For an Entrepreneur Trained in Conflict Resolution, Business is Good

Alma Jadallah seeks to broker peace between Middle Eastern communities in a post-Arab Spring world.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

In January, Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah was in Geneva, facilitating a meeting of Syrian women for the United Nations. She took four or five trips last year to Yemen, to assist in talks to create the country’s new political system. Before that, she developed processes to ease religious tensions in Iraq.

Such is the busy post-Arab Spring life of a consultant in conflict resolution. When not working, Jadallah, 55, is at home with her husband, Sami, a lawyer, in Fairfax, Va. — but these days, she is rarely not working. She estimated that in 2013 she worked all but 10 days — primarily as a consultant for the U.N. but also as an adjunct professor in conflict resolution at George Mason University.

Jadallah’s speciality is designing meetings — never an easy task, but even more difficult when participants are torn apart because of opposing religious, cultural or political views. In Iraq, for instance, she was hired by the U.N. to facilitate meetings of Iraqis who have different traditions but historically have lived together as neighbors. The stress of war, however, has caused fighting among the groups, she said.

“Our role was to actually talk to them about the importance of dialogue,” she said. “What causes people to dislike other people, how the negative perceptions can lead to actually dehumanizing the other and hurting the other person.” During the 10-day session, she taught participants conflict-resolution skills that they could bring back to their communities. “I believe that even the people who do the most horrendous things do them for a reason,” she said. “If you give them an opportunity to rethink what they are doing, there is opportunity for transformation.”

Jadallah, whose one-woman firm is called Kommon Denominator, is particularly well suited for conflict work in the Middle East. Born in Saudi Arabia, she spent her childhood in Cairo and later attended high school and college in Jordan. She speaks Arabic fluently. In 1989, she moved to the United States with her Arab-American husband to raise their children and continue her studies. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she decided to focus on peace building and received a doctorate from George Mason University in conflict analysis and resolution.

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But up until 2005, Jadallah had worked mostly for Corporate America, doing “organizational effectiveness” training — getting different divisions of a company to collaborate with one another — at mortgage giant Freddie Mac. When her position was eliminated, she decided to start Kommon Denominator, offering those same skills to government agencies, school boards or anyone who needed it.

The first challenge for her home-based business was winning clients. “We’re not just talking about a product,” she said. “We’re selling people ideas of how to think.”  Jadallah turned to her networks — she is active in women’s business groups, trade associations and her university — for referrals. One of her first projects came from George Mason, which had a grant to train scholars and practitioners from Bethlehem University in conflict resolution. She traveled to Palestine to perform the work.

Jadallah sets daily rates for her services, starting at $750 a day, although it depends on how long the project lasts, who’s funding it, and the tasks required. She has worked with a diverse mix of clients, from Texaco to the Fairfax County Public Schools. In recent years, given her experience and academic degrees, she has been able to charge as much as $3,000 a day.

Jadallah said she has always been busy but work has picked up. Since 2012, she has worked mostly on projects for the U.N. in the Middle East, something she hopes to continue in the year ahead. But like any business consultant, she’s never quite sure when or if a project will land in her lap. “It’s not a paycheck that comes every month,” she said.

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And while Jadallah will bring on freelance colleagues and staff as budgets allow, most of the work requires her expertise. “When you are the subject-matter expert, you have to be the face of the project,” she said. “That means when I am traveling, the business development suffers because I am doing all of the work.”

Jadallah hopes to expand her firm, perhaps partnering with universities or think tanks, so she can do more conflict resolution work in diaspora communities in the United States. “Take the Syrian conflict,” she said. “The Syrian community here is as divided as people in Syria.” In years ahead, she said she hopes to pursue financing from the Small Business Administration or a private equity firm to push the idea forward.

Meanwhile, as long as there is conflict, Jadallah will likely be busy, even if the work is not even-keeled. Sometimes, Jadallah said, she considers going back to a steady 9-to-5 corporate job. “It would be so easy,” she said. “But then I get these exciting projects. Every time I get one, I lose my mind, and I forget all the other stuff in terms of more stability and stable income.”

Read Full Transcript

AJ: We’re not selling a plate, or we’re selling a doll, or we’re selling a chair. We’re selling people ideas of how to think.

CARD: Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah – Founder – Kommon Denominator, Virginia, USA

Kommon Denominator is a small boutique firm. We offer services in facilitation, in mediation, and problem solving. How do we deal with interpersonal conflict? How do we deal with communal conflicts? How do we deal with international conflicts?

CARD: Alma’s roots lie in the Middle East. Her mother comes from a high-ranking government family in Jordan.

I grew up with outstanding role models and I attribute that to my mother. Constantly, she convened people in our home that she looked up to. Arab women who were educated, who were engineers, who were doctors, who were teachers. So I believe that their role has been very powerful in my life.

CARD: Alma’s father was a businessman. His work took the family around the region.

I was born in Saudi Arabia. And then I grew up in Cairo from the age of two till the age of 13. I studied high school in Amman, Jordan.

My father encouraged my education tremendously and he had very high ambitions for me.

CARD: Alma studied English and Philosophy at Jordan University.
In 1981 she met her husband, Sami, an Arab-American businessman.

I met Sami in Jordan. He was introduced to us by a distant family member. He grew up in the United States and so we started coming here annually to visit with his family.

CARD: In 1989 they moved to the United States with their three children.

I really wanted to come and complete the citizenship processes and also go back to school if that was a possibility.

CARD In 2001 Alma was working on her Ph.d.
The events of 9/11 affected her profoundly. She changed the focus of her studies to conflict resolution.

I decided to use all my education for the service of understanding social conflict. I believe that even the people that do the most horrendous things do them for a reason, and if you give them an opportunity to rethink what they are doing that there is opportunity for transformation.

CARD In 2005, Alma started Kommon Denominator.
Her clients range from local school boards and major U.S. corporations to international peace organizations.

It’s a challenge to kind of convince people to bring an outsider into something that is very dear and near to their heart. We do not come up with the solutions, we facilitate the conversations. So the people who are involved, they are the ones who come up with the solutions. We provide them the processes and the tools to kind of do that. And that’s a very difficult thing to do.

CARD Her early years in the Middle East give her a unique ability to work across the region. In 2012 the United Nations Development Programme hired her for a project in Iraq.

My role was to actually design and facilitate a dialogue between religious communities in Iraq, especially around issues of tension and violence. I heard very traumatic stories. Many of the people who attended they had lost, no exaggeration… hundreds of people that they knew in their lives.

If we can reach the point where they can agree to disagree and identify a shared goal, you will find that regardless of their differences, they might align. The measure of success for me and my work is if I had really given people the tools so when I’m not there they’re able to move forward. And I’ve heard that many times, people say, “Do you remember, Alma, when you gave us this process, or you taught us this idea, or you asked us an open-ended question that had us think about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it differently. These are moments where I feel very proud. And I feel that we’ve really made the difference for people.

Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah Credits:

Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Karin Kamp
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Associate Producer – Nusha Balyan
Assistant Editor – Luke Burns
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos Courtesy of:
IFC Corporate Governance
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University
Mennonite Central Committee
Nasser Nouri on Flickr
OXFAM

Copyright Images:
Reuters
AP photo/ Mohammed Hato
AP photo/ Karim Kadim
New York Daily News Archive/ Getty Images
Reuters/ Thaier Al-Sudani
Reuters/ Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

Posted: March 5, 2014

Colleen DeBaiseFor an Entrepreneur Trained in Conflict Resolution, Business is Good