Luiss Inauguration Ceremony 2020-21. Lectio Magistralis: “A learning journey through inclusion and diversity”

November 18, 2020
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Mr Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, Honorable Ambassadors and authorities, Mr President, Mr General manager, Mr Rector, Professors, Mr Student representative of Luiss University, Misses Vice President of King’s College London, Dear students.. It’s an honor to be speaking with you today.

A while ago, my grandmother told me regularly that little girls in Morocco have two exits in their lives: the one that leads from their father’s home to their husband’s, and the one that leads to their grave. Thanks to her I found my third exit: EDUCATION. She was illiterate, but THAT didn’t keep her from teaching me the love of books.

And believe it or not: the first book I was offered at school was… Cinderella. It’s true!

In many ways, because I’m a Moroccan woman CEO, I am often brought back to this idea that my story is a classic “from rags to riches”- simply a Cinderella story.

But mine ISN’T a Cinderella story. My childhood, although humble, was filled with love and joy.

And I grew-up believing that life isn’t about chance, but about educating myself, learning AND owning-up to who you are. Exactly who you are.

I believe you should find what sets you apart. And never apologize for it.

In that sense the question of diversity and inclusion isn’t how YOU, as part of the main group, can include others: like minorities. But find what makes YOU stand-out. What makes YOU unique – everyone has that something unique. And then embrace-it. Treasure-it. Because that something is PRECISELY what makes you an asset for any company, for any government, for any institution.

How do you do that, exactly?

For me there are three steps in your adult life you may want to consider: first find what singles you out. Second, create your own path and finally speak up!


So the question is how did I find what singles ME out.

At school, as a child, I struggled. I couldn’t speak fast enough to match my high speed thoughts. Teachers said I was shy, I was slow. I was behind – fortunately my grandmother believed in me. I changed schools several times. It wasn’t until I was 13 years old that teachers finally realized that I may have some sort of dyslexia problems. To this day, and although public speaking is my daily routine, I feel like I’m losing languages or words in Arabic, French, or English all the time. For a long time I didn’t talk about it, because it was hard. But then I realized there was no reason to shy away from it. I told my colleagues: they know there are certain words I can’t pronounce. I didn’t let that take me away from becoming a public speaker – I just prepare more than others. I learned to simplify my messages. I learned to use simple words and easy vocabulary and more importantly I learned to go SLOW to go FAST. With time, I became less busy-minded. With time, I reached the clarity of thoughts quicker and therefore the clarity of speech and I started to be a voice in the room on-time. In fact, my vulnerability became my uniqueness and then it turned to become one of my key strengths.

Getting to know yourself also means: respecting your roots. They’re part of what makes you UNIQUE, of what makes you STRONG, of what makes you: YOU. After living in 13 cities across 4 continents, at the crossroads of African, European, American, Arab worlds, I firmly believe that our personal and professional journey is shaped by our social ecosystem. I firmly believe that culture, race, gender, nationality, orientation matter. I firmly believe that diversity brings superior performance when inclusion is there. So HOLD-ON to WHO YOU ARE.

For me, rooted as an African, and an Arab emerging leader, I learned to listen to the wisdom of others; to understand my history, including in business, before making decisions that shape my future.


Now, once you’ve identified what SINGLES YOU-OUT, the second step to being unique is to create YOUR OWN PATH. And to make that path viable by working HARD.

At the beginning of my career, I led a team to invent and patent the first plastic wine cork. How did I get there? Through my passion: Sciences. First, by pursuing mechanical engineering. With a merit scholarship in hand, I left the only place I had lived so far, Casablanca, to pursue my higher education in France. For my PhD, I worked 12 to 16 hour days in labs. I had to pull off twin screws from an extruder. An extruder, like the ones you find in Italy for making delicious pasta – not to play into stereotypes! – but a much larger equipment; and my arms just weren’t strong-enough to take the screws out. So the lab built a steel bar, enabling me to use my body as leverage. I had to do it, every day, thousands of times over three years… I put in the effort. During these research times, I learnt the power of trial and error, the power of determination and hard work, the power of curiosity. I also learnt how to think outside the box. These are the lessons I brought with me to my very first job, where my team simply invented the plastic cork.

I always kept an open mind and I also used intuition as my compass.

I learnt something else from my youth. In fact, I was inspired by my grandmother to play my part for causes close to my heart. Like she did with the community around her. As an adult: clean water and sustainability matter to me. Sustainability started in my home in Casablanca with the conservation of food and potable water. When I was offered my first general management job, my nickname in the Middle East was the water lady as I was the first business woman signing a public deal in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, leading to construction of the first membrane water desalination plant in the whole Middle East region, not using fossil fuels. You can imagine how much that mandate resonated with me.

How could a woman do that? in an environment supposed to be unfriendly for women?

In fact, when you’re in the moment, when you are living your passion, when you are determined, you don’t even realize that you’re the first woman to do this and that. You’re just living your life, fully, not as a PASSENGER – as Amelia Earhart recommends, as you can see in the background. I often felt that non inclusive environments are even more penalizing than non diverse ones. This is why today, I am prioritizing the I for inclusion, even before the D for Diversity- in my companies.

I often ask: Are we inclusive enough? Do we listen to the Diversity in the room, including the Diversity of thoughts?

Because if the inclusion is not there, if you do not listen to the Diversity in the room, it will leave YOU. And The Best leave you first!

Dear Students: we ALL have this driving force that is specific to us. It’s easy to ignore, it’s easy to abide by someone else’s rules, it’s easy to settle. Don’t!

Have the courage to follow your DREAMS, and see where they take you. Even-IF – ABOVE ALL-IF: it leads you to take risks, to leave a comfortable job, to start from scratch doing something else. In my career I’ve made that decision to accept jobs with smaller paychecks, but they added MEANING to my life.

Finding your sense of purpose – la “ricerca di senso”, ou la raison d’être.. is the only way to never regret the choices you make, to keep your LIGHT alive.


Finally, the third and last step, ONCE you’ve found what makes you unique, ONCE you’ve created your own path: speak-up and share your message.

Of course it’s not easy everyday to be a minority, a disruptive element, a different kid with a disability- visible or not, a different student with divergent thinking, with a different leadership style, with an untold sexual orientation or simply sometimes it’s not just easy to be a woman in the crowd. As a leader, I faced resistance when people thought I was too young or too feminine or too bold in my views.

I have tons of anecdotes – how I was forgotten on the charts after my maternity leave. How people decided, without consulting me, that I couldn’t travel anymore because I was a mother. These are the unconscious biases we all have; but YOU future leaders, you will have to combat them when it is in the way of meritocracy and performance.

I Remember one anecdote: there was literally a “boy’s club” where I worked in the Middle East, getting together every Thursday speaking about business and networking efficiently. So I started a girls’ club! We also met every Thursday, we talked about business amongst many other things- and I promise: we did a good business too.

Boy or Girl, whoever you are, you will face many NOs in your career. There will be people who may try to discourage you. Who tells you that you’re wrong, you’ll fail or take too much risk.

Worse: you will doubt yourself. You will feel guilty, especially when motherhood makes you manage children, schooling, a career or even dual careers with your partner, at the same time managing demanding jobs you love.

But guess what? You’re unique, you created your OWN path – we’ve established that by now. And your message is worth sharing. Because sharing it means empowering other people to share theirs.

Early in my career at Diversey, I founded the Hygieia Network in the United States of America. I wanted to build an international network for women at all levels in the cleaning industry – starting with developing and supporting the cleaning ladies who work in our schools, in our offices, in our hospitals, who keep us safe and healthy. For me, it was a way to pay-tribute to my grandmother, who was herself a cleaner. But it was also an opportunity to do something bigger than myself. I believe that ambition is great, but what matters isn’t your NEXT job: IT IS what you can do in your current job, how you can be a servant, not to yourself, but to your mandate. If you can make that happen than the destination will be brighter. And you will have more than one destination.

You also need – and it’s an arabic word that I love, that is hard to translate, “WASTA”: your network, your influence circle, your clout, but above that, your community.

The wasta states the following: It’s not only what you know that is important, but who you know. And I was able to verify the relevance and the timeliness of this adage along my whole career.

As you start this new school year, think about building your community:

First/find YOUR mentors who will speak to you and help YOU-OUT in your current journey, and when YOU embark on ambitious, exciting career paths. Better yet: find YOUR sponsors, who speak ABOUT you when you’re not in the room. Remember that a mentor speaks to you and a Sponsor speaks about you.

And then become mentors yourself. Become Sponsors to others. Do not forget to give back.

Second/Have the smartest people on your team. Sometimes they will be smarter than you: IT IS OK.  I experienced that in my career when I was a chief digital officer – while I was feeling like a complete digital immigrant. So what did I do? I took classes, I learned, but I also surrounded myself with digital natives who were a lot more expert than I was, and far younger than me. Since then, I have younger people, sharing wisdom, perspectives, inspiring me how to build and leave a legacy that can match their needs: IT IS what I call reverse mentoring.

Third/ Do more in each journey than what you signed-up for. This sense of community is what led me to create the Solvay Solidarity Fund, earlier this year: it raised no less than 12 million euros in just a few months with donations from employees and shareholders, dedicated to our response to COVID-19. When you have the WILL, YOU CAN.

Once you know what sets you apart you can speak up, move forward and help people move forward.    


This is the takeaway for me: the work I do today honors the memory of my grandmother – my first role model, an invisible hero. As a child, she inspired me to use my imagination to create new worlds beyond the walls of our home. She inspired me to find that third door and build a first charity foundation, then a second one and live my life at its full potential.

I am FREE to live wherever I want, marry the man I love, choose the job I desire. Today, I would like to tell my schoolgirl self: “it’s ok. Don’t worry. It’s all going to fall into place.”

What is the takeaway for you?

As you’re walking through that third door that is education. Remember that nothing is impossible. It may sound trite, but I truly believe that.

Find what sets you apart, don’t apologize for it. And then Dream big. It doesn’t matter if your dream is too big: it’s not reaching the dream that matters, it’s the journey that gets you there. So you might as well enjoy it, and dream bigger than you. That’s OK.

All the while keeping in mind that because you’re unique, you WILL get there, you WILL have an impact on the world – and wondering what impact you WILL have on future generations and HOW the world will remember YOU.

Thank you for having me.. I wish you all an exciting year.. and BE SAFE.

The author

Ilham Kadri is CEO of Solvay Group