Continuing our celebration of female confidence, we met up with media sensation Zara Janjua. TV/ radio/ podcast presenter, event host, comedian, journalist, writer, producer & director, there aren't many things this woman hasn't tried her hand at! We discussed everything from her recent life changing trip to Nepal (making a documentary on human trafficking) to taking to the stage for stand up comedy...
Hey Zara! When we met at the start of 2020, you were just about to set off to Nepal to make a documentary on marginalized and disabled women getting jobs and starting businesses. What made you chose this location and topic to focus on?
I was introduced to Stephanie Woollard OAM who was the CEO and founder of Seven Women. She was looking for a filmmaker to join a tour group of Rotary International leaders to document their experience on a sustainable tourism tour. Being half Pakistani I relate and sympathise with the challenges facing women in patriarchal societies. As a journalist, I have a responsibility to give a voice and a platform to these women and to tell the untold stories that exist in our world.
It sounds like a life changing experience and a real eye opener. What were your key learnings from it?
We met with a number of human trafficking organisations and I was crushed by the devastating stories – people being used as currency. It is a vile, evil global industry that enslaves and abuses millions of women and children every year. The enormity of that is haunting. Millions. I saw the benefits of anti-corruption measures and education in rural villages. On a personal level I learned the value of real human connections and saw first-hand how one person can make a difference and evoke global change.
You're currently presenting a series of podcasts in association with RBS about entrepreneurial women, 'Ask For More', which I was lucky enough to be a part of recently! What was your inspiration behind creating this podcast?
We want more women to start and grow businesses. It’s finally time to recognise that we operate in a different way than men and that we have accepted a construct and way of doing business that was created and devised for men, by men. Even with funding – women are far more likely than men to look for grant funding than to seek investment. If women were to start and grow businesses at the same rate as men it would be worth £250 billion of new value to the UK economy. There are significant issues around entrepreneurial gender equality including bias and discrimination. I think we need to talk about this and the best way is to showcase some kick-ass women who are smashing through those barriers. The best way to motivate and inspire people is to connect them with real stories from people who are achieving great things.
You're a fantastic advert for equality & women's rights. As a chapter lead on The Rising Network, what would you say is the most effective way of empowering women to reach their true potential?
Knowing how to listen is really important. You need to understand what people want before you can help them reach their goals. I don’t ever want to appear inaccessible to anyone who genuinely wants some advice. I think kindness is the most valuable trait anyone can possess. I want to help instill self-belief, courage and a little bit of ‘ah, what the hell’. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve and often we feel the fear of failure. I want women to feel the fear and face it. Once you overcome your fears you can do anything.
Women are pushing to reach the top now more than ever, but are still faced with challenges that many of their male counterparts don't. What do you think is the best way to break the outdated mould of leadership, and lead in a way that is effective to you?
I have always believed you have to find your own way of doing things. Accepting the status quo is boring and rarely benefits your uniqueness and individuality. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t improvise and adapt. You must be yourself no matter how much pressure there is to adapt typically male leadership traits. Stay strong and firm in how you want to work and let society accept you.
You recently fronted the Sainsbury's 'Big Night In' appeal to raise funds for Comic Relief. It seems so important, now more than ever, to think and do differently to support those who need it most. How do you think our nations behaviour will change going forward, in light of the current pandemic?
The things we value will undoubtedly change as a result of this period. We will appreciate the impact key workers have on our lives – they will emerge as the heroes of our time. Supermarket workers and lorry drivers we will respect their efforts but I doubt this will be reflected financially for them unfortunately. Many of us will discover the importance of exercise on our physical and mental health. I expect many more people to maintain running and cycling. Many of us will continue to work from home because the processes needed to make it work will be established. The online industry will be accelerated. We will appreciate freedom and flexibility in our lives. Our family and friends. And I for one, will never turn down a night out again.
What one piece of advice have you been given during your career that has really stuck with you?
When I left the newsroom as a print journalist to become a broadcast news presenter I was advised by the Head of News to become a sponge! I tried to keep an open mind, to listen and up-skill wherever possible. That’s something I still do in every new environment. I really enjoy learning and being self-sufficient. Having an understanding of the roles and processes in a business has always made me feel more confident forming opinions, offering advice and it has made me sympathetic to the roles and challenges of my team.
In amongst all your other endevours, you're also a stand up comedian and comedy writer. What is it you love about comedy, and how nerve-wracking was your first stand up gig?
I am incredibly inappropriate. All the time. My brain is wired to a comedy setting and it has become my way of handling life’s pressures and stresses. I don’t take life too seriously and I think this can make me really easy to chat to. My mum was always telling me to look on the bright side of life and it has made me a really positive and resilient person. Things can always be worse. Finding comedy in the challenges life throws at you makes me happy. Most of my routine is self-deprecating. I love feeling scared – like your heart is about to fall out your bum. I’m not sure I know the difference between excitement and fear anymore. I’ve been playing that trick on myself for so long.
The world of media is notoriously tough to break into. What words of wisdom might you give women looking to get more involved in this industry?
I found the best route to media as a journalist. Having a qualification definitely helped me. But it’s not the most important thing. Make connections and ask for help. I do a lot of mentoring in the industry and really appreciate when someone contacts me directly and they know what they want. So much of this industry is about who you know so if you can get some work experience in and build relationships then you’re going to fly.
Besides being a highly successful journalist/producer/broadcaste
Food. I love cooking and creating new recipes. It brings me such joy to feed other people. I was brought up in a big family and we cooked every day. Seeing everything being made from scratch gave me passion for creating my own recipes. I never stick to a recipe, I love to experiment and I can happily spend hours playing around and presenting food artistically. In lockdown, it also allows me to stand on my feet for a few hours, which is great for the old step count. Not sure chasing it with a lemon meringue pie quite balances out though.
Looks like you've been cooking up a storm during lockdown! Can you share your favourite dish so far with us?
I am mastering my home food just now – learning to make a Pakistani Biryani has been a highlight. My mum is the most amazing home chef and wants me to learn her dishes (she says it’s because she might die soon but I think she just wants a break from the kitchen).
What's your go-to brands for work-wear?
I am obsessed with Reiss clothing. I think the styles and cuts are elegant and the tailoring is so flattering. I’d like to see some new brands breakthrough post COVID because right now I have business pyjamas and I’m not quite ready to go back to the life of underwired bras.
What does 'dressing for confidence' mean for you?
Both my parents were in the military and they taught me the importance of making a good first impression. Having shiny shoes and ironed socks didn’t help me much at school but in my career, especially as a woman, I like to think it has. Really it is all about how you feel in what you wear. I’d wear a bin bag or hot pants if it made me feel confident. As it happens, I go for bright colours and love finding dresses that I can dress up or down. Jasper Conran has a beautiful range for spring. I bought a bright coral dress from there three years ago and it still makes me feel like a boss.