This is an article that appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Premier Traveler magazine.
Growing up in war-torn Lebanon, Wafa Kanan’s life story covers an unlikely transformation from underdog to overachiever. It was no small feat when as a young woman raised by a conservative family, she had launched both a travel agency and an import/export business while obtaining college degrees in law and political science—all by the age of 19. But when the continuing conflicts in Beirut cost her these businesses, she decided to start a new life for herself in Los Angeles.
Since relocating in 1990, her list of accomplishments has continued to grow exponentially. In addition to successfully establishing ALO magazine (a nationally distributed lifestyle publication devoted to Middle Eastern Americans), she has worked closely with the governments of Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, the Sultanate of Oman and other countries in the Middle East to coordinate $5 million of public relations for the region. During these campaigns, Kanan stressed the importance of both philanthropic and media representation, noting, “When both work together concurrently, it makes a huge difference for the country.”
As president of the brand marketing firm Unique Image, she was careful to build its business model around this very concept. Working under the umbrella of both Unique Image and the ALO Cultural Foundation, she has worked with hundreds of nonprofit organizations, most recently ensuring the delivery of 1,000 hearing aids to underserved families in Lebanon under the “So Lebanon Can Hear” mission. When asked what the most difficult part of such a massive, international undertaking was, Kanan replied: “Devoting the time, efforts and financial resources to make this project a reality in a difficult economic climate, while keeping a profitable business model and leading a non-profit organization based on volunteers.”
One point of pride is Unique Image’s fruitful partnership with the Chambers of Commerce in Dubai and Oman. Her trailblazing strategizing was instrumental in their rapid development on the world stage. But difficulties can arise in the region and it’s sometimes necessary to be nimble in their wake. When dealing with the government of Egypt, for example, Kanan had a three-pronged model in mind that would enhance Cairo’s sustainability. It addressed job creation, media exposure and the continuation of humanitarian efforts she had begun with orphans in the country, thus improving their education. “However, in a meeting with the minister of social services, I knew immediately that the country was headed towards a major revolution,” she laments. “Our pro-bono efforts remain in limbo because of the government’s myopia towards philanthropy.” Still, she has high hopes for the nation and has kept a dialogue going so that one day they might return.
According to Kanan, the difference between a successful campaign and a flopped deal can all come down to who you know—the importance of networking cannot be understated. But rather than focusing on superficial connections via LinkedIn, she recommends trying to associate with others on a personal level when at all possible. Find like-minded people in your field, she says, and the movers and shakers will come to you. It’s because of this practice that she now counts the former vice mayor of Beirut as her close and personal friend. Both share an ambitious vision of a future Lebanon that’s not just free of conflict, but thriving. In 2006, the two played an important role in establishing sister city status between the cities of Los Angeles and Beirut. With food, fun and entertainment as the three tenets of Middle Eastern hospitality (something that is taken very seriously in the region), you’ll find it’s not all too difficult to make worthwhile connections when you’re a foreign visitor as long as you’re willing to put yourself out there.
Between her various worldwide projects, Kanan finds herself flying an average of twice a month (airline miles are reserved for charity work, which she says makes it easy for a business traveler to give back). Regardless of the industry, she notes that we live in a global economy and recommends travel as a means to gain perspective that will bring something new to your work. Although she admits that the experience isn’t as glamorous as it once was— “Welcome reception for weary travelers and the sense of hospitality are sorely missed at many domestic airports in particular, but also at many international airports”—she commends the cities that are still able to deliver an exceptional experience. Who, in her opinion, is at the top of the game? She gives Qatar high marks for its superior airport facilities in Doha and the eponymous airline for its “elite experience and unparalleled quality of service.”
Insider Business Advice
As an undisputed expert on Middle East-American business affairs, Wafa Kanan shares some of her valuable insight with Premier Traveler to help readers avoid any snafus along the way to a profitable business deal in the Middle East.
- First and foremost, she cautions people against the erroneous belief that the region has one uniform culture. “Each country is proud of their nationality and they have high-esteemed ideas regarding who they are and where they come from. So, I believe learning about the culture should be one of the most important steps to doing business there. Otherwise your time and efforts can be misdirected and a waste.”
- “Take a gift or some token of appreciation when visiting a home or a business.”
- “For some cultures, a woman should not pay at a restaurant, even in a business setting; a man might get offended.”
- “Hospitality is important, so accept it and make sure you return the gesture with a thank-you note.”
- “Do not shake hands with covered women or attempt to touch or hug them. Make sure you keep your hands on your chest with gratitude when you greet a person. A woman should also not shake the hand of a man with religious customs unless he extends his hand first. In an open society where citizens enjoy religious freedom, the shaking of hands is perfectly acceptable, but observation of a culture is critical.”
- “Do not plan a meeting outside the office if you mean to do serious business.”
- “It is noticeable that most countries in the Middle East stress the importance of status, power, position and brand. They like to work with those who are on top of their game. Everyone loves a winner, right?”
- “Work the corporate ladder but seek to meet the decision makers. Always compliment your counterparts and be yourself. Trust is a major part of the deal and if there is a sense of mistrust or dishonor, it’s a deal breaker.”
- And what is the one common denominator she’s observed that ties all countries in the region together? It’s not at all dissimilar to what we’ll find at home. “Everyone wants to know what’s in it for them. It’s all about the end results.”
~ Ally Miola