MBA alumna Zaheera Soomar believes that women can have it all — a successful professional life and a happy family — but it takes plenty of organisational thinking, managerial expertise and making time to watch the odd reality cooking TV show, of course.
Zaheera Soomar has always stood out. In the male-dominated world of mining, oil and gas, and consulting, where women (and especially a woman of colour wearing a hijab) are not common, she has been continually motivated to achieve great things.
Not yet 40 and with three children, she has several academic qualifications and published articles under her belt, she’s worked in over 25 different countries — some in executive positions — and has launched her own consultancy firm. She is currently the Global Head of Education: Socio-Economic Development at Anglo American, overseeing projects in 10 countries.
“You can have it all, but it does not mean you have to do it all,” says Zaheera when asked how she manages everything. She has four pointers for other women:
1. Define what success is to you
Zaheera believes that every woman should decide for herself what success means to her. This means setting goals for yourself and not allowing yourself to be measured according to other people’s expectations. “Don’t shy away from asking for help or letting others do the non-essential tasks like cooking and cleaning,” she advises. As the main breadwinner in her family, she is well aware of the guilt that many women feel when they have to assign some of care-giving responsibilities to other people. This is why she consciously makes time for her children every day.
“Helping my kids shape up to be good, respectful adults is up there on my priority list. I definitely aim for quality over quantity,” says Zaheera. “One of the things I ask my kids is what they would like me to focus my time on when I am with them. They get to decide and this makes the time more valuable to them as well.”
2. Be clear on what you want to achieve professionally
Zaheera credits her time as an MBA student at the UCT GSB with giving direction to her career. It was during this time that she realised that she did not only want to be good at her job but wanted to make more of a positive impact. “I didn’t only want to focus on helping corporates improve on their bottom line, I wanted to make a difference.” This led her to look for roles with more social development and sustainability emphasis, giving her deeper professional satisfaction as well.
The programme also helped her to grow personally as well as to develop a network of contacts she depends upon to this day. “When I began the MBA, I was at the start of my leadership journey, figuring out what it means to be a female leader, a woman of colour in a very male-dominated environment.”
3. Be an authentic leader and encourage other women to rise
Like many working women, Zaheera has stories of being mistaken for a tea lady, having to endure verbal and sometimes more overt acts of discrimination and sexual harassment. But she has not allowed anyone to push her around or make her sit at the back of the boardroom, even when she was the only woman around the boardroom table. “I speak my truth and I will call them out. This is why I am personally committed to helping women thrive in the workplace and their careers. Despite the number of things going on in my life, I dedicate a portion of it to mentoring women, helping them develop skills and assisting them to overcome challenges and ultimately reach their goals.”
4. Find your balance
Zaheera is a devout Muslim, devoting time every day to prayer, reflection and reading the Qur’an. “It keeps me grounded and focused.” The reflection and meditation part of her religious practice influences her values and ethical approach to life as well, giving her busy life balance and meaning. She acknowledges that without it she finds it difficult to fall asleep at night.
Not that there is much time for sleep! She sleeps only four to five hours a night as it is, occasionally making time for mindless reality TV shows to help her unwind. Her life is full, especially now that she has started a PhD in Business Administration focusing on responsible business management. “It is about defining what the most important and essential things are in your life and getting those done as well as possible. It does not always look pretty, but it does get done!”
Zaheera Soomar completed the Executive Women in Leadership course in 2010 and later completed the Modular MBA in 2011/2012 at the UCT GSB.