Senior Brand Manager, NIVEA Canada

ET:  Let’s go back in time and tell us how you reached here today. 

Yumna: I grew up and did my schooling in Saudi Arabia, moved to Pakistan to pursue my bachelors so did BBA from SZABIST and majored in Marketing. While at SZABIST, I got in to the internship program at Unilever which truly was a dream come true! I worked on the launch of Vim dishwashing liquid in Pakistan. Had an incredibly enriching experience, was awarded one of the top interns out of the batch of 15 which fast-tracked me to the management trainee selection process and then management trainee (made it through the super selective and competitive program!!!) One of my proudest achievements to date.  Unilever is an incredible school for aspiring marketers, I worked on their Kids ice cream portfolio, the beloved Paddle Pop brand. 

Then I moved to Dubai, got married and followed my heart! Quite the MT program and moved to live with my husband. I don’t want to go in to a LinkedIn advocacy spiel but that’s the platform that helped me land my first job in Dubai. It took me 2 weeks only! I built a profile and AGGRESSIVELY started, was doing 5+ hours and tonne of job applications daily, back then you could see recruiter who posted jobs so I would reach out directly. That’s when I joined Beiersdorf. I was offered a role that was brand new, new regional brand development team (emerging markets region – all of Middle East, Africa, India, Turkey, Russia) so had freedom to set down processes and do things my way. It was super intimidating as had to work with senior management in these countries and also incredibly lonely in the beginning to be the only ‘junior’ amongst seasoned professionals, also my team was very diverse but zero exposure to the middle eastern/south Asian culture. I was their window in to that world and it taught me so much!

 Then came my move to Canada with my company. When in Canada I got moved to a lower prio brand because my visa took so long to come. So for 2 years I did EVERYTHING possible to get more responsibility, starting new company processes, x-dept initiatives, you name it I did it, to get visibility. Canada is a tough market! Best talent from all over the world, so you really have to work hard to prove yourself even when you do have a job. As a result, I got moved to #1 prio brand with an aggressive growth ambition. Did well, then mat leave, came back with a promotion, youngest senior manager in the team now 

ET: What would you say about applying to programs otherwise considered “off-limits?” 

Yumna: If I talk about the Unilever internship – I remember being discouraged from applying by my friends/peers because “no point, they only recruit from LUMS/IBA” but I didn’t buy it and I’m glad I went for it. Things I would like to particularly highlight are: 

  • Networking and cold calling – within my company, through LinkedIn – one thing that has helped me so much in life has been connecting with people, my peers, my seniors, people I admire (I have no shame in connecting with people on LinkedIn with a RELEVANT message when I admire their work or career, I always reach out with a specific question, don’t be a frandshipper who drops LinkedIn invites with no intro or objective)

  • Approaching and talking to people. I talked to my Canada VP of marketing for a job directly! I was at annual global conference at Hamburg, a senior global VP told me to go just talk to Canada marketing VP, so I walked up to her, told her I’m interested, she said great I’m recruiting, add me on LinkedIn, we added each other on the spot. When back in Dubai there was an interview set up, before that I sent her a list of my accomplishments at BDF and how I can add value to BDF Canada, she loved it so much the interview ended not even being an interview, she said so when can you come!!

ET: Why did you choose the field of marketing in specific?

Yumna: I loved school/books, I’m a certified and self-proclaimed nerd. Like all desi kids, wanted to be a doctor, then a chartered accountant, then an economist! but then switched to advertising/marketing. I’ve always LOVES watching and analysing advertisements/product packaging/why people buy what they buy! Yes I’m one of those people who won’t let you switch the channel or skip an ad when it comes on 🙂 

Marketing because it brings together the best of everything – creativity, analytics, trends, understanding people and answering their deepest needs/wants. 

Brand Management in particular because it’s the closest you can be to be an entrepreneur in a company! You own the brand, you run it, you’re responsible for its P&L (profits & losses), so the creative freedom and impact you can drive is amazing. 

ET: Representation in the workplace how did that work out for you? 

Yumna: In a professional environment, working hard and doing good work is a given for growth! But that isn’t enough, being able to showcase your achievements, knowing what you deserve (in terms of scope of responsibilities, pay etc.) and being able to ask for it with confidence is what will get you ahead. Nobody will hand you anything on a plate and if you stay quiet and keep your head down, I bet you the man next to you will get ahead with maybe 70% of the effort. Not trying to generalize, men work so hard too, but women need to make their voices heard more to get noticed. Is this hard? ABSOLUTELY! Does it come naturally? Not at all! But the more you do it the better you get at it 

ET: Technology is the backbone of all fields now. Your take on it?  

Yumna: Tech isn’t a field of its own anymore. I can speak to marketing and it has become so much more technical vs when I started out, there would be one digital manager or ‘digital’ agency but now EVERYONE needs to understand tech. There are so many tools/new innovations out there that can help you do your job better. Routine upskilling should be part of everyone’s lives now! Within Marketing, tech now allows us to reach our customers better, understand them better, encourage dialogue (no more one-way communication with slapping ads in people’s faces), democratize offers. People have a voice now, they’ll tell you what they like, they’ll hold you accountable for irresponsible product innovations. Eg fairness creams are no longer acceptable! Skincare companies have had to course correct, realize brands too need to have a moral and ethical compass that mirrors the people they’re targeting. ALL of this is because of tech! 

My advice to aspiring marketers, don’t get overwhelmed if you’re from a non-tech background (I’m one too!), upskill, start with something as basic as Google Digital Garage or Hubspot free certifications. Tech is a tool and an enabler, you don’t need to know ALL of it, understand the basics and focus on what’s more relevant to your job or role 

ET:  Since you have worked in Pakistan, Dubai and Canada; how do you compare the three markets and the work ethics? 

Yumna:  Working in Pakistan is an amazing experience. The country is young, there is SO MUCH potential and SO MUCH that needs to be done. I honestly left too soon so I also don’t want to make it look like I completely understand but if you’re ambitious it’s a great place to start your career, that’s what I always tell people who reach out to me for advice, don’t underestimate Pakistani work experience. Find the right people to work with, in your professional life WHO you work with will matter more than anything else, there are amazing human beings doing incredible things there. Find them, learn from them! my approx 1 year-long Pakistani experience is what gave me the ‘meat’ and foundation to build on when I started with Beiersdorf in Dubai. 

Dubai is the place to be if you have 1-3 years under your belt, it’s VERY competitive; you have to come with something/your own point of difference! Work culture varies depending on where senior management is from. I worked for a European company so the culture was very similar to their German office. I also know certain company cultures in Dubai can be quite toxic, long hours, no balance, even exploitative given labour laws are rather lax (as the rest of middle east). 

Canada is truly as good as they say! People love life here, work is a part of it, not all of it. It’s not as cut-throat or competitive but also maybe too relaxed for some? You have to be very respectful in how you talk to people or even how you address challenges. Its hard to get it, landing your first job is tough. 

If I talk about inclusivity, the challenges for women in each of these countries are very different! In Pakistan women have a long way to go before they can be taken seriously, where people think women only work when they don’t have a man to support them or for ‘fun’, or create an environment where successful women, as they say, ‘send the elevator back down’ to lift other women up. I have to admit when I was still a student I also subscribed to the idea of ‘women are bad managers’ purely because of other people’s experiences, another unfortunate myth perpetrated by patriarchy. I was so wrong; some of my best managers to date have been women. Patriarchy pits us against each other, and we don’t realize there is ENOUGH room for ALL of us! We’re better off being helpful to each other than being catty and feeding that narrative. Sisterhood above everything! 

ET:  As a woman in the business world, how has your experience been and what do you recommend to women or young girls who wish to choose a similar career path? 

Yumna: There are some basics irrespective of any field you’re in:

  • Self-awareness and introspection: take some time to research and identify what you enjoy doing, I don’t subscribe to this idea of ‘one big passion in life’ because that can change. So focus on what you’re curious about now – social media marketing, interior design, app development etc etc. Then see what strengths/experiences you have that can help you in that field. Use that to build an elevator pitch (Google some good elevator pitch examples), and have it READY and UPDATED at all times
  • Be in the know! If you want to do marketing, read up! Subscribe to publications like Aurora from Dawn, Marketing Week (UK based), AdAge, set up Google Alerts on the industry of your interest (eg Skincare Pakistan), invest time to learn every single day
  • Within Marketing – Marketing is a vast field, you can do brand management, advertising, media, specialize in search marketing, email marketing, performance etc etc. Don’t get scared by these terms, talk to people who do these jobs to get a sense of their day to day. Once you’ve identified your focus, do everything possible to get your foot in the door
  • Work hard, work smart, make yourself visible! 
  • If I could go back in time to my O levels, I’m certain I would’ve stuck it out with sciences. I love what I do, but mathematicians, scientists, engineers and artists are the ones who’re changing the world!! – please if that’s your passion, do yourself and the world a service and go at it full throttle, every single one of you has something to contribute and give, do your part 

ET:  Your biggest learning and takeaways 

Yumna: Would like to talk about motherhood here as its defined who I am. I lost my mom at a very young age, I was 15, I took on a lot of responsibility from a young age, my sister was 3 and I had to help my father with providing emotional support for the family. My life changed since and I definitely grew up much earlier than I would’ve liked. That said, my mom is my inspiration in life. She was an incredibly cool human being, anybody who knew her can attest to that! She’s the reason for my ambition and drive in life. 

The second defining moment came when I became a mom myself. I thought I was prepared, took 5 years to plan, I had an amazing pregnancy, I read every book and was fully informed. I thought being prepared meant I wouldn’t get any postpartum issues, boy was I wrong. It hit me!!! From a tough labour, breastfeeding struggles etc. etc. but most of all, I really lost my confidence. My anxiety was through the roof. When I returned to work Feb 2020 the imposter syndrome was unreal!!! I felt like my brain has become rusted, that I can longer present to a room of people. It was belittling. I struggled for quite a bit and Covid didn’t help but I knew I need to figure a way out of it. Here’s what I did and I’m listing it out to help other moms:

  • First acknowledge that it is OK to lose some of your confidence as a new mom, a mentor of mine told me ‘just think about the number of decisions you’re making on a daily basis – is my baby hungry? Do I change diaper now? why isn’t he sleeping? What size clothes should I buy? Why is his poop yellow? Am I a good mother? – on a DAILY basis, your brain goes from like a 10 to 100000 in terms of how much you have to process. It is NATURAL then to feel like you don’t have it all under control and that affects your confidence, especially if you’ve always been a planner and in control of your life
  • I did some very cliched/by-the-book things which have honestly transformed my mental health:
    • Journaling – 5min gratitude journal
    • Exercise regularly – HIIT or Yoga (I LOVE yoga), YouTube videos are amazing to follow along to
    • No social media and mindless scrolling during the week – whether you’d like to admit it or not, social media drains your energy and impacts your mental health! 
    • NO MOM GUILT – I know this sounds easier than done but the day you realize Allah made you your child’s mother and there’s NO-ONE who can do a better job than you you’ll stop feeling it. My son goes to day care and it is my conscious decision, why should I feel guilty about it when I know he’s happy and I’m so much happier for being able to work? 
    • Upskilling – the internet is a goldmine! Learning something new will def help your confidence, I’ve done quite a few such courses this year (happy to share a list if somebody wants later)
    • And yes you can find the time for ALL OF THAT if you really want it! Even with a full time job, ghar ke kaam, kids etc.) – Discipline and time management (and not stressing over a messy house!)  
    • But you don’t have to! Do what feels comfortable, everyone has a different capacity and goals, respect your own limits

ET: Your message for ElleTech

Yumna: I apologize in advance if this is going to sound like something off of a self-help book but I’m going to say some very cliched things which you hear all the time that are 100% true!

There are no age limits to things and there’s no limit to personal/professional growth. You can choose to be a victim of your circumstances or you can choose to make the best out of them. Please don’t live your life thinking I can’t do this or that anymore because I’m too old or I’m a mom now or what will so and so think because it doesn’t matter. It breaks my heart when I see women stuck in such shackles when there is so much more to life. Don’t be a bystander in your life, lead it and live it on your terms. I know this sounds so cliched to hear but trust me, if you can internalize all those lessons nothing else matters. 

One practical to do for everyone listening to this: Sit down, make a 5 year plan for yourself. I have a 10 year plan that has 1 major milestone that I’d like to achieve in each of these arenas – Career, family, education, community/giving back and religion. It’s a live document that I keep updating and changing but its something that guides me.