Interview by Charlotte Chedeville, WIL Forum’s Project Manager
Naseba Global WIL Economic Forum places a particular emphasis on social impact, promoting collective action to build a more sustainable future. In addition to name famous headline speakers, the agenda features many social entrepreneurs, change-makers and game changers.
Leading up to the forum, we will be publishing personal interviews to help you get to know these unsung heroes. At only 22 (we were blown away when we knew how young she was!), Mashal Waqar is the Co-Founder and CTO of The Tempest, the fastest growing media company dedicated to diverse millennial women… So much for the young woman who, six months earlier, had been told by a recruiter they “couldn’t picture her behind a screen” for a tech internship.
Today, The Tempest counts millions of contributors and is leading the way by providing a platform diverse women can relate and contribute to. We spoke to Mashal to understand more about what drives her – and get a sneak peak into how they achieved so much in such little time.
At only 22, you are the co-founder of the fastest growing online media company, lead a global team of fellows and act as the CTO of The Tempest… Over 12k people follow you on social media, and TT has no less than 120k followers on twitter and over 350k on Facebook. Of course, we wonder: how did you reach so much, so quickly?
I’ve always been passionate about writing and women empowerment. I stumbled on a TT article last summer and started binge-reading all the articles on the site. I felt like I’d found my voice, and I wanted to be a part of this incredible community. I worked with Laila (my co-founder) on different verticals and we were Skyping one day when she asked me to join on board as a co-founder and CTO. I still had a semester of my undergrad degree left, so I worked part-time at TT till my graduation. I was bringing in a very diverse mix of experience – I have a computing security degree, with work experience in marketing, security and tech. The tech and marketing experience helped me transition into different roles, and being passionate about the company and mission only made it better.
Many brands would only dream of achieving what you did! What advice would you give to brands seeking to attract millennials?
Be authentic. Millennials are really not as complicated as you make us out to be. And, we’re social media savvy, so accept memes and how quickly things can go viral. I’ve seen a lot of brands hold back on digital marketing and hesitate when it comes to handling social media platforms – add personality to your account handles with gifs and responses. Get onboard with hashtags and quick viral trends, based on the platform you want to focus on. We’re the fastest growing company for female millennials because we are our audience; our staffers, our contributors, our team, we all make up the audience we have.
Do you believe companies should have more employees who resemble their audience?
Absolutely! I can’t stress on this enough. We’ve even got Gen-Z’s running our social media platforms! Empathy or understanding of diversity can never replace actual diversity and inclusion. When you prioritise diversity and inclusion, you will see the difference. There are way too many companies that are either tone deaf, or only have tokens for minority representation. When you have more people of color on board, you will see the difference in decision-making and the final outcomes.
You also said diversity & inclusion was not a ‘strategy’ at TT, that it naturally happened. Can you tell us more?
I think it’s more about our company culture – we don’t speak for the voices that write on our platforms – we give them the mic. That’s literally what The Tempest is about: giving diverse women a seat at the table. We are where we are because of the countless women who have written for us and shared their experiences and narratives with the world. We don’t dictate their words, and that’s why they feel comfortable sharing their stories. The same goes for our staffers, fellows, and team members. I’ve personally never been part of a company whose culture is so strong when it comes to openness, acceptance, and community.
On a personal level, you are passionate about diversity. How did you “fall into it”?
I grew up in Saudi Arabia – which is very disconnected from the world, but I didn’t realise it until I was out. They have strong communities and, as a Pakistani, I grew up in that strong community. It was racism masked as patriotism. So when I went to study in Texas, US, I realized that the world was a lot bigger than I had thought. It started to open my mind. I had a few bad encounters over there, and that’s when it became clear to me that people did not understand people with my background or skin tone. Later, when I came to Dubai, there was such diversity that it really opened my mind up. From thereon, every time I would go back home, I would make it a point to correct my family, friends and people from my community. And it’s only after a few years in the Student Government and when I started writing that I realised there was an utter lack of diversity. Being in tech kind of helped me realize this too – in the first conference I covered in sophomore year, there were 25+ panels and only one female speaker. I felt very out of place, and it was intimidating.
Is this when you became more interested in inclusion as well?
I was at a Student Government Consortium at RIT. The dean of the deaf college (NTID) spoke to us about challenges the Deaf community faces. For the first time in my life, I felt so ignorant because I’d never thought about it. I think it’s one of the most impactful moments of my life – I actually tore up during that session. When I later came back to Dubai, the staff told us a deaf student was coming for study abroad semester to our campus. I wanted to do whatever I could to be able to connect with him, so I started watching ASL videos and would sign with my deaf friend every day. Eventually, we started weekly ASL classes taught ASL every week. And I made sure everyone working in SG at that time understood the basics and knew the deaf etiquette too.
It really seems that you took things one step at a time. Many individuals and businesses wish to have an impact but don’t know how. People are often discouraged thinking ‘they can’t change the world’. Do you believe everyone can positively contribute to society?
Absolutely. If you can change the way even one person thinks, whether it’s through your writing or personal conversations, it creates a ripple effect. You just need to stay determined. Everyone sees the end result when they see success, but you need to understand the months and years of struggle and consistent determination and hard work leading to the success. We all have the power to have an impact, and the first step to that is starting from your personal network, your friends and family.
Today, you continue to educate people on disabilities and you actively advocate for inclusion. What are your hopes for the future?
At The Tempest, we’re prioritising accessibility with all our web content. I’m leading the project to change our content to make it more accessible. That’s one step forward; in the upcoming years, I want to see all online content, in every format and social media platform, accessible in multiple languages. I’m hoping more media companies and organisations move in this direction, and make their content accessible. It is actually the WIL Forum that catalysed this desire we had for a long time. We had several conversations with the WIL team around the inclusion of people with disabilities, accessibility, and the change we wanted to see in the region. The turning point for me really was my conversation with Haben Girma, whom I was introduced to. She made us realise the critical importance of having accessible content and that it wasn’t that hard! But it all starts with awareness. Haben recently wrote a great piece on how people with disabilities lead innovation; if more organisations understand and work on inclusion and accessibility, we’re going to move forward in the right direction.
You’ll be speaking at the Global WIL Economic Forum, where diversity & inclusion take centre stage. What do you look forward to the most?
I’m a bit awed by all the incredible women who are going to be there – I look forward to actually meeting and hearing all these incredible game changers. The WIL Forum is necessary, and as a woman in tech and media, it’s critical to bring forward conversations about diversity and inclusion. I definitely want to hear Afra Atiq and Haben Girma’s keynotes. They’re absolutely amazing and I can’t wait to watch them live!