Though prompted by less than favourable circumstances to join the work force, 51-year old Tazmin Alibhai, found her passion in human resources close to 20 years ago. Today she helps others find their passion through executive coaching and training at her firm – Leap Afrique. She talks to EDNA GICOVI about finding her career footing and learning some life’s painful but invaluable lessons.

Tazmin Alibhai started her career as an intern at Tack International, a management and training consultancy. She was 30-years-old, a mother of three young children, and undergoing family financial difficulties. Prior to taking up the internship, she had attended a conference on economic empowerment in Canada as a board member of an international foundation she volunteered with, and that worked with women, the youth and the aged.

“I remember attending the conference and thinking I wasn’t economically empowered as a woman since I wasn’t working at the time. There was a quote by the previous Aga Khan in his memoirs that stuck with me. It said, ‘A woman who has the means of earning a living need fear nothing,” says Tazmin, adding that she felt the need to be economically responsible as it wasn’t fair for one person, that is her husband, to be responsible for supporting the family.

“So there I was at 30, working as an intern. Call me a late bloomer,” she says with a chuckle. Our interview takes place at Tazmin’s flat on Forest Road overlooking the busy Thika Superhighway in Nairobi. A gentle breeze makes the sheer curtains that lead to the balcony flutter and the sound of passing cars can be heard as we chat away.

The oldest of three children, Tazmin grew up in Kisumu and came to Nairobi for her ‘O’ levels at the Aga Khan Academy, then ‘A’ levels at Hillcrest Secondary School. Family has always meant a lot to her and she still has fond memories of holidays with her parents and siblings, and time spent with her grandparents. Today she lives a stone’s throw away from her parents whom she eats dinner with almost daily.

“My dad was a businessman and my mum a homemaker. She was such a central part of our lives and because of this I really felt that when I had children of my own, I would like to be there for them in the same way my mother was for us,” she says.

Tazmin left the country to study sociology and humanities in Canada after completing her high school education. “Looking back, I didn’t feel the drive to be in any particular career. I just enjoyed going to school and learning. I never thought about wanting to be a doctor or engineer and my parents never interfered with that. They never superimposed their ideas on me either,” she says.

She nonetheless knew that she wanted to be in a vocation that involved working with people. “That’s why I studied sociology,” she says. She taught English at the Aga Khan Academy for one and a half years, a job she found very satisfying, on her return to Kenya before she got married.

Starting at the bottom…

“I had my three children within five years and stopped working to focus on raising them. But when we started going through difficulties because of some bad financial decisions, I felt that I needed to do something. Around that time, I had a meeting with Cecilia Muhoho, the then director of Tack International, and we got to talk about a number of things. She asked me to volunteer at the organization and that’s how I started working as an intern,” says Tazmin.

The internship involved working in human resources (HR), training and development and served as a valuable learning experience for her. This led to an even greater opportunity at KPMG where she was involved in management training.

“I was really enjoying my work, learning, growing and becoming more confident in my job. In 2000 I got another job at the Aga Khan Hospital, which was a bigger HR role that not only included training and recruitment, but also performance management,” says Tazmin of her growth spurt.

Her star continued rising and she found herself in an even bigger role as the group head of HR at UAP Insurance, a regional position that included Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan, which she enjoyed immensely.  An even better offer from Jubilee Insurance came along a few years later and Tazmin also took this in her stride. Though she was at the top of her career, heading HR regionally and earning the kind of money she’d always dreamed off, something unexpected began happening to her.

“I started getting very restless. I had believed for a long time that I was the type of person to always be employed and get my paycheck at the end of the month, but something just shifted inside me. I had always thought that if I was earning what I was earning at that time, I would be the happiest person ever, yet when it happened I was totally unmotivated. I felt useless at the end of the day, like I had done nothing substantial and also felt like my life had lost its meaning. A lot was also going on in my personal life,” she says.

When she handed in her resignation letter in 2011, she had no idea what her next step would be. She remembers her youngest son, who hadn’t yet left for university like the rest, encouraging her through the process. “I had this adrenaline rush that felt really good and I felt like I was really in control of my life and future,” she says.

Tazmin knew she wanted to consult for organisations. The use of psychometrics (a branch of psychology that deals with the design, administration and interpretation of tests for measurement of variables such as intelligence, aptitude and personality traits) in HR had always fascinated her when she was involved in recruitment and personal development. However, even with her extensive on-the-job training, she had always felt that there was more to learn and apply in this area.

A leap of faith…

So she took her pension and SACCO savings and travelled to the UK where she enrolled at Oxford Psychological Society to get certified in psychometric testing. During her four-month stay, she also took a course in executive coaching and got certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF), a global coaching body.

“I took a leap of faith and put all my savings and everything I had into this. I felt the only way I could develop myself as a professional was to invest in myself. I had worked on the other side and knew there was a vacuum when it came to people development. After going through these two courses, I felt like I had something to work with,” she says.

Reality hit when Tazmin came back home. She had no prior experience in running a business and her children, who are a significant part of her life, were all in universities abroad. “So there I was with an empty nest and trying to start my own business. I knew nothing about starting a business. Balance sheets would make me anxious. I started wondering how I was ever going to run a business,” says Tazmin, adding that this experience taught her that it was perfectly fine to be vulnerable and ask for help.

She did and received a lot of it from friends and acquaintances as she set up her company Leap Afrique Ltd, a HR development firm that provides psychometric assessments, training programmes and accredited coaching, among other services, in 2012. She named her company Leap because she felt she had taken many leaps of faith, both in her career and personal life in the last 15 or so years.

The one thing that Tazmin knew she had to keep doing was to believe in herself. “I was now doing something I loved and enjoyed doing. The first opportunity I had to do executive coaching was at UAP Insurance, an organisation I had worked with before. Afterwards, I got referrals from them and also from word of mouth through other clients and then I started participating in tenders and things started opening up,” she says.

Since her company’s inception, she has worked with government programmes, banking corporations, healthcare institutions, insurance companies, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) and also with individuals.  Earlier this year, she became a member of the Association of Business Psychologists (ABP) in the UK and now uses the title business psychologist for the different roles she is involved in.

Tazmin also partnered with ICF, the organization in the UK where she received her coaching certification, to offer coaching certification programmes in Kenya. The first group to undergo training under her completed its training in May this year. Tazmin recently returned from the UK where she had been receiving training to enable her to be involved in coach supervision and coach training for the certification program.

She is also a certified NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming-an approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy that enables people to develop and maintain a high level of motivation for achieving their goals and overcome barriers to success) practitioner and also enrolled in a Master’s programme in clinical psychology which she feels will go a long way in keeping her relevant and helping her to offer her clients better services. “I find that the older I grow, the more curious I become. I want to learn and do many different things. I want to really take life by its horns and live it. I’m not earning the kind of money that I was earning when I was in employment but I’m much more satisfied and learning a lot in many areas,” she says. In due course, Tazmin would like to lecture in a business school on a variety of topics in her field ranging from coaching, mentoring and human resources among others.

Invaluable life lessons…

Tazmin went through marriage separation six years ago and she says this has been the source of many invaluable lessons.  The experience taught her resilience, forgiveness and made her a stronger person. “I learned so much from my marriage and the person I was married to and still have a lot of respect for him and admire him for what he does. He is a wonderful father and does a lot for the children,” she says, adding that it’s very easy to point fingers and blame the other person for the breakup of a marriage but it takes two to tango.

Despite the lessons and growth that she underwent as a result of the separation, Tazmin acknowledges that it was a very difficult and trying period. “The separation was hard. I was in a bad place. Separating after 20 years of marriage and having to start over was not at all easy. My family was such a great support system, especially for my children. My friends also formed a wonderful support group for me and I have really come to value them,” she says.

Tazmin has three adult children, Hussein, Aliya and Khaleed, who, she says, have played a significant role in her personal growth as well. One of her biggest take-aways from parenting has been showing her children unconditional love at all times, especially in their tough teenage years.

“I’m really enjoying my children right now. They’re my inspiration. We have such an interesting relationship. It’s still a parent-child relationship but we are more of friends now,” she says, adding, as we conclude, that she likes the place she is currently at in her life.  edna@parents.co.ke

Published in July 2014