Ziena Jalil: “You lose 100% of the race you don’t start, so dare to compete”.

Demosthenes wanted to lay claim to his family inheritance in court, however in 364 BC the only way to do so would be to argue his own case. He understood that his speech defect would hinder the chances of winning his petition so he practised his speaking skills by talking with pebbles in his mouth and reciting verses while running along the beach, shouting above the waves.

It worked, Demosthenes won back his family fortune and launched an oratorical attack against the Greek Emperors in favour of democracy. Demosthenes would go down in the history books as one of the great attic orators of Ancient Greece because of his ability to carefully string together words. 

Ziena is my Demosthenes. Not that she’s ever practised with pebbles or lost the family fortune, but that her ability to speak to a room and move the audience is the result of years of careful crafting. From as early as I can remember, Ziena has dared to compete in a number of oratory competitions, winning most of them. At 16, she represented the South Pacific youth in The Hague, and by 17 had moved to New Zealand to start her Bachelor of Communication Studies from Auckland University of Technology.

She was the youngest Kiwi to hold the office of New Zealand’s Trade Commissioner, being appointed to head the Singapore office when she was 27, three years later becoming the regional director for SSEA for Education New Zealand. Ziena is currently Consulting Partner at SenateSHJ, and she runs her own consulting practice with a range of clients across strategy, communications, stakeholder engagement, leadership training, marketing and business development, and diversity and inclusion.

And if you believe that you can’t be what you can’t see – it means that many people like us self-exclude themselves even from applying. My advice is that you lose 100% of the race you don’t start – so dare to compete.

Ziena Jalil

Ziena is also a keynote speaker and I watched her present a keynote address at the PwC Herald Talks where she spoke about the need to be inclusive in our workplaces. She highlighted the issue of ethnic minorities seeking to change their name simply to secure a job interview. This is nothing new, my father had often told us of this practise in Fiji years ago at the Fiji Sugar Corporation and at the Vatukoula Goldmines, but for Ziena to address this lived experience of many in our community on a global stage was quite empowering.

In addition to her roles she also facilitates conferences and has won awards for her pivotal work in promoting New Zealand as a trade partner and study destination in the Asian market. As a brand and reputation strategist she delivers presentations on building a trustworthy brand by taking stock of your organisational structure and staying true to your values. However Ziena’s world is not just corporate and Boardrooms. She recently co-founded a yoga app that links students with yoga teachers from around the world.

myyodaa, delivers live personalised, one-to-one video sessions to anyone, at any time and any venue at a price they choose. I asked her how she managed to develop this really great app and her answer was characteristically Ziena, “Do your homework,” I chuckled thinking back to the years when she helped me with mine but I know exactly what she means- carry out the research and find the right people to tap into to deliver the type of results you want. Your business needs to meet a need and hers is to deliver yoga to our living rooms. Myyodaa was launched while the world was in lockdown so Ziena really did her homework well!

The Kiwis and the rest of the world may now know Ziena as an influential keynote speaker and Woman to Watch class of 2020 (Read here) but we were introduced to Ziena well before this in year 2 and we knew she was phenomenal. She was the new girl in class and her mother’s blue Honda became a regular feature in our all-girls school. That Blue Honda was our equivalent to Rosie the Riverter even before we knew of the word feminism, and it represented many of the things the allegorical arm flexing Rosie did – a working woman in the driver’s seat.

Though she was a year younger than us, by age thirteen we were congregating at her house and together we got ready for the Fiji eighth year examination, our entry to high school in Fiji. I never thought of it then, but five indigenous Fijians on a Muslim family’s porch is probably a big deal. We were the generation that went through the first and second coups and lived through the NBF saga. Words like Coup-de-tat, Nationalism and racial segregation became part of our growing lexicon; and we lived in a Fiji that had a constant awareness of its diversity though as a country it hadn’t yet learnt to appreciate it.

Perhaps the ability for us young thirteen-year olds to appreciate diversity during that time in Fiji’s tumultuous period speaks more about our parents’ tolerance than it does us. Our parents allowed us to venture to the unfamiliar and Ziena’s parents allowed the unfamiliar to cause a racket on their porch! Many of our afternoons were spent pouring over maths problems and going through social and basic science questions. Her parents would arrive home from work to our noise and not bat an eyelid. Her mum would sometimes poke her head out to see what we were up to but her dad was the smiling figure who quietly walked up the drive to their home and nodded at us noisy little ladies who were squatting for the afternoon at his home.

Ziena specialises in diversity and inclusion and I’d like to think that in some way we helped shaped her views. Her poignant reminders that true inclusion helps, “to create a society where we can bring our authentic selves to work because we feel we belong,” rings true here in the UK where we Pacific Islanders are yet to be recognised in official forms. Diversity will only flourish if people are willing to be authentic with who they are as a group of people without the pressure of conforming to be an acceptable version of a non-white person.

It pains me to hear that she gets comments like “oh, you’ve done well for a young, brown, migrant, woman”. Like there ever was a doubt that she would not. We knew her at seven and even then we saw her intelligence, why couldn’t they look past her brown skin and see that too? But in true Ziena form, she has persisted and she remarks that she has had to work twice as hard, not to deliver results, but to prove she could. She dared to put herself forward and her advise that, “You lose 100% of the race you do not start-so dare to compete,” has seen her winning the races she has dared to start.

I started this article with Demosthenes, the stuttering orator that shouldn’t have succeeded in influencing ancient Greece but who proved that he could. To me Ziena is Demosthenes, a brown migrant from small Fiji who has proven beyond doubt that she could. She is proof that we can hold high public offices in foreign countries, sit on several boards and facilitate conferences or be a keynote speaker in high profile events while managing our families.

To all my Demosthenes out there, thou shalt not stutter! Put pebbles in your mouth if you have to but whatever we have to do to acquire our desired skill set we must by all means do it. Because when we do we win back our communities fortunes, we pave the way for a truly equal society where our voices are heard.

Be clear about why you want to start and stay true to your purpose.

Ziena jalil

Also, we loved hearing from Ziena so much that we thought it would be nice to share her voice directly with you our readers. We have therefore appended the transcript below and we hope that her story and journey will inspire you as much as it has done us.

If you want to hear more from this remarkable lady you can sign up to our Veivosaki Workshop which she will launch and be our first as guest speaker. This is an online Speaking Skills workshop being facilitated by The Platformm  and the details of that will be released shortly




Interview with Ziena Jalil

1. Ziena after Natabua High school you left Fiji to study overseas. I basically lost track of you after that (truth be told we took different courses in High School) Could you please tell us a bit more about what and where you studied? How pivotal was the support from your amazing mum and dad in your new journey overseas and how did you manage studying on foreign soil at such a young age?

I moved to New Zealand soon after finishing high school in Fiji and completed a Bachelor of Communication Studies from Auckland University of Technology. Since then, I have also completed a Diploma in International Trade, and more recently a Master’s in Politics and International Relations from the University of Auckland.

When I first arrived in New Zealand, as a 17-year-old, it was just me for the first three years. My parents moved a few years later, but their support has always been there for me no matter where in the world I have been living. I feel very fortunate that my parents instilled in me good values, a strong work ethic, and self-belief. So regardless of whether or not we were in the same country, I always felt their support and blessings.

While studying in a foreign country can be daunting, I found several support systems – from the university itself and friends I made. I was also fortunate in that I had extended family in Auckland and in those early years I spent a lot of weekends with my cousins.

My biggest struggle, and this is rather embarrassing to admit, was that I didn’t know how to cook at all, and I was living in student accommodation which required self-catering. I would get my mother to send me family recipes to follow, but there was a lot of instant noodles and unhealthy takeaways to start with.

I didn’t experience culture shock, although I know some students do. I think we are very blessed in Fiji to have a very diverse society. I had also travelled overseas as a child and represented South Pacific youth at a UN Forum in The Hague as a 16-year-old, and that exposure was useful.

2.You took up several high-profile roles including that of Regional Director – South & South East Asia, as Head of North Asia Marketing and Communication for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, and as New Zealand Trade Commissioner to Singapore.

How challenging was it, as a woman from outside New Zealand to get into these roles?

I applied for these roles just as anyone else would and went through the normal recruitment process. Getting the role is not that hard if you can demonstrate why you are the best person for the job.

The challenge for people like us is more in the fact that there aren’t many, sometimes any, people like us in these roles. And if you believe that you can’t be what you can’t see – it means that many people like us self-exclude themselves even from applying. My advice to anyone in that situation is that you lose 100% of the race you don’t start – so dare to compete.

The challenge as I found it comes once you have got the role. There is this constant pressure to need to prove yourself – even when you are doing a good job. You feel that if you drop the ball on anything, you are letting your entire community down. You are grateful for the role, but you are made to feel that you need to be. And of course, there is always the imposter syndrome.

You might find this piece I wrote interesting in this context: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12314632

3.What is your belief system (or your mantra) that you have lived by and that has seen you achieve at such a high level?

I didn’t really set out to achieve at a high level. I’ve always believed in working for causes and doing work that makes a difference in the lives of people, especially those in our society who are marginalised.

I believe that whatever work you do, you do to the best of your ability. And if you lose the passion to give it your best shot, then you move on and let someone else do it who can do a better job.

I’m someone who gets bored easily – so I have a varied range of interests and lots of different hats I wear. That keeps me motivated.

I also believe that you learn from all experiences – good and bad. I’ve learnt more from my failures than successes probably.  You need to have the courage to admit you failed and then look at what went wrong and how you’d do things differently next time.

Most importantly though, I think it’s important to realise that we don’t achieve alone. Everything I have achieved in my life has been through the support and collaborative efforts of a lot of people – whether family or friends, colleagues, clients or mentors.

If there’s a quote I live by – then it’s a combination from Gandhi and Rumi – about being the change you want to see.  

Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

4.I do not know if I had ever told you this but your mum was one of my earliest role models back in Primary school! (I loved her blue car and the confidence she exuded). Did you have any role models at that age and do you have any now? And what are some of the values you find instilling in your hockey loving daughter?

That is very kind, thank you! Yes, Mrs Jalil and her famous blue Honda were quite well known. Even now – sometimes we’ll be out in a mall or restaurant, and someone will come up to her and remind her that she had taught them or inspired them. I’m very fortunate to have her as my mum.

My grandmother was a solo parent to nine children, of whom my mum is the eldest. I never had to look far to find strong women. They have taught me so much – simply by being who they are – respect for all, integrity, responsibility and hard work, being independent and backing yourself, the importance of family, and service.

I remember as a new mum, trying to learn the rhythms of my son, asking my grandmother how she managed nine children – and she simply said “they grow up.”

I have many role models who have and continue to inspire me. And they inspire me in different ways. But common amongst them all are those same values I learnt from my grandmother and my parents, and that I’m now trying to instil in my children.

In terms of my daughter specifically – my grandmother taught me the importance for women to be independent and self-reliant. It’s something I practice and I hope my daughter learns too. 

Having said all that, I should say that my father deserves a very special mention for being an absolute rock for the women in my family – my mum, sister and I.

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.


5.You are now the Consulting Partner at Senate SHJ where you are a communication and reputation management strategist and hold various other board roles. What does a typical working day look like during this lockdown?

I actually have what I would call a portfolio career. So yes I am a Consulting Partner for SenateSHJ, and I also run my own consulting practice with a range of clients across strategy, communications, stakeholder engagement, leadership training, marketing and business development, and diversity and inclusion.

I sit on a number of boards in the education, economic development, and health sectors.

I’m also a keynote speaker, facilitator, MC and commentator on topics including economic development, international and vocational education, Asia business, leadership, diversity and inclusion, crisis management, nation branding, and politics.

And earlier this year I co-founded myyodaa, a mobile app which connects students and teachers around the globe, via personalised, live, one-to-one video sessions – wherever they are, whenever they want, and at a price they choose.

So there is no typical working day – the only thing typical about it is that every day is different.

And in some ways that didn’t change during lockdown – except all the face-to-face meetings went online, and of course some events, which couldn’t be taken online for whatever reason were cancelled. The only other new element was trying to home school children while working. Thankfully my children are very independent and, at 13 and 11, old enough to manage a lot by themselves.

6.As a mum, how do you juggle your various roles while ensuring that you continue to perform well in all?

Being my own boss now is hugely helpful – as I can pick and choose work which I find inspiring and which I can manage alongside family commitments and responsibilities.

I’m pretty good at prioritising and over the course of my career have honed skills which help me integrate life and work. I’m also very much in tune with myself and know when I need a break – whether that’s for a few hours or several days. I make time for myself – it’s hard to do sometimes, but I firmly believe that you can’t be a good mum and/or good at your job, if you aren’t feeling good yourself – whether that’s mentally, physically or emotionally.

Over the years I’ve become better at saying no as well. Earlier in my career I felt like I had to agree to doing everything, going to everything – but as you grow you learn to focus on value rather than volume.

7. Also congratulations on your MyYodaa app.

I downloaded it and found that it’s so easy to use and can be used from anywhere in the world. I also heard you on the Fiji Radio station where you mentioned that you took up yoga during your time spent in Asia to help relieve stress and get a more balanced lifestyle. How did you go about developing the app and this business?

Thank you! The app came about from my personal experience and those of my co-founders.

About five years ago, I was on a New Zealand government posting to India, and a friend introduced me to yoga. My yoga teacher would come to my house, at a time that suited me and I only had to pay for the classes that I took. Given the nature of my job, which involved long hours and a lot of travel, and with two young children – this was a good solution.

When I returned to New Zealand four years ago – I tried to find something similar but that was hard. You had to go to the teacher at a time that suited the teacher and private classes can be cost prohibitive too. I spoke with two of my friends – also professional women with young children – and their experience was the same. They had been watching pre-recorded videos online when they could find time and tried to follow those – but never knowing whether or not they were following correctly or not.

The test case for myyodaa was me doing live video classes with my India-based teacher – for the last three years – well before Covid-19 and lockdown made it fashionable. For me it was also about enabling teachers like mine to have a global career and take their passion and knowledge to a truly global audience. My India-based teacher is unlikely to ever be able to afford to come to New Zealand, but by teaching me he got to have a window into my world.

With myyodaa you can practice from home, at work, hotel, or even outside. And you only pay for the classes you take. We did focus groups with students here and they loved the idea.

In addition to enabling teachers from around the world to have a truly global career from the comfort of their home or studio, myyodaa has always been about making sure they are able to earn a fair price for their classes. Teachers choose what they want to teach, when and at what price. This also allows them to be able to continue with other commitments such as in-studio classes. This is an aspect that appeals a lot to our teachers.

That’s how myyodaa was born – a mobile app which connects yoga and meditation teachers and students from around the world – via live, 1-to-1, personalised video classes – anytime, anywhere, and at a price you choose.

We started building myyodaa last year. Since then the world has changed considerably because of Covid-19.

The need for a platform like myyodaa is greater than ever – not just for people in lockdown needing to ensure positive health and wellbeing, but also for yoga and meditation teachers who have lost their livelihoods as gyms and studios have closed. And at a time when people can’t travel, an app like ours helps build international connections.

Our app went live on World Yoga Day – June 21 – this year.  We really want to make a positive difference – and the myyodaa platform is our way of helping people to look after themselves, and each other.

myyodaa is available for free download from the AppStore and Google Play.

9.What are some advice you can give to women looking at launching their business on a global scale like you have?

Be clear about why you want to start and stay true to your purpose. The why also has to be about serving a need, solving a real problem for people.

And then do it only if you believe in your idea completely and are willing to give it your all.

Do your homework. Have a team of expert advisors around you – because there will be many areas in which you don’t have expertise.

10.Thank you for agreeing to this interview. As a final insight into your life, if we were to look through your bookshelf (because we also run a book club!) what would be some authors and titles we would see? Which books have been influential to you and the prestigious brand that is Ziena Jalil?

My bookshelf, like my home and my life is rather an eclectic collection. Political (auto)biographies sit alongside business success stories, eastern literature, travel guides and mystery and romance novels.

Some of the books I’ve read recently that I really enjoyed are Becoming by Michelle Obama and Richard Branson’s Finding my Virginity. 

Thank you

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