Practice English Speaking&Listening with: How to blend in and stand out: Marwa Al-Ansari at TEDxDelft

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Transcriber: Miranda Tack Reviewer: Els De Keyser


Sabah al-khair and good morning.

When I was little, I had a dream,

a dream to become an engineer.

I grew up in Egypt in a family of 5 kids,

actually nine boys.

Only two of them are my brothers, the rest are my cousins.

We all used to live in the same building,

but in different apartments.

To my family, I was always an alien.

I was always an anomaly.

For my family, the biggest worry was how to raise me.

How can I blend in with all these boys?

How can they raise me to become a lady?

To my family, I was a liability.

When people used to ask me, when I was a little kid,

'What do you want to be in the future?

What do you aspire to be?'

I would say one thing very passionately, without thinking,

'I want to become an engineer.'

When I was little, I use to collect

all the waste material from our house,

from our neighbour's house from my friend's house.

I would get all this materials as a treasure hunt to my bedroom.

And my mother was always very angry with me

and shouted in my face,

'Why, why, why, Marwa?

Why are you cluttering our house

and your bedroom with waste?

Why are you collecting these plastic jars,

glass bottles, scraps of paper, pieces of cloth, why?!

Why are you playing with other people's rubbish?

Hmm, rubbish? What rubbish?

Actually, to my mother's surprise,

15 years after she made this statement,

guess what?

I officially got a degree,

actually 2 degrees, certifying me to work in other people's rubbish. (Laughter)

So, when I was little, I used to look at what they called rubbish or waste

as a resource, as an opportunity,

as something I can do something different with.

So I invented a fictitious tv programme to a fictitious audience.

I called it 'Let's invent together!'

I will take this material and try to invent something

create something else from it, something like an art work, stationery,

that I can gift to my friends and class mates.

I was a very curious kid.

I used to ask too many questions.

Actually, my science teachers

usually tried to avoid me.

They were scared of me.

They always said,

'You are either asking us very tough questions

or stupid questions.'

So I graduated from high school.

I got a very high score, so I was so happy.

I was so proud and I went to my family

with all the happiness in the world,

telling them, 'You know what? I want to become an engineer!'

And... actually, there were only a few moments of silence...

[between] the happiness and the joy I was feeling

and the sad news that my family told me.

My family told me, with a very cruel voice,

'No! No way!

You will never blend in in this profession.'

This is for men.

We are not allowing you to go to engineering school.

No way our only daughter is going to work with smelly men! No way!

If you want,

you can be a medical doctor or a journalist.

This is for ladies, not engineering.

You will not attend engineering.

(Sighs) I love my family.

So, with a very heavy broken heart

I joined medical school.

But after 2 weeks, I decided

I was not going to continue medical school.

So I went to my family

and I told them, 'I am sorry,

I am leaving medical school.

I know mom, this is your dream for me, to become a medical doctor,

but I am gonna leave.'

And I told them I would be joining mass communication school.

And I told them,

'I will become a journalist.'

The truth is,

I lied.

I never was a liar,

nor would I encourage people to lie,

nor do I appreciate liars,

but I wanted to become an engineer.

For 2 years I used to go to engineering school in secret.

And my family, every single day,

were proudly telling all our neighbours and friends,

Our daughter will become a journalist!' (Laughter)

But every day, my family grew more and more suspicious.

They said, 'Why are you carrying

math and physics books all the time?

Why not mass communication?' (Laughter)

And my typical answer was,

'I want to become a scientific journalist.

That's why.'

I got away with it for 2 years, studying engineering in secret.


one night, I still remember as if it were yesterday.

I was coming home from university, very late.

I was holding the book 'Fundamentals of Engineering One',

my engineering drawing T-square

-- at that time we used to draw with it --

and then my mom waited for me.

She looked at me with very suspicious and angry eyes

and told me, ' Marwa, I don't believe you. '

I don't believe you are studying mass communication.

You are holding a T-aquare, for God's sake!

What are you doing? What are you hiding from us?'

What are you doing? Tell me the truth!'

My body was all frozen.

I had a very shaky voice. Really, I was so scared.

And I told them, 'I am sorry.

I wanted to become an engineer.'

She told me, 'For 2 years, you have been hiding that?'

I said, 'I'm sorry'.

She told me, 'I am disappointed.

And when my mom is disappointed, you never know what will happen.

So my mom called for an urgent extended family meeting.

Oh my God, that means trouble.

So I remember,

all my family came, around our dining table,

and I was in the middle.

And I was so frightened of all the angry, disappointed, noisy voices,

screaming at my face,

'You are going to leave engineering! No way! You dissapointed us!

(Sighs) I told them: 'No!'

I really collected all my courage.

I said: ' No! I am not. '

And then my mother said,

'Over my dead body.'

I told her, 'Mother, really?

I don't want you to be dead.' (Laughs)

'And I don't want anyone else to be dead,

including myself,

but I want to become an engineer.

Mother and family,

please give me this chance.

I promise you,

if you let me finish engineering,

I will become a doctor in engineering,

trust me! (Laughter)

Trust me and I will make it!'

My family, disappointed and with a very heavy heart, told me,

'Go! Do whatever you want.

But you know what? you will never succeed!

You will never have a career in this profession.

The men will crush you.

You have no career in this... engineering.

Guess what?

I continued in engineering.

I graduated with highest honours.

In those years I became president of engineering club,

where I helped in the employment of 150 of my colleagues,

including myself,

including my elder brother.

Then I went into construction industry,

civil industry.

I worked on a site for 4 years.

I was the only lady or female engineer at that time.

After 3 years I was the only senior engineer, at that time.

even my male colleagues did not have that.

Concurrently, I was doing a Masters in the American University in Cairo.

I also finished Construction Management

and then I went to Scotland to do another one,

for which I got a full scholarship,

to do Environmental Engineering.

Remember, I used to collect all the rubbish and waste?

It was my hobby.

So I went there, I finished, I got distinction

I got another full scholarship to study

in Cambridge university to do my PhD.

But another interesting thing happened.

When I was about to graduate,

I attended a career talk

by someone in the oil and gas industry.

They came and talked about the industry.

But suddenly,

they said a very important term

which really changed my life.

It was one of these life-changing moments.

They told me: 'We have something called DNI'.

What? DNI?

Diversity and Inclusiveness.

It means, in all ways you are diverse, you are different,

but we will include all of you.'

Oh my God!

I fell in love.

I fell in love with the oil and gas industry.

So I said, 'Let's go to the oil and gas industry'.

So I went very happily to my PhD adviser.

I was happily saying, I am going to get an offer

to work in oil and gas.

And she shocked me by saying, 'What?'

Oh, Marwa, you already have an offer from Cambridge,

to become assistant professor.

Why do you want to go into this male dominated world?

You will never have a career.

This is not for you.

You are a civil environmental engineer.

You are not a process or chemical engineer.

You are not a chemist.

Why do you want to join this one?

You will never be leader.

You will always be a second class citizen.

Men will crush you.

Or the process engineers or chemical engineers will crush you.'


I looked at my PhD adviser and said,

'Oh my God,

this is not the first time I hear that. (Laughter)

I think I became thick skinned.

'I said, 'Okay, you know what?

No worries, I will continue in the oil and gas industry.'

And guess what?

I moved with my team to Qatar

and she was right,

I was the only civil environmental engineer in the team.

I worked with fantastic - they call it waste, I prefer to say 'resource'.

What you are seeing here is sulphur,

coming from the oil and gas industry.

What we used to do, with my team --

we get this material,

we mix it with rocks,

with sand,

magic dust, abacadabra

and we can make concrete from it.

Yes, a concrete with no water and no cement whatsoever!

So I came to the group with a lot of differences,

and I was so scared!

How can I blend in with my team?

But with my background, with all the things I can get,

I really felt I could jump in.

We all joined hands together.

We blended very well.

And guess what?

With my team, we have managed to, until now,

raise 5 patents for innovative ideas.

It is still in the pipeline.

In 2009 we have been awarded 2 international awards

for innovative ideas.

So, what I am trying to say, is, sometimes we are so scared

to blend in.

But the fact is,

while you are wasting your energy trying to blend in,

you are missing the opportunity

to share with everyone, to blend in and stand out.

Now, after finishing this fantastic project of sulphur concrete,

which we are seeing on the screen,

I moved to the Netherlands.

For 10 days now I have been in the Netherlands

A new team with a new challenge for us.

But one thing happened --

I just wanted to share it with you.

It was another life changing moment,

when I graduated from Cambridge.

My mother and father attended the graduation

and were so happy,

lining up to take a picture.

Suddenly, my mom starts crying.

I said, 'Mother, why are you crying,

on such a fantastic day? '

My mother said to me,

'Because, you have fulfilled your promise.'

'Promise, what promise, mother?'

'Remember, one day you told me,

if we let you finish engineering,

you were going to become a doctor in engineering.

Today I am attending that.

Today I really trust you.

Today I acknowledge you.

Today I am proud of you.'

I would like to tell my mother

and my family, my teacher,

thank you!

Thank you so much for not believing in me.

Thank you so much for giving me

the opportunity to prove to you

I am right.

Thank you for making me fulfill my dreams.

Thank you so much for feeding the curious optimistic kid inside me

so that I can jump into things

and fulfill my dream,

aspire to my goals and fulfill it.

Thank you so much

for giving me this opportunity

to come into this position.

Now, in my new team, I am a leader.

Where people said I would never be in leadership in oil and gas,

now I am an environmental leader

for a very big petrochemical project,

and I am here, working from the Netherlands.

So, last statement -- I wanted to tell you --

remember when I used to do the fictitious tv programme?

For the fictitious audience?

Today I am really privileged

to be standing in front of you,

in a non-fictitious TEDxDelft,

to a non-fictitious amazing audience like you.

So, what I want to say to everyone --

live your dream, not anyone's dream.

Believe in yourself !

Hard work, team player.

Passion, strength, resilience.

You can achieve everything!

And also,

why is everyone asking me to blend in?


Why would you want to blend in?

Why do you want to just blend in when you have an opportunity,

not just to blend in but to stand out with your team?

I hope I am going to blend in in the Netherlands.

Dankuwel, shukran and thank you!


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