10 Questions with Ameena Saiyid
Issue 90 March 2012
From selling books to schools in the Punjab region, to becoming the first woman to head up a multinational company in Pakistan, Ameena Saiyid has enjoyed a successful career as the Managing Director of the Oxford University Press in Pakistan.
Ameena Saiyid joined Oxford University Press in Lahore, Pakistan in 1979, but left in 1986 to launch her own publishing house, Saiyid Books. In 1988, she rejoined OUP as the chief executive, and became the first woman ever to head a multinational company in Pakistan. She set out on an ambitious growth strategy, so much so that the organisation began publishing a book a week, as opposed to its previous work rate of a book a year.
She recruited and trained editors, designers, illustrators, sales and marketing staff across Pakistan, as well as establishing nine bookshops. In 2005, her work was recognised by the award of an OBE from the Queen of England, for services to Anglo-Pakistan relations, democracy, women’s rights, education and intellectual property rights.
1. How did your education and upbringing have an influence on you?
They had an enormous influence on me. At school, I learnt about the methods of critical thinking, but above all, I learnt that I would have to fend for myself if I was to excel in a fair and competitive atmosphere. I was the sole guarantor of my success in the future, and it was up to me to put the hard work in from then.
I come from a family of writers and authors. My mother in particular enjoyed writing poetry, and I believe this was the key in my interest in intellectual pursuits. My father led a simple life, but he had strong values of honesty and integrity, and this too had a huge influence on me. Even now when I’m stuck in a tricky situation, I try to think of what he would do.
2. Which people do you admire the most and why?
I tend to admire particular traits in people, rather than their entire personality. For example, I have a lot of respect for Mohammed Ali Jinnah, not for his role in the Freedom movement, but rather his integrity and courage in his personal life. I also admire those people who are self-made, as well as those for whom external superficiality is not important. They are happy with a simple life, and not constantly chasing after material things, and I try to follow their example.
3. What was your biggest break and was there an element of luck involved?
It was probably when I first got a chance to work for Oxford University Press in Pakistan. I believe there was an element of luck involved, as I happened to go to a book exhibition that was organised by OUP, and there I felt like I needed to be part of this wonderful organisation. I joined at the entry level, and my job was to travel across the Punjab and the Frontier region, and visit educational institutions to sell books published by OUP. I gained valuable experience, and this stayed with me as I progressed through the organisation.
4. What has been your biggest failure and how did you recover?
I took my work so seriously, that in the process, I lost many of my friends. It was simply because I didn’t have the time, and didn’t give them the importance they deserve. It’s true when they say that it’s lonely at the top, and this is when you are in most need of your friends. This applies to family too, I remember that when my father passed away in Karachi, I was in my office in the same city, and I’ve never forgiven myself for not being there with him, where I should have been. Now, I try to spend time with my friends and family, I never say that I don’t have the time, I’ll make the time if I have to. It’s very rewarding in the long run, and it’s important to keep a balanced life.
5. What motivates you to continue with your work/business?
I find my work incredibly exciting, because I feel that I am serving the academic community of Pakistan, as well as doing my bit in getting children to start reading and improving the way that learning and teaching is carried out in Pakistan. It’s very different from selling a commodity; I find that I am making a valuable contribution to society. What’s even more motivating is that there is always more to do, and I feel privileged to be able to do it.
For example, we recently established a Karachi Literature Festival, and have just finished our third one. I got the idea from the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, but I was already conscious that Pakistani authors and writers were not getting the recognition they deserved through awards or other platforms. I was very fortunate in that many others came to my assistance in organising the event, such as the British Council, and each year, the festival has been getting bigger.
6. What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
My mother told me to remain humble and show people respect. This isn’t just restricted to showing them respect when talking to or dealing with them, but it stretches to giving them space to work and grow in their own way. My mother gave me this valuable piece of advice when I was doing well and rising rapidly within OUP, and it formed the way in which I interact with my employees.
7. What are the enemies of success?
When someone tries to control others, or is too persistent in micro-managing them, and doesn’t allow them to make mistakes and then learn from them, it sets the foundation for failure. People are unable to perform to the best of their ability, when you get them into a situation where they are afraid to do something in case they get it wrong, and you will end up paralysing their creativity. I’ve seen it in my own organisation, how positive energy can flow from one department to another, but if there is a blockage in one, then this will restrict success for the whole company.
Also, in Pakistan, we often see people putting the self above the organisation, or having a personal agenda which drives their approach. This is wrong and will most definitely hinder success. If you work freely for the organisation, and in an environment where people are merited for their hard work, then you can be sure the company will grow.
8. How do you give back to the community/society?
I do it in very small ways, and I try to do it on a daily basis. If I come across someone that is genuinely needy, then I will give to them, and it could be something like giving them 100 rupees, or buying them food. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of poverty here, but I feel the Pakistanis do give a lot, if they feel there is a worthy cause.
I also try to set an example myself of leading a very simple life, without extravagance. I feel that young Pakistani women do notice what I’m doing, and I’m conscious of this, so I try to show that they don’t need to lead a fancy lifestyle to impress people. It’s important for them to be able to stand on their own feet, and that their priorities should be in line with those that are important for wider society.
9. How do religious values play a role in your work/business?
The values that I admire and try to embrace as my own are those which are common to all religions, which are to be humble and show respect to all. I think it is important not to hurt or belittle anyone. On the other hand, people underestimate how a kind word or smile can go a long way.
10. What would you say to people when it is time for you to leave this world?
What I will miss the most is the time that I didn’t spend with my family and friends, and this is something that is very precious. These are the people who count the most, and you have to make time for them. When people in business look back on their life, they often wish that they had gone for a deal they missed out on, or signed a contract which would have made them more money, but helping our mother with something, or spending time with our children is more important.