Entrepreneur of the Week: Asma Ahmad, founder of social enterprise Zaha

Palestinian Asma Ahmad is creating cultural experiences in her own home to bring those facing isolation closer together
Entrepreneur of the Week: Asma Ahmad, founder of social enterprise Zaha
Asma Ahmad, founder of social enterprise Zaha
By Lubna Hamdan
Sat 11 May 2019 12:20 PM

She experienced cultural isolation for 15 years as a result of immigration. Now, Palestinian Asma Ahmad is creating cultural experiences in her own home to bring those with similar experiences closer together.

Zaha is the result of your battle with cultural isolation. Can you explain?

I was born in the Gulf to a large family and parents of simple backgrounds and who, because of the war, were forced to move back to their home in the Levant empty-handed. My family and I tried hard to immerse ourselves into our new lives, the system, and engage with the community, but to little avail, as we were not welcomed. Our different accent and mannerisms and the way we conducted ourselves stood between us and the community. It was an unpleasant experience for all of us, and for a seven-year-old (me) it was difficult to understand the new dynamics and get a grasp over my family busily trying to secure food and manage education expenses.

Our objective through Zaha is to replace cultural misconceptions with empathy and understanding

As a result, I closed myself off from interacting with my surroundings. I have very few memories of playing with other children. Instead, I buried myself in my studies trying to prove my worth through excelling, which later helped me land a scholarship for both my Bachelor and Master’s degrees in the UK. However, that meant that I spent 15 years in cultural isolation.

I moved to the UK in 2009, and even though I was continuously searching for a home and a refuge, I experienced isolation of higher intensity than I had ever felt, especially being in a new country on my own. To push myself out of this isolation, I began engaging with others through sharing my cultural and emotional experiences of my home country [Palestine]. Unconsciously, I had created a space for others to join and tackle their own issues in the same way. I realised that exploring the intangible heritage of cultures speaks to my heart. That’s when I created Zaha.

How difficult has it been bootstrapping the company?

Very. I wanted to experience life from a different perspective. I wanted to explore my innate creativity in tackling challenges dissecting fears and pain so I can then offer the same for others. It has allowed me to outgrow myself each and every day. This is from an emotional and self-exploration angle which has been scary and bumpy.

From a logistics and technicality point of view, incubators, investment committees etc. tend to forget that meaningful and big ventures always take time to refine their models. They underestimate the perseverance, which is to me very valuable, and the only feature that would get us through challenges. A clear business model and neat feasibility study don’t help much in the lack of consist passion, hard work and most importantly, faith.

Do you have plans to raise funds in the future?

Yes. We also aspire to get key stakeholders on board to support the development of the online platform (i.e.) UNESCO as one of their objectives is to preserve the intangible heritage of cultures, which we at Zaha explore and document. We are also in discussions with community integration departments in Germany and Canada as we can coach immigrants to become Zaha maestros and design experiences that reflect the cultures that are within them in an engaging way.

I moved to the UK in 2009 and experienced isolation of higher intensity than I had ever felt

Our objective is to replace cultural misconceptions with empathy and understanding, create a tighter social network for newcomers, activate social cohesion, build trust with new contacts, build confidence in translating their personal experience and explore and increase skills that can be monetised.

What is your business model?

We have refined our model where we generate revenues from the conducted experiences. Maestros get the revenues, Zaha earns a portion. The very interesting and rich content (intangible heritage of cultures) that we capture is also creating sponsorship opportunities.

What is your biggest challenge at the moment?

Building a team that is hungry and passionate to take it to the next level.

How is Zaha’s performance?

I am very pleased with the way the model is evolving. Zaha has grown to become a platform that offers a cultural tool kit to enable people to creatively curate experiences that reflect multi-cultures that are within them. People started to come to us with new experiences and aspects of cultures they want us to coach them to leverage and offer under the umbrella of Zaha.

What are your future growth and expansion plans for the company?

Zaha is a solution offered to people in diverse and yet isolated areas including cosmopolitan cities, immigrant communities or countries looking to create more trust and overcome fear. After the UAE, we are aspiring to take it to Canada or Germany.

What do you see Zaha growing into?

I want it to become a home away from home to those who feel they are culturally/socially isolated – or just not embraced – through exploring cultures that are within us.

What was your background prior to setting up Zaha and when did you know you wanted to become an entrepreneur?

It’s been sometime since I thought of my professional background, which offered me a great opportunity to hone my skills but did not necessarily enable me to fully leverage my passion and energy. I did a Bachelor’s in Computer and then a Master’s in Business, followed by a profession in the consultancy industry. I then became a regional senior manager with one of the international consultancy companies, before I resigned and started Zaha.

If you could go back, what would you have done differently in your career or in the setting up of Zaha?

Nothing. Literally nothing. It has been the toughest time I had emotionally and physically; working 18-hour days living on a tight budget, letting go of materials including my home. But it allowed me to elevate into a higher being and reconnect with my innate creativity. And for that I am beyond grateful.

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