The recent Covid-19 lockdowns have been an opportunity for many people to think about changing their careers, often to do what they always wanted, writes Farah El-Akkad
Why would someone change what they have been doing for the past 10 or 20 years? For a better life perhaps? Or maybe to look for their hidden passion? Or is it about bettering their economic status?
Career-shifting has always been there, and it is not necessarily related to economic changes or job status. Every other person knows someone, maybe a friend or a relative, who has decided at some point in their life to change their career path, think out of the box, and go for their passion.
Undoubtedly, the shutdowns that came in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic made us all pause, take time to wonder, rethink, and reevaluate many aspects of our lives. After years of non-stop buzz, things may not be as big as they seem, and they can change in an instant. Some workaholics have reconsidered their relationship with their families, and those working 24/7 have realised they can get things done from home.
“Why spend a lifetime in a job I hate for the sake of money, when I could do something I love and be profitable as well,” Ahmed Al-Masri, a former engineer, recalls asking. In May 2020, after more than a month spent at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he asked himself this question. Now an art teacher and the owner of an art studio and workshop, Al-Masri used to be a successful mechanical engineer, promoted each year by his company, traveling around Europe to attend conferences, and making good money.
But something was always missing. After the Covid lockdown, “changing my career path became inevitable,” he said.
Meanwhile, others have unwillingly lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, and in their cases a career change was not something chosen. A report published by the Egyptian Ministry of Finance in 2020 claimed that more than two million Egyptians had lost their jobs after the Covid pandemic because of the economic problems it had generated.
Another article published by the BBC in August 2021 suggested that the younger generations were the ones affected most by the global Covid lockdowns. “It’s young people whose incomes and career prospects are the hardest hit and take the longest to recover,” the article said. Many youngsters have struggled to keep their businesses, looking for alternatives such as opening online shops for products and cutting down on expenses, although for some even these things were not enough to keep them going.
However, the rules of “making change” are always the same, be it a global pandemic, the local economy, or a personal motive. “Over 39 per cent of people who consider a career change are motivated by higher salaries. A scant 14 per cent of Americans believe they have a great job and would not change it. Around 70 per cent of all working age people are actively looking for a job change,” said a news release from the American Bureau of Labor Statistics in March.
Statistics show that 39 is the average age at which a person is likely to want to change their career. The report estimated that most people will have 12 jobs during their lifetimes. Salary increase climbed the chart as one of the main factors of career change, along with an interest in a different field. The top reasons usually vary between salary increase, changing philosophy or goals, a current job being unsatisfactory, or wanting more flexibility at work.
Career and emotional intelligence coach Rania Abdel-Ghaffar believes that the truth lies in our emotions, the first and foremost force behind any decision we take. Emotions and personal values shape who we are, she said. When we are passionate about something, it is like riding a wave. “Once you are riding a wave, you go fast with the minimum of effort, you are highly engaged with full force, and you are reaching the highest level of productivity with the least effort. You may even forget time and place,” Abdel-Ghaffar said.
She said that society sometimes forces people to suppress their passions. A doctor expects his children to become doctors, and a parent who failed at something will likely make his children pursue the career path he wanted. “We see dozens of examples of people who are termed ‘successful’ by societal standards, but in reality they suffer from depression and deep down they are not fulfilled. Others spend their whole life trying to be successful because they feel obliged to follow the rules of their community,” she added.
Following the track paved for them by their parents, learning to adapt, to not take risks, to stick to the norm, and only do what society accepts as normal can be the lot of many people.
LOOKING FOR CHANGE: A decision such as career change is similar to any life-changing decision we take, Abdel-Ghaffar said.
We may be motivated by factors such as fear, need, and desire. “If I know changing my career will make my family suffer from financial issues, I will keep my job. In this case, my fear is greater than my desire. The ‘need motivator’ in this case is money; if I lost my job, I would not have any other source of income. The need motivator equals anything you cannot live without,” she said.
On the other hand, the “‘desire motivator’ equals happiness and satisfaction. The best-case scenario is usually when our needs and desires are met, even just to a tolerable degree. I have some savings, which will allow me to make a transition and change my career into a job I desire. This equals satisfaction. When needs and desires are met, capacity and achievement are reached with minimal effort.”
Career-shifting also took place during and after the 25 January Revolution in 2011. Despite the economy being on edge, many people were fueled by hopes for a better Egypt, driven by the winds of change taking place in the country, and in some cases making a revolution against their existing careers too.
Marwa Abu Leila had worked in the corporate banking sector for 11 years. In 2011, she decided to leave the corporate sector and open her own professional photography platform called Photopia. After years of having the idea in the back of her mind, she finally found the courage to pursue it, turning photography, her long-loved hobby, into a business.
“Photography has always been my thing. I was always the one who carried a camera among friends and took endless photos of them,” she recalls. Abu Leila knew of photography clubs in Cairo, but not of any place dedicated to photography. “This is where the idea of Photopia came from. I wanted to establish a platform that would be available 24/7 and 100 per cent dedicated to helping photographers,” she explained.
“A career change is usually not a sudden decision, either in my case or in friends I have seen take the same decision. The thought can be there for years in the back of your mind. A huge decision such as changing careers will not be a wise one if it is taken in a few months. It must be well thought out, at least for a year, because if it’s a moment’s decision it will usually not survive. It took me two years to have the guts to make such a decision. I told myself a dozen times that the corporate working life was safer, so why take the risk? Some people are able to balance the corporate life and their private business as well,” Abu Leila said.
She stressed that leaving corporate life should be worth it as “you must leave it for something you love. You cannot just give up your corporate career and open a business just for the sake of doing it. It must be something you really love and have studied well, whether it is a hobby, a long-awaited dream, or whatever industry it is.”
“In order to make the right decision about a career change, you should have emotional immunity before anything else,” Abdel-Ghaffar said. Emotional immunity is no different from physical immunity. Our bodies have thousands of microbes living in it, and our immunity fights back. In the case of emotional immunity, if one is sure of a goal, values, and capacity, nothing will stop you even if faced with setbacks.
“Once you have studied your decision and made a risk assessment, no one should be able to halt what you are doing,” Abdel-Ghaffar said. Abu Leila agreed, adding that “once you have made the decision, you should only see your goal ahead and everything else should be mute, people or other distractions.”
But passion is not enough to make a business work. “Passion is like the sea; you may like it from afar, but do you know how to swim? If you cannot swim, you will drown. It is the same with business; if you do not sell, you do not make it, so you have to monetise,” Abdel-Ghaffar said.
CHANGING CAREERS: Many entrepreneurship groups have been trending in support of women changing their careers recently, and Facebook groups such as Entreprenelle and She Hub offer support and services to entrepreneurs, especially women.
Offering various services such as scaling up their businesses, showcasing products, and services, these groups help women network and get connected through mentorship, consultancy, follow-up, resources, recommendations for conferences, exhibitions, and relevant events, educational workshops, tech-enabling support, branding services, market exposure and outreach, and connections to funds and investors.
Eman Suleiman, a former accountant, started attending cycling rides for fun around Cairo, and one day she decided to make this her business. She was asked to help someone ride a bike and then decided to work as a cycling coach, finding her passion in teaching people of all ages how to ride, with trainees aged from 10 years old to over 70. “It is such a blessing to be able to have such an impact on others, to teach them something that makes their lifestyle and wellbeing better. It is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Suleiman said.
Emad Khalil, a professor of Maritime Archaeology and founder of the Alexandria Centre for Maritime Archaeology and Underwater Cultural Heritage, was originally in the banking sector. As a teenager, Khalil had had a passion for anything related to the sea, and as a business student he was one of the first Egyptians to receive an international diving licence and worked for some time in a dive centre in Hurghada during the summer holidays.
During a fun dive with friends in Alexandria, he was astonished to find an underwater site he did not know with actual artifacts. Eager to find out what these pieces were, the thought of returning to the scene professionally never left his mind. As a bank employer, he felt it was not where he belonged, and then he attended a lecture on underwater archaeology at Alexandria University given by US professor Shirley Ward. Surprised to see pictures of artifacts similar to the ones he had seen underwater, he met professor Ward, resigned from the bank, and became a volunteer on Red Sea excavations of shipwrecks.
“I found myself working in archaeology without actually understanding it, what are these pottery pieces, what are these ships, etc. It was then that I decided to study archaeology,” Khalil said, taking a bachelor’s degree in archaeology at Alexandria University and receiving a scholarship to study in the UK and eventually earning a MA and PhD in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton.
As a student at Southampton, Khalil was asked by his professor about his goals after finishing studying, and he said “to open a centre to teach students what I have learned here.”
Nael Mansour, now a 39-year-old entrepreneur, graduated from medical school in 2005 and worked for a couple of years as an orthopedic surgeon. While preparing to sit the US Medical Licensing Exam, as his plans were focused on continuing his medical career abroad, he was forced to return to Egypt due to urgent family matters.
Growing up, Mansour was influenced by his father’s side of the family, mostly physicians and academics, but was also influenced by his mother’s side, mostly businessmen. Knowing that his stay in Egypt was indefinite, he thought of exploring his other dream of starting a family business.
Having consumed large amounts of coffee during his studies as a doctor, Mansour became a coffee lover and studied everything there was to know about the origins, growth, processing, roasting, and grinding of beans to make different types of coffee. In 2010, he began to establish a company and communicated with different coffee shop chains wanting to take their franchise to Egypt.
In 2011, the political unrest in Egypt made him reconsider the coffee shop idea, as the investment required was quite substantial and the economic status risky. Unwilling to drop the idea altogether, however, he thought of a less risky solution where he would import coffee beans from Italy and distribute them to the already existing chains in Egypt. This model was less risky in terms of initial cost.
The initial investment was potentially secure as it was in a product, namely coffee beans, and the already existing coffee shop chains in Egypt would be potential clients instead of being competition. Mansour’s business flourished between 2011 and 2016, and he became the sole agent for different brands manufacturing chocolate powder, frappe powders, sauces, and professional coffee machines that he imported from Italy, the UK, and the US.
“Before deciding on a product, I researched the manufacturer, read product reviews, asked for their price list, and got samples to compare it with other competitors’ products distributed in Egypt. If the product passed the previous steps, I would negotiate the terms of an agreement.”
“Business was growing until the currency floatation in November 2016 accompanied by the decision to put restrictions on imported goods to preserve foreign-currency reserves and encourage local production.” Mansour’s business, entirely dependent on imports, came to a near halt. “It is crucial to be flexible in dealing with new constraints and open minded enough to observe new opportunities and act upon them,” he said.
It was obvious that his current business model was not sustainable. Thinking of the next move, Mansour saw a new opportunity being born for products to be manufactured in Egypt but with similar specifications to the ones he imported from Europe and the US. This needed a lot of research on product manufacture, ingredients, and where to get them form, as well as on the machines required, documentation, and of course branding and packaging.
A different path would have been to go back to medicine, but by that time the steps had passed and the five-year grace period had expired. To continue his career in the US, Mansour would have had to retake the exams. He looked at the doctors’ strikes in the UK, further aggravated by the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Practicing medicine in the UK would require passing an IELTS exam and preparing and passing a Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB).
Either he would continue with his coffee business in Egypt or he would seek a medical career in the UK. Despite the challenges, over the following year Mansour tried both. By mid-2017 he had passed the PLAB, and his locally made chocolate and frappe powders had gained the approval of almost all the coffee shops he had previously worked with.
He thought a career in private business would be more lucrative, exciting, and flexible than practising medicine. By that time both his parents had passed away, and he wanted to be close to his sister and brother to provide any support required.
“Coming from a medical background, I decided to study for an MBA to help me understand further aspects of running a business. I graduated in 2019. By that time, I wanted to expand my business to manufacturing chocolate and caramel sauces,” Mansour recalled.
These were products that had huge potential in the market but also very fierce competition. “I kept a log book where I recorded the ingredients I used, the production steps, and the outcomes of each trial. It took me quite a time and more than a few trials to get acceptable results. I gave it a hundred per cent and did everything I could,” he added.
Mansour’s brother Nouhar has recently resigned from his corporate career to join the family business, managing its IT systems, helping to reform the company structure, and helping in the day-to-day management. Nael also describes his sister Nereen as a super-wonder woman “because simply wonder woman alone would not be enough to describe her. She runs part of the production process management and is part of the research and development team. She is simply the most disciplined, dedicated, and reliable person I know, and I couldn’t have taken the company where it is now without her help,” he said.
“Remember that challenges always come with new opportunities, so learn to observe them and act upon them,” Nael concluded. “And finally let me share with you a philosophy I have come to realise. It goes like this: nothing in life ever stays the same. It is either moving in the direction of getting better or getting worse.”
“For businesses, if you are not working on improving your product or service, this essentially means that it is getting worse. I believe this goes for your business as well as every other aspect of life. Your relationship with God, your spouse, your children, or your friends. If you don’t want it to deteriorate, you will need to spend the time and effort on improving it.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.
The recent Covid-19 lockdowns have been an opportunity for many people to think about changing their careers, often to do what they always wanted, writes Farah El-Akkad