We are curious to learn what attracted Rania to become the head of an association representing lighting companies such as Philips, Panasonic or Osram. Rania explains that light and lighting is something so essential to our society’s functioning, yet in our day-to-day life we do not give it any thought, we simply take lighting for granted. To her, it is exciting to learn about the complexity of this industry, the implications of discovering the ‘third receptor’ and the non-visual effects of light and the potential of lighting to improve our wellbeing and our quality of life. Rania stresses that most people do not appreciate how many elements must be taken into account in order to engineer good light. Most of us would instinctively agree that good lighting is important for well-being and productivity. Yet, it oftentimes seems like something outside of one’s sphere or of low priority. Rania wants to educate people about lighting and make them aware of the impact good lighting has on our quality of life.
Be decisive and open-minded!
Rania grew up in an environment that encouraged her to become independent: “Both my parents taught me to think for myself – they explained to me the options available, what they prefer and why other people may go for another option.” In the end, she had to take her own decisions, but could do so in an educated way. In retrospect, having enjoyed an upbringing in such a liberal and open-minded family made Rania as tough as she appears to me today. Her first role models are and always will be her parents. Her mother had a day job and worked as an independent woman, being successful and well-respected in her work. Her father was supportive of her career and he too had his own job and was respected in his work. Rania makes clear that she was not raised to think that women have certain roles or tasks to fulfil, or behaviour to display because of their sex. Hence, Rania grew up assuming that both her brother and she would have the same opportunities in life and would both need to learn to cook, clean, iron etc., because one day they would both have to live on their own.
Rania fondly remembers the move with her parents from Greece to a small village in the Netherlands, paving her way into a career in European politics. That part she did not yet know, at the time. Throughout the following three years of her early childhood, she realized that there were different models of life. Having to adopt to a foreign culture at an early age widened her horizon and way of thinking, she concludes in our conversation. She recommends to everyone to be open-minded and embrace different viewpoints in order to grow as a person both professionally and personally.
The art of listening
Throughout her career, Rania has been listening to many people and has been learning from them. A career in public affairs requires talking to people, including those who one does not agree with, she stresses. Working in the multicultural and multilingual city of Brussels taught her that there would always be many opinions to consider before finding a consensus. Rania remembers one of her first and in retrospect rather funny stories: “My first boss was German. One day in my first weeks, I’m at his office and we’re discussing the work ahead, he’s telling me what he thinks needs to be done, and every now and then I say ‘ne’. He sometimes looks at me sideways when I say ‘ne’, but carries on, and I keep saying ‘ne’ every now and then while he talks. At some point, he stops and says to me ‘Listen Rania, we can have different opinions, but you cannot disagree with me in this way. It’s not appropriate, after all I’m your boss.' I was totally surprised, it took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. Then it clicked and I started saying ‘Sorry! I mean the GREEK ne’." ‘Ne’ in Greek means ‘yes’, in German the exact opposite.
Advocacy showed her the importance of understanding the needs of the people she meets, to be able to analyze what the counterpart aspires to. She explains that the role of all advocacy associations is to voice their members’ opinions and defend their interest. Rania is frank and so is her advocacy style. “Why beat about the bush?”, she wonders. When working for the Assembly of European Regions (AER), she frequently collaborated with representatives from the EU member states that had joined more recently. That was a time of Europe in the making, it was an amazing experience of bringing people together. However, everyone had preconceptions about others, which were not necessarily true, she remembers. Her personal conclusion was that people are just people with similar desires. Looking back, the AER was a great opportunity to meet people from across the continent, to learn about their values and how they organize their societies; the experience taught her that stereotypes were just a generalization and people should be judged on their individual merits.
Be honest to yourself!
Rania was always a people’s person. She enjoys being surrounded by friends and colleagues and sharing her opinion. However, she only realized this when she got the opportunity to cover for a maternity leave in Strasbourg. Back then, she was a PhD candidate at the University of the West of England. Yet, after these six months in France she did not want to return to her solitary desk spending her days filling pages about the role of regions in making the EU more democratic. Her stay in Europe’s ‘second capital’ made her realize her need for continuous exchange of ideas and contact with other people. In retrospect, she acknowledges that she has never really planned her career. Rania recommends listening to the inner voice when asking oneself “Are you challenged and satisfied, is this really what you want? Once you have figured this out, just go for it and give 100%!” Rania’s goal in life is to touch the life of others, make it a bit better, without asking something in return. She wants to be ambitious in the objectives she sets herself, seek intellectual challenges and instill happiness in others, regardless of where or what she does.
Life goes on!
Rania’s desire to leave academia for the policy-making world of Strasbourg and Brussels turned out to be a good decision. But how does she deal with bad ones? “I sometimes want to cringe and perhaps hide for a while”, she admits. On some occasions, she also feels like doing kickboxing while telling herself to breathe deeply. But maternity leave taught her that the world goes on, independent of whether you are there to make good and bad decisions. Assuming the responsibility and learning from mistakes is important, Rania highlights. To her, good leaders assume the responsibility for wrong decisions and mistakes. A he or she must be inspiring, aiming high and thinking outside the box: “I just think that a good leader is someone who brings the best out of people, encourages them to be creative and makes them feel secure even when taking risks - because they know the boss has their back. That takes trust and good communication style. I’ve always enjoyed a boss who I can exchange views with and I feel safe to explore new ideas with”.
Rania, the woman who has something to say
To Rania, gender should not matter in the workplace – people should be judged on their contributions and output rather than their gender. Rania openly speaks about the fact that she has sometimes been treated as a “little, stupid” girl at the beginning of her career – “haven’t we all?”. This gradually changed as she became older. She recommends not to take such comments personally. Yet, she takes such comments seriously in that she does not find this acceptable behaviour. Rania makes clear that whenever a man chooses to patronize a young woman, it is not her fault and she should not be embarrassed or feel the obligation to submit to such behaviour. “Don’t put up with it, make it clear that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable, be strong and stay true to yourself” she asserts. Her personal recipe after many years in Brussels and Strasbourg is to be pushy and strong without being nasty. It’s not about being loud but being true to yourself.
She does not agree that women must be more masculine to survive in male-dominated fields. During her career, she was often the only woman in a room. She doesn’t expect men to change either. “After all, it is a privilege to be the only person who can say ‘gentlemen’”, she jokingly adds. She does not want to be judged as a woman or man but rather as ‘Rania’, who has something to say and should get a chance to express what is on her mind, just like anyone else. Despite the ongoing low representation of women in higher positions, she is not sure that quotas are the answer. To her, there are many means to reach equality. Working with Swedes taught her a lot about equality and how to change perceptions. For instance, in Sweden men are given paid paternity leave and are expected to stay at home with their newborn child. Overall, Rania is convinced that gender should not matter “because it does not matter. In the end, we are all individuals with different qualities and different wishes and needs, yet all of us have a right to equal opportunities and the pursuit of whatever it is that makes us happy. Whether we are a boy or a girl does not matter and hence it should not matter either when it comes to what opportunities are available to you.”
If you are thinking, "Why not me?", you should act!
Rania advises other women in their early career to learn from other people, look around, test one’s limit and identify whether the career one pursues is really what one wants. If you think “Why does he or she have this position? Why not me?” you should act. In the end, to Rania, work is about contact with people, who challenge and enrich her life. Hence, she recommends doing what one is good at while trying to become better both as an individual contributor as well as a team player.
At last, we ask her whether she agrees with the 80/20 rule (The pareto principle or 80-20 rule, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes). Rania believes, in principle, nature has a way of keeping balances, without necessarily implying an equal distribution. To her, the 80/20 rule is an expression of that. Her high-level interpretation is to remember to focus on what’s important. Here is a work example: Consider what options are available and then focus on those that will have the most impact and the most optimal use of resources. E.g. for an awareness-raising campaign, organizing an event a month open to all stakeholders could be an option, but would take up too many resources to organize, deliver and evaluate. Hence, it would be a better use of resources to focus on targeted outreach meetings with the right people to get a message out.
Rania's personal advice in the end
"Do something tangible once in a while!" Making tangible products like a cake or sewing at home make Rania happy and are her personal highlight of the week. Good for her colleagues, who look forward to a slice of cake every Monday.
Thank you for the interview, Rania!