CHICAGO: Lebanese expatriate Rola Dagher, who rose from working in telephone sales to become one of the technology industry’s highest ranking Arab and female executives, said racism and discrimination abounded throughout her professional rise.
Dagher, the global channel chief officer of Dell Technologies, told Arab News in an exclusive interview that her company has a strong presence in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world, which she expects to expand during the next few years.
The former president of Cisco Systems Canada, Dagher said she is driven by pride in her Lebanese heritage and the ability to serve as a positive role model for women in the male-dominated computer space, having overcome racism on her journey to the top.
“I am 51 years old and I still face it today, (although) I don’t face it … at Dell, because Dell is amazing,” Dagher said.
“I faced it in my career. I was bullied, I was called names. So many people said, ‘what the heck is Cisco thinking, to hire her as a president in Cisco Canada?’ So many people said, ‘what the heck are Michael (Dell) and Billy thinking to put her in as global CCO? It’s the first Arabic woman to get to that level.’ But hey, we proved them wrong, and that is the best reward ever when people doubt you; you show them exactly … what you bring to the table.”
Dagher said being an Arab makes her “so proud to give back to the Arab world,” citing advances in the Gulf and praising Saudi Vision 2030.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have been in the business — over 30 plus years, and I work in the largest company in the world — but every time someone talks about the Arab world my heart skips a beat because it is my world, and it is where I come from, and I want to do good,” she said.
“Unfortunately, I have looked at Lebanon and what Lebanon is going through. It breaks my heart because it doesn’t matter how much you do, (there) is so much struggle. But if I look at the Arab world I see what (King Salman) is doing in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Vision 2030, the advancement you are seeing in the Arab world in specific countries — it makes me so proud to give back in that perspective.
“In terms of all the sectors and the business and the focus that they have in this country, I look at the theme of what they have done and it is unbelievable,” she added.
Technological advances in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, will continue to expand, Dagher said.
“We expect the growth in the region to continue. Through the next five years, we are talking about three to five years, I will tell you that (we are) constantly exploring routes to help growth in terms of our team, our customers and our partners.”
Dagher was born and raised in rural Lebanon, emigrating to Canada in 1989 when she was just 16 to escape the Lebanese civil war. She raised two children as a single mother, but said she learned to be strong as one of six daughters in a family with no sons.
“Having girls back in the day was not a good thing, and they kept pushing my mother, (telling my parents) they should have a son. But my parents proved to them that raising six daughters is amazing,” Dagher said, calling herself “a self-made career woman” who worked her way up from her first job in Canada, in retail, to provide for her family.
She later moved to Bell Canada, where she worked 15 years as a telemarketer selling long distance services to families. Dagher moved up to the position of account manager, and was then hired by Dell in 2011 “knowing nothing” about what the company did.
“I went into Dell as an account executive and moved … to a director, to a VP in two years,” Dagher said. “So, Michael Dell said, ‘who is this fiery Lebanese person in Canada that is making so many waves?’ And they basically gave me the highest level job at the time, and I was the first female to lead 150 engineers responsible for all of their R&D business.”
Dagher moved into managerial leadership at Dell, saying her rise was fueled by her “passion to learn about technology.” She acknowledged she has no formal education, joking that she has “a PhD in life.”
Cisco reached out to her while she was at Dell with a job offer, which, she added, was ironic because she had applied there for a position as an account manager, but had been rejected. “They said at the time I was too aggressive,” Dagher explained.
In June 2017, Dagher was named president of Cisco Systems Canada.
In August 2020, she returned to Dell as global CCO overseeing sales and retail partnerships, marketing and communication.
Dagher’s commitment to empowering women is shown through her recognition as one of the 2020 Top 25 Women of Influence by WXN, as one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100, and by Women in Communications and Technology as its 2019 Woman of the Year. She was selected as one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrant winners for 2019, was named “Lady of the Cedar” by the Lebanese Embassy, and received a 2018 leadership award from the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to her role at Dell, Dagher sits on the board of Cedars Cancer Foundation and is an advocate for pediatric and young adult cancer patients.
She is a co-founder of the BlackNorth Initiative, an active member of the 30% Club, and sits on the “Circle of Champions” for the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, promoting growth through diversity in the workplace.
A champion of mental health causes, Dagher also sits on the foundation board for the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health, and on the advisory board for Catalyst, where she supports work to accelerate progress for women in the workplace.
She is also a member of the Kids Help Phone charity board.