everything in the facility. Remove digital barriers. Make sure your website complies with the web content accessibility guidelines, and your apps comply with Apple’s and Android accessibility guidelines.

Rana Nawas:                      What about smaller companies? They might turn around and say, “Well, we don’t have the budget to do all of that.” What would you say to them?

Haben Girma:                    I would say, “Have you actually looked at the barriers, and the costs of removing those barriers?” A lot of things are much cheaper than people realize. Some accommodations don’t even cost anything. Somebody with a disability might need a flexible schedule, or it might be choosing an accessible place over an inaccessible place, and the cost might be the same, so don’t make assumptions about disability. Instead, do some research, and this is a significant market. 1.3 billion people with disabilities all over the world, so why would you want to lose out on this market? The other thing to keep in mind is that many countries have laws requiring accessibility, so if you don’t prioritize accessibility, you risk litigation, and litigation is very expensive.

Rana Nawas:                      All right, now, Haben, I’m going to shift gears a little bit to talk about you personally. I’ve tried surfing, and it’s damn hard, so how did you learn to surf?

Haben Girma:                    I learned to surf because I found a community that was very supportive. There were some surf schools that were like, no, you can’t learn. There’s no way it can be done. Then I found some people who were like, we don’t know about deaf-blind surfers, but let’s give it a try. I’m sure we’ll figure it out, and we did. I also have coordination and balance. I’ve been dancing for a long time, so surfing is in many ways a form of dance.

Rana Nawas:                      Also, being deaf and blind, how did you learn to speak? Your intonation is perfect.

Haben Girma:                    There’s a lot of diversity within the disability community, so deafness encompasses a spectrum of hearing loss. I have a little bit of hearing in the high frequencies, so I learned to speak at a higher voice, and the speech intelligence is in the high frequencies. Most people who are deaf have the opposite kind of hearing loss. They lose the high frequencies, and thus it becomes harder for them to enunciate the consonants, so it’s a matter of my unique kind of hearing loss.

Rana Nawas:                      Let’s talk about confidence, if we could. There is a confidence gap between men and women that starts when we’re very young, between five and six, actually, five and six years old. You are a woman of color with a disability, so theoretically, on the receiving end of a lot of bias that can undermine one’s self-esteem. How have you kept up your positivity, your optimism, and your self-confidence?

Haben Girma:                    I choose my own story. There are stories that say black lives don’t matter, or disabled lives don’t matter. I choose to create my own story, and believe that my life does matter. I move through life with those beliefs, and I find communities with whom those beliefs resonate, so all the employers I’ve worked for have believed in inclusion, and have worked to make their workspaces inclusive. All the schools I attended had teachers that wanted to ensure that students with disabilities had access, so I choose my own stories, and there are communities out there who similarly believe that everyone deserves equality.

Rana Nawas:                      What fills you with energy? What drives you forward?

Haben Girma:                    Curiosity. I’m super curious.

Rana Nawas:                      I love that. Me, too.

Haben Girma:                    What are you curious about?

Rana Nawas:                      Everything. I’m curious about everything, and that’s a problem.

Haben Girma:                    Not necessarily. You could have adventures in all sorts of different areas, if you’re curious about everything.

Rana Nawas:                      Yeah, so hence the podcast, and all these passion projects that I work on, and I get to meet amazing people along the way. I guess what drives me is curiosity, but also it’s curiosity primarily about people.

Haben Girma:                    Yeah. I’m also curious about people, and I do everything I can to connect with people. I know sign language, but most hearing people don’t know sign language, so that wouldn’t work with connecting with them. Most hearing people can type on a keyboard, so the system I’ve used of using a keyboard and braille display is a way to connect with people. I’m always looking for ways to connect with people. This is what I use now. It may not be what I use in a year. Technology changes. Maybe someone will innovate something that makes it even easier for people with disabilities to connect and communicate. You never know.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, what types of innovation would you like to see in communication?

Haben Girma:                    For starters, I think we need to look beyond deaf-blindness. Innovation for people with disabilities is a starting point, and it’ll often end up in creating things that help lots of other people. For example, the father of email, [inaudible 00:16:24] who helped develop the first email protocol, he’s deaf, and email became a way for him to communicate long distance without straining to hear over the telephone, so something we develop for people who are deaf-blind is also going to have benefits for people without disabilities. Haptics, the communication of information through touch, has a lot of potential. Skin is our largest organ, yet we’ve barely looked at the possibilities of haptics and technology, so I’d like to see more companies innovating in this area, building products that use touch to communicate information. It could be braille, but you know, braille is kind of ancient technology. It’s time we move past braille, so I encourage all companies to think creatively, and find new ways to communicate information through touch.

Rana Nawas:                      What about voice recognition technology?

Haben Girma:                    Voice recognition technology is awesome. It needs to continue improving. It’s not perfect yet, but maybe it will be in five years or so.

Rana Nawas:                      I’m glad you’ve talked about the role technology will play in changing the landscape for people with disabilities. What about for women? Let’s talk about gender now. Do you see any impact of technology on gender diversity and gender balance in the workforce?

Haben Girma:                    There’s something called situational disability, and that’s when someone who’s non-disabled, whether a man or a woman, experiences a temporary disability. Maybe they’re carrying groceries, so now for the moment, they’re one-handed, or maybe they’re texting on their phone and holding a child, so temporarily, situationally, they’re disabled. When you design products for people with disabilities, like people who have just one hand, you’re also tapping into the market of non-disabled individuals who are regularly situationally disabled throughout their days.

Rana Nawas:                      That’s something I’ve never thought of before.

Haben Girma:                    Women may encounter more situational disabilities than men throughout our lifetimes, maybe due to having more household responsibilities, or childcare and pregnancy-related responsibilities. When you design accessible products, you’re also helping non-disabled individuals with temporary disabilities, so it will also help women.

Rana Nawas:                      Do you have any tips for women at the beginning of their careers?

Haben Girma:                    Yeah. My advice to women is to choose your careers. Choose your stories. Don’t let society tell you what you should be doing. Decide for yourself what you’d like to be doing.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, you’re the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. How was that experience for you, being at Harvard?

Haben Girma:                    I was actually the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School of any gender, so how was that like? It was a journey. We didn’t know exactly what I would do when I started, because we didn’t know all the solutions, but we were thoughtful. We engaged in an interactive process, trying one accommodation. If it didn’t work, trying another accommodation, and I made sure to have fun. I was still dancing. I was making friends, so it was a journey.

Rana Nawas:                      I think for all of us, university years are the best years of our life. Would you say that that was the same for you?

Haben Girma:                    I grew up in California, and I went to college outside of California. I did so intentionally because I wanted to make sure that I communicated to my parents that I’m independent, and I don’t need them. If I’d gone to school near them, they would have tried to come every weekend and do my laundry, or try to help with little things, so I was pushing myself to be more self-reliant, and also sending them the message that they need to trust me, and in the end, it was great. They now have more respect and trust in my abilities.

Rana Nawas:                      How did you do your laundry?

Haben Girma:                    With a washing machine. You can put a tactile button on the washing machine, so that you can feel where the different settings are. I’ll take a little tactile sticker, and put it on top of the area, so that when I turn the knob, or I want to know what button’s what, I can easily feel on the machine, and then I just hit the right button.

Rana Nawas:                      Wow. I’m sure you’re one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, Haben. That’s for sure. Okay. How about books. You’re an author. I’m sure you read a lot. Are there any books you read recently that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Haben Girma:                    One of my favorite books is called Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strade. It’s a collection of really beautiful stories about love, family, grief, everything we all experience. When we take the time to be vulnerable and honest, it helps us grow through those experiences. I like books like that, that are thoughtful and meaningful.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, can we talk about your family for a bit. How many brothers and sisters do you have?

Haben Girma:                    I have a younger sister and two older brothers. They’re all in the Bay Area.

Rana Nawas:                      Do they have disabilities, too, or not, and how is it like being at home?

Haben Girma:                    One of my brothers is also deaf-blind, and he’s also six years older than me, so that age gap, and on top of the fact that he’s of a different gender, it’s difficult at times to see eye-to-eye.

Rana Nawas:                      How about communicating with your younger siblings? How did you do that at a very young age, before this technology was there?

Haben Girma:                    People are thoughtful and creative, and we always find solutions, so we used a little bit of a sign language, and a little bit of voice, and just kind of a combination of everything. I missed out on a ton of information when I didn’t have my braille computer. I missed out on a lot of things in school, too, and we just do the best we can, given the tools we have.

Rana Nawas:                      My last question, Haben, is what is a question that you wish people would ask you more often?

Haben Girma:                    What can companies do to make their workspaces more accessible?

Rana Nawas:                      What would the answer be?

Haben Girma:                    Companies can strive to look around and identify potential barriers. We want every member of the team to be an advocate, and look around for potential barriers, and once you’ve documented all the barriers, work to remove them, so that your community could be more accessible, and when it’s more accessible, it’s also more innovative, so it gives you an advantage.

Rana Nawas:                      Great. This has been incredibly fun. You really put me in my place there, Haben, a couple of times.

Haben Girma:                    When we started, you told me you wouldn’t have any controversial questions, so I was concerned and decided to make manners into my own hands to make this a more engaging conversation.

Rana Nawas:                      I love it. Thank you so much. I have thoroughly enjoyed talking to you, and just for our listeners, how can they find you?

Haben Girma:                    If anyone has been amused, or engaged, or learned something new in this conversation, you can look me up at habengirma.com, H-A-B-E-N-G-I-R-M-A.com. You could also follow me on social media. My handle is @habengirma. Thanks for listening, everyone.

Rana Nawas:                      Thank you so much. Thanks, Haben. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at rananawas.com/wen, or search When Women Win on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback, and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on Instagram, @rananawas. Thanks and have a great day. 

End Of Transcript

Kristina Kuzmic on Overcoming Depression and Building a Brand

With over 500 million views across media outlets and websites worldwide, and over one and a half million Facebook followers, Kristina already has a voice and personality that has proven to be a hit with a massive audience.

Today’s guest is globally renowned for her parenting humour… The Huffington Post calls it “parenting comedy at its finest”!

Kristina Kuzmic is energetic and funny, and has an in-your-face perspective on parenting and on life in general. You may have seen Kristina on your Facebook feed, or on some internet, radio or TV outlet. She has become a YouTube sensation with her “mom-centric” videos about raising children and juggling all of life’s challenges. With over 500 million views across media outlets and websites worldwide, Kristina has a voice and personality that has proven to be a hit with audiences everywhere.

We talked about parenting, depression, finding your feet, building a brand and remarrying…

A huge thank you to Naseba and the Global WIL Economic Forum 2017 for making this interview possible.


Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas:  (00:00)

Ladies and gents, I’m absolutely thrilled to have on today’s show someone who is known globally for her parenting humor. If you’re on facebook, you’ve probably seen he. Kristina Kuzmic is energetic and funny and has an in-your-face perspective on parenting and on life in general. She’s all over the Internet, radio, and TV. She’s become a youtube sensation with her mom centric videos about raising children and juggling all of life’s challenges. The Huffington Post call her videos, parenting comedy at its finest. With over 300 million views, Kristina has a voice and personality that is proven to be a hit with audiences everywhere. We’ll talk about parenting, depression, finding your feet, and building a brand. So let’s get into it. Kristina it is so good to meet you and thanks so much for taking the time to be with us on When Women When.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (01:00)

I’m so glad to be here.

 

Rana Nawas: (01:01)

Great. So this podcast is about sharing stories that enrich lives. It’s about giving professional women everywhere access to awesome role models like yourself so that we can be inspired and also learn practical life tips and you’re the queen of life hacks. So let’s start there. Let’s start with parenting life hacks. Go for it.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (01:21)

Oh my gosh, just trying to stay sane. Get rid of all your preconceived ideas of what parenting will be. I think one of the main things we do is we, we get this idea of what it’s going to be like and then we can ever live up to that because our, it’s just unrealistic. Raising humans is really hard and then we end up just beating ourselves up all the time. That we’re not the parent we envisioned we’d be. I feel like with parenting hacks, I mean yes, there are practical things to make the actual like kids’ behavior improve and all that. But so much of it comes down to our own self abuse. I mean I think especially moms are like the most self abusive people ever. You know, we just beat ourselves up over the silliest things. So the more we can get rid of that, I think the more we’re gonna enjoy parenting and the more you enjoy parenting, the better parent you’re going to be because it’s not all just stress and, you know, these kids are killing me.

 

Rana Nawas:  (02:11)

I mean, I’ve seen a lot of your stuff and sometimes it looks like you’re friends with your kids.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (02:15)

No.

 

Rana Nawas:  (02:15)

But at sometimes it really looks like you’re not.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (02:18)

So my philosophy on parenting is, I call myself a strict fun parent and to me it’s all about finding that balance between being strict, having rules, following through on those rules, which is really annoying at times because, you know, you threatened if you do this again, this is going to happen and then that happening kind of actually confuses into your lives so you are like ah, should I just let it go this time? So following through is huge. My kids are, you know, they have been doing their own laundry since 10 years old, you know, I taught them in at nine years old. I said I’m going to start teaching you. We’re gonna, you know, all the things and by 10 you’re on your own and so there’s, you know, they have to keep their rooms clean, not every day, but you know, we have rules is my point. And I actually have a video where I talk about not being their friend in the sense that, you know, my number one job is not to make them happy all the time, it’s to teach them how to be decent human beings. But then there’s the fun side, right? Where we have really silly family traditions. We celebrate half birthdays and I make half a cake and we sing half of the happy birthday song, every single time and just to complicate things because we like to complicate things, we sing every other syllable of the happy birthday song instead of just half a song. Just make it complicated and we have dance parties, you know, I realized early on when my oldest started school. He’s not a morning person. I’m not a morning person. Mornings were stressful. So, instead of get out of bed, I would just blast eighties music, which is his favorite and we would dance in the morning and it just wakes you up instantly and it was way less stressful. It was a more fun way to start the morning. I didn’t have to drag him out of bed or pour water on him, which I have before. So, you know, there’s that element of fun. I mean, we, you know, we play pranks on each other, although I will stay up late just planning the prank, you know, but here’s the thing, I can do those things with my kids because I am strict. If it was all that 100 percent of the time, my life would be chaos and we wouldn’t have a good relationship and my kids would probably be serious brats, you know, like just the worst kids ever. So I think it’s all about finding the combination. You have to find fun in life and I want to teach my kids life is hard. There are parts of their life, unfortunately, that I can’t protect them from. I’m not going to be able to fix. You know, life is going to suck at times. I always say life it will surprise you in the best of ways and life will surprise you in the worst of ways and so when it surprised in the worst of ways, I want them to find the fun, but at the same time I want them to be responsible, decent human beings.

 

Rana Nawas:  (04:42)

Wow, and how does that work with 12 and 13, sorry, 12 and 3. How does that work?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (04:49)

It’s, I mean, I wasn’t expecting to have this kind of age range. My 14 and 12 year old are from my first marriage and then I got divorced and then got remarried and had my three year old, the 12 and three year old actually are great because she like takes such good care of him and just loves him and it’s the cutest thing. The 14 year old is a 14 year old, so he’s kind of in his own little world. But I always, you know, again, it’s like what I was saying before, we always beat ourselves up. So instead I like literally will, I bought myself a tiara recently. Because I said I’m raising a teenager, preteen, and a toddler. Like, I am Miss. Something, I don’t know what. I mean, the fact that I can stand up and make a cohesive sentence every once in a while, while raising a teenager, preteen and toddler, like three stages, I deserve a tiara. So I went and bought myself a tiara and when a day gets bad and I’m just like, I’m gonna lose my mind and I smell like motherhood, which is not a great smell, and life is just, you know, I just feel like a loser. I put the tiara on and I’m like, I’m rocking this thing. Like my kids are alive, my house is standing, and I peed in private once. I am amazing.

 

Rana Nawas:  (05:52)

I love it. I am so buying myself a tiara because I have a three year old and a one year old.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (05:58)

You need a tiara,

 

Rana Nawas:  (05:58)

I need a tiara and I need a trophy.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (05:59)

It needs to be gaudy, like it just needs to be, it needs to be one of those tiaras where you can’t walk through a doorway because it’s tall.

 

Rana Nawas:  (06:07)

And people are gonna say, oh, it’s because it’s Halloween and I’m going to be like, no.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (06:09)

No, it’s because I’m a mother.

 

Rana Nawas:  (06:12)

Great, okay. You talked about the bad surprises life could sometimes give you, obviously your divorce was one of those, and what happened after that? Also, can you talk to us a bit about the divorce, how it came about and how, more importantly, your reaction to it?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (06:27)

Sure. So I never, and I’m sure if you’ve looked at my stuff you’d notice, I never share why I got divorced and the reason, I know everybody’s nosey and I get questions all the time like, why did you leave your husband? And the main reason for that is because it’s not my part to share something that affects other people. I’m very open when it comes to my own life, but if it’s going to affect other people and especially, I’m not even talking so much about my ex-husband, but even out of respect for him, but also my children, you know, they don’t need to hear all those things. It’s unnecessary. So I don’t share that on purpose and I believe that something that divorced parents in general should, you know, you should, I always say have your village, right? Have your friends that you can lean on because divorce sucks, but your children should never be your village, so you should never go to your children and go, you will not believe what your dad did. It’s not, it’s a low that is too heavy for them to carry. Don’t put that on them. I always say so, but yeah, when I went through my divorce, I was completely broke. I shared a room with my children, couldn’t even afford, you know, my own bedroom. Couldn’t even affort a mattress and slept on the floor. I had to get government help for food. Thought I was gonna be home. I mean thankfully we weren’t homeless, but I had every homeless shelter, you know, in a little piece of paper I kept in my wallet because I’m like, any day now we’re going to end up on the street and I do not want to be on the street with my kids and probably the hardest part wasn’t even just the financial stuff, it was that I sunk into such a deep depression. I just, I just felt worthless. I felt like my kids deserve better. I, you know, I had those nights where I was up all night crying and then the next night up all night, just kind of numb and just thinking, would it be better if I wasn’t here? Like maybe maybe I’m actually making my kids life worse because I’m pretty much useless. I’m worthless. I’m not somebody anybody should look up to. I basically, you know, hit rock bottom. Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (08:17)

Can you tell us the story that I saw that little video that I really loved about turning points.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (08:22)

Sure.

 

Rana Nawas:  (08:22)

Can you share with the listeners your turning point?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (08:25)

So, I don’t know if other people can relate, when you’re going through a really hard miserable time, you become sort of obsessed with yourself, like with your own misery. I wrote an article, I wrote something like I was breathing, eating, and making out with self pity. I mean, that’s literally felt like. Self pity was it and in one night I thought, I need to get out of this. Like I have to get out of this mindset or I’m gonna lose my mind or I’m going to end up taking my life or I’m going to end up in a mental hospital and then lose my children forever. Like I can’t. I’m going insane and the only thing I’d come up with was, in order to not be obsessed myself, maybe I need to think about others because then it’ll be a distraction from, oh my life is so hard, blah, blah blah. And so I got all excited the next morning I called up places to volunteer. I thought at least for a few hours a week I can get away from myself and called, you know, hospitals and homeless shelters and soup kitchens and got denied by everyone because my kids were like, I don’t know, one and three or two and three at the time and I couldn’t afford a babysitter and nobody wants a two and a three year old running around a children’s hospital like that’s just gonna cause problems. So here I am and I get rejected. I mean, you feel like a loser, then you get rejected from volunteering and you’re like, wow, I need a Tiara but of a different kind, like I want something for like being the biggest loser in the world. And I thought, okay, well if nobody wants me, is there one thing that I’m, even when I feel like, you know, everything’s wrong and I’ve nothing to offer us, in one thing I’m still confident and the only thing I’d come up with is I know how to cook. I mean my grandma taught me how to cook when I was five and I know how to cook a great meal on like no money and so impulsively sent an email to all my friends in the area and I said, if you know anyone who needs a meal, everyone’s in it, I will feed people. You just need to know them personally because the safety of my kids but I don’t care if it’s a homeless person, I don’t care if it’s somebody that’s way richer than me. It can be a millionaire who’s just lonely and needs company. It’s not about money. It’s about, does somebody need company and you know, just a meal with a family and that first Wednesday night, Wednesday night nine cents store, which is like my favorite place in the world. Pasta, didn’t make anything fancy. You know, I didn’t have money to make anything fancy and fed over 30 people.

 

Rana Nawas:  (10:38)

On the first night.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (10:39)

On the first night. I mean, I kinda get choked up every time I think about it because, I mean, people were holding their plates and standing outside the apartment, like holding the door open because they couldn’t even, my apartment was so small. But, and in the midst of it I was just sort of, you know, do I need to make more pasta and does everybody have what they need and blah blah blah, you know. Kind of being the hostess and also a little shocked that anybody would bring people to my apartment because I thought I was just like an embarrassing mess that my friends would not want to introduce to anyone and then I’m just so distracted with everything and then I remember the last person leaving and me closing the door and I literally fell to the ground and just lost it. I mean, I was just like massive tears or do you know that crying when you can’t even breathe, you’re like. But it wasn’t the same tears I’d been crying before, you know. Months and months and months before it wasn’t the tears of my life sucks and everything. So it was like, oh my gosh, look what I did. I’m not worthless, I’m not worthless and next day, the next few days, getting emails from a few of the people that were there saying, oh my gosh, I was new to town and you helped me so much and I’m like, wait, I helped, I the loser helped somebody. But it was my turning point because A) there was hope. There was hope that I could, I still had something to offer. My life was not useless. And then B) sorry, I always cry when I talk about this, it just changed everything for me because I thought, oh, I’ve spent all this time just treating myself so horribly, which is one of the reasons I’m so big on helping moms get over guilt and focusing on everything I am. Everything I am not and everything I can’t do and, you know, all I had to do to pull these Wednesday night dinners off is I had to focus on one tiny little thing that seemed completely insignificant. Like who cares that you can cook Kristina, you’re still a loser, right? But focusing on one little thing I can do and I can offer and then just doing something with that and that’s literally how everything now, personally, you know, in my life as a parent, as a wife now again, as, you know, in my business, it’s like, it’s so easy for me to go, you know, when I’m making my videos, I can’t pull that video off because I don’t know this technical thing and I won’t be able to edit it and I just am able to go, stop. What can you do? Focus on what can you do, you know, what you can do and saving my marriage. Like I’m not, this isn’t going to work, but what can I do? What do I have to offer? Same in parenting, you know, like, I can’t fix this problem for my child. I can’t take away their pain that they, you know, a friend just caused. But what can I do? I can sit with them, you know, I can take them out to eat and give them all the love and attention, so it’s just changed completely the way I think.

 

Rana Nawas:  (13:22)

Changing the dialogue in your head from what I don’t have and what I can’t do to what can I do right now.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (13:29)

And I’m telling you, that kind of thinking is what led me now to a happy marriage and what led me to a very successful career and a very, I mean.

 

Rana Nawas:  (13:37)

Well, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about this awesome career you filled. I mean, we went from the depths of depression, feeding 30 people in a teeny tiny flat, to you and I sitting here at the Ritz Carlton having a chat. So, in Dubai. So what, how did this come about?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (13:52)

So, I’m trying, there’s just a, my stories are so long. Well after I had my third baby, I really started thinking about all the things I’ve been through and everything and I thought, I didn’t really have anyone that I could look up to in the sense of like, oh, they get it or encouragement and so I decided to I, and, and this might sound cheesy, but it’s literally what drives everything I do, I want to be for others what I needed when I was sleeping on that floor and so the first thing I thought of is, yeah, I just want to make Moms laugh, I just want to make Moms laugh. So I was up one night breastfeeding my baby and I thought I’m going to figure out how to make videos. So I googled how to edit videos and taught myself during the night when I was up breastfeeding because, you know, days are crazy when you’re a mom. That was like my time to teach myself how to edit. The first video I made was “4 Reasons Stretchmarks are Sexy” because I thought, and it was literally came from me holding my baby and my shirt is up, I’m breastfeeding and I’m looking down and like my stomach looks like a roadmap and I thought, oh my stomach will never be the same. I thought, you know what? I’m not the only mom thinking this way. Let’s, let’s flip it. You know, let’s make it, let’s do something funny where we make it seem like the most attractive thing ever to have stretch marks and that was the first one and then, I’m also just make comedy and really sort of did it like, I’ll encourage some friends and a few people strangers on facebook, you know. Never thought this will be a successful career someday. Which I think, by the way, is a good approach. Start it because you love it and because, you know, a lot of people will say to their kids, and I didn’t come up with this by the way, I read it somewhere, will ask their kids, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I always ask, what problem do you want to solve? Because it’s a, it’s a way of getting kids to think differently and this was the problem I wanted to solve. I want it to be for others again. I knew that there were other mom’s sleeping on a floor, feeling worthless, and I wanted to give them something and it started just with humor and then as I started getting emails from moms that were like, oh, thank you for making me laugh because my life and then listing all the craziness and horrible things they’re going through, I thought I should share my tough stuff too and then I started sharing my story and it just grew. I mean, it’s crazy. It, I just think it’s, a year ago, a little over a year ago, I had like, I think 30,000 followers and I, it took a while to get there and now I gained at least 100,000 every month and at one point 6 million and I’m telling you, I’m not saying that to brag or anything, I just think for anybody that’s trying to build a brand, just find, again, have a good reason why you’re doing it. Have a good, it’s like with your podcast. You know, you have a reason, you want to help women. Don’t do it for the numbers because I don’t think that’s the way to do it but I think things just grow naturally when you’re authentic and when you’re honest and vulnerable and again, find the problem that you want to solve.

 

Rana Nawas:  (16:49)

Yeah and what mediums do you use? You use mostly youtube?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (16:52)

I started with Youtube and then actually I was approached by a company that said, listen, we’ll pay you to make videos, post them on facebook, and you have complete freedom to do whatever you want. We will never edit. We will not, you know, you don’t even have to talk to about parenting like the video. The next video coming out actually is about my chocolate addiction. It has absolutely nothing to do with parenting. It’s just a silly video. So that was nice that they gave me complete freedom and that’s what sort of turned it more into facebook. So I do have youtube. Facebook is where my real sort of following and all the views are.

 

Rana Nawas:  (17:25)

Okay. Now you said this started three years ago, but in 2011, let’s take a step back.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (17:31)

Okay. Yeah. That’s the stuff I was like, oh.

 

Rana Nawas:  (17:32)

Yeah, no, we’re going to go into that because you were chosen from 20,000 applicants and crowned the winner of Mark Burnett’s reality TV competition. So Oprah’s search for the next TV star. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (17:45)

Sure. Okay, so I got married after being one of those people that’s like I’m never getting married again. All men are horrible. I got, I’m married to an amazing man and he was in grad school at the time. I’m still, you know, waitressing and sort of barely making it and we didn’t, couldn’t afford a honeymoon. So the day after the wedding he says, what do you want to do? You’re so passionate. You’re so creative. What do you want to do? I said, I have no idea. I’ve been in survival mode. I was just been trying to survive with these kids and, you know, keep them alive and all that and he said, well, here, take my car keys. Go somewhere and just get away from the stress of motherhood. I’ll feed the kids, put them to bed and think about if life didn’t get so bad, what do you think you’d be doing right now? So I drove around for five hours, came back and I said, you know, I feel like cooking saved my life. Those Wednesday night dinners literally saved my life, so I want to do something with cooking and so we kind of brainstormed and I said, if you want to make some videos, he called up a friend and was like, hey, you know how to edit and film, would you do a favor? We filmed a couple of videos.

 

Rana Nawas:  (18:48)

Of you cooking?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (18:50)

Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (18:51)

Okay.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (18:51)

And kind of silly, like again, even then, even though I didn’t put it into words, I wanted to be what proud that’s I needed. So I wanted to do something that wasn’t intimidating. I wanted to show my messy kitchen. I made sure that my sink was full of dirty dishes in every, you know, video because I’m like, this is what moms need to see. They need to stop feeling guilty and think that everybody else’s house is perfect and this random lady finds my videos on Youtube, never met her, emails me, you need to enter the Oprah competition. I said I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t even have a TV right now, so she sends me the link and I send in a video and within a few weeks I am face to face with Mark Burnett who was the producer of the Voice and Survivor, and within a few months, oprah crowns, I had to go through like a little reality competition, 10 people out of 20,000 got picked to be in this reality competition, and I won. I mean, I put out my first video in April and I won the competition October.

 

Rana Nawas:  (19:46)

Wow.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (19:46)

So, that’s crazy. I call it my cinderella story, but instead of prince, I had oprah and instead of a glass slipper she gave me a car and a job.

 

Rana Nawas:  (19:56)

Yeah and she said some really nice things about you. I mean, she calls you charming, charismatic, connect to the audience, I want to know her, I want to be her. So you guys must be friends.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (20:06)

She was very, very sweet to me.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:08)

That’s amazing. It’s nice to see women supporting women. Women at that level, pulling women up.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (20:14)

She is. I always tell people are always like, what is she like? Is she like really mean in person? For some reason, it really makes me sad. People don’t ask that about men, but powerful women, they’ll go, oh, is she a, you know, bi? She is exactly what she is on television. She’s just so sweet and I think a lot of it does come from the fact that her past was difficult, you know? And so she knows what it’s like to struggle.

 

Rana Nawas:  (20:38)

So, Kristina, you write a lot. I mean, you’ve written many blog posts, you’ve created a lot of content videos, post articles, and shared on many websites. Could you please share with our listeners maybe a couple of your more popular posts, like what’s resonated with your audience?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (20:51)

Well, so the most recent one, actually I haven’t been writing a lot recently on my blog because I’m working on a book and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But about a year ago, I wrote a piece called “I Didn’t Tell” and it was about my experience with being sexually harassed by a powerful person in Hollywood and not saying anything and I had no idea that with, I mean, that was like during kind of the Cosby thing when all that’s stuff. I had no idea that a year later all the Harvey Weinstein stuff would come out and so that’s resonated. It resonated then and it’s resonating again now with the whole Me Too movement and I think it’s because, unfortunately, and I hate saying this because I do have a daughter, almost every single woman I’ve met has had some kind of experience, whether it be an, I don’t even, I’m not even gonna say that because I don’t want to put it on levels because sexual harassment is sexual harassment, but every woman has experienced some level of it, let’s put it that way and so that’s really scary as a mother of a daughter, but that’s probably the one that’s really kind of blown up and then I did write a few years ago about meeting my husband and, you know, just that whole year that I think a lot of single moms have of, am I really lovable and does he really want me and the kids? Like this a lot, so.

 

Rana Nawas:  (22:19)

And how did that work between your new husband and the kids? Because I mean, I saw a picture, that book that he wrote them.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (22:27)

Yes, he made them a book for our wedding day called one more person to love us.

 

Rana Nawas:  (22:30)

And it was beautiful. I mean, I was crying, right? I was reading it and crying. So maybe you can tell the listeners a little bit about it, if you don’t mind.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (22:37)

Sure. So, when we got married he was like, I want to, I want to somehow make them part of the ceremony, you know, and we’ve seen the whole like give them a necklace, give them a ring and then something. They had this special thing where they would do a lot of story time. They loved when he read to them and so he said, what if I wrote them a little book? And he wrote one draft, called “One More Person to Love Us” all about how, you know, I’m here now and I’m just, I’m not trying to replace your dad, I’m just one more person to love you and he wrote one draft and I was like, that’s it. Do not change a word and then I ended up drawing stick figures because we’re really trying to make it like a real book and I’m not an artist and then we took it to just a local printer and he printed it and then during the ceremony, they didn’t know anything about this, during the ceremony we’re doing our vows and all that and then the minister said, okay, it’s story time and the blanket was put out and then the kids came up and he read the story and there wasn’t a dry eye. But this is one thing I want to say about that, for any single moms. Don’t settle. You know, I think we, I think we in general, it doesn’t even matter if you’re a single mom, people just settle because they’re like, well, all my cousins and siblings are married. It’s my turn. I’ll just marry the next guy that gives me any attention and then once you become a single mom it’s worse because you got the stretch marks and I have kids and I’m tired and I had financial issues and I’m just not good enough and so you just sort of overlook any red flags because I can’t believe someone loves me and it’s just not worth it. Once you have kids, especially, you lose the right to settle. But I am so glad I didn’t settle because I have a man that never saw my kids as, well, I really love her, so I guess I’ll put up with the fact that she has kids. He never saw them as baggage or this extra thing he had to put up with. He just really loved the three of us, you know, as a package.

 

Rana Nawas:  (24:22)

That’s beautiful. You know, I got the same advice, Kristina, I got married really late in life. I think I was around 34 or something. So really late by societal standards and the best advice I got came from a friend’s mom and her eldest had gotten divorced, recently got divorced, and so she looked at me and she said, she doesn’t know me that well, my friend’s mom, she said, Rana, whatever you do, never settle and this is really interesting because it was exactly the opposite of what my family was saying was, c’mon dah, dah, dah, settle down, and I’m really glad I took her advice.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (25:04)

Yeah and I think one important thing I want to say about that is, I think sometimes people think not settling means finding someone perfect. Nope. There’s no one perfect. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about finding someone that you love for the correct reasons and they love you for the correct reasons and they’re not out there trying to change you and they’re not putting up with, you know, especially when it comes to kids, but anything and that you can do life with because marriage is not all romance and sex and fancy dinners. Marriage in a lot of ways, and I know it doesn’t sound very romantic to say it, it’s like a business and I always say, don’t marry someone you wouldn’t go into business with if you, you know, because you don’t trust them financially or they’re irresponsible or they’re super immature, but he’s so handsome, but I love him, but you know, he cooks really well. But because so much of marriage, think about it, you know, deal with finances and dealing with, this kid needs this and this needs to happen and I would say 80/90 percent is just trying to do life with somebody and then yes, the romance is important, I think it’s important to nurture that, but who is the best match for you?

 

Rana Nawas:  (26:15)

Also, your best friend. I mean, you’re gonna see this person every day.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (26:18)

Yeah, absolutely.

 

Rana Nawas:  (26:19)

You want it to be someone you enjoy hanging out with.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (26:21)

Can you be a roommate with this person forever? Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (26:23)

Yeah, big question.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (26:24)

Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (26:25)

Alright, Kristina, let’s talk about success. How has that been? What’s changed for you? I’m not talking about the sort of basic financial roof over my head stuff. I mean, what else has changed, relationships wise or with your kids, with your friends, with your family? How does it work?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (26:40)

I think you find out who your real friends are. It was interesting, you said, not really financially, but it’s interesting, I had a couple people call me and go, oh, I’m going through a hard time. I actually had one friend say to me when I said, oh, I’m thinking about you and she said, why don’t you think about me with your checkbook? And I was like, okay, okay, okay, we got, I get it, I know you are now. But it’s just, it’s interesting, you know. But I also really, it brought a whole new appreciation for the people in my life, you know, the real people and I don’t, I mean it’s, it’s weird, I don’t think I even asked my husband, do you think being successful changed me in any way? I don’t feel like it’s changed me, I feel like it definitely makes me feel, I think once you have a. Let’s put it this way, I think once you have a platform, your responsibility grows, right? And so, you know, when I first started it was like, I’ll just put out videos and I’ll just post whatever and now it’s a, there are a lot of people listening to what I say and there’s a responsibility to not just, to think things through and to not just put stuff out there that could in any way be destructive or hurtful or I just, I just feel a different sense of you there, you know, you have an audience and you owe it to them to not mess their lives up.

 

Rana Nawas:  (28:08)

Use it wisely.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (28:10)

But it’s funny. People, I get recognized occasionally and people are like, oh, how does that feel? And I’m like, it actually makes me insecure because I’m like, did I just pick my nose? Like, it was funny when my flight to Dubai was 16 hours, which is a long flight, and you know, I’m trying to get comfortable and sleep and then, we’re leaving the airplane and the flight attendant that was in charge of our section go, by the way, I love your videos and I looked at my husband and I said, did I snore? I mean, that was literally my first thought wasn’t like, oh my God. My first thought was like, what did I, you know? So it’s funny. It’s actually in ways made me more like self conscious about like what did I just do? Did I just pick a wedgie right before, before that woman recognized me?

 

Rana Nawas:  (28:54)

So you live in California?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (28:55)

Yes.

 

Rana Nawas:  (28:55)

Yeah and how do you, how are you finding, well, first of all, how do you find the 16 hour flight? My husband has to do that for work, quite often, like often, several times a year and his company doesn’t pay for business class. So he’s in coach for 16 hours several times a year.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (29:11)

Yes. We were in coach and I wouldn’t want to do it several times a year, but it was the best airline I have ever flown, by far.

 

Rana Nawas:  (29:19)

Emirates airlines.

 

Rana Nawas:  (29:19)

Yes. My husband said later, he’s like, maybe it was a great flight because she you knew your videos because she was like bringing us chocolates. I’m like, did everybody chocolates? So, but no, it was a great flight.

 

Rana Nawas:  (29:30)

Good stuff and what do you think of Dubai your first visit?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (29:32)

I love it.

 

Rana Nawas:  (29:33)

Why?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (29:34)

I love it. Well A) I’m always fascinated with how other people live but it’s just so interesting to me. Like there’s just two completely different sides to Dubai and it’s just beautiful. I mean, the main people, honestly the way, I dont want to say judge but whatever, place is the people and everyone’s so friendly and oh my gosh, the customer service here is above and beyond. I feel like US always prides themselves on customer service, Dubai kind of puts US to shame when it comes to customer service and food is really big for me and I’ve had the best food so.

 

Rana Nawas:  (30:08)

And I mean over here it’s 90 percent immigrant.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (30:10)

Yeah, well I heard that yesterday and I think that’s probably another reason, I’m actually an immigrant to the US because I’m from Croatia originally, but I love a place with diversity, you know, it’s just, it’s so much more interesting when you have different races and different cultures and all come together and live together.

 

Rana Nawas:  (30:30)

And how old were you when you moved to the US?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (30:32)

I was 14.

 

Rana Nawas:  (30:34)

So you speak Croatian?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (30:36)

Oh yeah, my whole family is still in Croatia.

 

Rana Nawas:  (30:36)

Oh wow. Because I’ve been to Dubrovnik and it’s one of my favorite spots on Earth.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (30:41)

Oh my gosh. Dubrovnik is stunning.

 

Rana Nawas:  (30:46)

Oh, look how you said that. Alright, okay, say split. Yeah, that’s really nice. No, we did a sailing holiday around Croatian islands.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (30:53)

Oh my God.

 

Rana Nawas:  (30:54)

And It was just magnificent. I really had a good time. Great, okay. Kristina, you are quite active on social media. Can you give our listeners some advice on how to use social media to build a brand?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (31:04)

Sure. I mean, to be honest, it sort of happened unexpectedly for me but two things are most important. One, you have to be authentic. People are too smart. They’re going to figure it out. Pretending you have it all together, whatever, whatever it is, there’s something about authenticity that people crave and they attach themselves to so quickly. I cannot tell you, most people who write me somewhere in there, they’ll say, you just make me feel normal because you’re so real. I don’t care what. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, what your business is, you are going to grow your business more. You are going to have better, you know, more committed clients if they feel like they can relate to you, if they feel like they can trust you, and the only way to do that is to be really authentic and really honest and not, again, no matter what you are selling and what you’re building, no one’s going to believe that your whole life is perfect. All it’s gonna do is intimidate. I always tell my kids being perfect is not what’s gonna make you lovable. Being real is what’s gonna make you lovable. No one loves someone because they’re so perfect. So just getting rid of all of that, taking that pressure off and just being authentic and then the second thing is consistency. I noticed a huge growth in my following when I decided I’m going to post a new video every week. I’m going to go live once a week. Before there would be weeks that go by and I was one of those people and I was one of those people that were like I don’t want to over post, people are gonna get sick of me, you know, do what works for you, but have a consistency so that people can expect it. They know when it’s coming.

 

Rana Nawas:  (32:35)

Whatever the rhythm is, just have a consistency.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (32:37)

You create your own rhythm that works for you. I don’t think there’s one right formula but be consistent.

 

Rana Nawas:  (32:42)

So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about you personally. I’d like to know what, who are the people that inspire you everyday?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (32:52)

Well, A) my children because I, I mean my whole job is based on motherhood so all my material comes from my real life, but also I don’t have, you know, people ask me who’s your role model? Who are the celebrities you look up to? And I don’t have celebrities that I, you know, that are my go to role model. For me, it’s the moms that write me, it’s the mom that writes me and tells me, you know, my kid has autism and my husband just left and I just found out I have cancer and you know, it’s tough. Somehow I’m getting through it and I just read that and sob and go, you are my, I could cry right now, you are my hero. You are my hero. You know, you have every reason to want to just stay in bed under the covers and you choose to get up every single day and love your family and that is the number one thing, by the way. It doesn’t matter if the kids are dressed perfectly every day. Doesn’t matter if the house is clean, you are choosing to love your family. That is your number one most important job is to love your family and you are doing that daily. No matter how much you’re struggling, like those are the people that I’m like, I want to be more like you. You are, you are amazing.

 

Rana Nawas:  (33:54)

I feel exactly the same way. I mean my heroe is the everyday working mom.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (33:57)

Yeah, yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (33:58)

The everyday working mom.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (34:00)

And so under appreciated and overlooked, you know?

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:03)

Yep. That’s great. So people write to you all the time and you read everything? Do you reply yourself?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (34:10)

This is one of the biggest guilt things I have is that I have so many messages that I can’t reply to. I mean, I literally would never see my kids and my fingers would fall off if I replied to every and it’s one of the things that really I feel horrible about because people pour their hearts out and there’s just not enough hours in a day. I just can’t. I mean, I literally get hundreds of emails or messages a day, I cannot, you know, and I also never want to just reply in general. Thanks so much for sharing that terrible story, I wish you all the best and so I have a rule where I try to answer five a day, which is nothing. It’s nothing, but again, you know, it goes back to that whole like, you gotta do what you can do and try not to beat yourself up over it. So I have to take care of my family.

 

Rana Nawas:  (34:51)

No, that’s right. And do you have time to read given everything that you’re doing?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (34:55)

Not so much anymore. I mean, less but I don’t know that I have a favorite book, but one of the books that had a big influence on me when I was going through my divorce was Eat, Pray, Love.

 

Rana Nawas:  (35:07)

Oh, I’ve seen that movie. I’ve read that book. Which did you prefer?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (35:09)

I liked the book. I love Julia Roberts but I liked the book better. I found myself, you know what, I will read a book and not really, I’m not an underliner, highlighter. I found myself, you know, struggling through my divorce and her book starts with her struggling through a breakup and all that and I found myself like underlining, which is, I’m not an underliner, but there were just lines and I was like, she gets me and again, it’s like I hope that I’m giving some of that through my videos to other moms. I just felt like she understood and then I didn’t have the means to travel the world, to heal myself from a divorce but I found my own way to do it, you know? But the underlining message that I found in the book was, she needed hope and I found myself in a place when I needed hope and then I realized, you know what? It’s not just me. It’s not just people who are going through divorce, every single. I mean, I believe that every single human struggles and I don’t like to compare pain and compare struggles because it’s just like, can we not undermine other people’s pain because it might look like less than ours? Every person struggles and so, which means that if you’re struggling you need hope. So it’s like a such a general thing, right? And it just made me realize how universal it is, we’re all craving hope. So it just, it was a book that, I don’t know if I would have loved as much at a different time, I think it’s a great book, but it had such meaning at that time in my life. Yeah.

 

Rana Nawas:  (36:29)

Got it, I understand. Well Kristina, that’s everything that I had. Thank you so much for your time.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (36:35)

Thank you for having me.

 

Rana Nawas:  (36:35)

It’s been such a pleasure and for our listeners, where can they find you?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (36:39)

So Facebook, instagram, and twitter is all I can handle, I’m not in any other social media.

 

Rana Nawas:  (36:43)

There’s others?

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (36:43)

Oh my God.

 

Rana Nawas:  (36:43)

Facebook, instagram, and twitter, Kristina.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (36:48)

I’m a super strict parent about social media. So my kids are not on any social media, including my teenager, but my kids friends keep telling me I need to get a snapchat and I’m like, listen Kiddo, I will hire you someday and you can run my snapchat. I don’t have the time. I gotta go do my laundry and take care of life, but I’m on all three accounts. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, it’s @KristinaKuzmic, and it’s Kristina with a K, last name the same.

 

Rana Nawas:  (37:13)

Thank you. Lovely. Thank you so much.

 

Kristina Kuzmic: (37:15)

Thank you so much.

 

Rana Nawas:  (37:17)

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at rananawas.com/win or search When Women Win on Itunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on instagram @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day.

 

 

End Of Transcript