IF WE WERE SITTING HERE A YEAR FROM NOW CELEBRATING WHAT A GREAT YEAR THIS HAS BEEN FOR YOU AND YOUR ROLE…WHAT WOULD WE BE CELEBRATING?
One of the biggest things is the success we’ve had on a regulatory front. The success we’ve seen in DC, Maryland and Virginia…really ensuring the longevity of our business for many, many years to come…hopefully. I think that would be a huge win, not only for Uber, but for all residents of the DMV who use our service.
WHO IN YOUR LIFE STANDS OUT AS SOMEONE YOU HAS REALLY PROPELLED YOUR CAREER AND WHO YOU ARE IN GENERAL?
I think it’s definitely my mother and my husband. Family members who have had unwavering support and who are there regardless of what happens and regardless of what accolades people recognize or not. And I think having that security and that strong foundation makes it easier to take risks and to do so knowing that you will be welcomed with open arms, no matter what happens, at the end of the day.
IF YOU COULD CONNECT THE DOTS FROM GRAUDATING FROM HARVARD TO NOW…WHAT ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS? WHAT ARE THE 'DOTS'?
One of the things that I think is important for folks to know is that in retrospect it always seems like the dots connect…like we can connect the dots, but in the moment they may not. I almost think that is the more important story and that is the thread is really in being in relentless pursuit of having impact and doing work that is interesting and challenging and stretching and growing. There are several positions that I’ve had where I could have just stayed and kind of road the wave if you will…rather that was in private equity or working in more of a traditional route and I think the pivotal moments or changes for me were really in that consistent pursuit of surfing for more of a life fit. And I think that it’s important to note that companies like the one where I currently work didn’t exist in a little over 5 years ago.
When I graduated from Harvard, I had several offers from established and big banks and I joined a company that was much smaller, but I believed in the founder and I believed in the work that they were doing. And I thought it was important and that’s, kind of, how I made that decision and outside looking in, or in retrospect, it looks like, “oh, wow…look at this match.” That was the driving force. And that it’s the same driving force that lead me to consider moving even further out from traditional financial role into finance and I saw the world was changing and I wanted to be a part of it. And I think that, sometimes folks quiet that voice and sometimes they amplify it and I think that’s the difference where I go back to having the support network because it’s really easy to shut that voice up and especially if the path isn’t laid for you.
There have been many times that I’m very envious of people who are doctors and dentists because they know…their purpose, their mission…they’re solid in that and they can do that forever. But for me, there was always this friction with wanting to find something that was more fulfilling holistically and I think that I took a bit of a less direct route to getting to a closer place to what that means for me.
IS THERE A PIVOTAL POINT IN YOUR CAREER THAT YOU WOULD CLASSIFY AS YOUR DEFINING MOMENT?
I wouldn’t say there is one in particular, there’s a lot of little ones that kind of lead together. Like for instance, graduating Harvard and going to a boutique real estate, private equity company instead of one of the big banks with a lot more security but going to a place where the work, at least personally, would be a lot more fulfilling and interesting and overall aligned with my passions and beliefs. Whether it was leaving that work four years later, as a VP, to move abroad, and try to embark on a career in the tech-media space in an area where it had not been my primary background – I was more of a finance person – to just go and try it and see what happens. That wasn’t an easy decision but the support network helped make it easier.
I think any time you go and start your own company, whether its any endeavor, it’s putting yourself out there…and that’s hard. And owning that and running that for two years and building something from the ground up…those are all pivotal and played a key role…preparing me for the work I do today. When I joined Uber in DC it was much more in its infancy than it is today, now I think it’s a household –hopefully, or approaching a household – name. And that wasn’t the case when I first joined. But being in that eco-system, understanding what was coming down the pike and how impactful the technology could be, allowed me to get in on the ground floor a bit earlier and to help be a part of building that.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ALONG THE WAY THAT HAS HELPED YOU HANDLE THE 'CURVE BALLS' YOU’VE HAD TO DODGE?
Resilience and determination is a competitive advantage. Your ability to bounce back from what knocks you down is what can serve to make you strongest. I would also encourage folks to think about the end-game, the long-game. I think often times, particularly in these days, it’s like the latest headline vs. what legacy are you building. What impact are you having more broadly vs. just in that moment. There’s a lot of ‘noise’ and I think if you are not clear on what matters to you…you can get lost in it.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FAILURE?
I struggle with that because I am generally an optimist and I think there’s lesson in every fail and I also feel like if you are not failing, you are not learning, you are not growing and as I said before, that’s kind of the purpose. So I feel like failures aren’t really failures if you learn something from them. They are only failures if they end there and they just kind of ‘fail.’ Obviously, in the business world, things aren’t as holistic as that…(chuckles) there are very clear failures and I think it’s important to fail…I think it’s important for that to be part of our DNA and to be not afraid of it. Because I think that limits innovation and limits the ability to, again, continue to grow. And I feel especially like, in this day and age, there’s not a lot of discussion or openness around that. I think we’re all worse off for it. But it also requires a safe space to do so and the right type of coaching and managing to know that it’s not the end of the story…that failure does happen.
IF YOU WERE TO TALK ABOUT A “FAILURE MOMENT” WHAT WOULD THAT MOMENT BE?
I think it’s no surprise that my most recent startup [Kahnoodle], the app that I was developing before I joined Uber, wasn’t a success. And there was a lot of time spent trying to make it a success. I think many people were interested in it…it had a lot of potential but we could never really get the business model right in order for it to be a stand-alone, going-concern. I think there’s a lot to learn there…especially when you give birth to something…you’re passionate about it and I think if I were ever to start something again I think I would be that much better because I was able to take off ultimately the blinders and understand the missteps that probably would make me make different business decisions sooner rather than later.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE BILLION DOLLAR GIRLS CLUB.
The Billion Dollar Girls Club is an organization I started a little over a decade ago. It's about getting the content out there and creating a space for women, particularly women of color, to have a space to talk about their finances. The project is “low touch” at the moment, mostly partnering with other nonprofits like Black Girls Rock, Girls Inc. and providing workshops and supplementary services for them for all curriculum and development.
WITH CHILDREN, A HUSBAND, AND A GREAT CAREER, HOW DO YOU BALANCE IT ALL?
(Zuhairah laughes) I don’t! Yep…that’s the only answer! It is a day-by-day decision on what needs to take priority. I have not found any magical balance. I just do my best, day-by-day to be the best wife, mother, manager…I can be in that moment.
SO WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
(Zuhairah giggles) There is no typical day. I need to get more sleep. It requires a lot less sleep and a lot more work. It requires a lot of multi-tasking. The things that I try to do to optimize the time that I have outside of work is obviously have some help. And making sure the time that I spend with my kids is as high-impact as possible. That involves “no phones”…sitting down playing, reading books, going to the park, letting them know that my time with them is undivided. And trying to keep as much as possible, rituals like family dinner. Making those times…at least a few times a week…sacred.
LOOKING AT ALL THAT YOU DO IN YOUR CAREER AND YOUR PERSONAL LIFE, IF YOU WERE A SUPER HERO…WHAT WOULD YOUR SUPER POWER BE?
I can handle a lot at once. I can take on a lot. If you want to get something done…I’m the person to give it to. And I’m very, very resilient. I think that’s my “secret sauce.” I have the uncanny ability to do more with more. It’s something that you can see, even with me doing a dual-degree. People would say, “oh my God, how do you do that.” And I would say, “that’s just what I do.” To me juggling all these things, my life is full and that’s a blessing. And even on the toughest of days, I have to remind myself that, “the reason this is a tough day is because your life is so full and that is a blessing.” And, enjoy…because I really do believe that these are really the best days of my life, where I have young kids, so interested in handing out with me, I have a loving husband who’s in good health. My mom is in good health. I have an amazing career. I get to work with a great team on a really awesome product. And I think that trying to stay grounded and the hard part is – what I’m working on is – trying to stay present. And really just soaking it all in.