Inspirational Woman: Amel Najjar | Executive Director & Founder of Children of War Foundation

Amel Najjar is the Executive Director & Founder of Children of War Foundation (cowf.org), a California based 501©3 non-profit, providing healthcare to children worldwide.  Amel is engaged in all aspects of the organisation, aligning her responsibilities around strategic priorities, with oversight to develop and drive implementation of her vision, goals, and key initiatives.

In addition to her work with COWF, Amel is an active Ambassador for Children’s Hospital LA, advocating for current life altering research and initiatives, as well as ongoing international outreach development.

She has worked with, volunteered, partnered and affiliated COWF as well as her personal endeavors with many non-governmental organisations including; UNHCR-United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, Operation Smile, Solace for the Children Afghanistan, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Hospital Bernard Mevs Haiti, Shriners Hospital Los Angeles, Royal Medical Services of Jordan, Ramallah Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House Charities, American Red Cross, among others.

Passionate about issues concerning sustainable development, children’s rights, healthcare and displacement, Amel is furthering her career with aspirations to do more.

Interest in technology innovation and global impact, lead her to Oxford Saïd Business School in 2016, completing the Women Transforming Leadership programme and then continuing on to study towards her Oxford Executive MBA (EMBA), commuting between Los Angeles and Oxford.

An activist for bettering the lives of children, Amel continues to conduct research for COWF, in addition to a personal business venture, while pursuing an EMBA, with goals for moving towards more innovative and technology-based solutions for providing access to efficient healthcare.

What do you think has been your biggest challenge?

I think one of my biggest challenges is understanding where the future of healthcare lies, in particular, how will the current discrepancy affect those who are in dire need, relying on social enterprises that provide it. The challenges are in part due to constant changes in healthcare reform, including cost reduction, quality, education and monopolies within various healthcare sectors.  Access to healthcare was not easy to provide seven years ago as a non-profit entity and today it’s even harder.  The reality is we live in a time where geo politics, economic uncertainty and an aging population will continue to create a larger gap between those who have means and those who are unfortunate.

There’s also global disparity, in particular for children with healthcare needs and accessibility of information.

Having lived and worked in regions where healthcare is fragmented, I’ve witnessed a disconnect and the implications. It’s the children who do not have access to medical care, who are affected the most, ultimately, becoming unproductive citizens with a bleak future.  The impact is far greater than you would imagine. If a child goes without care, then their future is impacted, along with their parents, siblings, community, and so on.

I hope to create a system that is stratified and responsive to continued change, for better or worse, allowing for sustainable access to healthcare in multiple forms.  The healthcare industry is critical and constantly evolving to better humanity allowing for the ability to live longer and happier. Unfortunately for some, it’s becoming so much more distant and inaccessible.  The need for a major overhaul, regionally (within the US) and globally, is inevitable.

Are there any challenges you have faced as a woman specifically?

I’ve had a few encounters where I’ve met with male CEO’s of either hospitals or other NGO’s, specifically in the Mid-East Region and I was not taken seriously and in some cases completely disregarded. You can’t really blame those who are ignorant to customs outside of their culture or upbringing, I actually feel sorry for those individuals who don’t know better.  Those few incidences have compelled me to be more active, speak and stand up for myself and others.  I also encourage other women to gain perspective and an understanding of the behaviors.

It is much easier to handle those types of situations when you allow yourself to understand why such frame of thought exists.  With that said, those encounters as mentioned are not as much of a challenge in recent days.  As more women take active roles in leadership and business, the cultural barriers are changing, for the better.  In a sense, normalising the role of women in the business world in many regions and cultures, that’s why it’s important to continue advocating, educating and moving forward.

I’m also a mother of a two year-old and six year-old; I feel that this role is most important to me, but also challenging at times.  When I find myself feeling guilty or missing my children while traveling, I must reflect on why I continue to be active and pursue things bigger than myself. These times are when I am the happiest.

I would want a woman who knows what it is to be a mother and want to do the same thing for my children, if help were needed.

The most challenging, yet satisfying part of my job as a woman is being a mother and having empathy first hand.  The empathy and emotions that come with it can be challenging, especially when you’re dealing with lives of young children.

Did you ever actually plan out a career?

I never planned a career, although I’ve always known that I wanted to travel, immerse myself in other cultures and learn the ways of the modern world.  I worked for an airline right out of high school and into college, allowing me to pay for school and travel.  The question of planning obliges me to discuss my own struggles and disability, of which I’ve never publically spoken about.  I feel it’s important for others to know that there are some situations in life that you can never prepare for, and sometimes, those situations change the path of your goals and career.  When I was 23 years old, I was involved in a motor vehicle accident that left me hospitalised, unable to walk, literally breaking my neck and lower back, sustaining a spinal cord injury and other trauma.

Those two years were horrible at the time, undergoing multiple surgeries, and today I live with titanium plates and screws holding my neck together, and still undergo rehabilitation.  I was fortunate enough to have access to great healthcare.  Now, I look back and think of those turbulent years as an opportunity, motivated not only by my passion and children, but my own personal struggles, will and thankfulness.  The opportunity to pick myself up and move forward, do things that made me happy, which dawned on me during the toughest of times and continue to motivate me.  Soon after, COWF landed on my lap, taking shape with an opportunity to do something more fulfilling, leading me to the non-profit and healthcare industry.

Who inspires you and why?

My kids, husband, and close friends inspire me.  My kids constantly remind me how innocent and vulnerable children are, their whole life revolves around my husband and I, essentially, we are responsible for who they become in the future.  They inspire me to have perspective on others, they allow me to have patience and compassion, and most of all they have allowed me to think about the future, my kids’ futures and the future of those whom they will grow up to live with, in an ever-changing world.

Another inspiration is my husband, he’s a paediatric plastic and reconstructive surgeon, who moved to the US as a refugee and devotes so much time to giving back and operating on children. His compassion and ability to compartmentalise his work is motivational and inspiring, and his strength gives me strength, near and far.  It proves that even individuals who have had everything taken away from them can come back to give and contribute to society, as long as they were given a chance and opportunity.  Last of all, many of my friends, starting with my mother, are inspirational.

My mother had me at a young age. I remember when she was in nursing school, she gave up so much for my brothers and I, and her continued love for her family inspires me.  My close circle of friends are inspirational, they come from all walks of life and have been through good and bad situations. At the end of the day, we are all here for each other and continue to want to do more, both professionally and in our personal lives.  I feel that when you surround yourself by those who have a story, who have persevered and continue to inspire with words of wisdom and support, it can only lead you to better yourself.

Have you ever had a mentor? If so, what was the most valuable part for you?

I’ve never really had one mentor, I’ve always admired certain individuals and public figures. It’s been of value to me to learn about the personality and history behind those who I consider as mentors, in respects to their work and life.

I mentor through COWF, we have an internship program and several high school club chapters, engaging with youth and young aspiring college students. It’s really gratifying when you’re able to witness someone completely transform into a leader, doctor or pursue other things, leading them to new passions and paths.

What do you think is your greatest achievement and why?

My greatest achievement was the opportunity to help one child and turning that opportunity into a legacy. A legacy that will continue to be represented in hundreds of lives for years to come. The miraculous transformational work that has been done by COWF and all of our team is an achievement, for me and everyone who has been touched by it.  I also consider my kids an achievement, they allow me to want to do more and continue to build a lasting legacy.

What three tips would you give people who are new to business and new to networking?

First tip is not to be discouraged. The business world can be hectic, especially in areas where competition, education and hierarchy can be nerve-wrecking and overbearing. In reality, if you’re good at something, then everything else is obsolete.  I think that if you’re comfortable with your surroundings and enjoy the business you’re in, then you should continue to push yourself to learn and navigate, you never know what opportunities will come your way.  The second tip would be – be in a business you’re passionate about or have interest in, if you wake up miserable and don’t look forward to your work, then maybe you’re in the wrong business and need to explore other opportunities.  Business is easier when you’re happy to be there, in most cases.

The last and most important tip is to network!  I wouldn’t have been able to expand COWF without networking.  I’ve always enjoyed learning about others and having intimate conversations about my work and passions.

I find that having a broad and diverse network opens doors, partnerships and opportunities to explore beyond your scope and expand it.

Networking can be done anywhere; it’s as simple as saying hello to a stranger and having a conversation about the weather. Today, I’m at Oxford, one of the oldest networks in education, globally. Since being at Oxford, opportunities having been pouring in, my network has expanded exponentially, it’s extremely important to have a diverse network, one that you can build upon and learn from.

What advice would you give to someone who wishes to move into a leadership position for the first time?

For myself, I learned quickly that others will depend on you to make decisions and you will be responsible for those results, so be prepared for possible outcomes. Very recently, I’ve also learned that you must delegate, you can’t do everything on your own and the best work is done when you have a team.  Productivity and success is key when you have someone or a team to fall back on.

On a typical work day, how do you start the day and how does it end?

Work for me doesn’t have set times, as my role is different depending on what country I’m in, the agenda, time, place and medical mission planned.  Sometimes, it takes me four to six months to organise a medical mission. Those days usually start off with 4/5 am conference calls, emails, meetings with doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical reps, and so on.  I usually end those days later in the evening, as my time revolves around the hectic schedules of doctors.  Some days start off with visiting a child who is in Los Angeles receiving long term surgical treatment. I usually end those days, leaving appointments with clinicians or conferencing with host parents or doctors overseeing them.

Then there are days that start with emails, lots of emails from people around the world, unfortunately, many of them I don’t get to, for various reasons.  Sometimes I travel to hospitals, private and public healthcare offices, and other times, I’m networking and look for opportunities for COWF.  Currently, I am commuting between Los Angeles and Oxford for school, along with that commute, I still travel for COWF to various regions and more recently, Silicon Valley for research and my business venture.  In short, my days consist of balancing time between my kids, COWF, business venture, travel, study groups and course work.

What does the future hold for you?

I hope the future holds an opportunity to make a significant change in my line of work. I want to be able to look back and experience the impact of my aspirations and goals.  People say that you can’t change the world, but I say, you can change someone’s world and that will lead to change in many lives.

If you are able to show one person a new light, then that’s when real change is paid forward from one person to another. Hopefully the future allows me to venture off to new places with new experiences. Healthcare and most recently, my interest in technology were not in my cards 14 years ago. We’ll see what happens next.

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