The role of every leader is to assemble the jigsaw puzzle pieces in a manner that is aligned with the company’s sense of purpose and a deep appreciation for disparate opinions.
Orbis Terra Media is an international media content studio and publishing house led by Ramia El Agamy, a second-generation member of a family of businesses. The founding business was an education advisory firm created by Ramia's father more than 30 years ago. The family enterprise now includes Orbis Terra Media as well as the Tharawat Family Business Forum – which is a non-profit network dedicated to Arab family firms – and Tharawat Magazine, a global publication for family businesses that was cofounded by Ramia who is also its editor-in-chief.
When Ramia’s father opened his education design firm, it was for the purpose of pursuing a lifelong quest to improve lives through education. Her mother’s career in healthcare reflected a passion for improving peoples’ lives as well. The unifying factor in all the family’s businesses today is this interconnected sense of purpose. It is the foundation of the family and the root of the family’s enterprises as reflected in Orbis Terra Media’s initiatives and several publications and podcasts that are dedicated to supporting family businesses and entrepreneurs throughout the world.
Developing a wider generational and world view
Ramia and her sisters Farida and Shereen lead all but one of the El Agamy family of businesses. Ramia says that it might be appealing to take the romantic view that somehow her generation ‘got it right’ for women in family businesses, where generations before them weren’t successful. However, as she points out, the will and impetus for change happens at the precipice and is more practical than generational. With women comprising more than one-half of the world’s population, there is a real need for women to be in the workforce. If that was not the case, conversations about gender diversity and women as leaders would not be happening at all.
She also recognizes that the increasing focus on women in family business specifically is not the epiphany of a generation or a sudden moment of illumination. It is an economic reality and one that has been pushed forward by multiple generations of women who rallied for their right to vote and to participate in the workforce. Ramia takes note that her generation happens to have been born at a tipping point of what hundreds of years of lobbying and work efforts have accomplished.
To continue to progress, Ramia believes that her generation and those that follow have a responsibility to shape how peoples’ overall well-being is affected as more women assume leadership roles. This reshaping extends well beyond the fact that women are able to do meaningful work and are considered to be legitimate successors to their family business. It also includes how that process happens and what success looks like when women they take on these roles.
Ramia suggests that the broad definition of a successful family business will continue to evolve through the experiences and outlook of each generation and the business and social environment they are operating in at the time.
Her parents, for example, built their business to support the wellbeing of their family. The economic environment was on their side and it helped them achieve that goal during a long period of invention and economic advances following the Second World War. In contrast, Ramia and her sisters started their careers in the midst of an economic recession. As a consequence, Ramia explains that she has never worked in boom times and she and her sisters have a scarcity mindset, not one of never-ending prosperity. As a result, each has her own definition of what happiness and success looks like. In their businesses, they hold each other accountable for making sure that each business defines success equally by fulfilling its purpose and addressing the economic and social reality of the time.
In the current climate, for example, Ramia suggests that she may decide it’s more important to create jobs than to achieve high profit margins. That is a legitimate choice and it doesn’t mean that the business is less successful. It’s just a different metric from what might have been considered a successful business outcome during boom times.
The sisters’ most difficult challenge in defining what the success of their businesses looks like in today’s environment has been uncoupling their goals from family expectations. All three are learning to let go of pleasing family members and moving toward pleasing the business by making decisions that support the goals of the business as they have defined them. Ramia is quick to point out that no one wants to disappoint their family and the uncoupling process is not an easy one. She and her sisters started by recognizing old patterns in their behavior and now challenge each other in answering, “Are we making this decision because it’s best for the business or because we really want to make the family happy?”
Creating a diverse and sustainable business
In the quest to ensure that she continues to do what is best for the business, Ramia emphasizes that Orbis Terra Media’s sustained success is only possible by welcoming a diversity of perspectives and wide-ranging expertise. The role of every leader is to assemble the jigsaw puzzle pieces, she states, in a manner that is aligned with the company’s sense of purpose and a deep appreciation for disparate opinions. As a family business leader, she has an opportunity to lead by example and a responsibility to help shape that open mindset.
Due to the nature of their businesses, Ramia believes that she and her sisters may have more opportunities than leaders of non-family businesses to have candid conversations about patterns of behavior and perceptions that may be putting women and others at a disadvantage. While this may present a unique opportunity for progress in the family business environment, Ramia is concerned that women’s views are not being communicated sufficiently to truly open up opportunities to invite a diverse range of viewpoints and experiences and to discuss them openly in the hope of achieving a more balanced view.
She is quick to clarify that these patterns are not coming from a place of malice or poor intentions, but because businesses and business environments have historically been dominated by men and traditions that are difficult to change.
Ramia believes that it took a long time for she and her sisters to feel that they were allowed to be as ambitious as men, to be big dreamers and pursue ‘big, hairy, audacious’ goals. She and her sisters have recognized this about themselves and are giving each other permission to go after what they want and to stop waiting for someone to tell them they’re good enough.
With access to the right content, for example, reading the right book or article at the right time, and the open acceptance of new generational points of view, Ramia believes that peoples’ thinking can begin to pivot. We are on the cusp, she says, of a powerful basis for challenging each other on an old narrative about the role of women in family businesses. That’s what really matters now and there are many conversations to be had.