Zahraa Taher, Managing Director at FinMark, is an events strategist and a highly respected leader in the international communications field. Want to know how someone so accomplished first got their start? Read on for details about Zahra’s background, philosophy, and current vision.
ello, Zahra! Could you tell us more about yourself—what you do, and how you got there?
Of course! First of all, I am extremely proud to be a Bahraini woman. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. When I was younger, I attended government public school, then moved on to public university. Ever since I was young, I have been extremely active; not only in my studies, but also in the community. I came from a family that enjoyed volunteering, giving back, and helping others. This took up most of my time each summer.
Can you tell us more about your past community work?
It was rare to see a student volunteering, during most of her summer vacation. I volunteered at colleges and with other community organizations, and also worked at libraries and registration offices. This really helped me to develop my English language skills, which would later prove extremely useful throughout my career. Through my community service, I also learned how to work with different types of people from various countries and cultures.
How did you get into communications and public relations?
I started working at Al-Ayam newspaper when I was 16 years old. I was first published when I entered a competition: schools competed to write about Palestine and the 45th anniversary of the uprising. One of the women’s societies was running it—the Bahraini Girls’Renaissance. I was the first to enter. I am still very emotional about it. Aziza Al-Bassam (bless her) called me and said “Listen, there is going to be a new newspaper in Bahrain.”She was going to be responsible for the family page, and wanted me to help write and translate stories.
I really loved the work, so I went on to feature stories. I wrote about topics important to teenagers, especially newcomers to high school. It was so nice to see my name published. During the summer, I went to Al-Ayam and volunteered in the local news section. This helped me understand how ministries worked, andI learned about broader issues and challenges. I was accompanied by good reporters: Salman Al Ajmi, Saeed Mohammed, Hanan Salem, Abd Elmonaam Ebrahim and Gassan El-Shahabby. I was young and active, a trainee at only 16 or 17 years old. It was an interesting time in my life.
I was also active with other societies, like Bahrain Family Planning, because my elder sisters were part of it. At that time, government schools had many interesting activities to serve Bahrain, and that was the priority for us. It built us up in a very proper way; sadly, I do not see that applied now.
I went on to study civil engineering at theUniversity of Bahrain.University was an excellent place for me, because I learned many other skills in addition to engineering. There were lots of extracurricular activities, like fundraising events and community service. I was part of the scouts and Bahrain Engineering Society, so I took part in camps both inside and outside Bahrain. All of this developed my skills immensely, and I didn’t realize how crucial these experiences were until a later stage in my life. I received my associate’s degree from the University of Bahrain. My younger brother was going to India, and I decided to accompany him. When we arrived, it was October, and we discovered that university had started in July. Of course, my family paid to make all of this possible for us.
What did you do then? Did you end up staying?
Yes; I couldn’t come back to Bahrain. I enrolled my brother in an English language course, and I started working over there for free. I speak three languages (English, Arabic, and Farsi), so I worked at a real estate agency to help foreign students coming from Arab countries and Iran. My techniques improved, and I learned about real estate and negotiation skills. It was interesting for me, as I was learning the culture. India represented the turning point in my life—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
When I was at the University of Bahrain, I worked at Eagle Star during the summer. I was the first Bahraini female to work as part of a life insurance sales team. I was still working for free, but I received excellent training in sales techniques. I was working with people in their late twenties who were pursuing this as their career. I attended trainings with them, and the training officers were all from the U.K. I learned so many interesting skills. One year, I worked in an advertising agency called Apras, selling advertising space. I had to open the yellow pages every day and make cold calls. It was a tough job, but I met people, and learned the hard way.
Were you able to get a job when you came back to Bahrain? What was that like?
Everyone who had majored in engineering was having a tough time finding work. Even engineers with super-high GPAs couldn’t find a job,and if they did, the salary was 300 BHD. 150 was paid by the company, and the other 150 was paid by the Ministry of Labor. I am taking about 1996, 1997, and 1998.So many of the people who graduated with me went into banking and marketing, so I was initially a bit scared to go to a job interview. I realized it would be good training for me, just to go to different interviews and learn.I knew I would understand more in the future, when I had finished my studies.I went to Arab Insurance Group,not for the job, but for the fun of the interview.
What did you learn working with Arab Insurance Group and in the corporate world as a whole?
We had to learn how to work as an enormous team. I learned the politics and culture of working in big companies. My community service continued, because I was part of the Bahrain Society for Training and Development, which allowed me to meet more mature and experienced people. Even though the work hours were from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., I (and many others) still had the time to do volunteer work. Today, if someone tells me,“I really don’t have time,” I don’t take that as an excuse.
We know Rotaract played a big role in your life. Would you mind telling us more about that?
Rotaract is an international club comprised of five pillars. It is very interesting for young people, who can become proficient in development by listening to foreign speakers, participating in activities, and becoming involved in community service. Helping the community is the most important objective of the Rotaract and Rotary clubs . It is not a charity; it is about developing your community, thinking outside the box, club service, and networking. It is about making friends your age and having fun. It helps one to develop international understanding—promote your country internationall and think about the ways on how to perform community service abroad. We did our own fundraising. Nobody gave us money for our activities. We had to think about how to generate money for our own community service.
Being a Rotaractor was the best leadership training I ever got.
How did you find your passion? How do you suggest younger people find theirs?
I was very active in the media and was a volunteer and part of the steering committee of Career Expo, one of Rotary’s initiatives in Bahrain. It helped me to understand what PR and event management were all about, so I mastered it, and discovered that it was my passion.I would give this advice to young people: you will not know your passion until you try different things. A young person of 22 or 24 cannot identify their passion yet with absolute certainty. Try different things until you find your passion. Never lose hope or focus on just one thing.
How did you start your own company? Can you tell us a little more about that?
A gentleman had worked with on a project approached me. I didn’t know yet that I was an entrepreneur or a businesswoman—I just saw that it was a good opportunity. He said, “Why not start an events management company?”
I said, “Really?!! Yes, okay—I know how to do it.” He said,“Okay, what do you want?” I responded,“I don’t want anything. I just want my salary to stay the same, and I don’t want you to interfere with anything.” He said okay. The capital was 20,000 BHD and 1:10 percent. I didn’t care.Another tip: don’t undermine your view of the full picture. It was a good experience for me, and it was my passion, so I started from zero.
What was your company’s first big project—the one that gave you momentum?
It was for Bahrain University. They were organizing the fifth Islamic banking conference in Bahrain with the Islamic Development Bank and the Ministry of Finance under the patronage of the Prime Minister.This is a biannual event held in a different country every two years.Just imagine the challenge. It was myself and Annie Shagra,who used to work with me at MICE Management. We didn’t even have a business name yet.
We faced big companies, like FP7 and others. I worked on the presentation the whole night, and we won. It was a huge challenge, because it was only the two of us. I was lucky. Starting a business means building a foundation; but if you do not have the right foundation, you will never strive.
Do you think the experience you gained from your community service helped you in the establishment and day-to-day running of your company?
I used all the skills I learned at Rotaract, the Bahrain Family Planning Association, the scouts, and the engineering society at university, how to manage and raise funds, how to manage a team, and how to think outside the box.
How were you able to finance your company, in the beginning?
My silent partner did not have to take out a loan or put in a single penny to increase capital. Even though I didn’t go into management or get a master’s in business administration, I still treated it as my business. I had a vision, passion, and an objective.I am so proud of my experience at Eventscom. I have managed to grow this company and form a great team that I am very proud of. If you’re starting a business, always serve your community, because it will come back to you. Never wait to do something for a financial or materialistic gain only.
We presume the networks you established in the past helped a lot?
My previous network—all the people I met when I was in school, at university, and volunteering, all the people I met through community service—everyone (plus the skills I learned) helped me to run the company in a very interesting way. I had different objectives.One of them was to really give back to Bahrain by training Bahrainis. I used to train university students. I started working in KSA, in Jordan, and abroad as Eventscom.
Did you organize any events outside Bahrain?
Yes, I did events outside Bahrain, and supported international PR companies, but it was all general. By 2009, I had reached a stage at which I was saturated by events and felt I was no longer moving forward nor learning.
Is your career stressful?
Events management is really stressful. I sometimes had to work for 48-72 hours continuously. You could see me working from morning to midnight or 4 a.m. I had a team, but I was part of it. When everything was finally ready, I had to take a shower, get dressed up, and attend the event.I was also a mother with a young daughter. Everything together was too much.
Did you ever expand in terms of your services, or at the very least, beyond Bahrain?
I met a lady, Laila Danesh in 2003 who came from New York. She used to work for a financial public relations agency called Financial Dynamics. They were very specialized in financial PR.Back in 2003, evenI did not know the difference between financial PR and PR.When she came here and set up their offices, it was the first financial PR firm in the region.We were very good friends, and most of the banks were her clients. She managed the business in this region and in Dubai, and in 2007, she went to London.
In 2009, I started thinking of different ideas to really expand Eventscom. I went to my silent partner, and he said, “Why don’t we expand? Why not look at opportunities?” I remember flying to the USA and staying at my friend’s house.She had left the company she was working for and was thinking of starting something on her own in London, so we talked, and we both agreed that all of the big international firms come to our region. Maybe they know how to perfectly communicate strategy, but when they come here, the cultural obstacles—how people think, and the language—impede them.
Our idea was much bigger than just starting another agency on my own.The two of us started a specialized financial PR firm with offices in London and Bahrain in January 2010.
What do you think about business partnerships?
I believe in partnership, completion, and combining skill sets. My current business partner and I complete each other. We understood the real meaning of partnership from the beginning. It’s not about somebody coming and giving you the money to start your business—or you taking on all the hassle,when that person isn’t there except when there’s a check to be signed.
This is heavy, and we have to carry it together so we won’t feel the weight. This is real partnership. It’s like a marriage; you have to take risks and grow together.For the last five years, this is what I have been experiencing. We learn from each other. I feel that it’s a real startup for both of us. We combine international and regional expertise. From the beginning, we went against international firms that had been in the region for many years. They had big teams, and we won many of the bids.When you are starting something or building a business from scratch, you need to know every aspect of it. You need to bring in the right resources, but this is your burden. You need to understand how everything works.
What’s your experience with Tamkeen? Were you able to benefit from any of their support programs?
I totally believe in Tamkeen. We started out with some resources, then we took the right products from Tamkeen to help us grow. We did not take Tamkeen to help us build our company, so to speak. For us, Tamkeen represented the right tools to grow our business. After three or four years, we used the marketing scheme; but in the beginning, we were not depending upon anything but ourselves.
When we knew we were strong enough, we used Tamkeen’s support programs to help us grow further.We had the right products, and we knew what we were doing. We had passion for our work and we had a successful company, thank God. We did not depend upon just one market, because an international company has significant expenses. You have to be diversified, and you have to always think about offering something different. The biggest challenge we are currently finding is identifying the right human resources in our field. We are willing to train and we are willing to invest, but we are not finding the right talent.
How do you balance your personal life and your professional life?
The events field is stressful, but manageable. When you do events all the time, you spend many hours doing things like making sure the stage is ready and attending to administrative details. The intensity of the stress is greater than in other jobs, but it takes place in fewer hours. It manifests in a way I enjoy. I still have passion for events. I choose my events, and do very few of them. I focus upon what I like. If it’s your passion, it’s like skydiving: you just take the leap.
Similarly, if you have passion, you will enjoy the stress and adrenaline; but finding balance between family life and your passion is difficult. I have time with my daughter, my husband, and my family; but then again, there is high season and low season, and we always hope it is high season.
What about PR (both internationally and in Bahrain) intrigues you? Why is it important for companies?
The most effective ways to make this happen are proper communication, targeted message delivery to your audiences, and proper handling of the media. Events are PR tools, and media relations is a PR tool. People think public relations is about press releases, but no; the article is on the client, the topic, and what they want to deliver.You create the right PR tools. Startups, for example, is a very good PR for Tamkeen. When people see success stories, this represents a PR tool at work. In every country,PR is very specific, and it differs according to the culture and the target audience.
What do you think of Startup Bahrain?
Startup Bahrainis an excellent initiative. I think you guys are doing a great job and you’ve started out very strong. Keep going!
Thank you Zahraa for letting us talk to you, we really appreciate it! Good luck with your endeavors.