The New York Times | For Entrepreneur in Conflict Resolution, Business is Good

For Entrepreneur in Conflict Resolution, Business Is Good

Video | Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, founder of Kommon Denominator in Virginia.


March 7, 2014

In January, Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah was in Geneva, helped run a meeting of Syrian women for the United Nations. Last year, she took four or five trips 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, Ms. 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 United Nations but also as an adjunct professor in conflict resolution at George Mason University, also in Fairfax.

Ms. 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 United Nation to assist in 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 take 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.”

Ms. Jadallah, whose one-woman firm is called Kommon Denominator, is particularly well-suited for 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.

But up until 2005, Ms. Jadallah had worked mostly for corporate America, doing organizational effectiveness training — getting different divisions of a company to collaborate with one another — at mortgage gaurantor Freddie Mac. When her position was eliminated, she decided to start Kommon Denominator, offering her 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.” Ms. 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 G.M.U., which had a grant to train scholars and practitioners from Bethlehem University in conflict resolution. She traveled to Palestine to perform the work.

Ms. 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.

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

And while Ms. 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.”

Ms. Jadallah hopes to expand her firm, perhaps partnering with universities or think tanks, so she can do more conflict resolution work in 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 hoped 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, Ms. Jadallah will most likely be busy, even if the work is not even-keeled. Sometimes, Ms. 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.”

Colleen DeBaise is director of digital media for The Story Exchange, a nonprofit media organization dedicated to telling the stories of women who own businesses. You can follow it on Twitter.