Episode 48: Leading and Living With Purpose – Zahra Al-Harazi

A survivor of two civil wars, Zahra Al-Harazi immigrated to Canada in 1996 with her three children and no higher education. Today, she’s one of Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs.

On this episode of REAL TIME, Zahra unpacks the turning point in her story, when she defined her sense of purpose, and how it continues to guide her and her businesses. She also shares strategies for defining your own purpose, and how to harmonize your personal and professional values, so you can stay focused, motivated, and fulfilled.

Discover Ikigai, the Japanese concept Zahra swears by for inspiring your sense of purpose: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikigai

Learn more about the Enneagram personality types: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enneagram_of_Personality


Erin Davis: What stories do you owe your 80-year-old self, and how can you start writing them today? One word, purpose. That’s our topic today on REAL TIME, the podcast for REALTORS® brought to you by the Canadian Real Estate Association. I’m your host, Erin Davis, and our guest is Zahra Al-Harazi, one of Canada’s most successful businesswomen, a woman whose life defies expectations, consultant, author, and community builder. Zahra joins REAL TIME to talk about the power of purpose and its business potential for REALTORS®. Let’s get started.

Erin: Zahra, people have different definitions of purpose. How do you define it, and why is it important for businesses to have a purpose beyond profit?

Zahra Al-Harazi: Thank you for that question. A purpose is the explanation of the company’s motivations and their reason for being. It’s a way to set boundaries for what an organization will and will not do as part of its growth strategy. It is really important to have purpose as an organization because it defines the reason that you are there. Especially in today’s world, between the millennials and Gen Z, there is a massive trust deficit, desire for sustainability, desire to fix social inequality.

Brand control isn’t as much as it used to be because there’s this rise of social media and people trust more in what other people tell them about a product than the product itself. There’s all these reasons why you should have a strong purpose statement. Really, the purpose statement is your reason for being.

Erin: You have said that there are two types or two ways in which your values have to align with the corporation. Can you explain that?

Zahra: Rather than two ways, I think there is a personal purpose and then there is an organizational purpose. Really, those things should align. Organizations should really understand what their target audience, meaning their stakeholders, meaning their employees, their customers, what they want, what they desire, what is important to them, and then aligning that purpose to both those things. If I, as an employee, don’t feel the same sense of values and purpose with my organization, I’m going to be less interested in what that organization has to stand for.

I will go looking for somewhere else that does align with my values, my sense of purpose, the things that I want to do, what my legacy is meant to be. I think those are the two things that are really important. A lot of people write these nice things like mission statement and values and purpose and whatever, and put them up on a wall. If you ask the employees without looking at the wall what those are, most of the time they won’t be able to tell you.

They’re also very similar to what every other organization is doing. You can change the logo in the name and put in another name and you’ve got pretty much the same sense of purpose. Truly understanding your audience, what they want, your employees, what they are passionate about, what motivates them, what gets them going, what drives them, is then going to make a really powerful purpose statement. Every stakeholder should remember what your purpose is without you having to articulate it over and over again.

Erin: Zahra, I find your own story of realizing that you had a purpose, of course, but it wasn’t really in line with who you are or what you really wanted. Can you tell us that story? Because it’s really enlightening.

Zahra: Yes. I don’t know that I had a purpose before I actually sat down and I worked on articulating it. I think for a big chunk of my life, I was pretty lost. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do and what other people told me. I never really got to true success until I defined what that purpose is. I’m both a refugee and an immigrant. I was a refugee when we left the war in Uganda and went to Yemen. I was an immigrant when I left the war in Yemen and came to Canada.

In that time, I just wasn’t sure what I was meant to do, what I was supposed to do, how to go about life, and my sense of purpose. I didn’t even know what having a sense of purpose honestly quite meant. Then I took the tools that we use at a really low time in my life when I was going through a lot of bad things. If you’re from Calgary, you’ll know that when the recession happens and it’s this very cyclical sort of environment, it affects you. Between that, getting a divorce, a whole bunch of different things, I was just not at a good place. I took the tools that we use to build a brand.

For my first company, it was an ad agency. When we’re helping a company design their purpose and their values and their brand and how they operate, we usually start with a creative brief. That creative brief can be pretty powerful because it fully understands what this brand is supposed to be, what it does, what are its drawbacks, who’s its competition, what’s its purpose, how does it work, what does it look like on a shelf, and all of that. Once we understand this brand is then when we are able to move forward and design it. I took that tool, and I built a purpose for myself.

Honestly, in the last 15 years, that purpose hasn’t changed much, but it also helped propel me to what I am doing today.

Erin: You have said that the things that you adhere to in terms of your purpose, like integrity, honesty, experience, and expertise, those are non-negotiables. They’re totally who you are and what you wanted yourself to present, what you wanted you to present to the world. How do you translate that into what a company should also have for brands? How does that translate? Your own, because you’re a company, so how do you translate that into what others can also see and believe and be?

Zahra: Yes. Actually, those were for my company when I was building purpose for my company and we were trying– because clients would ask us what ours was as we were building theirs. We grew by flying by the seat of our pants. We didn’t actually have time to stop and do that. We realized that we had to do that as a company. As we were looking at that and trying to figure it out and we had these big post-it notes on the wall and we were writing things down like integrity and honesty and excellence and all of that and nothing, it didn’t feel right. It was weird because we kept crossing it off and it was like, why does that– That sounds like a good purpose to have.

We realized that those things are set in stone. If you don’t have integrity, then get out of business. If you don’t value excellence, then it’s not going to work. That was the big driver is understanding like, “Okay, so those things are table stakes. They’re set in stone. They’re non-negotiables. If we don’t have these things, we shouldn’t be in business because those are the cornerstones of doing things the right way.” When we started looking at our purpose and our values as an organization, we started looking at how we wanted to live our lives, what we wanted to leave behind, what we wanted to touch, how we wanted to operate, how we wanted to act, how we wanted people to view us.

That’s how we ended up with the set of values that we wrote down. Interestingly enough, those values have followed me now into my third startup, and they’re the same things that I wanted then I want now. I realized that your personal values, your personal purpose has to align, especially as an entrepreneur, has to align like this, completely and totally with your company and your corporate values. Otherwise, you won’t be true to them.

Erin: Right. Not just a slogan or something on a coffee mug, but something that becomes part of your DNA. Obviously, if you’re in your third incarnation, then it certainly is. Now, question for you here, Zahra, is should a purpose differ from a mission or a vision and how do they work together if they do differ?

Zahra: Yes, so like I said, a purpose is the explanation of your motivation. Your reason for being. A mission statement is a definition of your business. What are you in business? What do you do? Who do you serve? What are your objectives? What is your approach to achieving those objectives? Purpose is different. With a lot of companies, you find that whether it’s your values, your mission, your purpose, they sort of belong in the HR department, and again, become words on a wall. They don’t live and breathe throughout every silo that– and we all know that every organization is quite siloed.

Your purpose should live and breathe through your entire organization. How you do billing, how you do legal, what you volunteer for, what organizations you give for, what you attend, what you do, and especially as an entrepreneur. You have to live and breathe it at every touch point. If this part of your company does not align, it breaks that chain.

Erin: Okay, you came up with this list of words, a long list of words. I love your circle the 20 thing. Could you explain that exercise to us? Because I get a feeling we’re going to be doing this when we’re done, those of us watching and listening today, Zahra. You’re really putting yourself on the line with this one and that’s brave and it makes you vulnerable. I think that’s why it works. Go ahead and explain that for us, will you?

Zahra: Happily, however, I didn’t totally put myself on the line because I made it anonymous, because I didn’t really want to know what people thought of me. What I did when I was working on my creative brief and my personal values and purpose is I put together 200 words on a piece of paper, and I just circled just instinctively and they were good and bad words. things that maybe were flattering, some things that weren’t as flattering.

I just circled the 20 words that I thought that applied to me. Then I gave that piece of paper to a lot of people in my world, everybody from clients to staff to friends and asked them what they thought. I made it anonymous because I wanted them to be comfortable telling me what they thought. Then I also wanted to not really know what people thought.

Erin: It’s like a focus group. Nobody likes those.

Zahra: For sure. I compared everything, and it was really interesting to see how I viewed myself versus how other people viewed me. There was a lot of similarities but there were a few differences. Where I thought I was assertive, a lot of people thought I was stubborn and bossy, That’s interesting. Because maybe I’m not projecting myself the right way. I had to really think about that. It’s like, this is what they’re seeing. Why are they seeing that? How can I change that to them seeing me as being assertive?

It was a very helpful and difficult exercise in understanding yourself and what you put out there. Because that’s a huge part of, for all of us, especially entrepreneurs, again, your brand is you. What you put out there in the world for people to see how they interact with you, who they believe you are, is such a huge part of whether they believe in your work and your product or not.

That was a really big– Before I did this exercise, before I started exploring this creative brief and this brand, that self-help, self-motivation stuff belonged in this kumbaya world that didn’t really apply to me. Because as soon as I thought something was wrong with me, that meant something was wrong with me. I just wasn’t going to think that anything was wrong with me.

Erin: That perception is their reality, as much as you go, no, that’s not me at all. Okay, where did you get the 200 words from?

Zahra: I Googled. I sat down. I wrote descriptive words. I just tried to put together words that I knew. Good words, bad words, like it’s just very easy to do that part. Maybe there was some bias too in that exercise for myself because I know what words I wanted to see on there and stuff like that. That’s why I made it such a big list of words so that I covered so many different things.

Erin: Yes, well, you said anonymous, but still, I do think it was vulnerable of you to open the doors to what people thought of you because most of us, a lot of us don’t want to know. It worked for you. It was an eye-opener. You have a few other tests that you really like. There’s, for example, the Enneagram.

Zahra: Yes, I love the Enneagram personality test. Again, it was a moment of conflict with a business partner. We decided to do the Enneagram personality test because we did not see eye to eye, and we did not understand how the other person works. We were so polar opposites in personality. We did this Enneagram personality test as part of our, just, trying to fix the relationship. We brought in a coach, and they did the Enneagram personality test. It was fascinating because not only do we all have certain personality definitions and traits.

For me, my personality is I want to try everything and see what sticks to the wall. On the bad side, yes, I’m the one with all the big ideas, but then I’m never around to pick up the pieces because I’m not the detail-oriented person. Whereas my partner was down in the weeds in this detail stuff. She would never do anything unless it was tried, tested, true. She knew exactly how it would work. We frustrated each other to a enormous degree. It was really powerful to understand. The Enneagram not only tells you how you work with people, how people should work with you, personality things, it tells you what your wings are.

If you’re in a bad place, you might lean more into this direction of being an overprotective bully, for example, or in this direction of being too accommodating because you really wanted to work. You really just understand. It’s all part of this growth journey that I think a lot of us just don’t take on because like you said, it’s difficult. It’s scary. A lot of times you don’t know what you’re going to find on the other side of that research. It really helps. It helps understand what you want, how you’re going to do it.

It helped me understand what I wanted to do with my life. I’ll tell you what my purpose statement was that I wrote 15 years ago. This just rang true to me at the time. It wasn’t a goal that was money-oriented or career-oriented, but what I wrote down is I will spend the rest of my life living stories and experiences that will change perspectives, outcomes, and hearts. That was really important to me because then I was a marketer. That was my first company phase. I was a marketer. What we did was we sold things to people.

We convinced them to buy what we wanted them to buy, to go where we wanted them to go. That was part of my DNA. I wanted to have experiences. I had come off a part of my life where I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted to do. Now all of a sudden, I did, and I wanted to do everything. I wanted to change hearts because giving back is such a huge part of who I am. I wanted people to care more.

I wanted them to see other people and take in how they can change their lives. I wanted to change people’s outcomes. I wanted to help people in poverty and get them out of that situation into a different place. These were all things that were important to me that meant a lot to me. I started working on that and I started speaking, for example, I’ve spoken to audiences around the world, two to 5,000 people at a time. I’ve spoken at the UN, at Canada’s Most Powerful Women Conference, at a conference in Istanbul, for example, that had 2,500 entrepreneurs from around the world.

That became a big part of what I did. I set myself up to a place where I became an influencer, and I got to sit at tables where big decisions were made. I was the Canadian ambassador for UNICEF for four years. I was on the National Canadian Board of Directors for Make-A-Wish Foundation. Those were all things that I cared about. The first trip I took with my kids after my divorce was, we went with Homes of Hope and we build homes in Tijuana for families.

All of that led into this purpose statement that I had put out. It all continues to fit because everything I do, I measure it against that. Does this feel right to me? Which has led to my third company. I started doing stuff because I wanted to have experiences. I did everything from learning how to ride a motorcycle to jumping out of a plane, I am terrified of heights, to doing big and small things that were new.

Erin: Just incredible. That clarity really did just open up everything for you. You talk about being at the table where big decisions are made, but these are things, too, that can translate so beautifully to the kitchen table, too, because you have imbued your children, not only with your brilliance and everything that you are and have proven, not only in business, but in life and the obstacles that you have surmounted. The fact that you are giving examples of giving back and charity and living that.

I think this is a message, your message, your story is one that applies not only in business, but around the kitchen table. I think you’re just resonating so much with so many people today as well. Thanks for this, but we’re not done. Because, Zahra, I want to ask you, how could a well-executed sense of purpose help boost your reputation or maybe even shift misconceptions about you or your business? It’s fine to have these ideas of what your purpose, what your mission, what they are going to be, but you got to go get it out there, right?

Zahra: Yes, absolutely. Before you get it out there though, it has to be true. It has to be true to who you are. It has to be true to what you do. For example, if we are talking real estate, and everybody wants to sell houses to people and a lot of those mission, purpose, value statements are going to be the same, but what is your niche? What sets you apart from other people? What is it that you truly believe in and you want to do?

An example could be somebody who wants to help seniors transition into smaller homes, which is exactly where I am right now. I want a one-story forever home that I never have to move out of, hopefully. I don’t want to be moving when I’m in my 70s, and trying to figure it out. If there is somebody that has decided that’s going to be where they want to live, and that’s the client that they want, so now they’ve found a niche market.

If you do a good job, if you live by your sense of purpose, if you actually do that properly, every person that you work with is going to recommend you to other people. That means what organizations do you volunteer for, like I said earlier, what organizations do you give to? What events do you go to? Who do you socialize with? All of that needs to fit, and it needs to be real, because if it’s not real, if you are acting and if you’ve decided that this is going to be what you want to do, but it’s not a part of you, then it’s not going to be believable.

I really think that understanding yourself and what you want to do in life is a huge part of your success story. It really is because if you are truly hungry for that thing, if you are truly inspired by that thing, if you are truly motivated to do that thing, then it all becomes real. You work harder. You work faster. You innovate better, and it all fits.

Erin: Yes, and you stop being a boat against the current. It just flows. That authenticity allows you to flow. What do businesses or entrepreneurs need to consider when they’re defining and articulating a purpose?

Zahra: There’s this really, really interesting Japanese concept that I really do love. It’s called ikigai. It means your reason for being, and your ikigai is at the center of what you love, what the world needs from you, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at. Meaning your passion, your mission, your vocation, and your profession. Right at the center of those four things is your ikigai. I absolutely love that. I discovered that when I was working on my own purpose because it’s easy to say, “Well, I’m really passionate about this thing. I love it, but it’s not what I’m good at. It’s not my actual vocation.” I’m really passionate about saving lives, but I’m not a doctor. How am I going to do that?

What you’re passionate about is only one piece of the puzzle. What your mission is in life, is the other piece of the puzzle. What the world needs. Your vocation is what you can be paid for. Your profession is what you are good at, and you take all of those and you put them together, and at the center of that is your purpose, and so great– Look it up. It’s ikigai. It’s a great way to look at yourself and your life, and what you want, and how all of those pieces fit.

Because like I said, if it’s not real, if it’s not believable, if you’re not actually good at that thing, you’re not going– Maybe you can get better at that thing. Maybe you can educate yourself and do that, but maybe you can’t because your circumstances in life are not going to allow you to go deep enough into understanding how to get good at that thing in order to do it well. At the center of all of that, I think is your sense of purpose. Not just me, ikigai is the one that coined that.

Erin: I love that. I just love it. It just sums it up so perfectly. I know you’ve said you don’t like to give advice, but I’m going to go ahead and ask you anyway and see if we can get something out of you here. What are some authentic tactical ways to weave a sense of purpose through every facet of your business? Do you have any that you can share or some feedback, or how do you operate there?

Zahra: I’m a member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization. One of the things we are told is not to give advice to our foreign members. You can share an experience or a story as opposed to giving advice. If I were to say three things that really make a difference is clarity. What I’ve talked about is just understanding yourself, understanding what you do, why you do it, who you are, how you operate, and all of those things. That’s one.

Pride is another one. Having pride in yourself, having that confidence and that courage and that understanding and that resilience and resilience doesn’t come from nothing. We are not born with or without resilience. We earn it. We gain it, and we gain it by doing difficult things, by stepping out of our comfort zone. The more we do that, the more we step out of our comfort zone, the more we do difficult things like me jumping out of a plane is the things that help you build that resilience, and that resilience is so closely tied with courage and belief in yourself and ability.

Having that sense of pride in yourself and finding that is really important, I think. As women, we are taught not– It seems boastful to talk about yourself in a certain way or to take ownership of say, “Yes, I did that.” As opposed to, “It was a team effort.” Be proud of who you are, what you’ve done, how you’ve got here, and then be motivated. Motivation is not easy to come by. Find that thing that you are really passionate about and you really want is really important because if you find that, then you’re more motivated to do it. Motivation only works if your environment works, like if your psychological state, the environment, the people around you, the support system that you have, and your past experiences.

Those things come together in a perfect place, and you can tap into that motivation. Find that, find that motivation, find that thing that makes you want to do something.

Erin: The challenges that you faced, Zahra, when you came to Canada were far from a perfect place from which to start. Yes, confidence and perseverance had to be in your tool belt, but how did they lead you to such a successful career in business when you were first starting out and having to navigate life in a new country?

Zahra: Great question. I’m not entirely sure I know how to answer that. Only because a lot of it happened. A lot of it happened. I knocked on a million doors, and I was a nobody immigrant from nowhere. I was knocking on doors, because like when I came, I had three children. I had a high school degree. I didn’t even know what the word entrepreneur meant at the time. I was so far behind everybody else. I was 26 years old, like I said, three kids, and didn’t know anything about anything.

Just growing up where I am because of poverty of the country and the war and everything else. There’s these big gaps in my knowledge of even popular culture and things like that. I knocked on doors. I asked people out for coffee. I asked them to teach me things that I didn’t know and nobody ever said no. People are kind. People are helpful. That is, I think, our first approach for the majority of people. The doors that I knocked on, the people that taught me things ended up becoming my friends, my clients, my motivators, my fan club, and they helped cheer me on and take me to places that I might not have got to on my own.

I know that I put myself in places where I was lucky enough to have those resources. A lot of it, I think, happens with life. You have to capitalize on it. You have to move forward. My very first award was Top 40 Under 40. A client of mine, who was also a friend, Andrea, put my name in the hat. I didn’t even know about the Top 40 Under 40 award. I was busy trying to build a company. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was early, first year in business sort of thing.

I won that, and with that came a lot of accolades and a lot of new clients and it grew from there. Again, this is advice that I don’t like to give, but put yourself in rooms where things are happening. Volunteer, get involved in community, join a sports team. One of my very first things that I did when I came to Calgary because girls where I come from are not allowed gym class, and I don’t think I even ran as a kid. Jim Button in Calgary started this thing where you just went and played a sport every week and it was 40 girls, 40 guys and then everybody got together at the end of the night for a drink.

The first time I went every game, like every weekend, every week we would do basketball or hockey or floor hockey, portaging and every week I’d be the one who put my hand up and said, “I’ve never done that before.” I met the best people and some of them are still– they play such a huge part in my life, especially Jim Button. A lot of that is the things that have made a difference. I can pinpoint decisions that I made to do things that weren’t success-related that led to my biggest successes.

Erin: Talking about the purpose, does that change? Our perspective at 20 is so different from our perspective at 40 and at 60 and on and on, just who we think is old for one thing. Does your perspective need to be recalibrated as you go along or what is your opinion on that?

Zahra: 1,000%, 1,000%. What I wanted 10 years ago is not what I wanted 20 years ago is not what I wanted when I was a kid is in some cases not what I want today. We change, our circumstances change. There was a point where I just really wanted to go to Hong Kong. I don’t know why I was fascinated by my visit there and the culture there and the people that I met there and the best of the best of the expat community. I just wanted to live in Hong Kong, but I’m an only child. My father was not well. It didn’t make sense for me to do that. That dream had to be put aside, thankfully, because what ended up happening was much better.

Things change. Like I said, your environment, things that happened to you, your circumstances, guide different things, different moments in your life. You might go down a path that you never expected and find a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. Yes, I revisit my purpose, my creative brief every year. Some things have not changed. I really haven’t changed my purpose statement because I like it. It fits me, but other things have changed. Yes, absolutely. You have to revisit.

Erin: Like a tune-up every year. That’s fascinating. Okay. What is or what are some stories you want to tell as an 80-year-old?

Zahra: At the risk of sounding very corny, what’s important to me is doing good in this world, people who do good in this world. I’m very choosy about what I let into my life at this stage, about who I let into my life at this stage. I have kids that live all over the world, and I spend a lot of time going to see them. I have a limited amount of time outside of my business and volunteering for things that are important to me, of who I want to hang out with, what I want to do. I’m very choosy. I’m choosy about what influence I want to have, who I want to let into my life, what boards and charities I want to be involved in, what I want my business life to look like.

My new company is called Skillit, and it’s an experiential company. It’s where we take a family on an experience, but they learn something every single time. It’s very experiential, but there are soft and hard skills that you come away with at every interaction. For example, we’ll take a family out into the desert with no food, and they have to dig for water, forage for food, learn about medicinal herbs with a guide, of course, learn about medicinal herbs and how to build a lean-to.

Erin: Is there room service? No, I’m kidding. You almost had me there, Zahra.

Zahra: They’re going to build a solar oven and cook their own food. Can you see how that brings together everything in my world? Because number one, it’s experience-based. Number two, it’s very associated with people and changing lives and influencing, making their lives better by teaching them things. For every skill we sell, we donate one to a young person in need. That’s my give back, and so it just, all the pieces fit, and that’s what I want to give my time to. That’s the story I want to tell.

Erin: Beautiful. Thank you so, so much for sharing some of your story here today. We will definitely tell people more about that as we say goodbye to you. Zahra, we are just so grateful. As we wrap up today, are there any like three things you want people to take away from our discussion today? You’ve given us so much.

Zahra: I think I’m going to go back to the three things I said earlier, pride in yourself, clarity in what you have to do, and motivation to do it.

Erin: Wow. We’ve got all of that, especially the motivation after talking with you today, Zahra, thank you so much. We cannot wait to find out what’s next for you, including Skillit. No more jumping out of perfectly operating planes, okay? Thank you.

Zahra: No, that was a one-and-done.

Erin: One-and-done. Good for you. Thank you so much.

Zahra: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.

Erin: Wasn’t she amazing? You know what? We only began to skim the surface of her own personal story. If you want more inspiration from Zahra, her book is called What It Takes to Live and Lead with Purpose, Laughter, and Strength. It details her journey and how it all began. You can find details on that in our show notes. We will also link you to Ikigai so you know what it is and where to find it, and also the enneagramtest.com. It’s all fascinating. If you liked this episode of REAL TIME, we invite you to explore our other episodes. Don’t forget to rate or review the show. We always, always appreciate it. I’m your host Erin Davis. REAL TIME is brought to you by the Canadian Real Estate Association, CREA.

Production is courtesy of Alphabet® Creative with technical support from Rob Whitehead. Thanks so much for joining us, and we’ll see you again next time on REAL TIME.