Continuing our series on this year’s Pond’s Miracle Women, we introduce the miracle women chosen by Pond’s Miracle Mentor Sameena Abbas. Confident and graceful, Sameena is one of Pakistan’s senior interior designers. She’s known for her bold, opulent designs and has completed countless projects around the world over the last two decades.
Sameena has chosen an extraordinary set of women including businesswomen, educationalists and lawyers. These are their inspirational stories…
Deputy Managing Director of DKT International
Key word: Confident
Ambreen Thompson used the knowledge and skills she had gained throughout years of transitioning between multiple careers and living in several countries to help the underprivileged women of Pakistan live a better life. After returning to Pakistan with a Masters degree and a young family, she switched to the non-profit sector. ‘I’m the deputy country head of a not-for-profit which works around many countries developing their neonatal programs. I knew I wanted to give back which is why I’m doing this community work.’ A mother herself, Ambreen found it shocking that outside of West Africa, Pakistan had the highest infant mortality rates — the main culprits being overpopulation and under-utilisation of resources. Ambreen decided it was time for a change. ‘Far too many women die in rural areas because of lack of care and an astonishing number of infants die before one year of age. I run the Dhanak clinic program and try to create awareness about the high mortality rates.’
Her work involves travelling to remote areas, not always the safest option for women in our part of the world. ‘People in rural Pakistan are generally very welcoming but there are areas in urban slums like Korangi, Landhi and Lyari where there are still pockets of no-go areas; here we are threatened to leave immediately.’ But this does not deter Ambreen one bit for as she says, ‘There is an inherent risk in anything. My family worries about me but they know it won’t change anything because I love what I do. I feel strongly that it is time for us to give back; we have to put in the blood and sweat!’
As aspirational as her miracle journey is, Ambreen, too, has faced many a moment when she questioned herself. ‘My son was born in 2004 and at the time I was in a job I loved. However it involved a lot of travel. When I went back after maternity leave, I had separation anxiety, even though I’d left my baby home with a good nurse.’ Ambreen decide to prioritize family life over work, until she found a profession that was equally fulfilling.
Her strength comes from having a strong role model in the face of her mother. ‘She was a working mother who managed to do both, never neglecting one over the other.’ One of the most important skills she learned from her mother was to manage her time effectively. ‘I’ve always felt working mothers are better organised because they manage their time better. I get up by 5.30 am to fit in an hour of exercise. I make sure I am home in time to cook and help with the homework. It’s a balancing act. You are always trying to manage all the expectations that come with it.’
The youngest ever female country manager of a huge global company is no lean feat, and Ambreen’s miracle journey shows that whether its motherhood or leadership, Pakistani women are leading the way!
Deputy General Manager at HBL
Key word: Diligent
It’s not easy to go your own way but banking guru Bazgha Ansari’s miracle journey shows it is possible. A banker for the last 24 years, Bazgha came close to giving up her profession when she got married. Not one to give in easily, Bazgha stood up for her beliefs and in doing so, set in motion a positive chain of events for herself and her family. ‘The biggest challenge in my life was the decision to continue working. I had to take a stand. Luckily my husband supported me and my mother- in-law who was a doctor by training, understood my dilemma. ’A hardworker by nature, Bazgha worked throughout her pregnancies. ‘I worked till the last day in both my pregnancies and after delivery I re-joined just three months later.’
Bazgha feels that women should not waste their vocation once they get married for it mars the image of female workers. ‘Women should take their profession seriously, not just as a time-pass till they get married. They should continue working instead of quitting after marriage.’ She is aware of the pressures put on working women, and especially on working mothers, to give up their careers after marriage and motherhood. Bazgha gives the example of her sister who studied medicine but gave up her vocation as a doctor due to family pressures after marriage. ‘That’s why employers think they are not serious,’ she says. ‘If women take their jobs seriously, I know they can be very organized, responsible and good leaders.’
Bagzha feels that by continuing to work, working mothers are not only setting a good example for other women but also for their children. ‘I got an award for 20 years of service and my children feel so proud of me. They want to be bankers!.’ And so would many others after they hear about Bazgha’s motivational and diligent, uphill miracle journey to the top of the summit.
Psychotherapist Bina Yousef found her calling late in life when circumstances drew her towards human connectivity and healing. ‘I was drawn towards human healing when I used to work with children with learning difficulties. When an opportunity to train in counselling came up, I took it and since then there has been no stopping on this journey.’ After working as a counsellor, Bina realised that she had found her calling and decided to pursue the profession through proper vocational training. Although there are many untrained counsellors working unchecked in the country, Bina decided to take the ethical route and take up the challenge of going back to school. ‘Going back to school as a mature student was the hardest decision I ever had to make,’ she says. ‘I joined a full time masters program at Bahria in 2010. Going back to studies at this age was very challenging but when I finished my degree I really felt as if I had achieved something worthwhile. It was my miracle moment.’
Also a mother, Bina has always been clear that her family is her priority. ‘My children have always been the primary focus for me. Whatever I did, I always worked around them so I had sufficient time and availability for my family.’ Bina mastered the balancing act by only taking as much as was possible without affecting her family life. ‘Work life balance has been a huge challenge. One of the things I decided to maintain it was not to get a full time job. The work I do, allows me the flexibility of scheduling my own appointments so that I’m not tied down to a 9-5 job.’ In her line of work Bina comes across a variety of people and she cherishes that.
‘Human experience is very diverse, each new challenge bring with it something new.’ For her work is an opportunity for self-enrichment and growth. She encourages other Pakistani women to do the same. ‘Prioritise yourself,’ she says. ‘Have a life of your own. That really helps a lot.’ Always ready for what life has to offer, Bina’s miracle journey shows that we are never too old to learn something new and never too young to take up a challenge. Life is all about pushing the boundaries.
Co-owner: The Pink Tree Company
Keyword: Easy-going / humorous
Fashion bonanza Pink Tree’s co-owner, Hadia Khan, left the hustle and bustle of the corporate circle for the glitz and glamour of Pakistan’s fashion world when she realised what creativity meant to her. ‘I discovered, after eight years in the corporate sector, that I wasn’t cut out for that environment. I had just given birth to my son and that was adding to my stress, given the hours banking required. I wanted to be in a more creative environment. However it took me good many years before I realised I wanted to be my own boss or work with people with the same mindset. I got lucky as my two best friends are my business partners. I now look forward to the work environment whereas before I wasn’t a happy trouper.’
Hadia looks after the operations element of her fashion brand and like all working mothers, performs a juggling act each day that she steps into work.
‘It doesn’t work without the work-life balance. You have to be aware before you start your professional journey that it will take a toll on you and you must learn to pull back when it gets too much. For someone like me with two kids, in laws and the usual Pakistani housewife responsibilities, I just have to balance it out.’ Hadia’s golden philosophy is not hesitating to reach out when help is needed.
‘Get all the help you can. Let go of the fact that your hired help is not perfect. One has to calm down and see how important something is. I choose what I stress over and that’s also very important.’ Though a visionary businesswoman, family comes first for Hadia. ‘Priority in my life at this point is kids’ education.’
Despite her hectic schedule, Hadia stresses how important it is for working women to take out the time for themselves. ‘There was a point in my life when I was stressing about ageing without doing anything. Then I took stock and started taking care of myself, just basic things like moisturising, cleansing can make such a big difference.’
Hadia’s big hearted laughter and her light and optimistic view towards life is something we can all learn from. In an environment where each day is as unpredictable as the next, Hadia’s upward optimism shows that nothing in life is certain except uncertainty. And as she says, ‘If we just learn to accept, it all gets a lot easier.’
Owner, Saturday Studio
Laila Odho took her passion for art and her training as a teacher and combined the two to create a unique concept – the Saturday Studio. Laila’s slim frame and girlish looks hardly give away the fact that she is a mother of three and has achieved so much in life. Besides positivity, Laila attributes it to always wearing sunblock to avoid the ageing effects of the harsh Karachi sun. Recalling her professional life, she says, ‘I trained as a teacher and worked with pre-primary children for eight years. Then I set up my own school, which I ran for seven years. However, my other real passion was art. I always went back and forth between art and teaching. I realised there was no art studio that functioned throughout the year. There was no training facility for kids. So I decided to take my passion for art and my training as a teacher, and combine the two. I set up an art studio called the Saturday Studio.’
Though Laila has always been focused on her work, she is the kind of person for whom family comes first. When it comes to maintain a healthy balance between the two, she says, ‘I had to find a happy medium. So I decided whatever I would do I would commit to it but give my family 100% as well.’ It is for this reason that initially her art school only operated once week, although she now has people working for her throughout the week.
‘There is lot of work happening behind the scenes although I don’t do as much teaching now.’
Behind this overnight success of her studio is a lot of hard work. As she says, ‘Twice before I have set up my own business and both times it took courage because I was going out and setting something up. In the playschool, I had my sister as a partner so it was a little bit easier but the art studio venture was completely on my own. It was a big risk because I wasn’t sure if the concept would take off here; if people would be really into it.’
It took great courage and perseverance to do something that had never been done before, but undaunted as she is, Laila Odho did it. Her miracle journey shows that one should never stop dreaming — for dreams are but goals with a timeline.
HR Manager Shell
Keyword: Go getter
Madiha Khalid’s miraculous zoom up the career ladder while raising a young child shows that Pakistani women can have it all! ‘I’ve been with Shell for about 9 years, have been married for 8 and have a five-year old son,’ she says. ‘Shell is my second home.’ The eldest of three sisters, Madiha’s father, who is also her greatest role model, always encouraged his daughters to pursue their education and to be goal orientated. ‘In my extended family women don’t generally have careers or go abroad for education. But our father treated us like a son and that broke us away from the gender stereotype. He is very ambitious for us. Where I limit myself he tells me it is possible!’
‘It took me seven years to reach the topmost position in my department — which was unheard of. When I was approached for the role my first reaction was I can’t do it. I self-limited myself because I thought I didn’t have the grey hair or the gender that is usually associated with such a senior post. I got to a position that people aspire for in 20 years, in seven years! Thanks to my father’s encouragement I broke the stereotype.’
One of the youngest in her profession to rise as quickly as she did, Madiha’s miracle journey was, nevertheless, not all roses. ‘When I had my son, I became aware of the challenges that come with having multiple priorities. At that time I would have this feeling of constant guilt and regret and I would question myself whether my work was meaningful enough for me to leave my child.’ Later, Madiha was able to realise that the guilt was self-imposed prompted by people’s constant curiosity as to whether she would quit now that she was a mother.
A strong support system and a flexible workplace helped her adjust.
‘I had wonderful support in the workplace. Plus there is a daycare for working mothers. At home my mother played a very important role. She took care of my son so when I went home he would be showered, fed and all I had to do was play with him. That first year I found so much support that I knew I did not have to choose one over the other. For at the end of the day I don’t think I would be a complete person if I had.’
Madiha’s advice to other aspiring and ambitious working mothers who want to be both is ‘not to self-limit or self-censor ourselves by saying we can’t do it. Don’t judge yourselves by the standards others have set for you!’ The shards of the glass ceiling that Madiha has broken will scatter far and wide, and surely inspire many other Pakistani women to break similar barriers and reach for the top.
Principal Clifton Grammar School
Key word: Irrepressible
Sadia’s miracle journey shows great insight into the everyday life of an entrepreneur. Having seen her mother start a small school that she built up into a reputable institution, she learnt at an early age that challenges are actually opportunities in disguise. For her, the constant ups and downs that come with owning an educational business and running a household are completely normal. Step by step, she’s grown her business while staying true to her principle of quality education, and of keeping a happy home. Her secret – dreaming big while staying grounded in proper planning. ‘I got into teaching because I love children and also because I used to see my mother run her school and admire it. Unfortunately she passed away soon after, even though she guided me throughout her illness.’
Sadia is well aware of the challenges working women face having seen her mother sail through them. ‘Being a working mother and having small children, we are always juggling. When my children were very young I chose not to pursue my career. However, now that they are older, they are more independent and I am able to do more.’
The other big challenge in her life was surviving cancer. ‘After what I have been through I really did start believing in miracles. I feel my positive attitude and my faith in Allah pulled me through. I was not depressed even for a day because I knew if God has given me life, nothing could change that.’
One of the lessons, Sadia learned from this was to encourage others to be aware. ‘Nowadays cancer is such a common disease. Although my mother also had breast cancer, I used to think that was something I would have to worry about in my sixties. But you never know. That is why self-examination is very important for early detection.’
Her advice to other working mums in similar situations is to, ‘Face up to your problems. Brushing it under the carpet is no use. It’s your attitude that makes all the difference!’ She smiles thinking back to the time when her family got her through her ordeal by the sheer normalcy of it all. Tough, unyielding and resilient, Sadia is a reminder of how strong Pakistani women, all over the country, are making a difference in the life of our youngsters today.
Designer and entrepreneur, Saima Saeed, is passionate about her work and her children, both of whom she considers her babies. ‘My greatest pride being that I’m mother of two,’ she says, ‘and equally passionate about my work.’ Like her multifaceted personality her work is not limited to one particular vocation. ‘I’m professionally trained to be an interior designer but I felt my creativity needed more outlets. Besides design I have done TV shows. Currently I’m running a food business, Chatkharay Express.’
Talented, beautiful and deeply empathetic, Saima’s miracle journey has not been without her share of turmoil. Saima took the step of becoming a single parent, knowing that the path ahead would not be easy. ‘I parted with my husband and that was a tough decision because I always thought it is necessary for children to have both parents, but it came to a point where I realised that the family union was just not working out. Having two kids I knew I had to work hard to fend for them, and from society. But if you know you are doing something for the right reasons you find the strength.’
Saima’s emotional strength comes from having a strong independent mother as her role model. ‘My mother worked very hard to give us a great life. She started a school when there weren’t a lot of private schools in Karachi. Watching her run her business while running her house and looking after the family gave us the strength to do the same ourselves.’
Strong and independent, Saima’s advice to other working mothers is not to forget their own selves in looking after others. ‘Women must have a good attitude but should not neglect themselves either. We should nurture ourselves as well. I believe in looking after myself so that I can be a happy person and make others happy in turn.’
Saima’s miracle journey shows that happiness and empowerment starts from within. ‘So many things come at you in life, if you just smile through it and have a positive attitude, it makes everything easy!’
Restaurant Owner/Trainee Psychotherapist
Key Word: Fiery
Think Big and Dream Big is Tanya Adam’s philosophy in life for she has always lived life on her own terms. Happily married for 20 years and a mother of three, Tanya is the brains behind the enterprising venture ‘The Elbow Room.’ ‘We started with one,’ she says, ‘And in eight years we have expanded to nine outlets.’ Tanya feels she always knew that she would strike out on her own and it was this self-belief that helped her and her husband to achieve their steady success. ‘I always knew I would do something on my own,’ she says, ‘because my husband and I are not cut out to work for anyone else.’ Tanya married at a very young age and soon after, she and her husband left to study Hotel Management abroad. Upon returning, opening their own restaurant seemed the natural thing to do.
But that is not the only pie Tanya has her fingers in. ‘I’m also a trainee psychotherapist. I started my degree six years ago. And have since worked with many rehabilitation patients. I’ve always been interested in psychology, in how the human brain works. Even as a child I was fascinated by how the mind works. So I thought it would be the perfect thing for me to do later in life when I had more time.’
Tanya works from home and finds it ‘a definite pleasure to combine the two.’ ‘I travel a lot and the only way to not be out of the house for that long is to have my office at home. It has its own charms, like at a very serious moment my little one would barge in – a definite smile-cracker. It breaks the monotony.’
With all her commitments, time management is important to Tanya, as is, age-management. ‘I take care of myself,’ she says. ‘It’s not a fear of ageing but it’s ageing gracefully. If you don’t take care of yourself, that’s not going to happen. I take care of my skin.’ Bold and beautiful, Tanya Adam is sure-fire inspiration for Pakistani working mothers struggling to carve out time for themselves as they strive to balance work with life.
Umaimah Anwar Khan
We can always choose our attitude even if we can’t choose our circumstances – that is what lawyer Umaimah Anwar Khan’s miracle journey shows. Born in a family of lawyers, Umaimah was drawn to law from an early age. ‘I come from family of lawyers, and was exposed to this profession from a very young age. Being a male dominated field, it was considered a taboo profession for woman– even for girls who come from this background.’ Umaimah remembers only two female colleagues of her father and feels that perhaps that’s what gave her the push to join this profession and change the gender balance.
‘My family did not resist but they did give me a reality check,’ she says. ‘They made me go to court on my own for a week to see what it’s like. I was put to the test. But when they saw I could handle it they wished me good luck.’
However,Umaimah admits, it hasn’t been an easy journey. ‘It’s not a homely profession – law is a very high stress job. Luckily my husband is also a lawyer so he understands the stress level and crazy hours.’
As for achieving equilibrium, she feels work-life balance does not exist in reality. ‘The only way you can have some semblance of balance between your work and home is if you keep your life organised, and if both are clashing – then you need to prioritise. You have to decide who needs you more- work or home. I have these moments every day.’
One tough moment of choice, she recalls, is when she had to make a difficult decision right after the birth of her first born. ‘When I had my first child, I got swine flu. Everyone told me to take a sabbatical. I did not take time off but I did cut down on my hours. That alone pushed me back four years in my profession.’
However Umaimah kept on and today has led the way for many more women to enter the field. Her advice to other working mothers, especially those swimming against the tide in male-dominated professions, is to stay strong. ‘You’ll meet all kinds of people who will try to pull you down but don’t get discouraged. Brace yourself!’
Wise words, indeed, from an inspirational miracle woman.