When we look at an entrepreneur hitting their stride, it can look like the journey was (deceivingly!) easy. But we all know that success stories don't happen without encountering some bumps in the road. So, when that happens, how can we keep up our strength and continue moving forward toward our goals? Listen to today's podcast guest, Zahra Qureshi, describe how she developed her own personal recipe for resilience!
Zahra Qureshi is a CPA, CMA turned entrepreneur in the social enterprise space. Zahra is on a mission is to provide leaders with stronger processes for accounting, financial management, and impact measurement that can support their vision for growth. She is the founder of Optinum, a firm that offers finance and impact planning solutions. She is also the founder of Social Venture Circuit, a community of changemakers.
You're listening to Get in the Driver’s Seat! We’re telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I’m your host, Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach for lawyers, architects, consultants and other professionals at Bekhor Management.
Hello and welcome to the podcast. This is 'Get in the driver's seat'. We're telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach at Bekhor Management.
excited to introduce our guest today, Zahra Qureshi, a CPA, CMA, turned entrepreneur in the social enterprise space. Zahra is on a mission to provide leaders with stronger processes for accounting, financial management and impact measurement, that can support their vision for growth. She is the founder of Optimum, a firm that offers finance and impact planning solutions. She is also the founder of Social Venture Circuit, a community of change makers. Welcome Zahra!
Hi Sandra, thanks for inviting me.
It's such a pleasure. Alright, so jumping into our questions, I would like to start with what gave you the idea to do something so Innovative with kind of a traditional background in accounting and finance, especially given that you had spent years working for big banks, traditional institutions. And what you're doing now is so different. So what gave you the idea to follow that path and what gave you the confidence to actually do it?
Yeah, so I did start my career working for big organizations. As I got experienced and worked for smaller organizations, I realized that that was a much better fit for me. I got to be a part of different projects and I could see the impact of the initiatives that I was involved with for the whole organization, for the department, for other people. So that resonated with me. Then having my own business was another great way of having that small group feel where I could create an impact. When I ended up starting my business, that was because the last job I had, actually the office closed down. So I thought that was a great time to try something new for myself. How I ended up in the social impact space? I would say when I started my business, the first year I spent a lot of time listening to the conversations that people were having around me. What were their concerns when they were starting a business? What stage were they at? So I spoke to entrepreneurs, more established businesses, ones that were looking for funding, all the different stages. I loved the entrepreneurship space, the social impact space because I enjoyed the conversations they were having, the initiative that they were bringing. Then I realized that finance was not really a friendly topic for them, so I said, hey that's where I can come in. I saw an opportunity for myself. So I think it's kind of like being right time right place. But that came from just getting out there and having a lot of conversations with people attending a lot of events to finally find myself in that space where I found a good fit.
It's amazing. It's like following your nose. You're just, oh I'm curious about this, oh maybe I'll investigate a bit more...
That's kind of how it evolved, it really did. After I attended one event where it resonated with me, I continued to attend more events with those people, those organizations and the conversations grew there. Taking good notes, making sure to stay connected with people. I connected with a lot of them one-on-one afterwards to keep the conversations going on that way as well as learn more about the work they were doing. Those conversations did materialize into opportunities referrals and and work in the social impact space.
Well it's so smart, because right from the start you really were building a community. Starting your own firm is one thing, and doing it in this non-traditional way is really very visionary. But you also started the community, your non-profit. Why don't you tell us a little bit about it and what gave you the idea to do that so early on in your entrepreneurship?
I would say if you asked me like 10-15 years ago, I was interested in entrepreneurship. But I never thought I would start my own practice. I love it now. But that's not really what I imagined myself doing. I was looking for something non-traditional. How do I give my own spin to it? I didn't really see myself as a traditional accountant or you know I'm gonna run a CPA firm. So I was listening for opportunities and what can I do. I think being open-minded is a big part of it, being open to feedback, being open to pivoting. I know we talked about it a lot, everyone has had to pivot during covid. But even for entrepreneurs, before that it's always been so important. That comes from collecting feedback and responding to it. So for me, the community building piece was really just me being responsive to what I saw around me. It was also myself being an entrepreneur and a person helping entrepreneurs. Isolation is a big part of it. We often find we're working by ourselves or with small teams and if people around us don't really understand what entrepreneurship is, it can be very limiting. So the community building piece was a great way for me to not feel isolated myself and offer support to other people.
Where did you get the idea to do that separately from your firm? You could have said well I'll have a community as part of Optimum. But you actually went out and created a not-for-profit, Social Venture Circuit. So where did you get the idea to separate those as two individual initiatives?
So one was because I was interested in being a social enterprise myself and I found that it was better for me to divide that up between two different initiatives. I am a traditional CPA firm now. I have a CPA Ontario registration. I'm able to do what a traditional accountant does and the community building piece didn't really fit in anywhere. It didn't really have a place in that model. I didn't want either framework to restrict the other because as a part of the community building piece, I'm not really saying hey do you have your financial statements ready or anything like that. So they're very different conversations that happen within both organizations. Wearing one hat or the other gave me access to very different conversations in very different rooms. So that was a big benefit of considering them separately. Then the community building Social Venture Circuit is a registered non-profit organization which means that I have other people involved, a board of directors, team members that have helped it grow along the way, who also believe in that mission. But they really don't fit into the the professional services side of things that I do.
Wonderful, so you set each of them up to succeed as independent initiatives. I know that you're a recent graduate of the Ella Ascend and Altitude accelerator programs for female entrepreneurs at York University. Why did you embark on that piece of your journey and where did you hear of it? What do you hope to do with the new tools that you found along the way?
I would say ELLA came at a really good time for me. It was a perfect fit for my journey when I ended up doing it. When I joined, at that point it had been about a year and a half of participating in all those conversations, refining who I wanted to support and what I could offer them. By that time, I had done a lot of workshops for entrepreneurs in terms of dealing with their finance and accounting. So that was something that came out from conversations, a way for me to deliver impact and have a product or service and then from there providing some services one-on-one to entrepreneurs as well. So I had done a little bit of everything. I was saying yes to most things that came my way and I know that wasn't really the sustainable way to go. I've heard if that's what you're doing there's probably something that needs fixing. So I was at that stage. I knew that I needed to clarify my products and services, to have a very clear value proposition. You know, what is it that people get should work with me for and what's the benefit that will come out of that. So when I joined ELLA Ascend, the first part of it was all about design thinking. I had a coach who worked with me to develop my products and services. We had the conversation that I'm doing a lot of things, let's structure them. Is it one-on-one services? Is it coaching? Is it workshops? So defining things in a way that I could articulate them, online and in conversations a lot more clearly. So the first part was all about refining that. At that time, actually, my coach got me to start putting together a business plan which I know doesn't happen very often. Not a lot of people will recommend doing a business plan anymore. It's a huge document. It takes a lot of a lot of work. I would say, if I'd done a business plan when I initially started, it would not have been useful for me. But because I was trying to refine how I do things at that point it became very relevant. I still use it. It's more my operating plan now. It's a guide on how I do things. It means I can share with other people that come on board. So that started with Ella Ascend. I had the products and services and I'm starting to put together how I operate. Then later the same year, I joined Ella Altitude. That was all about refining my sales and marketing. I had the pleasure of working with Sandra, to refine how I was articulating the products and services. I was trying to convey their value, so how do I have those conversations? Coming from a traditional accounting position, you show up in the morning, you sit in your cubicle, you do what has to be done and go home. There wasn't really anything remotely like sales that I had ever done before. So practicing those conversations was sometimes uncomfortable. But it was great to create that space to practice that and I put together a market plan. I got a lot of support for that as well. So between the two programs, really a lot of clarification on the niche and the information that I had gathered over the first year and a half. I transformed that into a functioning business, and I have a lot more clarity on how it's running. The last piece I would articulate that I got from ELLA was that when the business started growing I felt like I was rushing to keep up. But I was able to develop more skills and just expand my own capabilities to keep up and stay relevant as a leader of a growing organization.
It's interesting because it's reminding me of when we ran into each other at the ELLA
event. We finally got to meet each other in person because Ella was launched right at the beginning of the pandemic and went online overnight. It was so great even in our brief encounter at that beautiful party to see that you were making so much progress on everything that we had worked on. I'm just wondering are there any examples you can think of, an instance where you ran into a prospective client or refererr and you were able to just use those skills in the moment in a way that you just couldn't have imagined doing you know a few years ago, before you had done your work at ELLA?
Yes absolutely so. Before I I kind of just you know played it by ear. Say I meet with someone, they tell me they needed help. I'm like yes I can help with that. I say okay let's get in touch. There was not a lot of clarity in terms of the steps. When you and I worked together on that plan initially, we put together, here are the steps that you're going for. You meet a person well, who do you want to book a discovery call with? That was the goal. So when I know what's the goal in terms of the next step that I want to get the client to, things became a lot easier. So that was, okay book a discovery call with them, have that conversation. I've gotten a lot better at using that conversation to... I mean there was always the thing that okay I need to sell myself or articulate what I need to do. That part was always there. But it's also an opportunity for me to gauge what's the best way for me to support the client. Am I actually a good fit to work with them? One thing that's come out of is that I started offering just coaching sessions by the hour. When I find that you know people have limited budgets, an hour is a very quick efficient way for me to give them that support. When that's what I learned during the discovery call, then the coaching sessions are what I recommend. They've actually been a great fit, now that I know that I'm recommending them to the right people and I'm asking the right questions during that discovery call. I love doing the coaching sessions. It's been a lot of fun and they've been more accessible and relevant for entrepreneurs. You know it's not really fair for me to pitch a monthly retainer service to have an accountant on board for a startup. But they do still need help and that's a way that I can create an impact with them and still create scope to work with them. So that's been so amazing to have that portion of my business sorted and have that service.
Wonderful. It's such a great explanation of how process mapping helps you to offer better value, align better with your clients and then segment them into different areas of your practice. And it makes you feel better because you feel like you're not wasting your time and you're offering value, so you feel good about the work that you're doing.
Yes it feels good and I feel like I'm working with a lot of different kinds of projects and I'm able to work with them because of the way that I've set up the different tiers and how I go about learning about client needs.
So the other thing I'm remembering from that event that we recently had at ELLA, when I ran into you, is how cohesive the group was. I saw you hanging with some of your friends, your colleagues from the year that your cohort graduated. You guys were telling me how you remained friends and you remained a community to support each other. Can you tell me how has that bolstered your ability to grow as a leader in your field?
I don't feel alone which is really nice. There are some challenges that before were very very isolating. I didn't always know who to talk to. But it's it creates a safe space where if I'm having an issue, I can go and ask, has anybody dealt with this before, what should I do? We have a WhatsApp group together. We share our wins, things that are coming up or challenges we're experiencing. That's been really good. That was actually also the first time that I met the group in person. We had kept in touch, so that was really great. Having peer support is just so important. Just from like a personal mental health perspective and then second from just having a sounding board to be able to ask people who've gone through a lot of the same points in their journey. Some of them have figured things out and are able to provide me with feedback. If you know I've already gone through something, I can provide them with feedback and that feels really good.
Yeah, well, because you are going to run into something, lots of times on the way, right? When people read the websites or the LinkedIn profiles it just sounds like such a success story. They don't understand what you had to go through to get there and still maybe are going through to get to the next stage. So can you share with us any stories of something that felt like a challenge and then you know you pulled from your community or from your tools to step up and face it?
So the most recent thing, I mean it was a small thing, but one of my peers was renewing their insurance policy. So we're like a group of professional services people, so very very similar in terms of how we are set up and operate. But you know we're not in the same industry. So the person that I was talking to is not an accountant, a marketing person. So we were talking about figuring out some of like these back-end operations things like having an insurance policy in place, having a framework in the back end to make some operating things a little bit more efficient and it was great to have this... you know, oh I've heard of this person who recommended a way that works really well for them or I tried this last year and it didn't really work. We could kind of have this you know back and forth to see okay what could work, what are different ideas to try? There's also like okay here's an idea. Here's what I feel I'm gonna try in two weeks when we talk again, I'll let you know how it goes. So it's nice to have. It's a mix of accountability, a safe space that you know when something's happening you can go share it with the person, the mix of that is really helpful. These are not things that you know I can always... like if your family members are not entrepreneurs they're not going to understand, they're not things I'm going to discuss with my clients. You know when you go to a networking session there's not always room for that. So it's nice to know that there are people that I can have those conversations with who can get behind the scenes for my story.
Well and it's interesting because as you describe it you have this regular contact which means that any kind of obstacles that you run into, they don't really grow because you're dealing with them in the moment. So they sort of stay small and you get rid of them right away as they come up.
Yeah, part of that is accountability and that I know that if I don't keep it top of mind or resolve this issue there's going to be a conversation about it the next time we meet up. And then if I need to think through the steps or you know consider the different options I have other people who can help me think through that. How I get a lot out of that is making sure I'm open to that feedback. So if people recommend something, hey you know I can connect you with someone who can have a conversation with you or you know I tried process XYZ and it did work for me, being open to that feedback and trying different things can be really helpful as a part of that.
That's a really good point, Zahra, because I think that never stops, that need to be open to the feedback. I mean we're all professionals, but we're also people and hearing that kind of feedback from people can sometimes hurt our feelings. It can sometimes feel like criticism or like rejection or you know you're failing at something. How do you sort of stay open? How do you keep that door open, so you receive the feedback and don't go into this triggered space?
Yeah I think failure is always hard, especially initially when I was trying to figure out what the business should be all about. It's quite difficult. But if I'm not feeling it or everything's coming really easy then you know there's probably scope for something more or there's something not quite right. For example you know if I'm pitching to 10 clients and they all accept me, I'm not charging enough or you know there's something there that I need to go back and look at, if everything's just happening fine and I'm checking all the boxes and moving along. I'm in a new space, I'm trying new things. I'm building something from scratch. So I know that I don't have the right answer to everything and some stuff is not going to work. I'm going to fail and have to rebuild again. That's happened. It's hard sometimes. You know it makes for a very rough day. But you know, you have your moment, take an evening off, recover, absorb it and then there are steps to it... So you know I can feel down but then I have to reflect on what happened. Is it good? Is it bad? What can I do with it going forward? So yeah I think I just have to follow the right process for failure or learning that something didn't quite go as I planned. But usually kind of reflecting on it and trying something different... is you know I'll find the answer.
I love that. It's like your personal recipe for resilience. Ultimately what you're telling us is it always brings you to the same spot which is confidence and hope. That's beautiful because that's adaptable to anybody.
it's important not to give up hope, especially you know if you believe in what you're doing and that it serves a purpose. It's important to kind of find that hope again and keep trying.
Okay so that's what energizes the whole thing, your purpose and you feel connected to it. Can you just tell us quickly what is your purpose?
Yeah so as a finance firm, so just the professional services side and the community building side, my goal is to make things easier for people who are leading social enterprises and non-profits. I have the pleasure of working with people that are on amazing missions. They're trying to make things better for the environment. They're trying to make things better for their community. They're solving problems that they experienced in their own lives and trying to make sure that other people don't struggle with the same stuff. That is so energizing and powerful and you know I'm able to help them with the small finance piece, just to help them kind of keep going and reduce the stress of the finance, accounting, tax and all that, so that they can focus on the mission of their organization, whether they're a for-profit social enterprise, a non-profit or a charity. I'm glad to be able to do that, spending time with people that believe in working on such projects gives me a lot of energy. When I participate in conversations I feel like I'm in the right room. I'm you know I'm doing what I really want to be doing, because of the energy I get from the conversations I get to have with them. So you know I'm able to help them with certain pieces of their job make that easier and that's great. On the impact measurement side, just helping them to kind of articulate a little better what they're working on to share with their stakeholders and community, that part is a lot of fun as well, maybe more fun than some of the more traditional accounting stuff, because it's helping them to tell their story, what they've achieved, how efficiently they're doing that. Those are amazing stories to be able to tell.
It's interesting because your why, your purpose, is partly about helping them accomplish their purpose which makes you a social enterprise yourself because you're supporting their mission. Okay so we've been talking a little bit about fear and entrepreneurship and you know mustering up the courage to go forward anyway. Zahra, what would you say to any of our listeners who have an idea to start a business but they're still feeling hesitant?
I still feel hesitant sometimes now. I still have days where I get scared, I get afraid and it's not even on you know one of those failure days I was talking about. Sometimes it just hits you that you know okay there's a lot going on, am I up for it? So it can it can kind of hit you at any time. In some ways it never really goes away especially if you keep growing and trying new things. I think it's important to kind of dig deeper into those feelings, not try to ignore the fact that you're feeling hesitant, explore why. So there's certain things that we're worried about that are you know quite legitimate. You gotta put food on the table and need a little bit of income security for the family. That's you know a completely legitimate reason to hesitate. So have that conversation with yourself or family members, whoever might be impacted or peers who've gone through the same thing to say okay what can I do about that? You know for some it might mean just starting it as a side hustle and then leaving your full-time job or having a part-time job or you know doing some part-time consultation and then working on the business. So there are different ways of you know resolving some of the practical reasons to hesitate. Then there are some may be uncomfortable because growth can be uncomfortable. That's not a reason to not start the business. Growth is uncomfortable. It's going to be. There are certain things we're going to do as we continue to hesitate and feel that feeling and you just walk through it. So I think that's kind of how I sort out when I feel hesitation. Either there are things that I can work on there are risks that I can mitigate or risks that I've you know talked myself through to say Okay I accept that or you know if it's just a feeling of discomfort. Enjoy it.
What a great answer because really what you're saying is start by understanding what the hesitation is rooted in. Are you are you feeling hesitant because there's a real practical reason? You know I mean I'm an entrepreneur myself and I agree with you that feeling never goes away. You know here I am doing a podcast. I just started this you know in January. What did I know about podcasting? So that was a pivot for me and you know every time you do go through some kind of change you're going to feel those uncomfortable feelings as you describe them. Sometimes those uncomfortable feelings will be holding a red flag for you and you need to pay attention because it's telling you there's a step you need to take or you need to understand something better or you're not ready. But sometimes it's uncomfortable because you haven't done it before. If you at least understand where the feeling is coming from then you can deal with the right issue. Very relatable to me too. And actually I can reflect back on my own because I'm just talking about you know starting this podcast which is one of my newest changes to my own business. I remember thinking pretty certainly I wanted to do this. I don't know why I had such a strong feeling of certainty. But even that I looked into and I understood oh it's very close to what I really love doing which is coaching because we have this one-on-one engagement and we go deep into a topic. So it was close to a type of work that I already felt comfortable with. But I still felt uncomfortable because I'd never done it before. So I realized oh okay so I need to take a few steps to you know pave the way into feeling like I can do this. What did that include for me? Well listen to some podcasts, find a style that I like and do some guest podcasting so that I could get comfortable with the role before I actually have a vision for my own podcast. So those steps started to minimize the feelings of hesitation.
That's very smart.
So Zahra, I have one more question. Please share a story with us that helps us to understand why your work is worth all the time and the energy, which we know is significant, that you have invested in it. What do you hope for next?
Why is it worth it? So when I reflect back on you know five/ six years ago when I still had a job and what that experience was like versus what I'm doing now, I am involved in a lot of different initiatives, the type of organizations I'm involved with are very different. So I love that I pivoted my whole career in a way that's got me a lot more excited. The relationship in terms of supporting clients versus kind of more like the co-worker/ manager traditional structure that I was used to before, though I might be doing the same things, the relationships are so different. I think partly it's because it's in the social impact space and partly it's because it's a relationship with clients versus co-workers and they play out very differently and that was something I was uncomfortable around. I didn't really early on see what my persona would be as a person working with clients. But it came very naturally to me over time. I was able to develop those relationships and support them and now I I do enjoy them. So I do a lot of that comparison between you know then versus now and I still reflect on that and I think I wasn't sure if I was cut out for it. But the change in how I do things and what I'm doing, when it happened it was quite subtle. Like you know every time something new happens you kind of rise to the challenge. Okay this is what I have to do today. I did it, the next day something a little bit different happened, rose to the challenge and did that. Now I look back on what I can do, how I operate and who I am now versus when I was working. I see such a big difference. But it happened so gradually and it was so subtle. I'm like hey this is kind of cool. I grew into the role without even realizing all the change and transformation that was happening. Sometimes when I look forward I still get overwhelmed in terms of you know okay how do I want to grow, what's the next step? But then I look back and I know that the version of myself from let's see six / seven years ago, if you had told her what I would be doing today and everything that I've been able to create, I think she would be quite surprised, which is really cool. I think she would have said wow I did that. So that's kind of cool to think about that change that's happened. That also gives me reassurance. If I can do that then you know there's more room if I continue to be open to growth and learning.
It is extremely cool that you were able to see these possibilities and make them happen. Even that last part that you said about you know reminding yourself that you did this and looking back and seeing the growth that you did, because it helps ready you for the next step. That's where you know you overcome any kind of fear when you're able to do that. That is a life skill to tell yourself, look at the things I did, I can do this. I can do this next part.
Yes we're capable of so much change and transformation and taking on challenges. Sometimes when we get afraid we don't really stop to appreciate that. There's so much we're capable of.
Yes, the negative part is really loud. So when you do this intentionally looking at oh wow look what I did, the positive gets louder. that's great.
Thank you so much, Zahra. And to our listeners, if you are interested in learning more about Zahra's finance and impact planning solutions for social enterprises, non-profits and other innovators, go to Optimum.ca. Or to learn more about Social Venture Circuit, a community of change makers offering resources, support and connections, go to socialventurescircuit.ca. Thank you Zahra for your time and your insights
Thank you Sandra for inviting me to have this conversation. It was such a pleasure.
Such a pleasure. You've been listening to 'Get in the driver's seat!', stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host,
Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach at Bekhor Management. Take care everyone.