Women of Influence – Fiza Farhan | Against all odds, the power of a positive mindset

Interview Conducted by Fatima Tahir – WECON Team

Fiza Farhan is a Pakistani social entrepreneur, business personality, activist and development expert analyst. Previously she was the co-founder of Buksh Foundation and Buksh Energy Private Limited. Currently works as a Global Strategic Development Advisor in Pakistan & around the world. She is a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. Fiza tweets at @Fiza_Farhan and has an official Facebook page @fizafarhanofficial.

  1. You have excelled in a sector that is generally not associated with women entrepreneurs. What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs planning to work in such sectors and how should they prepare for the additional challenges.

Yes, I have been working in very male dominated sectors. Earlier, being a young woman entrepreneur, it wasn’t that easy and very intimidating. I was dealing with men twice or thrice my age in this sector and it did use to intimidate me when I was the only woman in meeting and conference rooms of a hundred people. There are still not many women in the energy sector, neither in Pakistan nor globally.

But, something occurred to me which I’d like to quote here. When I went to Denmark in a delegation, with the Pakistan Denmark Business Council, there were 10 companies from Pakistan and 10 companies from Denmark and I was the only woman from both the countries. This made me realize that this is a global problem not just in Pakistan. I had to travel all over Denmark with 25 men and while travelling we were in a van, where I being the only woman was sitting in the front with a big space whereas all the men were crunched up in the back. So I laughed to myself and said “Because I am the only woman in this delegation, I am getting to travel in such peace and leisure, while they are suffering at the back and it shows being the only woman is an opportunity itself.”

And this just made me think if I start using the mindset that being the only woman is actually my strength and not my weakness, being young is actually my strength and not my weakness, I will not let them intimidate me anymore. With this thought, I changed my own perspective and I stopped looking at myself as a young woman but instead I started working on my professional competence, so I can stand up against these men of twice and thrice my age. And believe me, this change of mindset changed the way people started looking at me. I started getting more authority, more power, taken more seriously with more respect. Now, being a young Fiza Farhan in a room, is actually my strength rather than my weakness. And it all starts with the change of your own mindset.

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  1. Being a women entrepreneur, what were the 3 key challenges that you faced. How did you tackle them and what lessons can you share?

Being a woman entrepreneur, the biggest challenge I faced is what I just shared above of how being a woman I survived and struggled and eventually got stronger in a male dominated society. I had to overcome these challenges and convert them into my strengths.

My second challenge was being young, and overcoming that young notion. Being a young CEO I had to face so many hurdles, so much so, that the State Bank of Pakistan had terms and conditions of appointing a CEO of a micro finance bank to have either 15 years of experience or grey hair. I went up to the State Bank Governor (who is now a dear friend) and I asked him that if I go and dye my hair grey right now, would you allow me to be a CEO of my foundation? I said, if you want to compete, then let’s compete on merit, professional competence and not on age. This is the age of millennials and youth making phenomenal records in history with their success. After this, we had a professional discussion on how competent I am to be a CEO of a micro finance institution, keeping my age and gender aside and that’s what led me to becoming perhaps the youngest CEO in the sector.

Before 2015, at times, I used to end up lying to people about my age by telling them I am 35, or nearing 40. When my name appeared in Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs, I received so many calls, with half of them congratulating me while the other half were to confirm my age that when we met you, years back weren’t you 30 something already?

So, after that being the youngest advisor to the UN Secretary General and the Chief Minister Punjab, being young became an asset for me rather than something I needed to hide away from. I realized it’s cool to get all of this when you’re young.

My third challenge is based on the work I do which is based on identifying challenges in the sectors I work in and converting them into opportunities through absolutely innovative ideas and partnerships. With both of my enterprises that I led for a near decade, we ended up launching the first solar ATM, the first solar village, the first solar commercial project and everything we did was the first. That’s why everybody around me including my team used to be very skeptical. They would say “Ma’am ye tou kissi ne nahi kiya, ham kesay karain gay?” My reply would be, “Ye kissi ne nahi kiya, isliye isko kerne ki zarurat hai.”

Initially, everyone would think I was mad, but gradually the innovative projects and pilots ended up becoming international best practices at the UN Foundation and the UN Habitat. That’s what gave my team, peers and I, the confidence we needed.

  1. Being a woman entrepreneur is perhaps doubly difficult in Pakistan, because apart from running the business there are numerous other expectations from us. How do you create a work life balance?

Firstly, the women in our society are taught that there is a choice to be made between work and life, either they can become a successful entrepreneur or a good home maker. I’ve talked to many young girls, and they all have this concept engraved in their minds which is so wrong. It is not a choice, you can be both, a successful professional and a fantastic homemaker, a wonderful wife and a caring mother.

This concept is put in the mind of young girls that if you want a successful career then forget about marriage. Many even said to me that once you get married, you will definitely have to compromise on your work and travel as you can’t do all of that when you’re married.

I will say that the choice of your marital spouse is very important because you need somebody who is on the same wavelength as you, supports and empowers you. So find the right person for sure but don’t run away from the concept of marriage. Alhamdulillah, I got married and after that my career actually took on an exponential toll.

Then, Alhamdulillah I had a beautiful baby daughter one and a half year ago, and I was working till the day before her birth. Three months after having her, I was back to a trip to UN and this shows you can do it all.

Women in the east are blessed with the joint family structure, culture and values. Even our religion says the same, take the example of Hazrat Khadija, it shows we can have it all. When I went to New York, three months after the birth of my daughter, Christine Lagarde, managing director of IMF and the other women were surprised to see me because even they didn’t expect me to be there this early.

Secondly, when we try to strive to achieve the work life balance, we end up striving for work life perfection. We try to be the best professional, homemaker, chef, cleaner, best laundry person, best daughter in law and what not. But, instead you need to learn to prioritize what is more important to you and stop trying to prove to the world that you can be best at everything.

I can proudly say I am a very bad cook but I choose to do what I am good at doing, which is my work. I hire the expertise of people who are great at what they do, so we all live in harmony. When you go out and work, you will be doubling the household income and then you can also afford all of the luxuries as well. But make sure you do what makes you happy, if you like cooking then go for it and excel in it, and become the next master chef in Pakistan.

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  1. Apart from running your own business, you also guide and advise others and have a bird’s eye view of the opportunity landscape. What would be the areas/opportunities that women entrepreneurs should explore especially in the Post Covid world?

In the post Covid world, a lot of focus has gone towards the virtual world. This leads to many opportunities for women who are struggling to maintain a work life balance. This can be explained by the concept of how a women’s trajectory in a workplace is like a pyramid. At the induction level there are 50% women and 50% men, as the hierarchy goes up towards the middle management, the women start dropping out. Their number keeps on narrowing till they reach the top, with only 2% of women making it to the CEO level in Pakistan and globally.

In the middle management level, where mostly women are in their child bearing age, the pressure cooker approach starts to take place. In this approach, a woman has a career to focus on as she’s struggling to reach the higher levels and simultaneously, at home she’s trying to bear children and make a family. All this pressure keeps building on her, resulting in the woman bursting under pressure, hence the term “pressure cooker approach”. She has to choose between work and home life, with 98% of women choosing home which results in middle management dropping from 50% to 20%, with only 2% of the women reaching the executive level.

Now, if you give opportunities to women in their child bearing age, the option to be able to work from the comforts of their home, they don’t have to get off the work radar. They can continue working from home using digital media as we have realized in these past six months that work, meetings and everything can still be done virtually as well.

If a woman wants to work and if the employers want to retain women, they are left with no excuse but to retain women virtually for the period of initial 2 to 3 years of their child bearing age until their kid can go to school. She can work on flexible hours, in the comfort of her home, so that she is not exiting the work space. The issue is created when she takes a break from work and that break converts into a lifelong break as she gets too comfortable in that lifestyle. And likewise, the work sector won’t be as accepting as it was before because of the big lag.

Companies such as Telenor, Pepsi, and Service Shoes Corporation are already doing this so that there is no gap period for their female staff. This approach will largely help women in not just retaining their jobs but also in increasing employment in terms of percentages.

Similarly, for entrepreneurs the virtual world is very supportive as you can get a lot more done now by sitting at your home than earlier. Women don’t have to go out, travel and do a physical 9 to 5 job, which gives them a lot more flexibility. So, I believe that the future will be good for women because now they will have more opportunities of working from home as effectively as by going out in the world.

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  1. After all the experiences and exposure, you have had in life, given the opportunity what advice would you give to a 20-year-old Fiza and what would you tell her to do differently?

Alhamdulillah, I am very happy with how my career has rolled. I have always gone with my inner voice, and I follow it a lot. In fact, since I was a young girl I have been calling that voice ‘Ting Ting’. And I make all my big decisions, associate with people, everything based on my Ting Ting. And I would say people need to start listening to their inner voice as it is usually the right path.

When I came back from my masters, I didn’t opt for a normal job and all my friends said that being a LUMS and Warwick graduate you’d get any job, but I just wanted to start something from scratch and create something new. I wanted to define the company and sector I will work for and just do things that nobody else was doing. And that’s how I launched my company, Buksh foundation with the Haji Karim Buksh Family.

The difference between a job and choosing an entrepreneurial path is that you define your own trajectory and the sky is your limit. There is no annual increment or annual bonus, it can go any way and I love the thrill of this challenge.

And thus, I have no regrets. At every stage of my career, I decided what’s good for me and I went in that direction. By 2016, when I became a UN advisor to UN Secretary General and to Shahbaz Sharif (then Chief Minister of Punjab), I realized now is the time to broaden my horizon of impact and work with multiple partners and not just my two social enterprises.

I’d say every failure was a lesson for me as I had lots of falls too. But, each fall made me learn something to keep my trajectory going forward.

Now, if I go back to a 20-year-old Fiza, I would only advise her to keep following her ting ting forever.

  1. What advice would you give to any other 20-year-old girl who didn’t grow up with similar opportunities as you? What would you tell her to do differently?

I’ve met a lots of women in my trajectory now for example Samina Baig, the first women mountaineer to climb the K2, she belonged from a village in Swat. Other than that I’ve met a record holder female chess player, female wrestler and they all belonged from underprivileged backgrounds. My point is, everyone grows in a different environment, the opportunities the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth will have will be much different than the opportunities I will have.

My advice to all such girls is, opportunities are available almost everywhere. Enterprise development loans, microfinancing institutions such as Kashf, NRSP, Akhuwat are all doing a lot of work. Lots of other private sector companies are also working with entrepreneurs and their businesses. If you have a skill, talent and most importantly, a burning desire to do something with your life, you will be able to identify opportunities around you.

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