Named one of Europe’s Top 40 Under 40, Soulaima Gourani is a working mom and entrepreneur whose story is a testament to the fact that women don’t have to choose between having a family and a career. After getting fired while she was pregnant, Soulaima vowed to take control of her career; she became a bestselling author and a global speaker and consultant for major companies like Microsoft, Dell, Samsung and BMW. Her career advice? Learn how to say no, keep your guard up, never stop learning, and be nice.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Soulaima Gourani
FGB: Tell us about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
SG: I am a motivational speaker, an investor, an author of 14 books and a consultant to major companies in customer loyalty, strategic networking, change management, employee motivation and future business.
I founded TradeConductor.com and am the CEO of lending platform GetCapitalAid, which has its headquarters in Copenhagen. It helps small businesses grow through strategic growth loans based on company performance.
I was born in Morocco, grew up in Denmark and now live in the United States (since Feb 2016).
I received an E-MBA from Copenhagen Business School in 2007 and have received further education and executive training from a number of institutions, including Yale University, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, INCAE Business School and ISB India. I now teach at leading business schools in the world in "lifedesign."
In 2007, I was fired from my job as a global sales director. I was pregnant at the time and decided never to be in a position ever again where anyone could fire me.
That same year, I started my own consulting company. I had no idea what to do – I needed to make a living. It was urgent. And all I had were my skills within sales, sales training, strategic sales/strategic partnership, supply-chain management and strategic networking. Those are my “hard core” skills and talents, and it was easy for me to teach others. That was my beginning as a keynote speaker, author and now as an investor.
I had no expectations besides to make myself a living. I was expecting my first child. That was it! I guess that was my “burning platform.” Today, I work in more than 30 countries, with some of the biggest companies in the world, such as Volvo, Siemens, Maersk, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
FGB: What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
SG: My kids. That I am still married to the same man I met 21 years ago. And I am proud that I went from being a street child who was kicked out of school in 7th grade to someone who has been recognized with various awards: Young Global Leader (YGL; 2012, World Economic Forum); Top 100 Women, FEMINA, Denmark, 2012; Nordic Thinkers top 20, 2013; EUROMAN top 100 women, 2013; and “40 under 40″ Europe, 2014, among others.
FGB: What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
SG: There have been many struggles. How do I scale myself? I only have 24 hours in the day. And how do I combine four days a week of travelling with a busy family life? It hasn’t been easy, and for many years I had no life besides my work and my kids. Today I have a better balance. I’ve lost a lot of money in wrong partnerships or bad investments. It is what it is. I’m much wiser because it was my own money that I lost. You can’t learn that at business school. That’s a life lesson.
I don’t regret things. It’s not my nature. I learn and move on. There is only one thing I regret – and that is that I didn’t sit by my dad when he died. I knew he was dying but somehow I thought I could go to that (not so important) meeting and still have time. But, by the end of the day, he was gone. And then the company I worked for fired me a few months later. From that I learned the importance of loyalty.
FGB: What do you do when you’re not working?
SG: I work a lot. But when I am not working I am working to support many organisations and charities, including Women UN Women Advisory Group (Denmark); SAC World Economic Forum, YGL, Gender equality (Geneva); The Miracle Foundation (USA); GIRLTALK (DK); The Foundation for Entrepreneurship (Denmark); and The School Challenge Team (world wide).
FGB: If you could have dinner with one famous person - dead or alive - who would it be?
SG: Churchill or Hemingway, and of course Twain.
FGB: What is your karaoke song?
SG: I can't sing. But I just came back from a trip to Japan where I had to sing. I would say The Beatles with "Yesterday."
FGB: What is your favorite movie?
SG: It’s a Wonderful Life.
FGB: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
SG: The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, by Michele Wucker
FGB: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
SG: Shop less, borrow and share more. I would give the money away to my org. globaldignity.dk
FGB: What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
SG: I have a few! It’s important to learn how to say no. I have wasted so much time in my life on things I shouldn’t have been working on. And be driven, be committed. Have a vision and be realistic – be both. It always takes longer than expected to build a company, a brand or a team.
Attract investments, develop your product. Don’t be a quitter. Be coachable, too. You must be able to take feedback.
Keep your guard up. Some people meet you not just for the sake of meeting you. They want to get something from you – maybe not even consciously. Decide carefully who and what you spend time on.
And remember yourself. On a flight, you’re always told to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Think about applying this rule to your own life. Most women/entrepreneurs (should) take (better) care of their “assets” – their mind, their body, their family and their relationships.
Don’t stop learning, either. Knowledge is everywhere – and you don’t need to go to the fanciest schools or universities to find it. Learn from the people you meet. Stay curious. If you stop learning, you ruin your chances of becoming a “front runner.”
Last, but not least, be nice. If you want to build a fantastic company or organization, you cannot avoid pissing some people off –and that’s OK. But avoid treating people poorly. This should be obvious, but I’ve seen many people who think their success entitles them to treat other people poorly. That’s unacceptable.
FGB: Why do you love where you work?
SG: Impact. I see how I impact laws, implement changes in companies/countries, and am welcomed to speak up in settings I once could only have dreamed of.
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