Jocelyn Chahwan: A Champion of Brainpower, Not Fempower


Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was the right person for this interview. The article we had in mind was about a successful female banking executive in what is generally still perceived as an old boy’s club. A triumph of gender balance against the odds. Punching a hole through the glass ceiling. A woman who flew in the face of convention, etc. An example of brainpower, not just fempower.

It seemed a little inappropriate to send a man to record her thoughts on the matter. But less than five minutes into my conversation with, I felt embarrassed for my earlier ponderings. Humbled, even.

And This is Why

Jocelyne is currently the Head of Retail and Deputy CEO of a highly respected financial institution in Beirut. My own perspective of this is that I remember, in the second decade of the millennium, having walked into numerous banks in the Middle East as an account holder or loan seeker. Then being shuffled from one bank officer to another with not a woman in sight behind the numerous desks of which I sat in front. Not one.

But in those same banks, I saw plenty of women who were customers. Lots of women contributing to the economy, then but not playing a role in the financial sector. 

So, for Jocelyne Chahwan to have risen so high in the ranks, then, is pretty noteworthy. But when you read her story, you may very well see female emancipation through quite a different lens.

A Lens Focused on Brains, Not Gender.

Let’s go back to when Jocelyne started her banking career in Montreal in 1990. Whatever images this conjures up for you, like French sophistication coupled with established North American infrastructure, forget it. I was working in Canada at the same time, and I remember the country being in dire straits. Caught in the bleakness of a recession, creating urban deprivation that is difficult to imagine in the Canada of today. In Montreal, for example, over 40% of the city’s residents were living in poverty.

For a person who chose banking as a profession, that era created one tough apprenticeship, n’est-ce pas? The recession was officially over in the US by Q2 1991, but as we all know, a recession is a concussive force, and its impact reverberated for a while after that.

Nonetheless, Jocelyne’s mettle helped her overcome these challenges, and she progressed through a series of promotions until achieving the title of Manager of Investments. An exemplary presence of what combining fempower and brainpower could really lead to.

At the risk of repeating myself, a series of promotions for a woman during a time when 70% of the Canadian workforce was desperately trying to hold on to their jobs. An alarming amount of those people were unsuccessful in their endeavour.

If this path that Jocelyne chose proved to be contrary to the events and social mores happening around her, then how about her next move? She and her family upped anchor and relocated back to her home country Lebanon, where over four million people (a highly conservative estimate) had left since 1975. The greatest diaspora in living memory!

The contraflow of Jocelyne’s career seemed to be further illuminated by the fact that Lebanon’s economic growth rate had also slowed to about 4% when she and her family returned in 1996, exacerbated by the Beirut bombings of April that year.

Or perhaps it was precisely the right time, as the expertise she’d gained and practices she could now deploy from her time in Montreal proved to be inestimably valuable to Lebanon’s banking landscape and continue to be so today. 

It is at this point in our conversation that the mood changes just a little, and something akin to pride starts to flavour Jocelyne’s discourse. And little wonder. She’s all too aware of the difference she has made to the country’s retail banking sector and the transformative process she trailblazed as the sector has moved into the digital era. When she mentions that she is also a mother of two, it is really just a mention, not a point, about the heroics of a working mother.

We’re long past that and focusing on human achievement, not gender achievement. Having left the re-emerging and sophisticated banking environment of North America for a banking structure yet to reach any stage of primacy, Jocelyne talks of starting from scratch again and very much having to take a pathfinder’s role to deliver on the expectations of a population living in uncertain times.

And so, up the ladder of training and retail banking, she climbed, employing unconventional instructional tactics to pull her colleagues along into a new era of customer service. From the head of training & development to head of marketing in retail banking, then onto the head of all retail banking departments and Deputy CEO.

If I’m rattling off Jocelyne’s ascendency in her bank, it’s not because I’m unappreciative of the energy and commitment it took to rise so high. But this is just the resumé of an achiever, and Jocelyne Chahwan is so much more. 

Smashing through the glass ceiling? Check.

Reinventing herself in the transition from North America to the Middle East? Check.

Being a working mother? Check.

But, and this is a very big but, interspersed in this journey up the corporate ranks, were a few events that confirmed Jocelyne not only as a successful career woman, but as a national asset. 

Correction. A Regional Asset

In 2011, she became the first Lebanese banker on VISA’s Advisory Council for the Levant. VISA comes up quite a lot in our conversation. It seems they have been tremendously supportive in the transformation from traditional to digital banking.

A natural progression to Jocelyne’s relationship with VISA was her accession to the VISA CEMEA Security and Risk Council. China’s UnionPay notwithstanding, VISA is by far the largest card payment organization in the world, handling 50% of all card purchases. To sit on the security council of such a company is the Mount Olympus of current and future retail banking. 

And since we’re on the subject of lofty heights, have you heard of The Asian Banker? It is the go-to platform for strategic business intelligence, probably the continent’s leading consultancy, and the definitive ‘first read of the morning’ for Asia’s vast financial community.

Well, in 2018, this highly regarded platform named Jocelyne Chahwan the ‘Retail Finance Person of the Year in the Middle East and Africa’ to honour her continuing role in the transformation of the sector. Perhaps you’d care to reread that part. It reads ‘Person.’ Not ‘Man.’ Not ‘Woman.’ 

To call The Asian Banker Excellence Awards prestigious is an understatement. They are viewed with keen interest by investors, the media, and the recruitment industry. An award for an institution is treated with reverence – such is its reputational value. A personal award here is the pinnacle of anyone’s career. On its website, The Asian Banker has the following to say: 

“The ‘Retail Finance Person of the Year’ Award is the only individual award recognised under this programme and the only award of its kind in the Asia Pacific, Africa and Middle East. Very few candidates will ever qualify for this prestigious career-recognising award. The award is based on a shortlist of candidates from conversations with industry peers by TAB (The Asian Amercian) Insights*. It’s then reviewed by the International Council of Advisors.

It is given to recognise the achievements of an outstanding leader in the retail financial services industry who has contributed significantly to the transformation of his or her institution and has had a strong impact on the country and on the industry. It also recognises significant achievements over the person’s whole career, his/her inspirational thought leadership towards the bank and the industry.”

I mentioned earlier about rushing through Jocelyne’s progression of promotions, yet now I’m spending a lot of your time on this one award. I do this because such recognition from The Asian Banker has dual ramifications for her; her head and her heart. Her head, because it ratifies all she has believed in, regarding brain power over fempower. Her heart, because she’s been made all too aware of the inspiration she has been to women. This is particularly true in the Levant, GCC, and North African countries.

For some of the winners, this accolade has come toward the end of their career. It’s rather like a ‘lifetime achievement award.’ 

But Jocelyne Chahwan is not done yet. Far from it. She has some specific ideas about leading Lebanon out of the current economic situation it finds itself in. This includes an equilibrium of responsibility between the public and private sectors. This included reforms to make it easier for public sector employees to move into private enterprise.

And the private sector itself should take more responsibility to improve the value of its assets. This may necessitate international, highly experienced management for utilities, telecoms, and even the airport. She also suggested the allocation of somewhere between 15% and 20% of future oil and gas revenues to the depositors.

Our conversation was coming to a close. I felt quite humbled to take up so much of her time. I hope that I have been emotionally accurate about Jocelyne’s character. 

But one thing I do know.

I no longer look at fempower through the eyes of a (hopefully intelligent!) male.

I look at it through the brain of a human being.

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