In this interview Sarah Rifaat, a corporate lawyer turned entrepreneur, shares her thoughts on ambition, career, and what makes you develop as a person at work.
Name Sarah Rifaat
Lives London, UK
Profession Corporate lawyer, currently pursuing independent entrepreneurial businesses (real estate and contract guidance websites).
Sarah has a diverse cultural heritage that she describes as “quintessentially American”: Her father is Egyptian and came to the US in the late 60s after leaving Egypt post-1952 revolution and spending interim time in Libya and Switzerland. She regrets that she doesn’t speak Arabic, but she is fluent in French thanks to her Egyptian grandmother, with whom she spent a lot of time during her childhood. On her mother’s side, there is a cultural mix of German, Swiss and English. Thanks to this, Sarah grew up feeling both Egyptian and “typically American”, with a sprinkle of English and German traditions added to the mix.
Sarah’s mother is one of the greatest influencers of her educational and professional life. A strong and independent woman and corporate lawyer in a major construction company for over 17 years, she has set the example for Sarah over the years.
Sarah was a driven student in high school, and attended a highly competitive parochial school in Houston, Texas (St. John’s School) up to graduation at 18. Academics were her top priority, and thanks both to her multi-linguistic background and having the motivation to be “the best,” rigorous studying was always part of the agenda. She also played competitive tennis, ran cross-country, and played the violin and the piano for several years. “Sports, she says, helped me balance the academics, and they still play an instrumental role in stabilising my hectic life today!”
After graduation she attended Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving both a Bachelor of Science in Economics, concentrating in management and international business, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in French/French Literature from Penn’s College of Arts & Sciences.
She then spent one year working at American Airlines in the Airline Profitability Analysis Group in the finance department. She describes this as “a fascinating year, both for the incredible professional experience and personal travel opportunities, but also for the impact of working with such a company during the 9/11 tragedy and its consequences to society and the industry”.
However, her heart was not entirely in corporate finance, and she applied to law schools, choosing to attend Pepperdine University School of Law. There, she finished in the top 11% of her class, was an editor and published author with the Pepperdine Law Review, and held two judicial clerkships (US Federal District Court and the state Supreme Court of California).
After passing the California Bar, Sarah has had a diverse experience in the legal domain, working in CMBS (commercial mortgage-backed securities) for a large law firm in New York (Cadwalader), and holding two in-house positions, one with an aerospace conglomerate, and one with a real estate investment company in San Diego, California.
Sarah’s advice is to do something different every three years or so. It makes you learn new things, and prevents you from stagnating.
She started her career helping to build a legal department from scratch, which she describes as “trial by fire.” She worked both with complex commercial real estate closings and financing and tax vehicles, at the same time attending to more “mundane” corporate matters on a daily basis. With time, she outgrew the position and needed to relocate to New York for personal reasons. She seized the opportunity to do something new and accepted an offer to work in a leading law firm’s CMBS group. As this was the height of the real estate (and securitisation) boom, the job was both busy and rewarding. She was asked to take the New York Bar as well, and did so successfully in July 2007. However, with the financial and real estate crisis, she and 87 other colleagues were laid off more or less overnight, in August 2008.
Instead of seeing this as a setback, Sarah says it gave her the chance to try something new. While it took a while to find work again during the economic downturn, she managed to land a temporary job as a contract manager filling in for a woman on maternity leave at a US affiliate of a big aerospace group. As the local in-house attorney was promoted while she was there Sarah got the opportunity to fill his shoes. She describes this as another extremely gratifying experience, allowing her to not only practice law but also function as a corporate executive, taking part in major, business-changing decisions for the company, including a facility move. She saw the move through from start to finish, negotiating the commercial lease and managing facility consolidation, including personnel issues, among other matters.
Once again, however, external factors presented Sarah with an opportunity to move in a new direction, transferring to London (UK) with her husband for his work. The decision to leave her job was a very difficult one, but as she says: “It has allowed me to pursue some completely new ventures, such as starting two websites, and even the chance to become a mother to little Andrew, born January 2015.”
H&CB: What has been the biggest challenge for you in terms of work/career? How did you deal with it?
SR: The biggest challenge to me in work is staying interested. Many times work becomes rote and boring, and you have to find new ways to keep yourself feeling challenged and fulfilled.
Another big challenge I have had is being taken seriously as a lawyer in making “commercial” decisions. Attorneys are too often seen as “business inhibitors” rather than “business enablers,” which is an unfair generalisation. Legal issues are just as important, if not more important, to the bottom line – what happens if a contract has an incorrect discount figure written in? And even then, lawyers can add an interesting and new perspective to “purely” commercial decisions. I have managed this issue in my career by consistently proving the importance of contractual terms, and by continually and persistently offering my opinion in commercial matters where appropriate.
One important lesson I have learnt is that you cannot be heard if you do not speak up! As a woman this is all the more important, especially if you feel that you tend to get “pats on the head” instead of being listened to.
H&CB: What is important to you in your work, what makes you motivated, what makes you unmotivated?
SR: Motivation for me comes mainly from professional satisfaction. I love knowing that I am making a difference in some way, whether to the bottom line or to handling a management or personnel issue in the best way possible to all parties. However, it doesn’t hurt to also receive praise and/or financial benefits on top of the personal satisfaction!
There is also the importance of having a great boss.
H&CB: What is typical for a good manager, in your view, and how can the manager impact the work environment? Can you give any examples from your experience?
SR: Personal understanding is essential to any managerial relationship, that is to say, understanding that your boss or employee is another human, with “normal” human issues, and treating them with decency and respect. People have lives outside of the office, and if you get to know the people you work with on a personal level, you understand how they work and what makes them tick…which in turn helps you to become a better manager or employee.
I believe that respect and understanding on a personal level is of utmost importance to a work environment. Once you understand from where people come, and what makes them move, you avoid many misunderstandings and help create camaraderie that makes the work seem less like a negative chore and more like a positive team project.
For instance, one of my team members had two very young children. Understanding and allowing her to manage her personal situations as she needs, if for example she is told her child is ill at day-care, you know that when she is back to work, she will do an even better job with her mind at ease as well as feeling motivated to please a manager who has treated her with kindness and empathy.
If I look at my own managers, in one position I had a really great boss: he was motivating by provided a great balance of positive feedback and support, for example at times when I got bashed by others. On another job I had a fabulous experience because it was a great firm in terms of business, and the partners were very professional and encouraging. They helped in pulling me upwards. It also helped that one of partners was a woman who pioneered the legal practice in the company. To work with a woman who has done this was “really cool”, and out of luck I have also had other great female role models through my career.
H&CB: How has your outlook on work been shaped over the years, by whom, what etc?
SR: For me, work is about the relationships you build to accomplish a common goal. My outlook on work is definitely shaped and dictated by how I feel as a member of a team, even if my “team” is just me on a given assignment, and the sense of satisfaction in reaching completion.
It has been easiest to work where I have had great bosses, and I have been very fortunate to have had a few.
H&CB: From your experience and perspective, how do you look at the subject of women and leadership in the area of paid work? What comes to mind when you hear these words?
SR: The first impression I have is that women can absolutely lead, but we still have a lot to improve, mostly in breaking down artificial barriers that persist despite women’s myriad of accomplishments in business and otherwise over the past few decades. Perhaps it is a misperception of the responsibilities of motherhood and other gender biases, or perhaps it is just endemic to certain “macho” industries. In any case, as they say, we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
H&CB: How do you think the industry you work/have worked in deals with a) diversity (gender and in general) and leadership at the workplace, and why do you think it is the way it is?
SR: For law: In my experience, the legal field has been very open to diversity. Perhaps it is a function of compliance with national laws (and don’t say this in jest!) but either way, women have done very well, holding positions of leadership in companies and in law firms.
For aerospace: Diversity, especially regarding women, has been a harder sell in aerospace which is a traditionally “masculine” industry, heavy in engineering and manufacturing. Sure, women can try to act more macho, as they often do in situations like this, and that can help. But that is not the only solution, if it is a solution at all. It’s all about gaining confidence and understanding of your colleagues, and again, I believe getting to know people on a more personal level really helps accomplish this. Once you see that someone is more than just a “woman” or a “man” but a human team member, mental barriers fall quite easily.
H&CB: How do you see your future, and how do you see the future for women in leading roles in “your” industry?
SR: I see myself being in top management of either a multinational corporation (likely aerospace, since I have the experience and love for the field), or running my own business. Either way, any role would likely have legal aspects to it, but I wouldn’t necessarily be in a purely legal function. I constantly seek new challenges, and taking on a more managerial role would provide a whole world of novel opportunities and mountains to climb.
I would hope that women will continue to succeed in the legal field, and to break more “barriers” in aerospace, to become a more integral part of the industry. It can’t happen overnight, but I think as the world becomes smaller and the talent pool widens, more and more women will become the “must have” candidate for managerial positions.