Mariam Shoaib, The Catalyst Woman

By Anam Abdulla | Stories

Oct 13
Mariam is a writer, corporate trainer and an avid techie currently heading her own training consultancy, Catalyst Woman. All of Mariam’s projects involve language, communications, technology and social empowerment in one form or another.

 1. How did the idea of ‘Catalyst Woman” develop?

This is probably the first time I am sharing the origin story behind the phrase Catalyst Woman. It was gifted to me by a friend and colleague about four years ago. It was the result of a kinship over the realization that the lives we lead are both a gift and a responsibility. Are we content to lead our own best lives? Is there more to be done with these opportunities (higher education, friends in ‘high places’, unlimited internet, professions with status and advancement, financial independence, etc.)? We decided on a resounding ‘Yes!’

Our conversations ranged from frustration about the barriers that young women (and men!) face achieving basic employable education to the suffocation women face when needs of the modern world/ the business of everyday life conflict with the remnants of patriarchal values and mores. We could not be more different. She belonged to family that had feudal roots and to this day oversees quite a few communities that work on their ancestral lands. I am fourth­generation Kashmiri­ Pakistani who was born and raised in Saudia Arabia and the United States.

We could not be more similar. We both herald from a line of educators and innovators who put community development and the empowerment of women as a priority, starting with their own families. Our plans included higher education and social development, however on a grassroots level and as cash­free as possible. We wanted to work with our friends and neighbors to bring measurable and sustainable change to our immediate environments. We both shared a spiritual belief in ‘Qarz­e­Hasna’, a sort of ‘Pay­it­Forward’ system, where gifted loans are paid forward to another worthy individual, till the end of time.

In the brief two months of our association, we both grew clearer about solutions we would like to tackle. Before we could collaborate, she came upon a new job offer and chose to leave for it in another city. Opening the farewell email, after we had toasted her good health, I came upon her message for me. She described me as someone who would undeniably bring about positive change in both my immediate community and in Pakistan at­large. She said I would be a Catalyst.

2. You’re a Corporate Trainer, Writer, Editor, Public Speaker and a Speech Writer among other things – what inspired you to pursue these interests and develop them into a career?

I think these aspects of my career chose me. Teaching and writing come naturally to me, but I would not have predicted becoming a Corporate Trainer. I was fortunate enough to have many extra­curricular experiences during school, perhaps that has something to do with it. In addition to taking part in Model U.N. and other debate­like clubs, I was that one kid always on the newspaper and the school literary magazine. The one with the notebook and pencil ready at all times. Getting positive feedback from my instructors helped build my confidence and aspire to combine activities that bring joy and pose an intellectual challenge.

3. What is the best part about your career? Is there a particular aspect of your career that excites you when you wake up every morning?

It is about inspiring people to become catalysts ­ to spur young women and men into immediate action. I think figuring out how technology, edu­-tech, and women’s empowerment intersect is especially exciting for me on a daily basis.

Over my morning tea I begin by making a list of topics/news stories/trends around the world that can be of interest to my podcast listeners/blog readers. Next, I think of people I can reach out to interview who can help me better understand the dilemma at hand. I believe the possibility of removing a question mark from my listener/reader’s mind and replacing it with an exclamation mark is my utmost motivation.

4. What are some of the challenges you have faced while pursuing your interests and career goals? How have you dealt with these challenges?

Choosing to stray from a ‘safe and steady’ career in Accountancy or as a School teacher, my decision to study English Literature was often questioned by members of my community. I was a typical straight­ A student so the expectation was that I pursue a career in the Sciences (Medicine, Engineering, Accountancy). I adored physics and bio, but what seduced me was within the fold of the Literature and History programs. I gave in to my lust for Humanities and have never regretted that decision. My parents and my immediate family were immensely supportive, so there was no challenge there. They understood that I marched to a beat of different drummer and should be allowed to demonstrate my full potential.

That support has been vital to my personal and career growth. It is also quite unconventional for a young woman to opt for a public­ facing role like a Corporate Trainer or Public Speaker. However, once I started working on the Catalyst Woman concept, the need to reach a larger audience demanded I hone my skills in public speaking. I would say that biggest challenge is that when you opt for a career stemming from the Humanities, you lose out on social prestige and usually a substantial paycheck in the first few years of your career. Our society does not recognize that editors, journalists, trainers work just as hard and are just as professional as a dentist or a civil engineer. If you stay focused on your output and consistently perform above ­par, your reward is the quality of your work. Everything else falls to the wayside.

5. Can you tell us about your podcast? What inspired the idea, what are some of the main topics you cover and who is your primary audience?

The ‘Catalyst Woman’ podcast came about when I realized that many people are familiar with the fascinating developments in technology like Bitcoins and the Internet of Things. I wanted to share what I had uncovered ( all praise to the hardworking tech journalists around the world for their efforts). I primarily cover the following topics ­ Technology, Educational­ Technology (Ed­Tech), Women’s Empowerment and Financial Literacy. I would say my primary audience consists of men and women from Pakistan who are endlessly curious about the world we inhabit. All are welcome to listen in, though! 🙂

6. What are the top three skills that have been critical for your success in your professional and personal endeavours?

If I had to pick, I would say the following: incurable optimism (it’s more of an attribute), written and spoken communication skills and a nose ­for ­news/hot trends/intuition about whats ­to ­come.

7. As an avid communicator, what specific aspects should people focus on when looking to develop or improve their communication skills?

Read. Everyone should increase their reading of articles or books, be it incrementally, for both personal and professional benefits.

Read out loud. Reading out loud trains your ear to catch any grammatical mistakes you may made while composing an email or text. Saves you many awkward moments. Trust me.

Use the phone. If what you have to say is important, make a phone call. It shows that you can prioritize a person or a project and leave your comfort zone easily.

8. Are there any resources (online or offline) that you consistently use for inspiration and/or enhancing your expertise?

Online: I find Twitter endlessly fascinating. It is as if a slice of humanity is up for observation.

Offline: I read an insane amount of poetry. From Erica Jong to Shailja Patel to Warsan Shire, there are many poets whose works I refer to while working on projects. I pick up a poetry book and start reading from anywhere.

9. Have you used any networks to help you achieve your goals? If so, what networks have you used and which have been the most helpful?

I would say that it wasn’t a conscious effort, but I have found collaborators and clients via Twitter and LinkedIn. I am always online, commenting on what was interesting and making sure to share my latest projects with the community.

10. What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received? Do you have any advice for our readers who are passionate about pursuing a career in education/communications?

“Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone.” I remember receiving this from a mentor and it struck a chord. Whenever anxiety sets in, I take a look at the post­it with this scribbled on it and re­focus. I would encourage those of you interested in pursuing a career in education/communications to be open to opportunities to learn from the best in the industry. Scope out and approach them for an internship or a small project. Most importantly, practice empathy. Working with people in such close quarters, remember that you need to be more than a rational, calculated thinking machine. You need to emote and connect with your audience/students/collaborators.

And just a few short answers for our readers:

  1. Success to me is . . .  when your brand becomes synonymous with quality work/product.
  2. My greatest accomplishment so far is . . . creating a career that blends all my interests and serves a larger purpose.
  3. Someone who inspires me is. . . Beth Kanter. She is an amazing non­profit tech industry expert and author/trainer who always has something innovative to share.
  4. My greatest fear is . . . leaving Planet Earth the way we inherited it, polluted, hungry and ready to implode.
  5. My favorite quote/words I live by. . . . “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” by Goethe