By Sarah Kelsey
Shazia Zeb-Sobani learned at an early age she would have to rebel against the status quo to get where she wanted to go.
“I grew up in Pakistan and went to an all-girls boarding school. There were always separate rules and social norms for girls and boys,” says Shazia. “I became passionate about challenging those norms. I didn’t see my values or what I wanted to be doing reflected in many of the things I was being offered.”
Those values — respect, equity, and curiosity — are things Shazia has used to guide her career decisions ever since completing a marketing degree at the University of the Punjab. It was following her MBA from the University of Calgary (where she now lives) that she accepted a role at TELUS. Today, after 15 years with the organization, Shazia is Vice President of Customer Network Implementation, accelerating fast and high quality broadband connectivity to minimize the digital divide while motivating a team of almost 600 people. She encourages them all to do what she did: challenge the norm.
“Because of my tech-oriented position, I am very often the only woman at the boardroom table, whether that’s at an international conference or a stakeholder meeting,” she says. “But that also means I’m now in a position where I can advocate for change and the support of marginalized groups, and to create a level playing field.”
Shazia says her position at TELUS has also given her the opportunity to create solutions that will establish technological equity for two distinct population groups within Canada: those living in rural areas and the Indigenous. Her team is at the forefront of two projects that will see the company’s Purefibre technology brought to millions of previously underserved individuals.
“Everyone has to have access to high-speed internet, so we are rolling up our sleeves to close the digital divide,” she says. “It’s been infeasible in the past to bring connectivity to these areas, but if we don’t invest we are handcuffing these communities to forgo participation in the global economy, which is something that will have tangible impacts on their social and economic well-being.”
“If you let yourself be yourself you will showcase your energy and passion, which will open up opportunities that allow you to make your next career move.”
This is just one of the projects that allows Shazia to break down barriers for others — while also affording her the ability to challenge herself on a daily basis. She’s an advisor to the TELUS Diversity & Inclusion council, a coach and mentor at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association and the University of Calgary, and on the board of Women in Communication and Technology. In all her efforts, Shazia encourages younger generations to dream about going into roles they’ve only seen previously held by men. “They can aspire to be engineers and data scientists.”
Curiosity is key, too; Shazia believes having a growth mindset can help women evolve their careers and move into positions where they inspire and spark change. Women leaders also need to embrace who they are and to stand up for their values, regardless of what those may be.
“We need to learn to be ourselves. We have to stop trying too hard to fit in and eschew stereotypes that women are too emotional or can’t make decisions,” says Shazia. “If you let yourself be yourself you will showcase your energy and passion, which will open up opportunities that allow you to make your next career move.”
Shazia also advises that developing a support system will help women leaders persevere through challenging times, like COVID, “because whether anyone likes it or not, women are still expected to do too many things — from managing households to running teams and even taking care of friends and family.” Relying on similarly situated peers you respect and confiding in them when things get to be overwhelming will help you sit more comfortably with the idea that no one can do it all. How and where you need to direct your energy day-to-day will constantly change, she adds.
“There are still those stereotypes that women need to be perfect. That successful and highly accomplished women must do it all. At the end of the day, we’re all human. No one is perfect.”
“Don’t try too hard to fit in or be perfect,” Shazia says. “There are still those stereotypes that women need to be perfect. That successful and highly accomplished women must do it all. At the end of the day, we’re all human. No one is perfect. One day your family will have to be a priority; another you might have to devote more time to your career. We always need to weigh the tradeoffs and ensure what we’re doing aligns with our values.”
Most importantly, she encourages any woman — especially those seeking a career change post-COVID — to do a deep dive into what matters to them on a daily basis before taking a leap. This will ensure their next move lets them create the change they want to see, both personally and professionally.
“What are you passionate about? What do you value most in life? Does the work you would be doing keep you close to your values?” she asks. “If something doesn’t align with the things you value most, it might not be the ideal role. Be intentional with your choices. Don’t rush. Focus. This will help you do what you love while helping others around you.”