Maha Elkharbotly, DSM

Be kind to yourself and other women first, and stop being hard on yourselves and on other women.”

Maha Elkharbotly

With passion to succeed and strong desire to make a difference, Maha Elkharbotly joined DSM in 2018 as Global Chief Marketing Officer. DSM is a global purpose-led, performance driven science-based company in Nutrition, Health and Sustainable Living.

Prior to DSM, Maha held several leadership roles in different companies including LIXL Water Technology Americas, GROHE, and Whirlpool Corp.

“I feel that I have one of the best jobs at DSM. I have to admit I’ve always had one of the best jobs in the companies where I worked; I’ve always had the opportunity to work on interesting things.” Maha said

Maha holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA from the University of Illinois.

“The reason I joined DSM is I felt it is time for me to be part of making a difference. The job gives me the excitement of doing something I enjoy while doing good for humanity at the same time. Social impact is in the DNA of DSM.” Maha added

Maha has more than 20 years’ experience in marketing and now she is enjoying learning new things, like sustainability and being profit and performance driven while focusing on purpose at the same time.

Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times

I am not sure about something, it’s definitely a someone. It is my father; hands down, he is quite progressive in his thoughts & beliefs.  He believes in women and in his mind there’s no difference between girls and boys. He decided to send my sister and I to the U.S. to study, when we were just seventeen and sixteen; he decided to educate both of us and not just my two brothers.

So, my father is the person who I call and speak with about anything, especially when things get tough, he has an incredible ability to always help me put things in perspective. I always try and do what feels right because no one will remember the results I delivered five years ago, but everyone will remember if I wasn’t moral or was difficult to deal with, or if I broke people’s spirits. My father taught me this.

I know I am fortunate to have someone like him in my life; someone who always supports me and motivates me to be the best version of myself. I am very blessed to have him.

What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?

We have a syndrome we speak about at DSM quite a lot, the ‘Imposter Syndrome’, it addresses the fact that women don’t feel they’ve earned their seats. They tend to shy away from opportunities if they think they don’t tick all the boxes of the job requirements. Some women don’t have the self-confidence to jump all in and focus on what they can offer, to show they have the required skills even if they don’t have every single required experience. I don’t think the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a cultural thing as I’ve seen it in different parts of the world. This might be a reason why they don’t pursue leadership roles if they think they don’t have all the required qualifications.

Women are more empathetic, honest, multi-taskers, detail oriented and great negotiators (where everyone is a winner). I believe these are great qualities that women get hired for, these are beautiful characteristics that we have.  So, we need to find the right balance between self-confidence and capitalizing on our innate beautiful qualities and unique skills.

Tell us one of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?

I really hope that I didn’t have my greatest professional accomplishment yet! because if I did then what am I going to do for the next twenty years? It would be boring!

I would want my greatest professional accomplishment to be around the space of doing something meaningful; something that has a bigger impact than just delivering business results. 

My younger brother, Ali, is an Interventional Cardiologist. Everyday Ali walks out of his house, he makes a difference in someone’s life, that to me is a great accomplishment. So, I want the peak of my career to be when I’m making a difference and contributing to something meaningful.

The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?

I’m married to a Fin who’s very calm and put things in perspective. There’s a word in the Finnish culture, “Sisu”, which has a similar meaning to the proverb “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going“. I embrace this concept, it helps me deal with situations I’m facing.

I also have a very strong support system including my father, my siblings and my husband. I can always call any of them whenever I’m anxious or facing an issue. I think as human beings we need to talk things out, at least I’m the type of person that needs to talk it out. I talk it out until I’m able to deal with it.

Also, when I feel like something is blowing up, I sit down and write what I need to do now. I make a list and try to decide how to solve the issue; figuring out how to eat an elephant one bite at a time.

And what do you believe would be the greatest benefit to having more women as leaders in the world?

Why wouldn’t you ask me what’s the benefit of having more men? We didn’t have to create a business case for men to be leaders so why do we need to create a business case for women leaders?

Women are half the population, my boss says it very well “You can’t run a company with half the population”. Everyone brings their own uniqueness to the table. It’s not just about having women or men, it’s about having women, men, different races, different cultures and different religious backgrounds around the table. This will create a much better culture and quality of business and will bring different views and perspectives where everybody is building together.

One thing for sure is, because women have not been given as many opportunities in the past, it is more difficult to find women who have similar experience as other male candidates, but it’s not a justification not to look hard for the right female candidate, because they do exist and to just hire a man instead quoting not being able to find the right woman candidate is not acceptable, in my opinion.

How do you figure out what your passion is?

You need to be okay with trying and failing; give everything a shot and see what makes you excited, happy and motivated. I believe we need to encourage our sons and daughters to do what they are passionate about without demoting any career or position choices. Because people thrive when they are pursuing something that they are passionate about.

I studied economics first but when I worked in a bank, I immediately knew this is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t embarrassed about it; I went back to school and did my MBA in Marketing which changed my whole career. That’s when I knew I have passion for marketing and solving problems. So, keep trying and don’t be afraid of failing.

What’s your greatest personal challenge and how did you achieve success in spite of it?

I’m a mother of two healthy young children who I feel exceptionally lucky to have. I love being a mother and I am proud of it, so my challenge is trying to be there for my kids as much as possible; to try and find the right balance between my job and my family.

My husband works from home so one of us can be there with them as they go through life and see them growing up.  I am very thankful to technology and to my husband who makes sure I speak to the kids every morning and evening when I am travelling.

What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?

I feel very lucky to work for a man, Feike Sijbesma (DSM CEO), who puts quite a lot of pressure on the organization and headhunters to find women to fill senior positions in the company. He has quite a significant number of women on his board and he takes the risk of keeping roles open to find the right female candidate.

So, I believe that when men are recruiting, they need to take time and try to find the right person and give more opportunities to women. Moreover, leaders need to understand that people from different cultures and backgrounds can’t be managed all in the same way; they need to have different leadership styles in order to get the best out of their employees.

What gives meaning to your life?

What makes me happiest is my family and having a clear conscience.  I am most excited when I am dealing with a mentally challenging task, that makes me think “Now What!”.

I’m most appreciative when I see the difference my everyday job makes. I got a chance to join Vitamin Angels, a company we work closely with, in India this year to meet the mothers and children who take our Vitamin A and it was heartwarming to know that my everyday job makes a difference that matters to a human being that I actually met. Making a difference in someone’s life definitely gives meaning to my life.

What is your favorite book or quote?

I have to say that my latest favorite read is the EAT-Lancet report. Before I took this job, my knowledge of sustainability, climate and nutrition ecosystem were quite poor to say the least.  So, I have been spending a lot more time reading and understanding what we can do to reverse the trend because I do care and do want my kids and grandkids to have a healthy planet to live on.

What advice would you like to give to women out there?

Do what you’re passionate about, you are going to excel and you’re going to be wonderful at it.  If you’re passionate about something, nothing can stop you. Don’t worry about the stigma of what you should or shouldn’t do.

Also, please know that it’s perfectly okay for you to change your mind through your journey; if today you want to focus on your job and tomorrow you decide to focus on your family or your health or anything else, just do it and don’t feel you need to justify yourself. Interests change and there’s no shame in that.

I believe women put more pressure on themselves than the society does, they set themselves higher standards and they are more tough on themselves and on other women. So, the best advice I would give is be kind to yourself and other women first, and stop being hard on yourselves and on other women.

Written by Yasmeen Smadi

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