Mariam Dabboussi is a 25 year old Product Marketing Manager at Google in Dubai. A successful Lebanese woman, Mariam has managed to not only forge a path for herself in a tech-leading company, but also serve as a role model herself to people, particularly other young Arab women. Growing up in Tripoli, a city in the north of Lebanon, she later moved to Dubai after graduating from the American University of Beirut with a degree in Industrial Engineering. Taking up an interest in early 20th century literature (The Lost Generation), hiking and mostly interior design, Mariam is a multifaceted woman who finds satisfaction dabbling into various projects.
By Kim Makhlouf
In a world where the patriarchy still thrives, even in the year 2022, women are burdened with the weight of sexism and all the different forms of violence it entails, especially in the MENA region, where societal norms and traditional gender roles are imposed more strictly.
“I think I had more obstacles growing up than I did at this point in my career. [The] obstacles for Arab women come up, left, right and center, [particularly] from your community,” began Mariam. “I remember getting some comments [from my community] after I decided to study Engineering and then move to Dubai on my own, [join] a tech company at a young age and [choose] to accelerate my career and what that would mean for me.”
Growing up in the Arab region, much of its people’s histories have been erased or downplayed, often referring to the West for representation and validation. More recently, Arab creatives from various professional backgrounds spearheaded the movement of reviving their history and providing their communities with spaces to indulge in that. Role models, people who paved the way for so many young Arabs exist, but are they brought to the forefront?
“I think there’s a lot of Arab women representation across different sectors. They exist, but you don’t see them as much,” Mariam told JDEED. “Younger women and men need more [role models] across different sectors that they can relate to… just by seeing that certain people have done it.”
Mariam often struggled to find someone like her, someone who represented her, an Arab woman, in a field dominated by men. The lack of visibility surrounding Arab women is detrimental almost; when certain boxes are molded for women to occupy them, it becomes difficult to escape that reality when not many of those who steered away from it have been portrayed. It creates fear, uncertainty, and a lack of confidence.
Which is why a role model, someone you can derive inspiration and strength from is crucial. It helps sustain the idea that you’re not alone, and cement it as a reality and not just illusions in the void.
“I think [it] is super important [to surround] yourself with a community of individuals, [in] particular other Arab women, in the same sector or across different sectors – [you continue] to lift each other up and empower one another,” said Mariam.
Arab women often struggle, like most humans, however, there is often very little space to make mistakes or even talk about them as they unravel.
“[Odds] are, you’re not the only one in the room [striving]. It is a challenge, because you feel like you have to move mountains to reach where you are… Even if you have to forge your [own path], it doesn’t mean that you are alone,” explains Mariam. “Just surrounding yourself with that community of people that can [ground] you is helpful.”
When Mariam got accepted into the American University of Beirut (AUB), she was still unsure of her major, like most young adults her age. She later set on a degree in Industrial Engineering because, according to her, the curriculum felt more flexible. This gave her space to expand the course load and take up everything from required major courses to classes in biology and computer science.
“I think my true passion started to come out with all things not related to education that I picked up at AUB. So, the extracurriculars I did, the initiatives I participated in, it slowly but surely started carving out space for myself, or just figuring out what I was interested in,” said Mariam.
Her fascination with the tech world began to grow during that period of her life. But she always had the curiosity to understand how tech could change lives and make a difference.
“I believe [I remember the first time I experienced] a tech innovation. I have family that live in the US, on the East Coast. Something new had come up, MagicJack, [an internet-based telephone service provider that uses Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allowing the user to receive unlimited calls from the U.S. and Canada using an existing internet connection],” she explained. “It was so amazing for me to be able to hear my grandmother’s voice.”
Tripoli is the largest city in northern Lebanon and the second-largest city in the country. Situated 85 km north of the capital Beirut, the capital of the North Governorate and the Tripoli District overlooks the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and it is the northernmost seaport in Lebanon.
Known for its incredibly welcoming inhabitants and its bustling diversity, the northern city attracts a large number of people, tourists but also Lebanese citizens from neighboring areas. Tripoli also gained popularity during Lebanon’s October 17 Revolution in 2019 for its people’s energy, their involvement but also their plight.
Despite the social and economic disparities in Tripoli, Mariam credits her hometown for not only opening her up to the troubles of marginalized communities, but also for inspiring who she is as a capable woman, a hustler, a foodie with a drive powerful enough to move mountains, to make sustainable changes, to be present and active.
“I was fascinated with tech. And I was really into supporting my community. And then I kind of blended both into effect,” began Mariam.
At AUB, she had the opportunity to transform her captivation with tech into more solid projects, like Light Up a Village – an initiative she took part in.
“It was about bringing renewable energy solutions to underserved communities across the country. And [when] we’d started at the time, and we lit up a village in Akkar [a district in north Lebanon] on solar energy. That was another [instance] where I saw that tech was making a tangible difference in people’s lives.”
Joining Google also widened Mariam’s horizons in terms of not only tech, but how she could use it to benefit communities around her on a much larger scale. Back in October, Google relaunched YouTube Batala, a channel in the Middle East and North Africa dedicated to supporting the next generation of Arabic-speaking women creators. The program includes a series of events and workshops designed to help them elevate their content and “showcase diverse female Arab YouTube creators as role models for new creators in each category of content.”
“We just wanted to help accelerate their growth, to teach them, to connect them with other female creators who have succeeded. We’re growing in this space and [helping develop] a community. It’s one of the coolest things that came out of this program this year,” she explained.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to somebody just because you know they’ve reached a certain [position], just because you put them on a pedestal in your head. People are more inclined to help than you think. It won’t hurt to ask for something, even if you don’t know the person on [an intimate level].“
“I’m still in a few of the group chats, [they’re] very active! [The women are] always talking to each other, sending the videos so other women in the community can support them. If someone is [having] a bad day, they [talk] to each other. And it’s so helpful to just have [such an empowering community].”
Some of these women are based in Tunis, others in Iraq, many are refugees who have migrated to countries like Sweden. Coming from very diverse cultural, social, economic and political backgrounds, these women have managed to create platforms and channels where they have the freedom of putting out content they enjoy and are proud of. But also connecting these creators to each other and to other Arab women watching YouTube has been beneficial for both parties.
“[There’s a woman in her 50s, she lives in a Moroccan village and [joined the program, posting videos where she just shares her everyday life]… I find female creation inspiring because you’re helping these people build brands and businesses. They’re taking power back into their hands,” shared Mariam with such admiration.
Mariam’s other “baby,” as she calls it, is the Google Assistant, a virtual assistant on your phone that helps you get things done. Everything from booking meetings, in your calendar, to setting alarms, to getting map directions while you’re driving, for example. It’s a tool designed particularly for accessibility.
The Google Assistant launched in 2019 in Arabic across the MENA, and Mariam was the Go-to-Market lead behind its newest language upgrade; her first project as a full-time employee at the tech company.
Mariam’s role was to find out what the “MVP features” required for this product to launch in Arabic, particularly features that would be “the most helpful to users” in the region.
The challenge was to create different dialect support, as the Arabic language takes form uniquely in each Arab country, beyond the formal Arabic. It would’ve been almost unnatural for the company to launch their assistant in the formal language, when each community of people naturally converses in their local dialect.
“That capability being built, the first time it ever launched was with the assistance in Arabic, [prior to Alexa launching in Arabic and other initiatives like that, which is why] people were really excited about it,” Mariam told JDEED. “The Google Assistant being launched in Arabic meant a first step into the world of device support in [in our language].”
Her journey to success, one that is still evergrowing, has not been simple. It wasn’t just paved out for her. Like many others, Mariam struggled often, worked hard and lacked support; someone she could draw inspiration from.
“Fun fact, with Google, I applied three times before I got in. I think the first time I applied, I was in my second year of university and starting to realize that I wanted to be in the tech space in some capacity,” recalled Mariam, laughing lightheartedly over a Zoom call. “Then I got curious. I was like, okay, so what are the backgrounds they’re interested in?”
When she felt like her portfolio didn’t match up to fit the profiles of people who work in the industry, Mariam looked up different people, their backgrounds, their occupation and career paths, and slowly “built up (her) portfolio.”
“I got an internship in Management Consulting. I thought this was a great opportunity, maybe this is what I want? It quickly fell through, but I was exposed to a world I was interested in; Product Design and Development.”
Upon her completion of the internship, Mariam switched up all her classes at AUB and even petitioned at the department of Industrial Engineering to align her coursework with Product Design instead. Fast forward to 2022, Mariam is the youngest team member, with a stellar career path carved out for her, by her.
“If anyone reaches out to me on LinkedIn, Instagram, [asking me] how I got to certain things… I try my best to respond to every single message I’ve ever gotten. I try to set time with everyone and genuinely talk to them. Because I know that I would have wanted that. I would have wanted someone to just disillusion this path,” said Mariam.
“I come from a place where I think it’s every Arab woman’s duty to [support] someone else. From whether it’s a small number of people that look up to you, it could be your nieces, or your little cousins, your daughter or anything, anyone that might look up to you. I do have this responsibility, to kind of do better and be better and to help others reach higher than you, whether they’re looking for success or opportunities in your sector or not.”
It’s undeniable that government entities, legislative laws, organizations and corporations should carry the crucial and humane responsibility of pushing women forward, in every aspect of their lives. Women supporting one another does not topple down the patriarchy completely. It builds a powerful, tight knit community of women, though. A space that doesn’t harbor hate or encourage judgment, but one where nothing is impossible and reaching out for help is necessary and normal, helpful.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to somebody just because you know they’ve reached a certain [position], just because you put them on a pedestal in your head. People are more inclined to help than you think. It won’t hurt to ask for something, even if you don’t know the person on [an intimate level].”