THE BLOG
01/03/2015 08:21 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Nawal Motawi, Motawi Teleworks

When the bug bit her, Nawal Motawi's life changed forever. Armed with a BFA in Ceramics and Figure Sculpture from the School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, she was glad to have a job with one of America's most renowned centers of its kind at Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. She worked as a tilemaker and assistant bookkeeper, two distinctly different jobs that helped acquaint her with both sides of the business.

It didn't take long for the entrepreneurial bug's bite to initiate a strong desire to find her own independent path to success. Her plan was to make Arts & Crafts style tile for a living, but she didn't know anything about business, and didn't have much in the way of working capital. So along with experimenting with glazes and clays, in those early days Motawi became a reader of Inc. business magazine, and attended national tile conventions and symposia.

With strong support from her family and driven by her own dream, Nawal launched Motawi Tileworks in 1992, a company that today produces more than 15,000 square feet of tile annually from its headquarters in Ann Arbor.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have learned that I run into trouble when I don't honor my feelings. I'm an easygoing person, but the dark side of that is that I have often failed to examine those moments when something doesn't feel quite right. I recognize those gut-level misgivings better, but I also have more certainty in those situations because I've been there before.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Motawi Tileworks?
My first job was with a historic ceramics company called Pewabic Pottery. I learned to work there, and got some good experience making larger amounts of tile. I eventually got a job up in the bookkeeping office where I got comfortable with financial record keeping and working in an office.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Motawi Tileworks?
I love it when my staff gets to experience customer appreciation in a way that blows their socks off. Natalie Merchant from 10,000 Maniacs came to the Tileworks for a tour and gave us free tickets to her show that night. At the end of the show she told the audience what a treasure they have in their town in Motawi Tileworks and thanked us for the wonderful tour. My staff was ecstatic! I felt like the proudest Mama in world right then.

Hands down, the hardest thing I have ever done is to end the business partnership that I formed early on with one of my younger brothers. We had irreconcilable differences of opinion on business and management issues, but with family partnerships it almost always feels deeply personal. I love my brother very much and the lingering rancor from that event is painful.

What are the five key factors to setting your business apart from your competitors?
Our design sensibility is completely distinctive, particularly lovely and very consistent. We release great new tiles every year!

We are really nice. We treat our customers very well, especially when there are problems.

We made it through the recession. Others didn't.

We are exceptionally organized and competent. We fill orders accurately and on time.

Our catalogs are top notch, and we use Toyota-Style Production methodology.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I realized very early on that there would always be work to do--that at no time would I ever be 'done'. So, I let it go. I have always allowed other things, like the raising of my child, to impinge on a 9-5 schedule. I've always been glad that I took those vacations in the early days that I had to really scrounge to afford. I take workout classes that get me in late, and they show on my calendar where everyone can see them. I shoulder the financial risk 24/7 so I don't feel apologetic about not being in my office 40 hours per week. My staff is so capable that I am never worried about things when I'm not around. I am able to disconnect pretty well. I don't buy into the notion of showing off my own importance by taking work calls in social situations. I run my company better than that.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Seeing no real prospects in my first job out of college, I started Motawi Tileworks before I was 30. I jumped off the corporate bandwagon so early that I really don't know what it's like. I tend to focus on what I can do and not what opportunities are unavailable because of my gender. I have started to notice that my feminine appearance causes people to be surprised when they realize that I personally, actually founded the business and am the sole owner.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Having mentors and people I can call has been crucial. My closest friend is also an entrepreneur, and the hours fly by when we get together to talk business and life. She had a ten year head start on me, and taught me a lot about managerial and interpersonal relationship issues at work. I'm always focused on what needs to be better. Others remind me to take some satisfaction in what I have accomplished. Several business writers have had a big impact on my life even though I don't talk to them regularly: Norm Brodsky, Rich Sheridan, Jack Stack, Bo Burlingham, and all the Inc. magazine staff writers at the magazine since 1993. Norm always says to make your life plan first - and design your business to serve it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I don't go looking for female leaders specifically. I admire whom I admire regardless of gender.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
My medium term plan is to get my two companies to run themselves to the point that I can choose my level of involvement to a great degree. I will accomplish that by working with my team to set up stable processes for everything that we do--especially around hiring, training, and developing our people.