“There probably aren’t many others like me”
Chadia Bennis is Managing Director of a pesticide company in Morocco. When visiting a customer one day, the time came to sit down to a nice lunch. Suddenly the atmosphere became slightly awkward.The customer really wanted to invite the managing director to lunch in his home – as a gesture to support their good working partnership. However, there was a problem. The managing director was a woman, and the customer was unsure how his wife would react if he brought a strange woman home with him. So, the lunch was held instead at a restaurant.
When Chadia Bennis tells this story, she does so with a smile on her lips. She is used to the fact that the company’s customers find it a challenge that the manager is a woman. Men heavily dominate the agricultural sector in Morocco, and Bennis is the only female managing director in the sector in all of Morocco. This is no problem when dealing with the company’s foreign suppliers, who also all happen to be men. But in relation to her own customers – her own compatriots – the situation is quite different.
“A lot of them find it hard to deal with the fact that the manager is a woman. That’s why I always take along a male employee who can act as an intermediary between the customer and me. It’s not that they ever refuse to do business with me, but, let me put it this way, the customer relationship never really develops,” explains Bennis.
Full speed ahead
Bennis is one of those successful businesswomen in Morocco who work actively to get more Moroccan women into top management positions. She is a member of AFEM, an organisation for women business leaders and executives in Morocco.
She is also one of AFEM’s new mentors who will support and inspire other women. This task is one that this particular managing director will have no trouble in accomplishing, as she is quite an unusual woman herself.
Paintball is amongst Chadia Bennis' several hobbies - most of them in Morocco considered untraditional for a woman - all of them included in her keeping the balance between family, work and leisure activities, purely for the sake of her own pleasure and inspiration
Not only is Chadia Bennis Morocco’s only female managing director within the country’s agricultural sector, she is also a rally driver and plays paintball – pursuits usually associated with men. She also practices yoga, Tai-Chi and performs in theatre. She is an active member of many different associations ranging from the Rotary Club to AFEM. Currently, she is studying to be a coach alongside her job as managing director. And she manages all of this as well as being a wife and mother of two children of 11 and 15 years old.
“I’ve got quite a thirst for adventure and quite a bit of energy,” tells Chadia Bennis.
“Being an outgoing person means a lot to me – also outside work. That’s why I want to do lots of fun things with my friends and be involved in inspiring networks and organisations. I of course do need ‘me time’ as well, but there’s always a balance. My parents don’t always approve and are constantly accusing me of not spending enough time on my family.”
Always equality at home
For many of Chadia Bennis’ countrywomen, a life such as hers is an impossibility. Even though more and more women are educating themselves, the idea that a woman’s only role in life is to marry, have children and look after the children and the home still prevails in Morocco.
It is these ideas and notions that Chadia Bennis occasionally comes across when meeting the company’s more tradition-minded customers. However, this is not something she has ever met at home.
“There probably aren’t many others like me. I grew up in a home with a very open-minded father who never treated his sons and daughters differently. He always had a lot of confidence in me,” explains Bennis.
During Chadia Bennis' childhood noone was discriminating between genders - early in her career she joined the family business as the Director of Economy - a position she held for 17 years and finally outgrew
The company in which she is the managing director was founded by her father. Originally, he took her into the company as Financial Manager when she had completed her Economy degree at a French university. After 17 years of holding that position, Chadia Bennis overtook the post of Managing Director in 2005. But the transition was not an easy one. Bennis had to deal with a heavy conscience in regards to her young children.
Mother vs. Director
As Financial Manager, Chadia Bennis had been required to invest many hours in her job, and she knew that with a transition to Managing Director, she would have to spend even more time at work. This was a prospect that neither her nor her husband particularly relished.
“It was especially in relation to my son, who was only six then, that I found it difficult. I’m a good mother. I want to spend time with my children and invest my time in them, so I felt that I was sacrificing my son in favour of my job,” tells Bennis.
Uniting a top post in business with civil life has had a price. Bennis' husband has, among other things, had to sacrifice his career partly along the way.
Another problem was Bennis’ husband. He is a radiologist and also has a very demanding job. He had always supported his wife in her career, but this time he was sceptical. To keep the equation in balance, he would be required to spend the extra hours when Mum was away being manager looking after the children.
Chadia Bennis sought help in the coaching course, which she was taking at the time. She taught both herself and her husband to approach the problem from a different angle.
“I got my husband to realise what benefits would come from getting closer to his children. And, I realised that my guilty conscience wasn’t of any use to me. Fair enough, I’d have less time to spend with my son, but it didn’t mean that the quality of our time together would be affected. For my daughter, who was 10 at the time, I could be a very good role model.”
The necessary courage
Today the whole family is happy and satisfied. No one lifts an eyebrow over the unconventional career woman – not even Chadia Bennis’ and her husband’s friends and acquaintances – a group which includes many ‘traditional’ men and women, as Bennis calls them.
“Many of them ask me about my life, but I’ve never been dismissed by any of them. I’m also very discreet about things,” she tells.
It is only her parents who sometimes think that their eldest daughter has a few too many hobbies and external interests. Nevertheless, she still has their full support and they are very proud of her.
Chadia Bennis is herself pleased that she has had the courage to follow her career because this was something that was very important to her. She now intends to pass this message on through her role as mentor in AFEM.
Our managing director’s turn is currently looking very much forward to the spring – that is when this year’s rally will be held. This will be a special women’s rally in which Chadia Bennis and a number of other businesswomen will be timed driving around Morocco. Unlike when men drive in a rally, the focus here is not on how fast you drive and reach the finish line, but more about how you drive and plan your route along the way. It is the process itself that is important. And this philosophy in itself could easily be the message from an experienced managing director to the new aspiring women managers in the world of Moroccan business.
Photos: Ulrikke Moustgaard/Private