To be successful in business, you need to stand out. That best practice is especially true when it comes to entrepreneurship. No one understands the power of uniqueness more than Zahra Al-Harazi, an EO Calgary member who’s making her voice heard in business and beyond.
In many ways, Zahra’s entrepreneurial journey is like most others— it’s filled with a thousand and one stories, memories and lessons learned that have helped shape her into one of today’s most innovative entrepreneurs. And yet it’s remarkably different, a journey colored by challenges and cultural experiences: She’s a Yemeni woman born in Uganda. She was raised in places that tourists rarely visit. She grew up during two civil wars. She married at age 17. She had three children by age 25, and later immigrated to Canada, a land as foreign as she was. From being a stay-at-home mom with no degree or career to finding an entrepreneurial spirit she never knew she had, Zahra is a perfect example of what can be achieved when passion meets purpose.
In this special interview, Octane sat down with Zahra to talk about finding her entrepreneurial voice, the magic of marketing and defining her future.
What was your childhood like, and how do you think it helped define you later in life?
ZA: I grew up in a country where women don’t have a voice, and finding mine was a long, drawn-out process full of self-doubt and inner struggle. I went to an international school as a child. I was the only Yemeni and scholarship student in a school filled with the local ambassadors’ and expats’ children. I tried so hard to fit in, but my new western behavior was quickly met with disapproval. Soon after, I found myself in an all-girls Arabic school, where I didn’t speak Arabic, I didn’t know anyone, and yet again, I was the ‘outsider’ looking in.
It was tough being different at such a young age. During my childhood, I spent every minute of every day trying to blend in and not stand out. I wanted to be just like everyone else— to change my behavior, my accent, my thoughts. I wound up squeezing myself into a tiny box, and was ecstatic when I finally fit. I didn’t realize at the time that my individuality would later serve an important role in business and life, that it would drive me as an entrepreneur.
You immigrated to Canada in 1996, where your search for self-discovery began. What was life like for you back then?
ZA: Life was so drastically different then. I was 27 years old. I had no degree, no career and had just moved to a country where I didn’t know anyone. Like my childhood days, I was a stranger in a new place; worst of all, I had no idea what my purpose was in life. I had no ambition beyond the four walls of my house. I was my father’s daughter, my husband’s wife and my children’s mother, and I was bored out of my mind. I wanted something to do. I wanted to make a difference. So one day, I went to the local mall for an afternoon of retail therapy, and I came home with my first job— part-time work at Danier Leather. That job was where I found my first inkling of what was to become a career that I just couldn’t resist. I had finally found my calling, and I was ready to put everything I had into it.
How did this job serve as a catalyst for your personal and professional growth?
ZA: In many ways, this job opened my eyes to the bigger and better things that awaited me. Working in retail taught me that reading people was an art, and that you could motivate and change their behavior depending on your design or message. I outgrew Danier pretty quickly, and decided to enroll in the Alberta College of Art + Design. It was a bold move, but I wanted to do more, to be more. At age 32, while raising a family, I received a bachelor’s degree in visual communications. I was ready to make a mark in the business world. I had finally found what I loved— that hunger that I could not shake. It gets me out of bed in the morning and it keeps me up at night.
How did you make your foray into entrepreneurship?
ZA: After graduating, I went on to work for two design firms, both of which taught me valuable lessons about what to do and not do in business. I also realized that I was far too stubborn to work for anyone else! You could say I had found my entrepreneurial spirit … that unwavering drive to be my own boss, that commitment to control my own fate. So, four years later, I started Foundry Communications, a marketing and communications studio. In six years, we went from five employees to 20, won numerous awards and became an internationally recognized firm.
How have you used your voice to excel as an entrepreneur?
ZA: I learned a long time ago that what makes me stand out is what makes me interesting. Standing out is a marketable skill, coveted by individuals and businesses alike. There’s no such thing as blending into success. As an immigrant, I had the advantage of an international perspective. From Bangladesh to St. Louis, I knew what set me apart, so I knew what made me valuable on a world stage. I took those insights and applied them to my business.
In many ways, marketing and communications allows companies to find their own unique voice. Through Foundry, we help clients along that journey of self-discovery. From account services to design and production, we find what the client never knew they were missing. Design work is all about the story. When we sit down with clients, we want to learn where they’re coming from and use elements of their experiences to create the best products possible. Whether the road is smooth or rough, we come up with an idea that can be universally understood. Ironically, after fighting the concept of individuality for many years, I now make a living helping companies stand out and get noticed.
What keeps you motivated in your industry?
ZA: I heard the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Kevin Roberts once respond to a reporter who asked if he sees the glass half-full or half-empty: ‘Who the #$&! cares? Drink it and fill it up again!’ That pretty much sums up my approach to life. As far as business goes, about 80 percent of my job is to get into the target audience’s head— how can we change and modify their behavior? I question and challenge everything, and sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in your own ideas and convictions that you market your way into a circle. Legendary ad man, Bill Bernbach, carried a piece of paper in his pocket everywhere he went. He had the same piece of paper for more than 20 years, and when he found himself fighting for a campaign, he would excuse himself, walk outside and pull it out. Written on the paper was the question: ‘What if they are right?’ He would then put it back in his pocket and return to the room with a new attitude and perspective. I think of that story often when I am getting ready to dig in. I work in the service business, and it serves me well to remember that little piece of paper.
Philanthropy is a big part of your life. Why is it important to you to give back?
ZA: When I’m not working or with my kids, I’m serving on local boards, supporting other immigrants in the community and hosting charity design drives. Also, my company donates CAD$100,000 worth of its time helping not-for-profits with their marketing needs. I know how much luckier I am than most who’ve immigrated here, so I want to give back as much as I can. I know what it was like being lost in a new place, so helping others is important to me.
You’ve come a long way as an entrepreneur. What advice do you have for other women in entrepreneurship?
ZA: I have done my fair share of interviews over the years, and some of the questions I always get asked include: ‘Is there a glass ceiling for women in the corporate world?’ or ‘Is it harder for women to succeed?’ I find myself getting more and more annoyed with these questions. Pick up any magazine and it will tell you that only tall, beautiful people with an Ivy League education will succeed. And I will say no … you are only as successful as you want to be. Leave everything else behind. Don’t use the crutches of someone else’s judgment. There are people of all shapes, sizes and colors who have been, and will be, extremely successful. You can stay in the cage or you can fly, it’s your choice.