Published in Nov-Dec 2020
When Zoya Altaf, Public Relations and Communications Manager, Reckitt Benckiser (RB) Pakistan, describes herself as meticulous, I have no trouble believing her. After we have locked in a time to meet, the date and venue, she sends a Google Calendar invite milliseconds later and is on the dot for our meeting at Esquires Coffee (post work hours because Karachi’s October heat is deadly in the day and gives her horrible migraines). Along with focusing on the small details (adding a full stop to a presentation, or fixing a tilted frame in a restaurant), Altaf is a perfectionist “by virtue of being a Virgo.” Things must be in a certain way and order because it helps her clear her mind. Meticulous, however, does not translate into other qualities one may assume come with it, such as arrogance or impatience. Instead, she is empathetic and a people’s person without being loud and over-the-top.
Before I have a chance to settle down, Altaf is standing by the entrance staircase looking for me. She is dressed in a dark blue floral kurti, small silver jhumkis and a funky shade of mauve lipstick – accompanied by a full head of glossy, bouncy ringlets that express her full-of-life personality. During our chat, she listens with both her ears and eyes; her focused eye contact and nods relay that she is listening intently to every word I say (while preparing an answer). According to her, she is stubborn and headstrong, authoritative and responsible because, as she says, those are the requirements that come with being the eldest of four daughters. She says that although there are pressures and strings that come with this role, she often asks herself why she has to get involved in every major decision at home. However, this is also what made her who she is.
Even though she comes from a “very orthodox family” (at her age, the women in her family are married with children), her parents have always supported her endeavours and encouraged her to be independent. This is also why she believes independence, especially financial independence, should be given more importance in a woman’s life.
“The first thing women need to work towards is financial independence and that encouragement has to come from the parents from day one.”
She believes this is one of the primary ways we can deal with our patriarchal society, because independence “gives you space … aap kisi ke tukron pe nahin pal rahay. The minute you are independent and a financial contributor, your opinions and decisions matter... you are not just a ‘plus one’ (I hate that concept).”
She agrees this is not an easy thing to achieve and that one cannot simply instil such beliefs in others, hence, self-realisation is key. However, she says that what we can do as women is create safe, empowering spaces for other women to be comfortable and confident in, and lead by example.
“What is sad is the fact that men benefit from pitting women against each other and it is something we need to cut out with a conscious effort.”
In her opinion, as a woman if you know what you want, you should not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. It is a quality that has helped her in her personal life and at work.
“Until you speak up, no one will know what you want and so expression is important – which as a nation we suck at. Both our schools and our parents don’t know how to teach us to be good communicators.”
Considering her challenging home and work roles, one may think Altaf was a nose-in-the-book, straight A student. Surprisingly, this is not true. At school, she “really didn’t care” about her grades. “I was the kid who gets a lot of complaints at parent teacher meetings because I talked a lot.” (PR persona from a young age?) However, things changed when she started her A’ Levels and her family went through some issues due to which she had to pull up her grades to secure a university scholarship.
At RB, Altaf has worked hard to get to where she is. Contrary to what one may think, she has not simply talked her way up the ladder because she is a people’s person. She started her career at Liberty Books as Assistant Brand Manager.
“A lot of what I did then was what PR is all about and how my interest developed in the function.” After Liberty Books, she joined Asiatic Public Relations as Client Service Manager, eventually becoming Senior Client Manager. During her time there, she worked on accounts such as EBM and Coke, and coincidentally on RB (which is how she eventually ended up there).
“Because I knew the RB brands before joining, it helped me connect better and make better strategies.” She currently looks after RB consumer categories ranging from Harpic to Mortein to Veet. Her best times in her career trajectory have both been purpose-based campaigns. At Asiatic Public Relations: ‘Hoga Saaf Pakistan’ (HSP) was her ‘baby’ and she continued with it at RB. Her other favourite is ‘Coke Studio for the Deaf’, an initiative to give people who are hearing impaired the opportunity to feel music.
Asking what could be next after RB, she replies that her dream is to open a Bed and Breakfast one day because she is a foodie and loves to cook (not bake, because that takes patience). She does not seem like the kind of cook who exists for ‘The Gram’, but more like Remy in Ratatouille, who savours every bite of different kinds of foods and translates that love into his cooking. I can imagine her cooking up a storm in her kitchen, resulting in a plethora of dishes from different cuisines. She says she has mastered the art of creating the perfect pasta Alfredo and aloo qeema – the ultimate comfort food, which she describes as “the perfect hug.”
She envisages her bed and breakfast to be “somewhere in the mountains.” Her aim is to create a traveller’s space and combine it with her passion for cooking. In the meantime she has a mini kitchen farm, where she grows chillies and tomatoes and a balcony garden brimming with plants which she takes care of as if they were pets.
Although working at RB is both rewarding and challenging, she recently made it a point to figure out a decent work-life balance. She says she was deeply affected when her maternal grandmother passed away in 2019 and it led her to prioritise her life better. “I was not as close to my parents as I am now. We immerse ourselves too much in our work and ambitions; what leaves a mark on your life are your interactions away from work.”
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