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Zainab Salbi
  Zainab Salbi

Women for Women Founder Tells Ross Graduates, "Live Your Truth Today"

5/4/2010 --

War Survivor Zainab Salbi encourages new alumni to lead change — and enjoy the process.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sometimes we choose a new beginning; sometimes a new beginning is forced upon us. Either way, a new beginning requires the courage to embrace and lead change. Few know that courage better than war survivor Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International.

"It is a privilege to live here, to graduate from this University, and to have the possibilities for your dreams to be fulfilled," Salbi told Ross School of Business graduates during her Spring Commencement keynote April 30. "Today you are choosing to start a new beginning with your graduation, and you are graduating into a world that is changing. You must have the courage to speak up and speak out: to break your own silence and live your own truth and values every single day. It is a responsibility you have as an educated person."

Salbi founded Women for Women International in 1993; her current chief of staff is Ross alumna Erika Lubensky, MBA '04. For nearly two decades, the nonprofit has helped women survivors of war rebuild their lives and contribute to their societies. Salbi helms a staff of 700 who have served more than 250,000 women in conflict and post-conflict areas through direct aid, microcredit loans, and sponsorships. The organization has trained thousands of women in rights awareness and has helped many start small businesses.

On the one hand, Salbi's personal and professional journey appears to deviate dramatically from that of the newly minted Ross graduate. Her father was Saddam Hussein's pilot. She faced tremendous loss in war torn Iraq, was displaced from her country, and ultimately escaped an arranged and abusive marriage. As a professional, she has chosen to work with women facing the most dire and incomprehensible circumstances in Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, among others.

But at the same time, she is a successful entrepreneur who relies on the management expertise of her staff to sustain a vital and enduring organization. "I count on people like you," she said. "You have much more knowledge than I do. But I'm here today to share a few things I've learned by living and working in war zones and crisis areas."

Those lessons include:

Don't Wait to Live Your Truth
"Do not wait until you have enough money to live your dream. Do not wait for the time you will retire. Live it today and live it fully. I would not be standing here if I did not do that when I was 23 years old."

Own Your Fear
"I had so many fears: of poverty, displacement, failure, and ridicule. No one was going to liberate me from that fear but myself. I grew up in the inner circle of one of the worst dictators in the 20th century. I was convinced that if I told anybody I knew Saddam Hussein that my identity, my values, and my accomplishments would all disappear. It took a lot of work to own that fear. I have to fight it by exposing myself fully and saying: 'This is who I am.'"

Do Not Be Attached to Outcomes
"Two weeks ago my family united for the first time in 20 years. When we sat together as a family, we had nothing of what our parents had accumulated. But we had our peace. The house we grew up in went from being an execution center to a brothel to a military center. A few months ago the government returned it to us with only the bare walls as witness to everything that had happened. Never be attached to any outcome -- only your inner peace, your own values, and your own truth."

Enjoy the Process of Living
"Life is cruel. Sometimes it is magnificently beautiful. I've worked with women who were pinned to a cross and raped while rebels drummed and danced around them. I've worked with women whose legs and feet were cut into pieces in front of their children. And these women dance every single day and say, 'Don't look us at victims. Look at us as resilient women who have thrived and survived despite our circumstances.' And if they can dance and if they can sing, who are we not to? Dance in the process of living life and don't take yourself too seriously."

Salbi admitted that today's graduates may not believe they have the same range of choices, chances, and opportunities that their counterparts enjoyed in healthier economies.

"But you have better choices now," she said. "And I'm not saying that just to be optimistic. You do have better choices. You have a choice of laying low and just getting a job to survive, or to be an agent of change in your life and in the lives of many, many others. I know I don't want to be part of a generation who was known to see an opportunity for change and not act upon it. I want to be known as the generation that led the change, made it possible, lived its truth, and lived it fully."

Salbi's pioneering philanthropic efforts through Women for Women International have earned her the prestigious Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize and the Forbes Trailblazer Award among others. She is a best-selling author, and her work has been featured in such major media outlets as CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

—Deborah Holdship

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,