Survival Skills

Writer: 
November 30, 2004
Middle-Eastern managers: Al-Jassim, from Kuwait, left, Al-Khudairy, from Iraq, and Abdeljalil, from Tunisia

Middle-Eastern managers: Al-Jassim, from Kuwait, left, Al-Khudairy, from Iraq, and Abdeljalil, from Tunisia Photo: Les Todd

 

Sana Abdeljalil, a twenty-six-year-old, fine-featured graduate student in common law at the Faculty of Legal, Political, and Social Sciences in Tunis, Tunisia, had five minutes to make her presentation. She stood before the class in the Fuqua School of Business, poised to perform. "I rehearsed in the mirror many times," she said later from her room in the Washington Duke Inn, home, for the month of August, to all twenty-two participants in Fuqua's internship program for Middle Eastern businesswomen.

The monthlong, intensive program, a Duke, Emory University, and U.S. Department of State collaboration, is designed to prepare the women for internships with Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. to which they are assigned. A presentation of her company to the class was among the first, and most stress-inducing, of the group's assignments.

Middle-Eastern managers: Al-Jassim, from Kuwait, left, Al-Khudairy, from Iraq, and Abdeljalil, from Tunisia

Middle-Eastern managers: Al- Lawati, from Lebanon, a Nike intern. Photo: Les Todd

 

"At five minutes, I cut you off," Mark Brown, director of Fuqua's Management Communications Center, told the class. "Five minutes. Time is money!" If so, said Abdeljalil, she would gladly exchange her dollars. In ten tries, she'd yet to keep the speech under five minutes in English, her third language (of five). Brown had stressed to the class the importance of time in American corporate culture. "Things move very quickly," he said. "You might be in a meeting, and the boss might say to you, 'Tell us about your project.' You might have five minutes. Or three minutes. Or just one. You never know. So you have to be able to make your points quickly and clearly."

The "clearly" part, Abdeljalil knew, was every bit as important as the "quickly" part. To do this, you needed a "road map," as Brown called it, a way of guiding your listener along. And you needed to make a connection with your audience; you had to give them something with which they could identify. For instance, you might, like Samayah Al-Jassim, a Kuwaiti presenting on Lucent Technologies, "connect" by asking a question: "Who here is interested in cheap international phone calls?" Or you might conjure up a recognizable image, like Rabab Al-Lawati, a Lebanese woman interning at Nike. "You know the 'swoosh,' no? Do you want to know the story behind it? Good, I will tell you."

Everyone knew the swoosh, of course, but who knew Coudert Brothers LLP, the law firm where Abdeljalil would be working? "This was maybe a problem, I thought," Abdeljalil said. But she had an answer. To a rapt audience she recounted the unusual history of the Coudert brothers themselves, sons of the great patriarch Charles Coudert, who, after failing in an attempt to oust Napoleon, narrowly escaped the guillotine and emigrated to New York. "This year, Coudert Brothers is celebrating its 150th anniversary," said Abdeljalil, "Why? Because they are survivors!"

Applause filled the room. Without intending to, Abdeljalil had made the connection. Everyone in class, it seemed, was a survivor, too. "I'm a survivor and a competitor," said Al-Jassim, a sales planning officer at MTC Vodafone in Kuwait, as she extended her business card. "I want a competitive advantage. That is why I'm here."

For others, survival had a more literal meaning. "I have been through three wars, first when I was five years old, second when I was fifteen, third now," said Saba Al-Khudairy, a twenty-eight-year-old Iraqi from Baghdad. "In spite of all that, I completed my high school with very good marks and then studied computer engineering at university when [there] were sanctions on my country: no books, no materials, no Internet. I did not let anything beat me. I got up when I fell down."

One day in April, during her lunch break at the Ministry of Industry in downtown Baghdad, where she worked as an information systems manager, Al-Khudairy was reading Al-Sabah, one of the many newspapers to spring up in the wake of Saddam's removal, when she came across an ad for the program. "I said to my friend, 'That's me!'" she recalled. "I applied, but I didn't have much hope for it." Weeks later, Al-Khudairy received a phone call from AMIDEAST, a nonprofit group sponsoring the program, asking her to come to an interview at the Convention Center in the heavily-guarded Green Zone.

"I was scared to go there. There are bombs all the time for that place. And if anyone will know I am going to work for American company, it will be bad for the family. Some of my friends said, 'You are going to work for the Americans? What are you doing?' But I have to try anyway."

Al-Khudairy spoke in a high-pitched, soft voice, nearly a whisper, as though concerned that someone would overhear the conversation. "First, I went to Babylon Hotel to take the TOEFL test. The next day, I went to Convention Center. I had to pass seven security checks. Then, I met two nice people who asked me why I think I am so special that I should be admitted to this program, which has such a long queue of applicants. I said, 'Well, I am the most ambitious.' "