Reine Hammoud, a native of Lebanon, moved to the United States in 2004 with her parents. She grew up in Beirut; when her father’s job necessitated it, they moved to Dubai, where they lived for four years. His work then brought the family to the U.S.
Hammoud, now 29, recently decided to leave the corporate world—she had worked at GEICO Insurance—and become an entrepreneur, opening her own insurance agency in 2015.
Karibu News: What was it like when you first came to the U.S. and how did you end up in Buffalo?
Reine Hammoud: There was definitely culture shock and adjustments to make. Less so after living in Dubai, which is diverse and culturally modern. We lived in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. After college, I became a licensed insurance agent and got a job with GEICO Insurance in 2007. In 2009, through the company, I moved here.
Why did you decide to go into the insurance industry?
In the Middle East, most people don’t even have insurance. Here, it’s so relied upon; almost everyone needs it. It’s the U.S.’s most regulated industry—agents or companies can’t modify anything about it. I was intrigued; it’s a fun opportunity to help others—especially those who speak my language—understand something so regulated and difficult.
Why did start your own business?
After nine years in GEICO’s corporate environment, where you have to make many sacrifices, I realized that I’d rather make those for myself, for something that I’ll pass to the next generation. The rewards included regaining the human interaction. Meeting people in my own office, I don’t have to follow what the corporate manual says. I can learn their stories, share mine.
How much help did you get?
RH: My family is my biggest support system. But, I did it mostly on my own. Through working in the corporate environment, I learned the basics of marketing and development. Also, the internet is amazing for what it offers. Being self-taught, you learn what works along the way. If you don’t make mistakes during your first year, you’ve done something wrong.
You’re a resident, with a green card; you’re currently applying for citizenship. What does becoming a citizen mean to you?
Being an American means being free. When you’re here, you realize how much you were limited in your former environment. I’ve adapted to this culture—I’m proud of, and want to be a part of it. When I’m a citizen, I’ll say, “Now I get to do this forever!”
What advice do you give to newer immigrants and refugees here?
This is hard! It can be expensive, and there are many challenges. But each of us has an equal opportunity. It’s important to adapt to the culture; to find your place, and how you fit in without letting your roots go. You ask yourself, “Do I belong here?” Eventually, you realize, yes.
I also emphasize the importance of being a community leader/contributor. It’s tough when you’re from a different culture; when it’s not your hometown. People in Buffalo are very community-oriented. You can feel isolated. When you’re new, you’re not sure how to get started. The first step is to find and go to events, meet people, talk to them….and then do it all over again. Consistency and determination are key to becoming a part of a community—you’re ultimately marketing yourself and developing your brand.
What would you say to others who want to start a business?
To everyone, I say, “Understand that the power of education is everything.”
You can’t do anything without it; speak the language, live the life, find what makes you most passionate. Expecting to succeed just with what you already know doesn’t work. It takes commitment.
I came here speaking French and Arabic. My huge goal was to speak English without an accent; not to lose my culture, but to use education as the key to ensuring that I’m afforded the same opportunities. Don’t let outside things control how you feel. Remain confident. Know that you came here for a reason; seeking freedom.
Specifically for women: most never got to make many choices. I say to girls here, “Realize your potential; you are just as equal as everybody else.” Believe in yourself—people will criticize and doubt you. Know that it’s going to be hard. Work towards your goals.
What challenges do you face?
As an immigrant and a woman, no matter how accomplished you feel, there will always be challenges. You walk into a room, there are stigmas that you have to conquer. Even my last name—will people want to work with me because of it? That is self-defeating. Try your best to “let the noise out.” Do what you know best; know that you’re going to be successful.
What makes you hopeful/happy?
I am in Buffalo. People here embrace diversity. Except for the snow, Buffalo is the place to be a refugee or an immigrant. I meet people on a daily basis—from Iraq, Afghanistan, India—we talk about how tough it is. And we all say that we like being in Buffalo, where you can be accepted. K
Jana Eisenberg, a Buffalo-based writer and editor, is a frequent contributor to Karibu News.