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An Outlook on Successful Women in the Community

By Vanessa Denha Garmo

Early last month, the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce hosted an Industry Outlook event with four women making a mark in their respective fields. I had the pleasure of moderating the panel discussion.  After a brief introduction, each woman had an opportunity to share her experiences.

Sitting inside the banquet room of the Bird & the Basket restaurant in Birmingham, the panelist spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people. The restaurant on South Old Woodward is owned by Kristen Jonna who grew up in the Merchant of Vino businesses co-owned by her father John Jonna. She, too, has a success story as an owner of three restaurants and as a certified Somalia.

Here we give you a brief synopsis of the panel discussion.

Christine Jonna Piligian joined Jonna Construction Company in 1972 and the again in 1981; early in her career, she saw an opportunity to expand the family business into real estate.  Since the formation of Jonna Realty Ventures, Inc., the company has evolved into a full-service real estate development and property management company.

“We were in real estate well before the curve,” Piligian. “It was a dream of mine to see a building and say we could own it.  It was conceptional at the time, but others were doing it and I figured we could do it too. That is how you learn.  If you don’t have the confidence at first, you move forward anyway.  I got involved in a business that Chaldean women just didn’t do at the time and that Chaldeans weren’t involved in.”

Her relentless attitude kept her going. “Even today there are challenges that I don’t have the answers to at the moment, but I know we will figure out,” she said.

Marisa Abbo, D.O. received her Bachelors in Psychology from Wayne State University and her Masters in Social Work from the University of Michigan.  She changed career path to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Today, she works for a faith-based federally qualified health center in Royal Oak that cares for the uninsured and underinsured.

“Our mission is on our wall and it is to show and share the love of God in seeing the Good News of Jesus Christ by providing affordable, quality and integrated care to those who need it most. As a doctor, I am in a unique position because I can pray with my patients and it is just awesome. I couldn’t imagine practicing medicine without faith,” said Abbo as the audience applauded.

Not only does she pray with her patients, the office prays as a group before they start their day. “As a physician, I try to be the hands and feet of Christ in everything I do and that is to serve,” she said. “We can lose our joy in whatever we do if we forget that we are here to serve.”

Renee Lossia Acho emerged quickly as an industry leader using her skillful, creative, and consultative approach to marketing and sales.  Renee ranks in the top 1 percent of realtors nationally and was the 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year for the Women’s Council of Realtors as well as being named a 2016 Esteemed Women of Michigan Honoree.

She got into the business at one of the toughest times – in 2008 when the economy was tanking and others were leaving the real estate business to pursue other careers.  “When you learn the business at the lowest point, it makes it that much better when the market improves,” she said. “The reality about the economy is that it fluctuates. The Real Estate market fluctuates the same way. Interest rates do affect the market because of the bond power.”

She recommends that when you are looking for a specific area to live in, you don’t just need a realtor but one that truly knows the community in which you want to live. “Having specialist in those areas will benefit you.”

She also gave an audience a tip. “Michigan is usually ahead of the national market,” said Acho. “Watch our economy first before you look to national trends.”

Judge Hala Jarbou graduated from Wayne State University Law School and was appointed as an Oakland County Circuit Court Judge in October 2015.  She was assigned to the Civil/Criminal Division. Although well prepared for her appointed position, she did experience some surprises.

“I was surprised to see how few attorneys actually make it to the court room,” she said. “You can assess quickly what attorneys have had trial experience and those who don’t. It was surprising to see the number of attorneys who don’t actually have trial experience.”

Although everyone faces failures, the group of leading women offer a different perspective.

“It’s not as much a failure as it is an opportunity,” said Acho. “You can look at something as a failure and let it take you down or you can learn from it and move on.” Acho once had a partner who she looked to as a mentor but overnight, as Acho explained, her mentor took thousands of dollars and her listings from her.  “I could have looked at that situation as an opportunity to close the door and leave the business. In the Chaldean community, we are fortunate to surround ourselves with a strong support system so when life creates a failure, there are people around you who create opportunities and help you succeed. If you go into a career with an expectation of never falling down, then go home. Lighting strikes and that is the beauty of figuring out where you can go.”

Piligian added to the conversation as she addressed perceived failures many women face. “When you are at the office, you think you should be home with the children and when you are at home with the children, you think you should be at the office,” she said describing the scenario. “I used to think that every day I failed. I didn’t finish what I needed to at work and I didn’t do all the things I want to do for my family. So, every day I felt like I failed. There is that constant conflict between the two.”

Now that she has raised her kids and can look back at her life and career she offers advice to other women. “That so-called failure, you will realize will become your success. You can raise good kids and have a healthy family and run a successful business.”

From a loud applause to a short silence from the panelist, Piligian ended her comments that led me into my next question: Is it harder for Chaldean women to succeed in business given the culture of the community and impact on the family?

“It has been a transition” said Piligian. “When I first started in the business, it was really hard. My dad used to say go home. You are ultimately going to get married,” recalled Piligian.  “He would say, ‘don’t get too educated. No one will want to marry you.’ It was hard because the perception was that this was not what you are supposed to be doing. As the years went by, you realize you, too, have gifts, different from men. Sometimes you become better because it wasn’t always accepted by the community for you to be in the business. You tend to work harder.  It is much better today.”

There are still some barriers women face, but Piligian believes they will eventually disappear.

“In any ethnic community, there is that perception about women,” said. Jarbou. “It is true in every profession because everyone pretty much started out in what was once a male-dominated profession. Instead of having a chip on your shoulder, you accept it and set out to prove yourself.”

When Jarbou was in school, she was among two Chaldeans in Law. “Now, I think everyone I talk to is becoming a lawyer or doctor in our community. Seriously, whatever it is you strive for, you need to set out to be the best you can be in your field. Regardless of the community, you have to decide you are going to succeed, no one will dictate that to you.”

As leaders in their fields, each woman has her own definition of it.

“It starts with character,” said Jarbou. “It is by doing and not telling. You don’t call yourself a leader, you need to act like one. It is your morals and values that truly define your leadership.”

“You are a leader to only those who want to follow you,” said Acho. “If people are drawn to you by who you are and they respect you, then you are leading. Perhaps you are someone others admire. I think we all have leaders in our lives. Leaders carry themselves in a way that draws people to follow.”

“Humility is important for a leader,” said Abbo. “Just when you think you got it down, you realize you still need to learn. It keeps you level headed, if you are humble. A good leader treats their team members as if they are integral to everything they are doing. And, you guide them along the way.”

“A leader gives people confidence,” said Piligian. “Leaders are people others believe in. You can’t lead if your team doesn’t think you can resolve problems. Leaders have to have faith in themselves that they can lead and have faith in the ultimate outcome.”

The panel discussion ended with audience questions and the request by many, to invite younger generations, who need mentors, to another event such as this industry outlook.  Stay tuned.