It began as one young woman’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Today, that same woman shares her experiences and passion; with her goal to help others around the world discover a renewed sense of identity and purpose in their personal and professional lives.
The Dima Ghawi of today is an inspiring leader and international speaker. Her story captivates audiences globally, causing them to walk away feeling empowered, inspired, and motivated to break the internal and external limitations that are inhibiting them from reaching their fullest potential.
Immigrating to America from her home country of Jordan in 1996, Dima received an undergraduate degree in Economics from San Diego State University, as well as an MBA from the University of San Diego. Upon completing her education, she launched her career in leadership positions within several global Fortune 100 companies.
With over 16 years of corporate experience, Dima has gained invaluable multicultural business expertise while working throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
What was the turning point that made you decide to defy the odds and walk away from your old life?
Building up to the point when I decided to walk away, I was feeling deeply empty, lonely and lost, and did not recognize myself anymore. I was doing my best to fit into a mold that was pre-shaped for me as a woman by my family and community. This mold was confining, it had sharp edges of high expectations and judgment – which made me feel restricted, and it was designed to keep me that way.
I tried hard to satisfy everyone around me, and be the perfect daughter and wife. After all, it was part of the culture. That’s what I was taught from an early age, and it was also what I observed other obedient women in my family doing – the ones who were supposed to be my role models. Eventually, I realized that I lost my identity in the process. I could no longer fit in that tight mold, and had no desire to continue experiencing its painful sharp edges.
The challenge was that I did not know who I was, and I didn’t know how to survive outside of the only life that I was familiar with up to that point – and that was scary. The turning point came when I finally realized that breaking out was far less horrifying than staying where I was. I chose the unknown over a life where I would have continued to feel paralyzed and quietly dying internally.
What was holding you back before making such a move?
I was confined by three limitations; fear, worry, and shame. I was afraid of the consequences of standing up for myself. I knew that it would create a risky situation for me; I just did not realize how bad and out of control it could become.
I was worried that I would regret my decision and wish that I remained quiet by accepting the status quo, just like generations of women before me. My biggest concern was my financial situation; I was worried about not being able to survive on my own, which would make a difficult situation even worse.
The shame was based on my community’s judgmental view of divorced women. I knew that my image as the obedient perfect daughter and wife was about to get shaken, shattered and replaced with the title “divorced.”
How did you face your family and what gave you strength to move forward?
My family, especially my father, did not approve of my decision to break cultural norms by leaving an unhealthy marriage. I was expected to accept the painful situation, and stay obedient to the cultural forces that were shutting me down.
According to my father, blood erases family shame. In his opinion, my decision brought shame to our family, specifically to him. In return, he believed that ending my life was a justifiable way to express his anger, maintain his status in our community, and make an example out of this situation to other women. Fourteen years after unsuccessfully attempting to have me killed; we still have not spoken a word directly to each other. What has saved my life is the distance between us (me in America; him in Jordan) and his unfamiliarity with getting around in America.
I needed my family – specifically my father – to protect me during the most vulnerable time of my life. I needed support instead of judgment; acceptance instead of threats; and most certainly love instead of an attempt for honor killing.
The desire for survival is what gave me the strength to move forward. At that point, there was no turning back.
Many women stay in unhappy marriages because they lack financial freedom and stability, how did you support yourself financially? Who stood by you in those hard times?
At 25 years of age, I found myself financially responsible for myself, as well as my mother and sister. The glass shattering extended beyond me, and their lives in Jordan became shattered and threatened, as well. They were forced to move to America for safety, and they had to leave all of their possessions behind. This experience was beyond terrifying, and we had to learn to survive one day at a time.
Fortunately, I had a four-year degree and was working as an entry-level financial associate at Merrill Lynch. I was barely making enough to support the three of us. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in an old area of San Diego, and carefully watched every penny we spent.
We also had three angels that extended their hands during this difficult time. They were my mom’s brother Tony and his wife, Anne; and my Mom’s sister Leony. While everyone else in our family (especially the men) used fear and threats to put us down in order to satisfy their egos, these three angels saved us. We did not have to ask for support, financial or emotional; they just gave it with love out of their generous hearts. We will always be grateful for them.
The fear of financial insecurity is the most difficult part of taking any risk. I have seen it hold back abused women in unhealthy situations, and that is heartbreaking to me. My mother, sister, and I were determined to move forward, putting our focus on developing our skills. This enabled us to survive during times when we had very little else but each other
Do you believe that it’s possible for average everyday women to become leaders? Can you share insights?
YES, I absolutely believe that we are born leaders, regardless of our backgrounds and situations.
Most of us live without discovering our valuable leadership jewel within, and need someone else to first see the sparkle in order for us to open our eyes and discover it in ourselves. As Arab women, we are programmed by our society at an early age to believe that we are followers. That was my situation, and it was not until a professor at the University of San Diego, Dr. Starling, recognized my leadership potential. This enabled me for the first time to open my eyes and experience the sparkle for myself.
Education – and the passion for continuous learning – polishes that jewel, taking a rock and turning it into a valuable treasure. I can’t stress enough the importance of education for developing self-confidence, awareness, and acquiring the skills needed for professional growth.
Why sparkle alone? By using our experiences to enable others to sparkle with us, and investing our time to mentor and empower the next generation of women leaders, only then we can change the world.
What qualities make a great leader?
I believe in the powerful impact of a “servant leader.” I experienced this leadership style before knowing that it had a name. I was first introduced to it 12 years ago while working for Scott Beth, a Vice President at Intuit.
I was always amazed how humble and approachable Scott was, even as a senior executive. He was respectful to everyone with whom he interacted, showed genuine interest and took the time to get to know his team personally. I observed Scott recognize the strengths of his team members, and he provided them with support by coaching instead of giving orders. He involved his team in decision-making and used a holistic approach; decisions were not just based on the bottom line, but also the well-being of the employees and the community. That was the first high-performing team that I was part of, and I felt valued and engaged. Watching Scott inspired me to become an effective leader like him.
What is your mission now and what do you hope to accomplish?
I believe that my life’s mission is to share the transformation I have experienced, and thereby empower others. I am passionate about encouraging others to burst out of their constraints, to shatter expectations, and bloom into their full potential.
While I am defining the next phase of my life, I know it will entail a global movement of encouragement, empowerment, leadership, and transformation. I feel charged to use my life experiences, connecting with women and men around the world. I hope to inspire them through my speeches, online forums and social media, live events and print, helping them envision a better future. My goal is not only to inspire, but also to empower others to break their own limitations, thereby discovering their potential.
What is your motto in life?
My motto is “everyone in our life is a teacher.”
I learned that even the people who caused me deep pain were my teachers. Their role was to force me to lose myself in their world, to experience deep terror and emptiness, and convince me that this was the norm for living.
My role was to push the pendulum to the other side and discover myself in the process, while being surrounded with the sharp, broken pieces of my life. I am thankful for each one of them; because of them I have a story to empower others with.
What advice do you give women who believe that they cannot turn their life around?
To turn our lives around, we must first believe that we have the ability. To do that, we have to start by changing the negative, destructive messages that we tell ourselves.
In many cases, we may feel stuck due to external circumstances. This makes us begin putting ourselves down and gives us a feeling of hopelessness. This, of course, only makes the situation even more destructive. It is like quicksand, pushing us down, until we finally suffocate.
Rather than lose hope, we instead need to create is solid ground, rich with self-love and self-worth. When we step into that powerful world, we acknowledge our greatness (just as we are, even with our imperfections), believing we are worthy, courageous, and capable. Only then can we discover our internal power and turn our lives around.
This experience becomes even more fulfilling when we help others discover and believe in their internal power. Our individual experiences transform into an unstoppable, positive chain reaction.