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26 Sep

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Musharaf Hai, one of the very few women working at the top of the corporate ladder in Pakistan, talks about defying odds and building fashion and beauty brands in a landscape that is predominantly conservative and misogynist.

The L’Oreal office smells like a spa as the aroma of hair products wafts around like ribbons of expensive perfume. It’s a bustling place, nestled in one of the top floors of the Forum office buildings in Karachi, and it’s crawling with girls and boys and what look like very young executives. It is apparent that they look up to the one person who’s also the best role model around: their CEO, Musharaf Hai.

Hai walks into the conference room as hurriedly as one would expect someone with too much commitment and very little time to do it would. She’s dressed in a traditional monochrome outfit today, her interest in fashion apparent in the Koel hand printed cotton scarf wrapped stylishly around her neck. She dives straight into the reason why we’re meeting; PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week is around the corner and it’s a good time to talk of aims, objectives, goals achieved and what the future of fashion week looks like.

Interviewing Hai is a rare opportunity; she is infamously evasive when it comes to the media and this is the first time she has agreed to talk to Instep. There are questions that have been piling up since I last interviewed her – almost a decade ago – for Libas. Once pleasantries are over I jump right to point and ask why she choose to support the Pakistan Fashion Design Council five years ago as opposed to the various other platforms that had emerged around the same time?

“When I talked to my counterparts in the L’Oreal world – and L’Oreal sponsors a lot of fashion weeks including Paris and New York – the learning was to always put your flag in one city so that it becomes the platform,” she recalled. “We had to take a decision and we chose Lahore because of  PFDC. My knowledge and experience with PFDC and what I had seen of Sehyr (Saigol) was very professional and very well organized and they were interested in the business of fashion rather than just fashion. Sehyr was very interested in us for the brand and the association of beauty, and clearly we were the beauty leaders. It was a very good fit.”

“Five years have validated that this was the right decision,” she continued. “The next five years are important. With every year we want to see something new.”

This year, as she explained, one will get to see fashion week carve new avenues for newcomers. What started off as a platform taking pride in having the country’s best couturiers onboard has a newfound love and commitment for supporting upcoming talent.  The Bank Alfalah Rising Talent Show has become a regular in introducing new designers to the industry (the Rising Talent Show will feature on Day One) and all of Day Two, as evident on the lineup, is dedicated to debutants.

“So now, every year you will see new talent coming in,” Hai said, fully supporting the direction fashion week is taking. “I think in the next five years we should make it more professional and give it a more global perspective. If you ask me, the ultimate vision should be a PFDC L’Oreal Bridal Week that is recognized globally. There should be people everywhere sitting in awe of the craftsmanship that we have here. This will put Pakistan on the global map.”

If anyone can do it, it is Musharaf Hai, the woman responsible for forging so many new and successful pathways into Pakistan. Her vision saw the Lux Style Awards come to life and now, fifteen years later, though she is no longer heading Unilever she does take quiet and humble pride in the legacy she created. Was it easy?

“Nothing is easy,” she smiled in response. “But I’m driven by my passions and my obsessions and I always believed it was a platform for establishing talent in Pakistan so it all came together. Of course there are skeptics and cynics, but when you believe and know your data points and fundamentals and consumer profiles and what the goal is, you separate the noise from the real job. I don’t think I would have survived or achieved anything had I been a straw in the wind. I definitely don’t believe in being a straw in the wind.”

What hurdles did she see, that needed to be overcome, before her vision of fashion week going global could be realized?

“You see, I never see hurdles,” Hai responded without a minute’s hesitation, exuding an invincible confidence that only frontrunners have. “That’s not how I manage businesses. What do I see? I see opportunities, then I have beliefs, then I find the means. When you have a vision then you have to have some obsessions to get things done. Then you find the way. Five years ago people would say, ‘Oh, where will this go? Where will L’Oreal go?’ I have no doubts where we will go. Ultimately, it should become an international platform of Pakistani talent.”

When Hai says “L’Oreal” she means fashion week but her legacy predates fashion week and is set in the very existence of L’Oreal in Pakistan. She was the trailblazer who left a senior position at Unilever to bring a brand like L’Oreal into Pakistan. And the way it has permeated every household is just one indication of how successful it has been. People see the products, the professional services but not many of them see the culture that L’Oreal has managed to change in Pakistan or the angle of business growth; the fact that many of L’Oreal’s products are now being manufactured in Pakistan.

You have managed to, I believe, start manufacturing L’Oreal in Pakistan and that’s a major part of your role as CEO?

_MG_8235b“Of course, that is my only role,” she replied with a slight nod. “The rest is just what I do. First, my responsibility is to build the L’Oreal business in Pakistan. What were the key elements of that build? First were the brands, to bring them to the Pakistan market. Second, to find the right talent and groom it, and third was to localize and start producing in Pakistan. I must say we are still in the baby stage where the seeds of the brand have been sown.”

And beyond her prime responsibility as CEO, Pakistan of L’Oreal – one of the world’s largest beauty brands – is the woman’s love for fashion, a passion that is driven by much more than a love for numbers. What drives her, I wonder aloud?

“A passion for beauty. You know, it’s not beauty, full stop. It’s not beauty, dot com. What does beauty bring to women? Self esteem, confidence. And we have seen the map changing here. Look at the women around us today. A change has happened over time and in the last 10 years, more rapidly. It’s not just about colour cosmetics. It’s about skin health. It’s about hair health. In the early stages of this business, I used to stand in the aisles at Agha’s just to observe how shoppers buy hair colour. It was amazing that they would go back and forth and then they would come in and pick the box and literally you know, hide it. Today, hair colour is the new fashion accessory. It’s not just about hiding your greys anymore. I remember one woman at Agha’s who was hesitating and looking at the price and wondering whether she should buy it for 1000 bucks? I walked up to her and said, ‘don’t feel guilty. You owe this to yourself.’ To not spend on yourself is the mindset that we have been brought up with.”

How does fashion week make sense in a country that is seeded with religious intolerance and above everything else, with misogyny? Cynics have raised this question time and again, I asked.

“We do have all these other trends (religious intolerance and misogyny) but we are just as obsessed with our beliefs and what we want to do for women,” she said. “To me, fashion week is a platform for our craftsmanship, which is almost dying at times. It’s for our fashion designers who can compete anywhere in the world, and it’s about women looking good and being in control and why not? You can have opposite trends in the same society? So if we don’t do this and we all belong to the other side, what’s left? Some of us have to keep going on. If you walk around this floor you will see a lot of young girls working here. You walk to corporate offices (in Pakistan) and you will find the brightest of female talent. Why? It’s not just fashion. There are girls who are studying, who are doing well, coming to the workforce, and these girls build economically viable families.

With such a strong woman at the helm of L’Oreal Pakistan, it would be safe to assume that you have managed to contend with gender inequality in the office?

“I would say that firstly, it’s all merit. Merit earns everything for you. Then we have to have a working culture that is respectful for men and women, equally. Men have to be a part of that culture. I don’t want to just build a women’s enclave here. I mean, I have more men working here than women. So when men and women have the same values in an organization that they join, that is respect for individuals; for instance integrity permeates how we work. And when there are breaches, we also have ways of dealing with it. When that breach happens, we have organized systems for it, everybody knows. So there is transparency. Our values are very important. I believe that every organization must have very clear values and when you recruit people, you should very openly talk about those values and say, these are our values, are you comfortable, will you fit in? If not then this isn’t the right place for you. Innovation is a value; challenge is a value, which is very important in our culture because challenge means people should be thinking, people should be asking questions.

“I think leaders create the empire and the culture and once you create that empire, you create a glue. If people are not within that culture, then so be it. That goes for myself as well. I would not be working somewhere where I was not feeling bright and energetic going to work in the morning.”

Synergy of thought and values is another thing that strengthened Musharaf Hai’s relationship with the Pakistan Fashion and Design Council. “Both Sehyr and I were aligned in our vision,” she reverberated that thought. Did they – two incredibly strong women – ever disagree on anything?

“Surely we disagree,” she laughed in response. “We are both not easy people to work with, but we are both driven by obsessions and a vision for what we can do for the talent in this country. And when we have our disagreements, which we do, they take a subservient role to the bigger picture. But when people don’t have alignment on the bigger picture, then it’s not good.  Here it’s a healthy challenge. We find a way.”

In conclusion, what do we expect from fashion week this year?

“I think we should expect no miracles. That’s not the idea. Sustained improvement, consistency and for me, it’s longevity. I’d rather have that than come with a bang and go with a whimper. So we should expect a sustainable business of fashion that continues into its sixth year; it evolves into a platform for fashion and beauty and stands to look more and more professional. The business of fashion and beauty should go on. That is what I call a sustainable system.

“Like you said, we started this (the Lux Style Awards) in 2001 and today, 15 years down the road, it is sustainable, it continues. Yes, there are highs and lows – that happens everywhere – but I would say the same about the Bridal Couture Week that you should be sustainable; when you create the platform you should have synthesis and alignment with those who want to take it forward. That becomes a bigger objective than the smaller battles. To me, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten lost in small battles. If I have to, I’d rather go for a big war. (smiles) You’ve got to keep hitting the goalpost and then you drive the business. Bridal Couture Week should become an international platform. How long will it take? That’s not for me to say. But at some point it should get to that. We have a long way to go but that’s why we are here, to build. I was telling somebody that I see myself as the architect of this business. Great things will happen later, after my time.”


This article was first published in Instep, on 25th September, 2016.


Aamna Haider Isani

The author is Editor-in-Chief at Something Haute as well as Editor at Instep, The News. Full time writer, critic with a love for words and an intolerance for typos.