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Asma Shah talks to We Are The City

Originally published in We Are The City on 12th September 2016

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and what you do currently


“You Make It” is not an employability scheme – that is just one of the outcomes,” says Asma as we sit in her Bethnal Green office discussing how one of the UK’s smallest yet most impactful charities is changing lives under her guidance.

It was 2009 when Asma’s mother passed away to cancer. Her mum had been a strong influence in her life, raising her and her three sisters in a South London council estate whilst working relentlessly to support their eventual transition into university and successful careers. Reflecting on her mother’s difficult start in life in 1970s England, she began to question in what capacity she wanted to use her leadership skills.

Fresh off a prestigious placement on the Clore Leadership Programme, her original plan to take on a traditional senior arts role had begun to lose its appeal.

What inspired you to start a business?

A mix of things. My late single mum had died of cancer and this got me thinking long and hard about her struggle and those of myself and 3 elder sisters, and what it took to make a go of life and a career against all the odds. At the same time, the coalition government was in place and pulling back the state/ making cuts which threatened social mobility. Further, I’d been living in the East End for 17 years at that point and had observed the crude divide between rich and poor, Black and White, that was growing there as a result of gentrification. All these things propelled me into wanting to take social action and culminated in me devising my empowerment organisation for unemployed and mostly BAME women.

What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?

Greatest challenge right now is that I’m not sure none it would continue without me. This means that even when going through sometimes really intense personal situations where I could do with time out, I just have to keep going. At the same time, it’s great to be able to make decisions and be action oriented/ dynamic – not always having to seek permission around what to do and how to do it.

What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures?

Don’t set goals without thinking long and hard about your values and passions first, and where you truly and deeply want to be 1 year+ down the line. Re success and failures, remember you learn as much from both. I think women can to be cruel to themselves when they fail at something – but decide you just won’t be – men aren’t! I can’t remember where I read it, but once saw a quote along the lines of how important it is to be as kind to yourself/ speak to yourself as you would to other people.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?

When I started out I did it with just £3,000, almost everything else I got for free, and while this wasn’t a sustainable way of working and was a big challenge for my abilities to negotiate and hustle, it was the most liberating feeling! Money is always a tough one, making sure there’s enough coming in to get what you need done including paying and retaining staff. I look back on those skint days with a degree of romanticism, but the reality is that getting real money in has made the work continue the past 5 years.

How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?

I have a few trustees who I go to when I have specific issues I need help thinking through. It really helps to get things out there and to look at a problem from a few different angles.

What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?

I’ve never found it that natural to network in a really networky way – that is, I prefer to just make connections and have conversations with new people that aren’t all so work related. I like to see if there’s chemistry and natural rapport first, and then I’d speak more about business or work, exchange numbers etc.

Of the importance of networking, I do know this – if I’d not built up a huge bank of friends and solid working relationships over my life, then my pilot would never have got off the ground – so much of what was given for free came from people who I’d connected with, got to know, kept in touch with and been kind to myself over my preceding career.

What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?

Something really important to consider when thinking about growing is what you really enjoy doing – will growing mean that you get taken away from the elements of work and your business that make your heart sing? If it’s a yes, then rethink your plans. I’m not saying don’t grow, I’m saying be honest about how you want to carve out your time and what you’re prepared to give up and delegate, because the most important thing is that you remain happy with how you earn your living.

Also when you scale, make sure you have the very best people working for you. Some of the JD/ skills in it can be taught, but I’d say getting people on board who are likable and will try their best because they love what you do are harder to find and are worth investing in.

What does the future hold for you?

I hope it brings continued success for You Make It, and on-going health and happiness, with ideally some time living abroad – perhaps taking some of You Make It with me!