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Going her own way

Individuality is key to Zahra Haider. She tells Xenia Taliotis how, as the only woman in the family to have joined her grandfather’s firm, she is now forging her own future.

Accountancy is in my blood,” says Zahra Haider, insolvency and forensic specialist at Sajjad Haider Group, Dubai. “My grandfather, who founded the firm in 1973, was an accountant, as is my father and one of my uncles. I am the only woman in the family to work there, so I still like to think that I am forging my own path.”

Haider was born in London but her parents moved back to Dubai soon afterwards, and it’s where she calls home. She might have extended her stay in the UK after graduating – she read international management and American Studies at Manchester Business School – but was offered a place with KPMG Lower Gulf, which, she says, took away the indecision on two fronts. First it brought her back to Dubai, and second, it eliminated the worry of what to do next.

“Like most teenagers, I went through a phase of making a stand against my parents, and that involved a degree of uncertainty about my career,” she says. “My parents didn’t put pressure on me to go into the family business, but they are happy another Haider has joined.” She’s also pleased with how things worked out and appreciates the life long choices that her qualification offers.

“Had I gone into any other profession after graduating my subsequent career options might have narrowed. I knew the ACA would only open more doors for me. I’m also glad that I accepted the position with KPMG rather than training with Sajjad Haider Group. I needed to do that, not only to gain Big Four experience, but also as a validation that I was succeeding entirely through merit.”

Making it through her own hard work is a subject she returns to often, and she says that this was a factor in staying with KPMG for four years before joining Sajjad Haider Group in 2018. “It took me a while to trust that the reason I was being offered a job at the firm was because I was qualified to do it. The timing suddenly felt right. I stopped insisting on taking the most difficult step forward and realised that everything I expected to gain from and give to work could be found at Sajjad Haider Group.”

What she was searching for was a smaller, more agile firm that cared about each of its staff, which had values she shared, and which could offer her a job that enabled her to make a difference. Haider’s father was delighted when she accepted their offer, but how does she feel 18 months down the line?

“Relieved. I still have a love-hate relationship about the situation, but on the whole, my anxieties have not been realised. Before I joined, I worried that I would find it too claustrophobic, that I would end up blurring home and work life, particularly as I was living with my parents, but after a few too many dinners dominated by work conversation, my father and I decided not to bring the office home with us.” She also insisted on working in a team where she wouldn’t have to report directly to her father, and is clearly energised by her role. “Insolvency is a growing part of our business and while each case has a failed enterprise at its core, we’re there to ensure a positive outcome for the creditors.

We’ve recently been appointed by an international law firm to handle the liquidation of a restaurant chain that also has subsidiaries in London, for example, and it’s hugely challenging, but also hugely rewarding.”

The high, she says, comes from fighting for the employees and shareholders, and getting them at least some of the money they are owed. She recounts a recent case where the employees had worked on in good faith, despite not having been paid for months, and how good it felt to offer them a degree of recompense. “Some of those people had taken on huge debt to come to Dubai for work. Our firm has an obligation to help and it’s vital to me that my job has a humanitarian element to it. Social responsibility is the bedrock of our firm. My grandfather said that helping people is what it’s all about.”

Haider is still only in her twenties, and her views on opportunities for young women in Dubai are interesting. “Things have changed a great deal over recent years, and I don’t think the world has caught up with what’s happening here: there is a tendency to believe that women are suppressed and not given the chance to flourish, which is not necessarily true. Of course there is a glass ceiling here, as there is everywhere else, but there are many female entrepreneurs running their own businesses and the pace of progress is encouraging. I cannot comment on the other Emirates, but I’m optimistic that where Dubai leads, the other Emirates will follow.”

Currently 14% of Sajjad Haider Group’s 50 or so employees are women, but she is determined to increase the number, starting with her own department. “We will be recruiting over the next year or so, and I’ll do my best to ensure that some of those key positions will be filled by women. Every organisation needs strong female leaders as role models. It would be a privilege to be among them.”

The account

I like being an ACA because… It brings me into contact with an incredibly diverse range of people, and because I can help make and keep a business successful.
I’m happiest when… I’m on a plane travelling to somewhere new.
My favourite book is... Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… Finding a balance between my career and my personal life.
I’d like to be remembered as… Being unconventional.
Love of my life is… My family.
My worst habit is… I’m a phone addict

Originally published in Economia on 2 May 2019.