In March 2014, Unilever Pakistan launched Pond’s Miracle Journey to celebrate the accomplishments of 100 women who pushed the boundaries of achievement and in the process successfully juggled careers and families and many other demands on their time.
Ten Miracle Mentors drawn from well known names including Anila Weldon, Atiqa Odho, Maheen Kardar Ali, Rukaiya Adamjee, Saeeda Mandviwalla, Samina Peerzada, Chef Shai, Shamaeel Ansari, Dr Tasneem Nakhoda and Vaneeza Ahmed nominated their 10 high achieving women for the 100 Pond’s Miracle Women. This culminated in January with a gala at the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, where these women’s stories of resilience and strength were celebrated. This was the first such occasion and Pond’s Miracle Journey will now be an annual event celebrating the work-life balance of 100 inspiring women.
Here we look at the achievements of three talented Pond’s Miracle Women who came from diverse backgrounds and overcame the odds and made their mark in male dominated fields.
Alia Hassan – Instigating inspiring turnarounds
Alia Hassan’s life did not start very differently from that of most girls in Pakistan who grow up in conservative families and acquire an education, but are then discouraged from pursuing a career. With a M.Sc. in Clinical Microbiology, Hassan started working after marriage, as a teacher, at her Alma Mater, the Mama Parsi Girls’ Secondary School and then teaching chemistry at St Michael’s Convent School. It was 17 years before she was able to do her MBA at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA). A wife and mother by then, she says that having a supportive husband enabled her to manage her children, go back to school and then start working. “I did not have hired help to look after my children nor did I rely on my extended family. My husband and I decided that we would manage our family between us, and we did.”
MBA in hand, she joined the media planning department at Orient McCann Erickson. “Media was booming and I was promoted to the position of manager while still in my probation period.” At Orient McCann Erickson she worked with senior brand managers on accounts such as Reckitt & Colman (overseeing its transition to Reckitt Benckiser), Coca-Cola, Sony and Gillette (where she handled the launch of Mach 3). In 2001, she moved to Islamabad and joined the team that launched Evernew Concepts there.
Shortly after that she was asked by Jamil Janjua, Group CEO, TCS, to come to Karachi and interview for the position of brand manager for Sentiments Express. “Sentiments Express was a loss-making division of TCS and the company had decided to make a last ditch effort to save it. Jamil Janjua interviewed me for about 12 minutes and asked me to take charge right away.”
From then on, Hassan recalls working long, exhausting hours in an effort to bring life back to Sentiments Express. “There were times when I worked around the clock for three days without going home. I spent Eid and Valentine’s day in the office. In fact for five years chaand raat and Eid were spent in the office.” As Sentiments Express turned occasions such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day into viable products, profitability rose to double digits. Emboldened by this success, Sentiments Express went on to pioneer ecommerce in Pakistan under Hassan.
Her next role was as key account head for business development, sales and logistics. Then in 2011 she was tasked with reviving another underperforming division of the company – customer services. “The CEO wanted authentic customer feedback, so we launched Voice of Customer (VOC). For VOC, I designed a system that would receive proactive customer feedback based on analysis and research, and hardcore market research tools. A lot of thought went into designing VOC. We called up customers directly and we were eventually able to pinpoint where we were going wrong; for instance who was chewing paan at work and who was too busy talking on the phone and ignoring customers.”
Hassan recalls treading on several toes within the organisation to implement VOC. “Until people understood that we were not deliberately targeting them. I had to be very respectful and humble doing this job.”
Hassan is on a break from the corporate world at the moment. She is, however, continuing to teach and share her experiences as visiting faculty and guest speaker at business schools such as IBA, College of Business Management (CBM) and Bahria University. She also manages a school for the lower middle class community which she runs with her family.
Asiya Malik – Breaking new ground
Asiya Malik mentions her achievements in the textile industry almost as an afterthought, casually revealing that she commissioned Sana Safinaz to develop their first designs for Alkaram Textile Mills. She had gone to see the fashion designer duo for her own wardrobe when it struck her that they were ideally placed to share their expertise with the textile industry. “There was hardly any concept of developing original designs then. Design departments mostly copied Indian designs with a few tweaks.” Malik’s meeting with Sana Safinaz proved propitious as it would revolutionise the textile industry.
Born in Dera Nawab Saheb, near Bahawalpur, Malik moved to Karachi in 1992 as a young married woman, with no particular ambition and with an Intermediate Arts certificate – the bare minimum in terms of education. Her first job was stitching jackets at Hub Leather, where a vision for her life started taking shape as she started to simultaneously study for her BA degree.
“I took my BA privately and soon after took a job with Akhbar-e-Khawateen.” She handled the magazine’s fashion pages, and within six months joined Alkaram Textile Mill’s advertising department. A few months later, her boss noticed that she had a knack for spotting successful lawn prints and she was transferred to the design department.
In 1994, she took short textile design courses at the Indus Valley School for Art & Architecture, although she says it was the hands-on experience at Alkaram that taught her most of what she knows. “I have worked my way up in the industry and have been involved in every stage of product development; from developing transparencies to coordinating fashion shoots and executing marketing campaigns.”
As she grew professionally, managing her personal life became very challenging.“My marriage ended and I was a single parent raising a daughter on my own. Some days were just a mad rush between the office and home, especially in the early days.”
Talking about her greatest challenge, she recalls when she had to work with the printing masters. “Printing masters in the textile mills are not used to dealing with women, and not only was I a woman, I was not technically savvy at that point. They really gave me a hard time about what could and could not be done. However, I managed to convince them that I was on their side and they allowed me to enter what they call their ‘qila’ (fortress). The experience helped me learn a lot technically.”
While dogged persistence has defined Malik’s career, she also attributes her success to the right people supporting her at the right time. “My boss at Alkaram encouraged me and gave me many chances. He allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them. Another person I learnt from was Shehzad Raza (of Ather Shehzad fame), who taught me a lot about fashion photo shoots.”
After eight years at Alkaram, Malik joined Ittehad Mills as brand director and then spent a year at Lala Textile Mills where she put an end to the culture of producing pirated lawn prints and initiated new product development. Remarriage made a move to Lahore necessary and she joined Firdous Textile Mills as creative director. She is still getting used to the new environment and work culture.
“In Karachi we start planning products a year in advance; here the working culture is less organised and we are given very short timelines for product development.”
Characteristically unperturbed, Malik nonchalantly adds, “But I will adapt.”
Maria Rakla – Through the glass ceiling
When Maria Rakla joined Neilsen in 2001 as an executive, straight after doing her MBA in Marketing from CBM, she did not think she would stay in the same company for the next 13 years. “There was a saying that if you worked in research for longer than four years, you would be there forever, which is why I planned to leave within that timeframe. However, Neilsen has offered me some great opportunities to grow and at every step my role has expanded. So I guess eventually the saying came true for me.”
Working in consumer research, which was still in its infancy in Pakistan and a largely male stronghold, Rakla remembers there being just three women in the organisation when she joined. “In retail measurement services, which was the department I worked in I was the only woman. I was frequently asked how long I was going to work after I married. And when my son was born, everyone wanted to know if I would continue to work”
Rakla forged ahead, becoming an indispensible part of the core team which worked on expanding the company’s portfolio and increasing the revenue base. “One of our biggest achievements was bringing in local accounts. It was one of the most challenging tasks of my career to convince local companies to invest in quality research, especially considering that our services are not cheap.
I am proud of the fact that not only did we add a considerable number of local clients to our portfolio, we also acquired some very unlikely clients.”
Married and the mother of an eight-year-old son, Rakla successfully juggled work and personal life with help from her family and her own time management skills.
She managed to rise through the ranks and is now director for the MENAP region, a position for which she moved to Dubai last August. Her achievements were recognised by Neilsen when she was chosen as client leader for their Platinum Accounts, comprising of the company’s top 10 accounts based on revenue.
Rakla attributes her success to dedication and hard work. She grew up watching her parents espousing those values every day. “I saw my father work hard and build his life from scratch and become a successful man. I also saw my mother work hard to raise and support four children. I grew up with inspiring role models.”
Rakla is enjoying her current role as director which requires her to travel frequently. “I love the exposure. Not only am I learning about the brands that I am handling, I am also gaining exposure to markets in different countries.”
Shahrezad Samiuddin is a pop culture junkie and an aspiring screenwriter.