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Against all odds: Advice from Zahra Al-Harazi

Jan 31, 2024

Zahra Al-Harazi

Zahra Al-Harazi

Marry a good man, raise good children, keep a good house, cook good food, uphold a good reputation.

These were the expectations of Zahra Al-Harazi growing up in Uganda and subsequently Yemen. She was never encouraged to “lean in,” use her voice, or climb the corporate ladder. These were not things girls with “good” reputations did. Yet, after observing a lineage where men embraced adventure and challenged conventions, Al-Harazi refused to be confined by societal expectations. Good reputation or not, she had bigger plans.

Today, after overcoming decades of cultural and societal challenges, including surviving two civil wars and navigating patriarchal societies as a driven woman, Al-Harazi is a successful entrepreneur and esteemed leadership expert. In addition to being a full-time mother of three, she has made her mark as a corporate consultant, author, UNICEF Canada Ambassador, and sought-after public speaker, most recently co-founding the knowledge-sharing and skill-building marketplace, Skillit.

Al-Harazi captivated HBA1 students with details of her remarkable journey, as a keynote speaker for the recent Leader Character and Candour Conference, hosted by Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. The event also included an address from medical trailblazer and diversity and inclusion advocate, Dr. Chika Stacy Oriuwa. Sharing insights on leadership character, Al-Harazi  discussed some crucial traits for embracing a life and leadership journey filled with purpose, laughter, and strength.

It takes hunger

Hunger is not an elegant term, but it helped Al-Harazi to obtain her goals. Drawing inspiration from her grandfather and father, she recalls having a persistent hunger during her formative years to achieve something meaningful in life.

She told how hunger prompted her family to relocate to Uganda, where they experienced remarkable, but short-lived success. Soon after arriving, Africa plunged into civil war, compelling them to flee to Yemen with a mere seven shillings.

“Hunger will drive you past your challenges, your setbacks, and your fears. It will drive you into your success, into reward, into change, and into realizing your dreams.”

It takes grit

While living with her extended family in Yemen, Al-Harazi witnessed grit firsthand through her mother – one of the first women to drive and work in Yemen. After securing a secretary position at the American Embassy, her mother even persuaded the American Ambassador to grant Al-Harazi a scholarship to the international school, attended by affluent children. 

“Recent studies have found that grit plays a more important role than anything else in achieving goals.”

It takes resilience

Through a marriage at 17, moving to America, and quickly giving birth to two daughters – then a return back to Yemen – Al-Harazi grappled with questions about her purpose. After becoming pregnant again and giving birth in a scarcely resourced hospital, she confronted a harsh reality and found the courage to press on and the strength to succeed. This began her journey toward the life she truly desired.

“Resilience is a learned trait. It is adaptive and malleable.”

It takes hustle

Later on, after Al-Harazi and her family left Yemen once again and settled in Calgary, she was determined to forge a path to a new life. She sought her first job, despite her husband’s skepticism, and returned to school, where she learned the art of hustle and quickly became the go-to person for insights.

After graduation, she took an entry-level job at an agency and was soon leading the department. Not long after, Al-Harazi started her own agency. It was all due to hustle – knocking on doors, engaging with people, advancing better ideas.

“We talk about hustle culture as a bad thing, but I think hustle is the act of making every moment count.”

It takes self-reflection

After remarkable success with her agency and winning a top female entrepreneur award in 2016, Al-Harazi faced a turning point. Despite external accomplishments, she was still dissatisfied and desperately needed a change. After challenging her goals and purpose, Al-Harazi, at age 40, ended her marriage and decided to pursue a new career.

 “Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?

It takes gratitude

On the path to leadership, don’t forget the importance of luck, privilege, and gratitude, says Al-Harazi. She noted that Canadians are among the one per cent of people who have the luck and privilege to pursue their passions, yet don’t recognize it enough. She learned at a young age to always be grateful, her tough but practical grandmother reminding her that if she wasn’t grateful, it could get taken away. Even today, Al-Harazi claims the first thing she says when facing hard circumstances is “al-hamdulillah,” which means “thank God.”

“Luck plays a big role in our life and in our success. But, we have to put ourselves in the right place, at the right time in order to capitalize on that luck.”

It takes purpose and emotion

Above all, she calls herself a purpose-driven leader. Hoping to find meaning, Al-Harazi used her marketing skills to craft her purpose statement: "I will spend the rest of my life living stories and experiences that will change perspectives, outcomes, and hearts." This ignited a transformative journey: public speaking, consulting, mentorship, publishing a book, collaborating with UNICEF Canada, and establishing the startup, Skillit (launching in Canada June 2024). Her goal was to have fun and make the most of each day.

Acknowledging that it wasn’t always easy, Al-Harazi also stressed the importance of embracing, understanding, and navigating negative emotions as a safeguard. Remember, anger means you feel something, she says.

“We have to learn to control and use our emotions to our advantage and let them help us push us to better places in our lives.”

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