An Interview With… Rebecca Emerson-Keeler, director of Insaan Consulting Ltd

In France, start-ups and companies in the private security sector and policy consulting are quite rare, and it is especially difficult when you are a woman.

Fortunately, here at WIIS France we are keen on introducing positive examples and mentors, and Rebecca Emerson-Keeler, founder and director of Insaan Consulting Ltd, fits perfectly!

She kindly answered our questions on her career and gave us some advice on how to be a successful female entrepreneur.

Could you summarize your career path and explain us why you have chosen the security, humanitarian and conflict resolution sectors?

After graduating with a degree in Philosophy of Global Ethics and Literature, I started my career in journalism, human rights and refugee protection working with UNHCR in London and in Syria. I was passionate about pursuing this area of work as my own father had been forced to leave his country before arriving in the UK in the 1970s and as an Arabic speaker became driven to work to join the UN to support Iraqis after the collapse of the country in the early 2000s. Deploying to the border and then Damascus, I worked with populations suffering the consequences of conflict from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and a range of other conflicts and found myself working specifically on issues of gender based violence, human trafficking and preventing young men from being driven to join extremist groups. I was lucky to be able to develop multiple skillsets early in my career such as case work, evaluation and project management and capacity building / working with developing governments. Very quickly I understood that humanitarian problems could only be solved by addressing the root causes of conflict and that culturally relative methods of negotiation were essential to gain access and influence.

You worked both in private and public sectors in France and in the UK, and then you left public sector to create Insaan Consulting Ltd, a structure specialized in management consulting. Why did you do so? What are the differences between France and the UN in terms of work and ethics?

I left Syria before the conflict there after six years working on humanitarian, development and security programmes. When I left I realised the complexity and overlap of these areas and wanted to use the wide skills I had whilst remaining as independent as I could in a very political space. I had worked with the UN, with NGOs and wanted to try to advise donors on conflict from the inside so established Insaan to do this. Over the last decade I have deployed to the Arab League to advise on human rights monitoring, I have advised on governance issues in Libya, trained police in Palestine, lead capacity building of Middle East countries to fight extremist online content, trained numerous actors and institutions on Women, Peace and Security and now run projects on gender and cybersecurity. Insaan gave me the opportunity to work with a diverse range of clients -private sector, non governmental and governmental. Being able to deliver advice to different stakeholders involved in security policy has been fundamental to remaining independent and a critical friend. Working with the US, Canadians, Jordanian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Dutch, French and UK governments has been rewarding as has been advising the BBC, UN and other institutions.

Insaan is now able to recruit consultants in a range of contexts and we currently have teams working on Southeast Asia-we focus on supporting women and LGBTQI consultants based in the countries where the work is focused rather than on flying experts in. Insaan was born out of my experiences working in the UK where a commercial approach to implementing security policy is commonplace if you want to advise and implement policy. I learned a good deal from this approach to conflict policy however I found outsourcing security in this way can lead to sustainability implications and to companies fighting to deliver often impossible outcomes. The French approach is very different, more centralised and more in line with traditional diplomacy. Both France and the UK suffer from a male-lead space and an inability to reconcile colonial history with foreign policy -as such they have similar but distinct challenges.

I hope that as Insaan develops a European branch in the coming year we can leverage the benefit of this experience and develop a model that is women lead, women delivered and most importantly reflective of an inclusive rather than divided world.

You are now advising small companies on gender inclusivity in human resources, but also about finances issues and cybersecurity. How does it work? What precisely are your actions toward them?

Insaan has been working for about ten years on issues around online extremism and the role of women in this complex space. In the last two years I have been much more involved in cybersecurity and cybercrime policy and programmes working with think tanks, governments and the UN to understand the gender dimensions of this important issue. Despite the common understanding of vulnerability of certain groups in the online space, there has been a dearth of research and data to support action to obtain a rights based, inclusive and equitable governance of the cyberspace to ensure access is safe and open for women and LGBTQI.

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the need to understand the different experiences of men, women, boys, girls, individuals living with disabilities and LGBTQI in the online space. More people are now reliant on the cyberspace for education, work, finance, socialising and to meet a whole range of basic needs but criminals and other actors are also able to exploit more than ever so we need to ensure we understand gender based behaviours to report or not, to harm or be vulnerable. Many people are also without access to the online space denying them the ability to participate in the opportunities it offers.

Insaan is currently working with our teams to deliver two programmes in Southeast Asia around this issue. We do this by using gender + qualitative and quantitative analysis to understand the intersectional (age, diversity, geography etc) problems faced by women, men and LGBTQI individuals. Insaan is totally reliant on working with women consultants in the countries to lead research in gender and conflict sensitive manners. We then package the information for clients to ensure programmes and policies can follow. Much of my focus as the Director is on technical capacity building and training on gender and cybersecurity but also on a range of other technical areas. We have applied a gender and conflict approach to public finance, tourism, climate and environment as well as supporting integration of gender in core security and justice capacity building and our expertise remains working in conflict and fragile contexts.

Do you have role models? Have you been inspired by people who may have influenced your career choices and what did you learn from them?

I am constantly inspired by the men and women I work with across the world who juggle their passion to create a better, more secure world but also their domestic obligations! My inspiration for my work is very personal, stemming from my own mixed race and multicultural identity and my experiences as the daughter of a refugee.

I remain inspired especially by my English Grandfather who was a pilot in the Second World War and who reflected on the importance of cultural sensitivity and being sensitive and ethical in how you might help others or solve complex security problems. He shared with me guidance given to him in 1940 in Palestine about how to assimilate, speak Arabic and approach men and women with sensitivity. I have as a consequence tried to take on these values in my work and also be unafraid to challenge when I have doubts that the approach is insensitive. Having worked with many institutions I have found it easier to stay true to these lessons by remaining somewhat independent and Insaan has served me well.

What are the advice you would give to young women that are willing to start a career in self-enterprising and to create their own company in the security sector?

The independence that Insaan has given me is invaluable and allowed me to transcend institutional barriers that might have impeded the professional development of a mixed race woman in international security. As I have gone on to have a child the flexibility offered has also been invaluable. It is so important that young women are not dependent on poorly paid internships or on entering institutions that they do not feel comfortable working in. Entrepreneurship in the area of security, especially in the UK and France, is slow to emerge but it is easy to operate as an AutoEntrepreneur here and then grow your business or work with others to do so when you find your niche. Having good project management and networking skills helps in this area and it is very important not to undervalue your contribution. The space can seem intimidating-I attended many meetings in the Institute of Directors in London and was always the only woman!

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda needs women-lead businesses and organisations and whilst the work women do within institutions to challenge the status quo, those of us working outside or independently can provide a valuable resource for policy and security decisions and most importantly support other women in other countries to do similar activities. UNWomen have provided specific support for women-lead businesses and I encourage others to take the leap. I try to help other women who struggle to find full time opportunities because I believe that the learning curve is much steeper but more rewarding as an entrepreneur.

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