Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2019: Mashal Waqar, Co-Founder And COO, The Tempest
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Mashal Waqar is today known as the co-founder and COO of the 2016-founded global media startup,The Tempest- but her role at the company didn’t start out like that. She joined the enterprise as an editorial fellow when she was still a senior in college studying computer security and international business, after feeling what she calls “a strong pull” toward the platform founded by CEO Laila Alawa in the United States. She soon found herself in the role of Tech Editor at The Tempest, but even then, she hadn’t considered it to be a full-time job for herself- she was actually gearing up for a full-time role in the cybersecurity sector at that point in time.
Having said that, she found herself closely with Alawa on a number of different initiatives at the startup, mostly because, as she put it, “I loved the mission of empowering women to take ownership of their voice.” There was a synergy there that both Waqar and Alawa found difficult to ignore, and soon enough, Alawa had invited Waqar to join her at The Tempest as a co-founder. “My love for the company, and her sheer belief in me, were driving forces- so it didn’t take too long for me to say yes, as I officially started as the CTO and co-founder at The Tempest.”
A few months into this role, The Tempest started to get significant traction among readers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the co-founders decided to work on having the platform have a dedicated focus on the Middle East region- at this point, Waqar found her role at the enterprise change again, this time to COO. “It’ll be three years in a few months,” Waqar says, as she reflects on her time at The Tempest.
"And during this time, we’ve grown our traction from tens of thousands to crossing ten million in a month last year, closed a pre-seed fundraising round, and built a strong brand. We’ve also graduated over 500 fellows from our fellowship programs, grown to nine brands, and made our content accessible as well.”
While the digital media landscape can be seen as quite a cluttered and crowded one, Waqar points toward The Tempest’s offerings as having enabled it to stand out in this field. “What sets us apart is we’re very data-driven in our approach, and in the way we’re bringing forward authentic storytelling, and how it speaks to and represents the world,” Waqar says. “Our team is the very audience we’re trying to reach- diverse women, who share, feel, and claim their voices- and power.”
It’s safe to say here that Alawa and Waqar are aided in their vision to make The Tempest a next generation global media company for women, by virtue of the fact that they are both young, female entrepreneurs in this particular industry- however, this has come with its own share of drawbacks as well. Waqar recalls a particular moment when she was fundraising for the company, shortly after it had registered itself in the UAE.
“We’d had several meetings with an individual who was interested in becoming our lead investor, but after a few meetings, he made inappropriate verbal advances,” she remembers. “I was a bit traumatized, and we actually paused fundraising for that period. How did I work around it? Well, I cut off all contact, and thankfully, Laila was super supportive about it. We worked around this by being extremely careful with who we reached when we finally fundraised, and we made sure to do our due diligence first.”
That instance alone is enough to understand the close bond that Waqar shares with Alawa, and it’s easy to see that it’s been a key factor for not just The Tempest’s success and growth, but also for her individual self. “I’m privileged in the sense that Laila has strongly believed in me, and given me room to grow, to challenge, and to innovate,” Waqar says. “I also have a strong support system around me, and incredible people who have mentored, coached, and supported me during my journey."
"Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey, and you don’t get through it alone. I’ve mostly learnt through experience and online resources during my first year and a half, by the second, I’d learnt to ask for advice, and to learn from much more experienced folks.” Waqar also admits that she has struggled with feeling like an outsider in all of what she has set out to do in her career- part of this is because, she says, she never saw herself as an entrepreneur growing up, and as such, it took her a while to take ownership of her work and her voice. “I’m an introvert, so a lot of the public speaking, sales meetings, and pitching that I’ve had to do has only been possible, because I’ve forced myself to get out of my comfort zone,” she explains.
“Big groups and crowds make me uncomfortable, and I used to be harsh on myself for not enjoying events, or the more ‘public-facing’ side of things.” How did she get past these hurdles? “Deep breathing and mental preparation are the first step,” Waqar replies. “The second is creating a small goal that I’m more comfortable with- so, for example, at events, I’ll set a goal of talking to one new person, and learning more about them. The last one I have Laila to thank for, and this is for my imposter syndrome, is by writing, ‘I am good enough, I deserve to be here’on my phone notes, repeatedly.”
As a Pakistani Muslim female who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Waqar has also had to deal with incorrect (and often demeaning) external perceptions of herself. “A common experience, although I don’t think it’s got as much to do with my gender, is I get to hear that I ‘speak English very well,’” she says. “And every time folks ask that, I can almost see them trying to place me in a box, or trying to connect the dots between my background, and the way I sound. I used to find this statement amusing, but over the years, I’ve grown to realize this statement comes with an underlying assumption or a stereotype about how someone who’s grown up in this region, or Saudi Arabia to be specific, should not be ‘speaking well.’ It’s subtly racist.”
While acknowledging the disconcerting nature of such incidents, Waqar has learnt to deal with them over time- and a stronger belief in herself. “I can’t change my gender, age, or ethnicity- so it is what it is,” she says. “If the person I’m talking to has implicit and/or explicit bias, that has very little to do with me. Two things helped- when I’d feel my heartbeat rising, I’d use the 4-7-8 rule (breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven, and breathe out for eight seconds), and the second is remembering why I’m there. Not by luck or accident, but because I’m bringing value to the table- both through insights based on first-hand data, and experiences.”
It’s one thing to be an entrepreneur and have to struggle with things like setting up, finding funds, and operating a business- but it’s another thing altogether to do all of that and also deal with the aforementioned kind of issues that Waqar has faced in her career trajectory so far. Indeed, many would find it hard to put their head around all of the things that occupy Waqar’s mind at a particular point in time- so, the question then becomes, well, why does she continue to do what she does? Barring the idea of having to sustain and provide for oneself, what are the factors that drive Waqar on a day-to-day basis? She replies to my query with a couple of stats from the global entrepreneurial arena.
“Only 2.2% of female founders got funding out of a $100 billion in VC funding in the US last year,” she notes. “In the MENA region, we haven’t done much better- only 3.3% of female founders (with no male co-founders) got funding last year. The numbers are abysmal, and the reality is, it’s 2019, but there’s still a lot of challenges women in the startup ecosystem face. I want to see a time where women are actively investing, getting funding, and starting up is realistically accessible."
"I don’t want young founders like myself to be discouraged due to a lack of resources. If college grads can go on to build unicorns in San Francisco, I want to see that become a reality in this region too. That’s what drives me- I want to see The Tempest become a success story, and to see every individual who works in our startup to be part of this change. I want to invest in women-led startups, and I want to see gender parity- in my lifetime.”
“The work we do is important,” Waqar continues. “Because we’re changing the face of media, and empowering women to take ownership of their voice. Years ago, when I read my first article on The Tempest, I realized it was the first media platform with content I could resonate with. We have that impact with millions of readers around the world today- where we give our audience a sense of community, identity, and belonging."
"I’d love to see The Tempest become a household name globally, one day. To have women from the around world trust our brand, and believe in the fact that there’s a media platform they can turn to. Success means different things at different stages: two years ago, reaching a million readers was success; today, ensuring we build a sustainable company, where we’re actively investing in content creators, storytellers, and making media accessible to people around the world, is success to me.”
The Tempest co-founder and COO Mashal Waqar shares her tips for building rewarding careers:
1. You are your biggest asset- invest in yourself.“This is incredibly important, and even more so if you’re a young founder. Constantly keep learning, and growing. We’re in an age where we have access to a wealth of online resources, programs, and mentors. If I know how to scale a startup, it’s because I’m constantly learning.”
2. Invest in people- and not just from a monetary perspective.“Investing in your team seriously pays off. Learn what they’re passionate about, what drives them- both personally and professionally. Invest your time and resources in supporting and facilitating their goals, to whatever capacity you can. Build them up in a way where their working in your organization becomes a stamp of credibility.”
3. Learn to listen.“I used to have a very short attention span, but over the years, I’ve worked on getting better and actively listening. There’s so much more you can learn, and that you can get done, when you learn to listen- whether it’s stakeholder meetings or personal ones.”
4. Never respond when you’re emotional.“This is intertwined with learning how to communicate better, but genuinely, if you’re feeling some type of way- please don’t respond. A few hours to mull things over calmly is worth 100x more than regretting words you can’t take back.”
5. Be in it for the long haul.“Always keep the long-term mission in mind, and connect it to how the company’s growth ties in with each individual’s growth. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, but having clarity on this and being able to connect the dots is extremely valuable.”
6. Be resilient.“Get over the fear of rejection. What’s the worst people will do? Say no? And then what? You try again, and maybe differently? Till you have an answer, or an alternative way. Someone will always have it better, or easier. Just because you have more obstacles does not mean you can’t get over them. Learn to become resilient.”