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Nadia Munawwar – Rising to the top

Nadia Munawwar’s rise to the top of Pakistan’s corporate sector is an inspirational story of commitment, hard work and determination. Having reached the top echelons of a traditionally male dominated sector, Nadia has recently been appointed chairperson Business & Professional Women (BPW), an international organisation dedicated to women in the workplace; a cause that is close to her heart.

At just fourteen-years of age, Nadia Munawwar became a professional working woman. She went against the grain and took up a position as a copywriter in an advertising agency, not for the money, but because it was something she wanted to do. This was an invaluable learning experience for Nadia and gave her a head start when she finally entered the job market full-time.

In Islamabad, Nadia gained renown as the creative director of Adgroup Pvt. Ltd. When she moved to Karachi, she started working for Jahangir Siddiqui, now known as JS, thanks to her successful rebranding of the company.  In fact, the transition was so smooth that it has been a source of great inspiration to many other businesses who are trying to rebrand.

Munawwar has recently been appointed a chairperson in BPW, an organisation that is actively working to give women opportunities to become more visible, and to wield greater power in their jobs and careers. The organisation is present in over ninety countries worldwide, and provides support and resources to professional women across a variety of fields.  She shares her insights with Blue Chip about her career and how to promote and encourage working women through BPW.

You’re the youngest ever representative on BPW. How does that make you feel?
Nadia Munawwar: “I think not just for me, but it’s a proud moment for Pakistanis because the media just loves to bash us. When you go to these places and you represent Pakistan and get elected as the chair of an organisation of which there are 90 member countries, that means you are actually advocating that Pakistan is a progressive country with women who are actually decision-makers in most cases, and we are not what you see on television. So, yes, it is a very happy moment for me and for my family because I just feel that because I have this opportunity to represent the country, which personally for me is very exciting.”

BPW’s mission is to achieve equity for all women in the workplace through advocacy, education and information. How can this be achieved in Pakistan?
NM: “We do have a BPW club in Pakistan. We’ve had it since the 1950s, and they lobby for certain causes. We are an organisation that is very actively working to make women more visible. That’s basically what our slogan is: we make our members visible. When we say ‘visible’ we mean: give them opportunities to network globally and nationally and give them opportunities to be promoted to decision making positions whereby they can affect the lives of so many others. I should mention that we do not depend on any kind of funding. We raise our own funds, and disperse them as we see fit. Back in Ayub Khan’s time, not all the civil service positions were open to women. I think there were only one or two career positions open to women to apply to after the CSS exam. The current president of BPW International, Dr Salima Ahmed, was very young then. She wanted to apply to the Foreign Service but was told that as a woman she was not eligible. This inspired her to protest outside the President House and she is responsible for having so many government departments open to women.
BPW currently has a hostel for working women that gives accommodation at subsidised rates. This is a city where there are security issues. So, for working women to have a secure environment, where they know the administration is going to take care of them is a great thing. There is also a vocational training school to help them start their own business. In some cases, a member arranges for seed money so women can start their own businesses. This isn’t through a bank, but through personal donations. If they see potential in somebody then they donate to see that the person gets through. We also have informal mentorship programmes in which women in vocational training schools may be attached with a mentor throughout their training so there will be someone who can give the guidance and funding.
BPW International has a formal mentorship programme, which has been very effective in many European countries. The reason why we haven’t been able to make it very effective here is because as soon as a girl gets married, mostly she stops working. I’m very impressed by the European women because they take it very seriously. Today, if someone signed on as your mentor, they’ll actually keep pushing you throughout your career. Here, we are lucky enough to have parents who are always there for us to support us, but there there’s always that disconnect between the kids and the parents in western societies, so mentors fill in that role. What a mentor does is guide you and open doors for you within their fields. It’s a great programme if we can bring it effectively here. It’s just about giving back. You just want to make it easier for the next generation.”

As the chairperson, how do you go about raising more funds and admitting more members?
NM: “I was elected on October 27 and by November 25, I had already set up a young BPW club in Bangladesh with a group of 15 young women. Wherever I have friends, I pick up the phone and I say find me women who are professionals or who have their own businesses, I want you to induct them.
Young BPW is essentially working women under 35. Though all of us are BPW international members, we decided that because older women have different issues in their careers compared to us, we decided to form a young club in the ‘80s. While this club is also BPW International, Young BPW can have their own agendas and their own conferences. A lot of the older members attend and speak at our conferences but it’s really done by us.”

As a working woman in Pakistan, what advice would you give to other working women? What would your advice be to the challenges that one faces?
NM: “I would actually encourage a lot of the parents to support their daughters. I was fourteen when I started working as a part-time copywriter with Adgroup Pvt Ltd. In a lot of ways, I consider Syed Asif Salahuddin to be my mentor, because I was just fourteen, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I just knew that I could write and I wanted to write. So, when I saw an ad for a creative writer in a magazine, I thought, why not? I called and went in for an interview. When I first walked in, the receptionist actually thought it was a joke. But I talked to the creative director, who asked me and a few other twenty-somethings, to come up with a few catchy slogans and ad captions for PTC. I came up with about twenty, and they said they would call me back. I just thought it was a great adventure, but I never expected they would actually call. Imagine my surprise when after three days I got a call from them, and they said that I was one of the most brilliant writers they had that day and the CEO wanted to meet me! So my father went with me, and the CEO interviewed me and offered me the position, provided I could make the time for the work.”

How did you manage school and work?
NM: “I went in three times a week, and the other two days I would work from home. It was difficult for me but it was a great learning experience. The good thing was that a lot of the young kids in my class actually wanted to work. Obviously some of my parents’ friends thought it was a bad thing to let your daughter work so early, but I’m so happy that I did it. You become so much more disciplined, and you learn the value of money when you earn yourself. Most importantly it teaches you about office politics.”

How long did you work there?
NM: “I worked until I went to college. After college, my boss offered me a full-time job and hired me as a creative director and a business developer. He gave me two departments, which for me, right out of college, was a high. The good thing is I knew exactly what advertising was about. I would definitely do it again.
I was there for two years, but then we had to move to Karachi. I was upset because I was in a comfortable place in terms of my career.”

Part of being a woman is having to make difficult choices and then making those choices work in your favour. What happened when you moved to Karachi?
NM: “When I moved here, I didn’t work for two months because I was trying to decide what to do. Advertising in Karachi isn’t the same as in Islamabad, because your clients are different, and the people you work with are different. I did work for a week or two in Indus TV, and realised that television isn’t for me. In those two months, I realised I can’t sit at home; I have to be working. Around that time, in 2003, Abamco was launching their fund. The CEO called me and asked me to come on as a consultant and help them launch the project. It was very exciting since I have never worked on a financial project. It took about three weeks, and the whole city was talking about it. Our fund was oversubscribed, and people were talking about the campaign. After that, I decided that I want to do specialised projects but stay in marketing. Then Ali [Siddiqui] spoke to me and said we should set up a department within the group, and that we need to rebrand Jahangir Siddiqui. He gave me his vision for the next five years. I’ve always been a little reserved when it comes to working with family. When you work with family, you realise you have to work twice as hard, because the expectations are so high. In the end, he convinced me. I was also very excited about his five-year goal — and as you’ve seen we have grown tremendously.
I set up the department of corporate communications/affairs. I started working on rebranding the group from being Jahangir Siddiqui to being JS. The website and the logo were all done by me in the first two years. It was exciting for me because it was just like one of those projects that I took on at my last job, but here I was on both the buying and the selling side instead of just the selling side, because here you have to sell everything internally. I have come to realise that your internal customer is the most difficult to handle. The biggest challenge we faced was conserving our reputation when we went from Jahangir Siddiqui to JS. In the financial services, business reputation and trust are very important, and we had to keep that in mind. And people did continue to trust us with their money.
In fact most of the marketing companies have found our brand transition so superb that we had the Best Practices Day in Karachi last month and they asked us to come and speak bout how we did it, and a lot of brand managers wanted to learn how the transition happened without disturbing our market. So, the marketing association of Pakistan asked us to come and speak about the brand transition of JS.”

You said you’ve dealt with all sorts of people. What advice would you give to working women who also have to deal with different kinds of people who come with certain prejudices against young women?
NM: “Even today when there are so many women in power; the Governor of the State Bank is a woman, the Speaker of the National Assembly is a woman; but at the same time, there’s still some resistance that you’ll see when you walk into a meeting. A lot of times, people will walk into my office and think I’m somebody’s secretary, and when they find out that I’m the boss, they’re usually surprised. Some people are not comfortable talking to me, so you have to be very patient. You have to make sure that you have to get the job done. Remember that if you get emotional about work, that’s when people start attacking you. You may not like the way you’re being treated, but you just have to deal with it and get the job done. You have to be careful about what you say. Again, you cannot show your emotions, because they expect you to be emotional. If you show your emotions in public, people stop respecting you as a professional. Just remember business is business, it’s not personal. You can’t choose the people you work with.”

You spoke about your parents. Have you had any other role models who’ve inspired you?
NM: “My parents have been very important in making me who I am. They’ve always been very encouraging, more than role models, they’ve been amazing support for me. It goes without saying, for a girl to accomplish something in life, her father or her husband needs to be very supportive. The man in your life plays a very important role in making you who you are and my father was always there for me. Apart from that, Syed Asif Salahuddin taught me a lot as a young girl. He pushed me to never give up. Growing up, I’ve looked up to Benazir Bhutto because she’s been a great source of inspiration to me as a working woman. I’ve followed her career closely but as an inspiration for women to accomplish big things in life, and to also show women that it doesn’t matter if you’re a mother or a wife, you can still be a person in your own right. This is something Pakistani women need to understand; that you’re not just a daughter or a wife, but you are an individual. I see a lot of brilliant women very happy to be trophy wives and I find that very sad because that’s a very large workforce that’s just going to waste.”

What’s your vision for the future with your work and BPW?
NM: “My vision with BPW is to increase membership. I want to go to countries where we don’t have young BPW clubs as yet. It’s a mutually benefiting relationship. If you join BPW, we take a lot of benefits from whatever skills you bring to the table, but you also benefit from the network itself because you are in touch with over three million women who are accomplishing big things in life. Networking is half of what you do in your career. This gives the opportunity to meet and to work with them, and make a difference in the lives of so many women that do not have the connections that you have access to. I’m hoping that I can grow the network.”

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