Zahra Al-Harazi’s Inspirational Rise from Immigrant Mom to Acclaimed Creator, Entrepreneur, Mentor, & Philanthropist
There are going to be curveballs.
I had the absolute privilege to sit down with Zahra Al-Harazi, Owner & Creative Director of Foundry Communications. The day before, we were two of the three panelists asked to speak about Women in Entrepreneurship at the Globe and Mail Small Business Summit in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
I knew I was going to interview Ms. Al-Harazi ahead of the summit appearance, and knew what I was going to ask her. “What’s on the hearts and mind of our mom entrepreneur audience?” I asked myself. Given her background, I knew the burning question to ask: "How did you overcome the adversity you clearly experienced being an immigrant to North America with no recognized credentials, parenting three children by the time you were 25 years young?"…But of course that was my question for the intelligent, successful, charming woman I just met.
However I quickly realized during the course of the preparation for our speaking engagement that the teachable lesson on adversity we were sure to glean from Zahra Al-Harazi wasn’t to be. It was somewhere around the point at which she was asked about the hardships of being a female entrepreneur. She retorted, “Yes things happen that are difficult but that’s not unique to women. That’s just life. There are going to be curveballs.“
Zahra Al-Harazi was not an entrepreneurial mom who overcame adversity story for one very surprising, and decidedly simple reason: this is a woman who does not see adversity, only opportunity.
No Adversity, Only Opportunity.
Zahra Al-Harazi was born in Yemen to a loving, supportive family and a deeply family-oriented community. However the traditional culture offered little for women who dreamed of career success. Al-Harazi was genuinely content with the life of a full-time, very young mom three children by the time she turned 25 years old.
Following the promise of new opportunities in Canada, she and her then-husband decided to move to Calgary in 1996, one of the worst winters on record. Accustomed to a different culture, a desert climate, knowing no one, and parenting now school-aged children, Al-Harazi became bored. However her university credentials were not recognized in Canada. Her years teaching elementary school and English as a Second Language in Yemen weren’t worth much without the credentials in the competitive oil and gas driven market. Warding off self-doubts in her abilities in her new country, one day Al-Harazi applied and was hired as a salesperson in a clothing store.
They Gave Me a Rule Book, But I Threw It Out and Wrote My Own.
The company handed out a store policy book with recommendations for approaching customers, suggesting merchandise, and closing the sales. But Al-Harazi quickly learned that her own instincts trumped the book. “They gave me a rule book, but I threw it out and wrote my own,” she muses. Instantly she recognized her penchant for selling using her own prescience in sensing whom to approach, learning how to listen to their needs, and authentically delivering the best solution for them. Al-Harazi found she excelled at the art of customer satisfaction.
Thirsting for knowledge and advancement in her newfound skills, Al-Harazi enrolled in an art design school, still struggling with confidence in her abilities in yet a new frontier. Quickly the doubts subsided, and she found a sense of ownership in her talents and aptitude in design. By the fourth year Al-Harazi was altogether the top student in her graduating class, ten years older than most of the other students, half as able to devote time to study as a parent of three, and first to get a job after graduation. Zahra was going places.
I realized that others appreciated what I brought to the table.
The next two years would find Al-Harazi on a meteoric rise. Spending about one year each in two small design firms, Al-Harazi rose from a junior designer to head designer in two years flat. “It was a time of huge awareness for me and my own abilities,” Al-Harazi recounts. “I realized that others appreciated what I brought to the table.” And she never looked back.
Sensing the time was right she gathered other business partners, set about to buy them out in a strategic multi-year plan, and started Foundry Communications, a boutique communications, marketing, branding company with two co-founders.
In Foundry’s third year, it was named #4 in Profit W100 List of the Top 10 Companies to Watch. In 2011, the young Foundry Communications made #82 in Profit Magazine’s prestigious list of fastest profit-growing companies run by women. Additional honors would soon include Al-Harazi’s inclusion in Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 in Calgary designation, and Al-Harazi’s honor by Chatelaine Magazine as Entrepreneur of the Year.
You should do good.
Despite the superfluous trophy cabinet and medal hook Al-Harazi and the Foundry team can boast, Al-Harazi remains grounded in humility, family, and philanthropy. Renowned for her tireless volunteer hours benefitting women immigrants in her community, vacations with her children to build houses in developing countries, generous devotion to mentorship of fellow entrepreneurs, and her advisory role on several boards, Al-Harazi sees giving back as a way of life.
“Honestly I have not felt once that I couldn’t do something that I set my mind to do,” Al-Harazi gazes thoughtfully, “but I know not everyone is as fortunate. And so I give back. You should do good.”
Al-Harazi has incorporated philanthropy into her business persona, noting, “People see what you are doing, and where you spend your time, and it does make a difference. It helps them form an opinion about who you are. The time you invest causes people to talk about you,” Al-Harazi explains. “Like Brett (W. Brett Wilson, friend and fellow successful entrepreneur) says, philanthropy is part of your marketing budget. “ Foundry Communications donates a staggering $100,000 of its time annually in support of non-profit organizations.
Already resolving that this curveball in my interview with Al-Harazi was a serendipitous seed of inspiration, I set out to reach the heart of this entrepreneur with the golden fingers of success.
What really does it for you now?
“Providing a strategic solution that is perfect for a business makes me happy,” Al-Harazi shares. “I hate ‘that’s so pretty’,” her voice rises in offense to the word. “I don’t want to make something ‘pretty,’ I want to create a lasting solution that clients will appreciate 5-10 years down the line. ‘Pretty’ isn’t the goal.”
Al-Harazi is also immensely proud that Foundry Communications rose from nothing debt-free. No bank loans, and no big investments leapt the infant firm ahead. “It’s something I needed to do at the time, for me- to stay debt-free.” However she thinks differently now, and believes that Foundry has proven itself, and is open to new possibilities.
What advice can you offer entrepreneurial moms from your journey?
Believe in yourself. Al-Harazi says pointedly. “Believe in your strengths. If you don’t believe in yourself, it will shine through. Have faith in yourself, and others will have faith in you. You must have confidence in your own abilities.”
Be a part of a community. Join groups, network, mentor, and give back. Teach your children the value of volunteering.“ Become integral to a community, and it can’t forget you.
Learn how to delegate. It’s so hard for entrepreneurs to let go of control, but you have to. Build a great team, and pay them well. There are parts of my business I should never touch with a 10-foot-pole. But I’m a damn good Creative Director, so that’s what I should do.“
Redefine Adversity: Drink It and Fill It Up Again. “People look at me and say, ‘Oh my gosh you came to Canada and you didn’t know the culture and you had to go back to school, and there were all these barriers, and you didn’t have this and you didn’t have that… ‘ And I say, ‘Yes! I did (all of that)! And it was FUN!,” Al-Harazi beams. “Not to say that I didn’t have to work my ass off and had to start my homework after little kids were in bed, but those weren’t difficult things because I love my kids and I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work.”
Al-Harazi shared her favorite quote in closing, perhaps in perfect summary of her teachable lesson. She heard once that the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi was asked, ”Do you view the glass as half full or half empty?” And he quickly quipped, “Who the f*ck cares? Drink it and fill it up again!” ~ Christie Schultz, Founder & CEO of MomVentures.com
Follow Zahra: @zahrasays
Follow Foundry Communications: FoundryCommunications.com; @foundrysays