In this interview, Karam Ahmed Tawfiq spoke about the different stages of her life and the kinds of experiences she gained from them, viewing every single phase as a learning adventure that was formative and eventually led to her long-held idea and dream of starting a publishing house and bookstore: the future Kotob Khan.
Knowledge gained through reading and writing was always apart of Karam’s life. As a five-year-old child, she learned from her teacher mother how to read and write, which is how she first developed her love for books. However, when Karam wanted to pursue English literature in university, she faced some pressure from her mother that led to her studying and receiving a mass communications degree in 1988 instead. A little change of plans never succeeded in stopping Karam’s work or dreams; conversely, she worked harder and learned more. In fact, she believed in and loved exploring many work vocations and paths, even when they took the form of volunteering, as she did in radio broadcasting. After getting her MBA in project management, Karam spent a considerable amount of time in the corporate life.
Between the years 1991-2005, she worked in multiple multinational companies like the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), HP, and many others. There she learned and gained more experiences, which she would later put into practice in building her own business, Kotob Khan. One of the major lessons that Karam learned from this time was the value of sharing. In particular, the sharing of information is very essential to successful business. When information is not accurately shared, proceeding with anything takes more time and corrections have to be made. Because of this, Karam strives to do her best and to be generous with information sharing. She says that information sharing is critical “for everyone to be at the same level and having the same information, and knowing the workflow will keep progressing and not stop because someone is not available.”
Related to her time in the corporate world and her previous professional experiences, Karam was asked about whether she faced any discrimination or sexism as a working female in the corporate life. She said she did not and considers this to be one of the most positive aspects of her life. She attributes this experience to the structure of international corporate life and how mechanisms have been developed to not allow for these sorts of behaviors to go unnoticed or unpunished. She said, “there were secret assessments done on a three months’ basis for every subordinate, manager, and so on…,” which helped to monitor and prevent any bullying or harassment. She elaborates that the only sort of aggravation and annoyance she ever received came from the same sex, other women, because “I am not veiled and my hair shows and I look a little different.” She also says, that she faced more tensions from women than she faced from men.
Talking about this issue of women in the workplace, Karam particularly wants to understand better why many women, who have received advanced educations, are increasingly willing to give up joining the workforce or starting businesses and rather stay at home. She sees this phenomenon as increasing in the last decades. The problem bewilders her and she thinks the phenomenon deserves more research and inquiry. In contrast, Karam talks about her mother’s generation – people born in the forties and fifties – who were more active: “They finished their education, worked, got married, raised children, and taught their children with way less means than we have nowadays.”
Reflecting on this whole period of her life and these experiences and lessons, Karam says: “everything I achieved, and all that is Kotob Khan, is a product of my work in the corporate world.” While this phase of her life was invaluable, Karam never lost sight of her idea of starting something new and innovative. Therefore, finally in 2006, Karam turned her dreams into a reality and started her bookstore/publishing house Kotob Khan, without hesitation or fears, but rather with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm that she still keeps to this day.
At Kotob Khan, making a profit was never the goal for Karam, and she stands behind any serious piece of literature even if it is not going to have a high return. Spreading culture and helping writers and artists go through the publishing process are her major beliefs. To do these things, Karam has to sometimes work around the clock, saying “I am a workaholic.” Gaining the knowledge that Karam required in order to run a business like Kotob Khan was never an easy task. She had to start from scratch in order to be able to understand how the entire process of her line of business worked; even in logistical details like where to get bulk paper, how to import books from abroad, and how to distribute printed books in Egypt and elsewhere. Gaining this knowledge personally cost her a lot of time and effort; nonetheless, she generously shares those years of knowledge and struggle with anyone seeking help. Understanding the ups and downs in any business is a very crucial skill, and being able to make the most of the down times is something that Karam learned during the peak of the corona virus pandemic during the last couple of years. Although book sales were down to fifty percent, Karam saw this as an opportunity to refocus and devote more time to her work; especially in giving more attention to good pieces of writing. Aside from the work, she was also able to spend more time doing the other things she liked to do for herself like reading and spending time with her family.
Founding Kotob Khan was difficult and continually moving forward, especially during the pandemic, was especially challenging. However, Karam accepted these difficulties in order to follow her passions, while always knowing that she could have stayed in the corporate world with all of its comforts and benefits. Karam says clearly that everyone should choose their dreams and be what they want to be, even if it is difficult: “I am a publisher by choice, it’s my choice!”