As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Fariyal Khanbabi.
Fariyal Khanbabi is the CEO at Dialight. Khanbabi brings over a decade of C-suite experience to her role, having formerly worked as CFO at Harvest Energy and Britannia Bulk, LTD. Having spent her entire career in the technology space, Khanbabi has become accustomed to being the only woman in the room and thus has proven to be a strong advocate for women in the workplace, especially in the LED industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?
My backstory is certainly unconventional, as my first lessons in C-level management happened aboard a shipping vessel, where I spent my early childhood before joining peers at the Island School in Hong Kong. As the sole 8-year-old amongst a crew of mostly adult men, I learned very quickly how to feel comfortable being a unique presence in a professional environment. This skillset greatly benefited me years later as I often found myself being the only woman in various workplaces and executive teams. I am a graduate of Leeds University and have had a longstanding background in both finance and tech, having held executive positions at East LTD and Miva Media. Prior to joining Dialight in 2014, I was the Chief Financial Officer at Harvest Energy, where I became enthralled in sustainable technology. This passion was ultimately what inspired me to make my move to Dialight.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I don’t think there’s one specific story, but rather the totality of my time here. The last six years have been such a rollercoaster ride. I’ve experienced some of the most challenging and rewarding parts of my career. When I started at Dialight as CFO, our then-CEO was very charismatic, and his vision attracted me to the company. Then, we went through a quick succession of several CEOs. When I became CEO, I felt fortunate to lead this company into its next phase. I never would have thought I’d enjoy spending time in manufacturing facilities, or that I’d be trading in my Christian Louboutins for hardhats and loving it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A few years in, I felt confident that I knew our business and our facilities well, so I decided to get to know our customers better. I went out with some of our top performing sales folks for some in-person visits. We went to a paint plant in Georgia, and I’d bought a pair of brand-new steel-toed boots for the occasion. An engineer there noticed my new boots and said, “she doesn’t get out much, does she?” I spent the rest of the time trying to get them to look as worn as possible, beating up the shoes every chance I got. I was trying to show the engineers that I’ve done this before, when it was clear I had not. At one point, I even asked one of my teammates to step on them to help scuff them up. If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that you can’t fake it, so just own it.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father was great entrepreneur and someone I looked up to. He taught me that there really is no glass ceiling; that success in business is all about hard work, having confidence in your abilities and being an authentic leader. I grew up in an expat environment in Hong Kong where very few, if any, of my female friends held career aspirations. One day, my father came to me and said, “I don’t care what you do but I want you to have a profession, so that you are always independent.” This has always stayed with me and little did I know I would be bringing up my son single handedly with the same philosophy!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m an early riser, and I believe that you’ve got to move your body as much as possible. So, I run or go to the gym in the morning. It not only helps me put things into perspective, but it reduces the emotional intensity of my work, and gives me confidence to deal with whatever comes next. And, on the days I exercise, I sleep better. I’m also a SoulCycle fanatic. If I could go there twice a day, I would. I believe in bringing my body and mind together to optimize success — you have to look out for both.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We have a very strong commitment to diversity. Dialight has the only gender-balanced board on the London Stock Exchange, and I’m really proud of that. Having a legitimate team that is diverse means you have a larger pool of experience and benefit from unique points of view that make you better as an organization at finding solutions and generating new ideas. A lot of people don’t expect an ethnic female to be running an industrial company. I hope that seeing me do it, they think, “I can do that, too,” and it can inspire our employees to stay longer and strive for more career growth. I hope that one day soon we won’t be talking about female, ethnic, gay or other underrepresented groups as CEOs like it’s a novelty — we’ll just talk about great leaders because the diversity is built-in.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I believe it is my duty as the CEO at Dialight to be a vocal advocate for inclusiveness and tolerance. Some steps I’ve taken to ensure our company reflects those values is making it known that Dialight is a place for innovation and creativity where all viewpoints are welcome, and hate is not tolerated.
We’ve also established the Dialight Foundation to support those facing economic challenges in the communities where we do business. We’ve made a significant impact, not only through financial contributions but also through volunteer time and effort, particularly in the area around our Tijuana facility in Mexico. We’ve donated and worked to upgrade the Casa Hogar El Reino de los Niños orphanage with new furniture and supplies. And most recently, in response to the COVID crisis there, we worked in partnership with the Women’s Earth Alliance through the women-led community group Contra Viento y Marea, stocking community centers with food and health supplies, and provided women who live with violence, poverty or vulnerable situations critical food and supplies to meet their basic needs along with the necessary tools to improve living conditions for themselves and their families.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As CEO, I’m responsible for the overall success of the business and making the top-level decisions. Of course, I have input from many different sources, but ultimately, the responsibility and authority to make the final decision is on me. I’m responsible for executing our business strategy to increase shareholder value and implementing our company vision. I’m also the external voice and spokesperson for our organization. It’s an incredible privilege but can also be a heavy responsibility sometimes.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think there’s a perception that it’s very glamorous with lots of travel and fancy dining in exotic locations. Or lately, because of COVID, people think you just sit on the phone or Zoom calls and chat with people all day. But it’s really a lot of hard work. Just last week, I was up late working on my CEO report for the board, and my son asked, “Why are you still working? Don’t you have a bunch of people who can do that for you?” Admittedly, I wish I did, but there’s a lot of hard work you just must do yourself. And the travel thing — yes, I do get to travel, and I love being with our teams globally, but I don’t love living out of a suitcase. In all these years, I’ve still never learned to be an efficient packer. I carry everything!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It can be hard to get used to the fact that most people in the room will be men. It’s just one of the uncomfortable realities we face today. But no matter what, you have to stay true to yourself, play to your strengths and not worry about preconceived notions. Be comfortable with yourself. That’s one reason it helps to build a support network. Quite often it is a “boys’ club,” so choosing the right mentors is really important. For example, we have a male chairman of the board who’s a strong advocate for women in the workplace, and I’m extremely grateful for that.
Work-life balance is also a challenge, but I think the question of “can women really have it all?” is fundamentally flawed. Whether you’re male or female, balancing work and life, especially with a family, is tough. They bleed together. And for me, rather than having them be separate parts of my life, I feel they have to be integrated.
There’s also a stigma attached to women about being overly emotional. But many women bring a type of emotional intelligence that is critical to a leadership position. Your workforce is looking for empathy in their leader, and having empathy is a great advantage. Especially now, when COVID has highlighted so many mental health issues, if you can’t talk about emotions, how are you going to support and inspire a team member who’s struggling? As a leader, you have to be real.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Before becoming CEO, I was our CFO and it has taken nearly 18 months to find a replacement for my old role so it has been a challenge juggling both positions for such a long time. The job hasn’t really been much different from what I expected, but that is partly due to the fact that I’ve had a passion for this business and therefore my focus has never been strictly on the finance side.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are so many facets of leadership, it’s hard to define just one, but I think it boils down to how well you can inspire others to follow and believe in you. That takes a combination of actions, empathy, humility, passion, vision and positivity. The secret to being a good leader is to inspire and empower others to work beyond their comfort zone and be the best they can be. If you can’t bring vision, passion, and empathy to the table, you’ll never bring those people along on your journey. You might have a CEO who’s really good at business, but you’d never want to have a conversation with them because they have no sense of humanity. Having that empathy and being relatable makes you a good leader who can also attract other good leaders, which ultimately drives creativity and innovation. If you don’t see that, you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership role.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Supporting one another and working together is so important. You know, women are often taught at a young age that we have to be competitive with one another, and that strategy just doesn’t work in modern business. For so long, women have determined their success by their ability to adjust to the male-dominated culture. But we don’t have to play by those rules anymore. I remember interviewing for a new role about 10 years ago, and there was a woman there who said to me with a condescending tone, “Aren’t your heels a bit too high?” I knew immediately that it didn’t matter how much they paid me, I never wanted to work for a company like that. It’s a prime example of how women often create our own roadblocks. A good leader supports everyone, including your female counterparts, and those still coming up through the ranks. That’s how we change the competitive dynamic and it’ll be a lot more fun that way.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As I mentioned before, in 2020, we formed the Dialight Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Dialight with the mission to transform the lives of people in need in local communities where the company does business, with a focus on supporting children and youth causes. In December 2020 we were able to raise over $61,000 in our first-ever Holiday Fund Drive and more than tripled our initial $20,000 goal. The proceeds went to providing much-needed hot water heaters, blankets, essential items, and holiday gifts and meals for the children at the Casa Hogar El Reino de los Niños orphanage. I was so proud of the aid we were able to provide and have since been working to coordinate more initiatives in 2021 and 2022.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve also been encouraging people to do more volunteer work and give more of our time. For example, I’ve participated in some volunteer sessions in London to cook breakfast at homeless shelters. It just blows my mind that with all the innovation and modern technology available, we still have people sleeping on the street.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- You need perseverance. That’s the most important thing. There will be a lot of highs and lows, but it’s important to push through the lows because they’re only temporary. Of course, the pandemic has certainly been a struggle, but there have been some positive outcomes, and we’ve persevered. Making the most of the high points is equally important.
- Be 100% passionate about whatever you do. Life is too short to waste time on something you don’t love.
- The people and the relationships you make with them in the workplace are important. You spend more time with your work family than with your actual family. Building a team of like-minded people who you enjoy spending time with is important.
- You must have passion about the product and the space. You can’t be successful if you don’t believe in what you’re selling or producing. For me, that passion is sustainability. When I saw the impact the pandemic had on global pollution — how everyone being in lock down allowed our planet to breathe — it fortified my commitment to Dialight becoming, and helping our customers to become, more sustainable. I’m extremely proud of the work we’re doing to protect our environment.
- Pay it forward. Always be humble, look after people and give your time and energy not just money and material. Success in life and in business is about making an impact, and sometimes the little things can matter most.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have always had a passion for sustainability and have used that passion to renew Dialight’s commitment to the environment. As I mentioned, seeing the impact of COVID-19 on lowering global pollution, I immediately recognized an opportunity for Dialight to contribute to global industrial sustainability through our energy-efficient products and lowering our own carbon emissions. While sustainability has always been a part of our mission, it is now at the forefront of what we do. My hope is that other companies will follow suit and more business leaders will encourage their teams to make similar commitments to corporate resiliency and sustainability.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t take anything for granted. Learning to appreciate what you have is where you’ll find strength and power.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
No question, it’s absolutely Elon Musk. He’s such a true innovator in every sense of the word. He’s one of the most important thought leaders of our time, and I just love his approach to life. It’s inspiring to me that his influence isn’t just about technology, but about people as well. I love what he stands for and his willingness to be creative, push boundaries and take risks.