Brigitte Ayoub: Growing up Palestinian-American, surviving loss, and thriving
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Brigitte Ayoub is a first-generation American daughter of two Palestinian immigrants. She grew up experiencing the challenges of finding her place as an American with Arab roots.
Right after leaving her corporate job to start her own business in April 2018, her dad died…and then her mom was diagnosed with leukemia the following year. Brigitte believes that “we have two choices every day, to sit and lament, or face the adversity with courage and choose to lean into it.” She has chosen the latter option.
As a first-generation Arab-American, Brigitte grew up as the youngest of three children in a predominantly white, affluent area in the Philadelphia suburbs. She struggled to find her place between a Palestinian culture her parents were trying to preserve and modern American culture.
In addition to being tall (she’s 5’8” now), she had olive skin and felt like the hairy Arab girl. Her parents also were strict, so that made her stand out among her peers even more. She sought her comfort in food.
“To make things a little bit more unique for me, my father came to this country in 1962 and he was barely 18. Living the American dream and working three jobs, he actually was an aerospace engineer and a rocket scientist and he worked for the US Navy and NASA.”
As a young person, she was often told she was ahead of her time. Although she had friends, she often found herself having conversations with her friends’ parents.
“My friends would tease me, saying ‘why are you talking to my mom?’ But I just I felt more comfortable sometimes around adults because I think I grew up in a space where it was a lot of adult conversation.”
Although her dad was highly accomplished, he also suffered from ongoing health issues. Earning a degree in marketing and a master’s in organizational development and leadership, Brigitte also got a certification in integrative nutrition.
As a Palestinian, Brigitte often feels misunderstood. Many people assume all Palestinians are Muslim, but her family falls into the 20 percent of Palestinians who are Christian. She attended Catholic school, and her classmates questioned her constantly about her family’s traditions.
“I think there's nothing wrong with curiosity, but it always felt more from like a defensive state. Why do you do this? And why did I have to be different? And so when people would say, well, why does your family celebrate multiple Easters? Or you know, why can't you come out to the dances?”
Brigitte’s parents fled for safety. Her father carried his little brother on his back while they were fleeing Palestine.
“He was oldest of then five children, and he came to this country with my grandfather. They were sending money overseas to my grandmother, who was raising the rest of the kids. My dad carried his brother for miles to safety. My mom taught in a refugee camp in Lebanon.”
While Brigitte’s classmates were focused on boys and dating, she felt beyond her years with a completely different world view. Her parents fled their country to find safety in America, and she was aware of the privilege she carried, not having to worry about her daily safety.
Brigitte has never been to Palestine, but it’s on her bucket list. She admits to some fear about going through the security checkpoints. She has heard stories from friends and family who have been detained just for having Arab names.
“So I would be lying to you if I didn't say that as an Arab woman I didn't fear moving through those checkpoints and just that whole process.”
I spoke to Brigitte on Inauguration Day, so we were both feeling hopeful!
“I am very hopeful that we are moving in the right direction considering our now sworn-in President Biden has brought on the most diverse group of individuals, which is obviously what the country needs right now. So I'm confident and I'm calm.”
Brigitte worked in the health care field and after earning a master’s degree, she left her corporate role in April 2018 to pursue a health coaching practice. The month before, her father had open heart and quadruple bypass surgery. He also suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney failure.
“Literally, the day after I quit my corporate job, my dad went back into the hospital over some complications. And you know, unfortunately, in August 2018, my father passed away. And here I was. I just left my corporate job, a steady, squishy corporate job that I loved.”
She had been taking clients at her dad’s bedside, working hard to make her new business work. Within a few months, she had to grapple with grief over her father’s death.
She powered through with the support of family, friends, and a women’s networking organization. By December 2019, she decided to shift her focus to business coaching.
“So I go to make this pivot on Christmas Eve of 2019. My mom is diagnosed with leukemia, a rare form of leukemia, and it was just the most devastating blow…16 months after my dad had passed.”
Brigitte’s mom is strong, and the doctors felt confident she could survive. She stayed in the hospital for 31 days for treatment and they knocked her cancer into remission.
“The doctors said, you're in remission. It will come back. You're going to need a bone marrow transplant. You need to come down for transfusion. I was trying to find my place with it all, and COVID-19 hit in March 2020.”
It seemed like every time Brigitte made a big move in her business, something would happen to one of her parents…and then came a global pandemic on top of it. Her mom received a bone marrow transplant in July 2020. Brigitte loves to think about the 37-year-old international donor, demonstrating how we are all connected.
“Somebody, somewhere in the world has given my mother life on July 15, 2020. They said happy birthday to her because it was a new birth for her…so that gives me hope…there's so much out there that I think can bring us down and we just need to hear those stories of hope.”
Brigitte is very close to her older brother and his wife, Jessi, and her sister, Jennifer. Jennifer wasn’t breathing when she was born and has an upper respiratory condition.
“She is just one of the most sweet and calm people you'll know. As we talk about resilience and grit, my sister had moments where she had to be in the hospital growing up…She had to have special accommodations so she leaned inward and took to the arts and became really good at drawing and painting.”
Brigitte’s sister celebrates her physical disability and doesn't shy away from it. Now she continues to find her own voice and celebrate who she is.
I asked Brigitte how she had coped with the grief of losing her dad. She’s grateful for the time she had with him. With a more traditional upbringing, her relationship with her Dad really shifted in the way he interacted with her when she got married.
“I wanted more time, but we all want more time with our loved ones. We always want to be able to say that we've lived to the fullest with them, so I'm grateful for the moments I had with him.”
Since he died, she’s also poured her energy into personal and professional development like meditation, journaling, and fitness to deal with the grief.
“I think the biggest thing I've leaned into is believing that everything happens for me and not to me, and I've laid that as my foundation to being an entrepreneur. It's always about trusting yourself and I trust myself. I trust that my higher power has been here for a certain reason and has everything laid out. I can only see this step. But someone or something bigger than me sees the staircase.”
Brigitte is a business and marketing coach, helping women build and create simple effective marketing strategies, sales, and mindset to grow their online business. She’s also the managing director of a women’s connection organization called Polka Dot Powerhouse. The women in that organization were a tremendous support to Brigitte when her dad passed away.
I asked Brigitte what she finds most gratifying about being an entrepreneur.
“Nothing beats seeing a client who literally told me she has stumbled and struggled with a problem for two years in her business, and she gained that clarity within 20 minutes of working together.”
Brigitte and I spoke about the experience of being an entrepreneur and the fact that not everyone is well suited to it. She says it’s 70% mindset and then 30% strategy and execution.
“We need pioneers everywhere, and starting a business might not always be the solution.”
Some people are drawn to leadership, and other people are not. I shared my perspective with Brigitte that if you’re not drawn to leadership, it would be much more difficult to be an entrepreneur. Brigitte pointed out that you can’t go into business just to make money.
“At the end of the day, it really comes down to being energetically aligned and what's going to set your soul on fire.”
Brigitte has found inspiration from her mentor, Emma Burgess, from New Zealand, who calls herself the “manifestation queen.”
She also finds inspiration in the life of her mom.
“When my mom came to this country, she raised us and went back into the workforce…but obviously, most recently when my mom learned she had cancer…she said ‘I'm going to knock this out of the park.’…My mom is a powerful woman who is beating odds and choosing to see the goodness and the positive and saying my time is not done here. I'm going to continue to do this and I'm going to rise and keep going.”
I enjoyed my conversation with Brigitte. Her positive energy is contagious, and we have a lot in common coming out of the corporate world and starting our own businesses.
Next week you’ll meet Shannon Whaley, who overcame sexual abuse and assault, a toxic childhood, and drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013 she sold everything and moved to the Cayman Islands, and then to Italy in 2017. She is a business and visibility coach and teaches people how to turn their stories into sales. She works with folx who have gone through hell and back and have a story to tell the world.
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