In March 2016, the world honoured the role of women in society by asking individuals and organisations to pledge for gender parity. Thirty-five-year-old Farhana Hassanali-Hashmani – CEO, HassConsult – is a living example of what women can achieve when afforded opportunities and given wings to fly. She shares her journey on navigating a male-dominated field, leadership, and balancing work and family with ESTHER AKELLO.
The name HassConsult is synonymous with real estate in Kenya. However, what many people may not be synonymous with is the name Farhana Hassanali-Hashmani, the CEO of HassConsult. Encapsulating beauty and brains, Farhana exudes an air of authority strong enough to give her presence, yet gentle enough so as not to be forbidding. A trait that she admits has been instrumental in her career.
“The construction industry is male dominated and that can present some challenges when you are a woman, leave alone the stereotypes that follow women into the workplace, so you have to know when to put your foot down. However, I have a strong personality and that has helped to keep misdemeanours at bay. Additionally, the notion or stereotype that women are too emotional to be good enough leaders is a fallacy. What many may consider to be women’s weaknesses are in fact women’s greatest strengths. Women know how to refine edges, pay attention to detail and humanise even the most mundane of things, giving them life and that is especially invaluable in a business like ours that prides itself in not just building and selling property, but also lifestyles,” she explains.
Building an empire…
Started by her parents, Mohamed and Hamida Hassanali in 1993, HassConsult initially started as a financial consultancy but later shifted its focus to real estate. While the idea was promising, the initial returns were not. “Growing up, my siblings and I barely noticed that there were long stretches of time where the business did not have money. My parents were keen to shield us from that and while we were not poor, we were also not exactly rich. Since they never quit, we were none the wiser,” Farhana chuckles, adding her resilient spirit comes from them.
While the business would later on pick up and even take off, her parents were also keen on another thing: instilling a strong work ethic in their children. At the age of 14, Farhana was manning the business’ front office, receiving calls and serving clients and employees tea during the school holidays. Despite leaving for the University of Reading in the UK to study land management at the age of 18, she would help her father collect rent and pay landlords their dues whenever she came back home.
After completing her studies, she joined the sales and letting arm of the company, selling or leasing properties to clients and thereafter moved to the property development department working with developers in conceptualising, planning and designing projects, and helping to market them to potential clients. In 2013 at the age of 33, she was appointed the company’s CEO.
“There are no short cuts to attaining your goals. Being the best at your game requires perseverance. My parents are my biggest motivators because they lead by example. My father particularly challenges me as he demands the best from all his children and often times, he would throw us in the deep end of difficult situations forcing us to really apply ourselves and that has helped us to grow,” she says. She explains that as CEO she now helps structure bigger projects, which include joint ventures with other companies while handling the legal and financial aspects of HassConsult.
Working with other ventures, Farhana says, has challenged her growth as a leader. “My biggest weakness is I have a perfectionist nature. I am very particular and often want things done in a certain way and will even go to the extent of doing it myself if I have to. Therein lies the danger as it makes it difficult for me to delegate. Now, however, I have to work with outsiders and that means less control, so I have learnt to let go bit by bit,” she says, attesting that other challenges such as competition by new entrants, political downturn and difficult clients also inspire her to look for better ways and products to serve clients.
Coming of age…
So, after 14 years in real estate, has she ever considered re-inventing herself especially for a career in another field? “I have tinkered with the idea. However, after much thought, I realised I do not have to discard real estate altogether to attain another dream and currently, we have included agriculture in our portfolio through gated farms for sale, which I am really interested in. I am also a big believer in personal development and my parents were instrumental in that. Growing up in a male-centric community, our parents really pushed us – we are five girls and one boy – to study and made those opportunities available for us. In 2007, I undertook my Masters of business administration at Strathmore University and the exposure, experience and interaction that I obtained was immeasurable and very applicable in the job market,” she attests. Her desire for self-development does not end with her. Farhana is passionate about women empowerment through education and sustainable development.
After 22 years in the industry, there is no doubt HassConsult has come of age if the slew of awards, including the International Property Awards, Kenya Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies and the East African Property Awards, are anything to go by.
However, two awards stand out for Farhana. “I was awarded Property Woman Developer of the Year at the East African Property Awards in 2014. That was not only humbling for me, but it was also a great honour to be recognised for the work that I have done in the industry for the last decade. Our company has been awarded several local and international marketing and agency awards, but just last year, we were awarded the Best Property Consultancy, which was a key achievement for us. This is a side of the business that not many know of but our role in advising developers on their projects has been a
big reason for the success of our projects. Backed by our Property Index, we have really been focussing on guiding developers in the right direction so that the market continues to grow sustainably,” she says.
Farhana confirms that the company has plans to develop into other regions in the near future but reveals that Kenya still has a wealth of opportunities.
Family and motherhood…
There is also another project that has taken and admittedly will continue to take the bulk of her time. Motherhood. Farhana has a two-year-old son, Ali, with her husband Raza Hashmani of four years.
“Motherhood is the most dramatic thing in a woman’s life. At least for me it was. It is unpredictable and upsets the order and for a planner and a perfectionist like me, it threw me off balance a bit, and I really tried to hold on to my past life,” she says.
To adjust to the new lifestyle, Farhana maintains a strict schedule. Most days she is in the office by 9am and by 2pm, she is off to spend the afternoon with her son, who attends playgroup in the morning.
“I was back at work after three months of maternity leave because my dad, who was the company director at the time, was ill. I used to bring Ali to work with me and I am lucky in that being a family business, there’s room for flexibility. However, I appreciate that other women do not have such options and that can be emotionally difficult because you want to give the best to both worlds,” she notes before adding her sound bite to the same old debate – whether women have to compromise on family to climb the corporate ladder or vice versa?
Her answer is a resounding no. “I started my family when I was 33. So in essence, I had already put in the crazy work hours, travelling and higher education. Now that
I am slowing down, I really do not feel I have underachieved in my career. However, women who have their families early sometimes feel frustrated when they have to stop one in order to get the other. The current generation is hungry for balance in all aspects of their lives. And while most women take a back seat in the early years post childbirth, I have seen men who later on sacrifice their career growth in order to give their partners a chance to focus on their career growth,” she says. In that respect she confesses that her husband has been very supportive, even watching the baby when she has to put in extra hours at the office.
When Farhana is not busy juggling property and making business decisions, she likes to curl up with a book. “I have taken on Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg pledge, to read a book every month. So I rotate between parenting, business and lifestyle. Right now I am reading The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabari, which has proven very instrumental. We also love to travel as a family and my goal is to travel to as many countries as the years I have lived. I have travelled to 35 countries so far,” she concludes. [email protected]
Published March 2016