Navigating the high seas
International Women’s Day special: celebrating the success of LAU donor and shipping magnate Mona Bawarshi.
Before joining the family business, Mona Bawarshi had a passion for fashion. Decades later, while at the helm of a shipping empire that employs more than 500 people, operates out of six countries and places her firmly on the Forbes list of the most powerful Arab women, Bawarshi donated part of the Gezairi building that now houses LAU’s fledgling Elie Saab undergraduate fashion program.
“If I had brothers, I would definitely not have joined dad’s business, but I don’t resent it. He was over-protective and critical, but I didn’t place much value on that. We found common ground,” says Bawarshi, recollecting the first ten years she spent at Gezairi Transport – the company set up at the port of Beirut by her father, who had left school after the fourth grade – which under her leadership has expanded into shipping, airfreight, freight forwarding, warehousing and distribution.
When Bawarshi joined the company in 1970, the only women at the company were typists and receptionists. Now 20 percent of the workforce is female, though few women occupy senior management positions. “Those who do earned their position through hard work,” says Bawarshi, who disapproves of quotas for women in business or any other field. “I find it insulting, as though we’re being pushed down men’s throats,” she explains.
“Men and women are not equal. We weren’t meant to be. We were meant to complete each other. Neither can live without the other and there’s no opportunity for competition. But our responsibilities, duties and rights are the same. Legal equality is done,” declares the mother of three, admitting nevertheless that we are still in an era where women need to work harder to stay at the same level as men.
While being an only child ultimately sealed Bawarshi’s professional fate, it also meant that she didn’t grow up in a brother’s shadow or in the cross hairs of a gender-battle. “I wasn’t gender bound. I wouldn’t employ a woman instead of a man. It’s the way I am. I haven’t given it much thought. I don’t have this phobia. I am all for the human being.”
Her position of strength and power, says Bawarshi, has never been an issue during her marriage to high-school sweetheart Fouad. “He has no complexes. My success is his success and we complete each other,” she says of her husband of four decades, who joined Gezairi Transport soon after they married. “I am macro, he is micro. He was immediately passionate about shipping. I don’t have that skill. I’m passionate about business.”
Their three children are also involved in the business. “They started joining the firm ten years ago and I am somewhat semi-retired now,” says Bawarshi, a woman with so much energy, it seems unlikely that she will ever be able to completely relinquish the helm. All three of her children and a son-in-law hold different positions within the company, but she has no set plans regarding its future leadership. “They each have their own niche and only time will tell who has the superior character. I’m happy they all joined, and we’ve all benefited from conferences on conflict in family business, but I don’t plan these things.”
In comparison to her children’s initiation into the firm, Bawarshi’s first decade at the company was grueling. “I was an only child and had to cooperate with others. I didn’t have the benefit of the Internet, and getting hands-on experience was tough. There was a lot of watching and absorbing first,” she recalls. “The first ten years were agony. I was going to stick it out but wasn’t going to be happy about it. Now I am grateful.”
This article is part of a series that is published on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
Photo courtesy of Gezairi Transport.