1. What inspired you to pursue a career in communications?
I wasn’t able to study journalism in college due to family opposition, so communications was the next best thing, especially in the development sector which I was passionate about. I took a course in IBA in development economics and wrote a term paper on higher education reform, sparking my interest in education. This interest was a factor in my work with both TCF and the World Bank. As an alternative to journalism, I wanted to do something that would bring a broader change and benefit a larger group of people while employing my writing skills at the same time.
2. You moved from Pakistan to the US a few years after graduating from IBA. What were some of the challenges you faced while moving to a new country and how did you deal with them?
When i graduated from IBA, I had a lot of opportunities in Pakistan. My job at TCF was amazing, especially as a woman since it is an organization that employs a lot of women and is very encouraging and supportive of its female employees. When I came to Washington I realized no one cared about my IBA degree and I had to start from a scratch professionally — that realization was as hard as adjusting to a new country. Even though I had visited America before, I still had a tough adjustment process. I was intimidated by things like paying for groceries using a machine, or figuring out the Metro transit system. I had to learn to do a lot of things on my own which I wasn’t used to in Pakistan.
It was very hard to find jobs when I arrived. It was 2007 — after the economic meltdown so the worst time to look for jobs. Despite having professional experience I had to start with a $10 dollar/hour internship. I then took a contract writing gig at a small, struggling communications firm. It was low-paid but turned out to be a great decision because I learnt a lot from my boss, an experienced former journalist, about web writing from a journalistic perspective.
While I didn’t mind starting from scratch to learn the ropes initially, going forward it took me a while to find a professional footing. Even after working very hard the first few years, I kept accepting entry level positions at my subsequent jobs, mainly because I lacked a US college degree and confidence in my own experience. Eventually, I was able to land a position at the Rights and Resources Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for land rights for indigenous communities. Working there was a very positive experience, as it was the first time I really felt rewarded for my work and received my first ever promotion. I worked for that promotion and gained enough confidence in my skills to actually ask for it. It was a novel experience for me.
I left my full-time position at the Rights and Resources Initiative last year to focus on graduate school, but still needed to work part-time to pay the bills. When the opportunity to consult with the World Bank came by, I decided not to immediately jump at it but to negotiate a rate that matched my 10 years of experience. I felt like this time I couldn’t afford to be as flexible as I had been earlier in my life, not only because I had a lot more experience, but also because I was now the the sole earner for my household. In the end, I was able to negotiate terms that suited my schedule with school and parenting, and a rate that matched my qualifications.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my professional experiences is that you have to be generous when calculating your worth. As women, we often think companies are doing us a favor by offering us a job or whatever they are willing to pay is what we deserve. We need to get rid of that mindset and develop confidence and pride in our hard-earned skills.
3. What are some of the skills/qualities that have been critical for you to succeed in your endeavours?
4. You’re working, in grad school and raising a child — how do you manage your time and do you have any advice for other women looking for work-life balance?
I am fortunate because I do have help from Ali’s dad, and get a break now and then. As co-parents, we always try to help each other out. Also, my parents now live with me and are a great pillar of support. Despite initially opposing my desire to study journalism in Pakistan, they both rallied around me when I decided to go to grad school and provided me immense support. Many single parents are doing it all on their own and it’s much harder for them. It’s hard for me to give advice that applies to everyone, but one thing that comes to mind is that when it comes to parenting, quality time is much more effective than quantity. A study published last year showed that what’s really important for kids is not the number of hours you spend them with every day, but how stressed you are during the time you are together. So even a smaller degree of time spent together is better than a lot if that time is stress-free and happy. This was actually an interesting study for me because having always been a working parent, I always had immense guilt for not spending enough time with Ali. But I’ve realized he would rather see me happy than stressed about forcing myself on him while juggling 10 other things. My emphasis now is making the time that we do have together into uninterrupted quality time. For example, I never skip on reading him a story at night, and that has become our favorite time together. That’s when he confides in me and shares his stories from the day and I truly treasure that time and try not to do anything else during that time (no phone, no TV in the background).
Another piece of advice is that when looking for jobs, you should tell employers early on at the interview stage that spending time with your family is important to you. Find employers with similar family values. It makes a huge difference later on.
5. The idea behind Dairay is all about community and supporting each other — have you used any networks that have been particularly helpful?
I believe in the value of networking even though I’m not an aggressive networker myself. I was lucky to have found all my previous jobs on the DC craigslist and Idealist, and was mostly able to get responses traditionally. But I do have many friends that have obtained great positions through networking. I think networking is not for everyone — if you struggle at it, do pursue traditional channels because if you’re working hard and have a good resume, you will get responses. Also, try to target smaller organizations at the beginning of your career as it’s often easier to get jobs at such companies through the traditional route. Most people start off aiming for the big companies which are much more competitive and harder to get into without aggressive networking.
6. Being a writer, what is the most valuable piece of advice you would want to give our readers who are aspiring writers?
As a writer, some of the best advice I’ve ever received from my mentors and professors is keeping it short and precise. Be very stingy, but very wise, with your words. This is easier said than done, because it is incredibly hard to edit yourself. But keep going back to your work again and again, revise it until you are exhausted, and try to cut as much as you can without losing your meaning. Cut, revise, and then cut again–that’s my motto. And in this age of online writing where everyone’s rushing through their reading on phones and tablets, that is the best advice I can give.
Some short answer questions for our readers:
Israa Nasir, Co-founder of Ammi Service and a Therapist
Video: Nazish Hussain, Founder of Secret Stash
Farrah Hamid, Founder, Prettly.com
Madiha Waris Qureshi, Consultant, World Bank
Arsla Jawaid, Foreign Policy and Counter-terrorism Guru
Sana Khan Niazi, Founder, Paimona
Sobia Sheikh, Finance Manager, Sodexo
Ruqayya Diwan Adamjee, Creative & Social Impact