We're all about being our plan and sharing that mentality with like-minded women. Laila Alawa, CEO of The Tempest, is definitely one of them! We caught up with her in New York for a woman-to-woman chat on life, work, and getting a look into how she's making herself succeed.
Our meet took place an early Sunday morning in Midtown Manhattan(8am, if you're wondering). Laila is a morning person by the way--but what good leader is not? Laila's digital beginnings go back to a site called Coming of Faith to what is now called The Tempest, a platform of raw voices and stories by women from all faiths and cultural backgrounds changing the narrative of women around the world. She is also no stranger to the media, Laila has been featured on CNN Money, Cosmopolitan and Glamour among some. Also add to the mix her public speaking ability and her jewelry-making skills. Yes, this is one woman we want to get to know more deeply. As soon as she arrived on to our cozy place, we grabbed a pair of refreshments and took to the couch to begin our conversation.
How Her Experiences Led to Present Choices
"I think life is made-up of multitude of experiences that lead-up to a specific decision or reality. Growing-up I didn't have friends and it wasn't until college that I found community and belonging. I remember in my adolescent years going to social gatherings and seeing a whole dynamic of older girls(teenage) not associating with younger girls. So, I vowed at age 13 that when I get older, became popular, and had influence I would never make anyone feel out of place. Flash-forward to 9/11, it was a very pivotal moment for me as a minority faith woman of color. Then when the Boston marathon bombings happened, I recall my first reaction was I hope everyone is ok. The second reaction was I don't want my siblings to go through what I have gone through. Those experiences led to the realization that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and create a media platform that had conversations focused on this reality that we are these multi-faceted and complexed individuals. A reality of creating a space for community to find your identity, re-visit your identity, and create belonging are all the aspects that led to my founding of what is now known as The Tempest."
What Does It Take to Run a Media Company?
"Running a bootstrap media company comes with a slew of difficulties on a daily if not on a hourly basis. The reality is that trying to rely on yourself and your own strengths, it only goes so far. I have learned the hard way that it's incredibly important to build a surrounding support network and give your team the understanding that they are a pivotal source of success. I rely on my team for these kinds of moments as well as my friends and family. I also remind myself why am I doing this to begin with. Since I believe in God I keep present that it isn't personal and that there's a larger work at play here. Lastly, I would add that realizing that no one is going to give things on a platter. Life is not easy and one has to hustle--in the most empowering sense of the word."
Laila's Productive Check-List
- Goes to her incubator or cafe and surrounds herself by a space where everyone else is doing their work.
- Sometimes when she can't get into her space of productivity, she takes a break hangs out with her pets(she notes she has a lot, like a lot) or just goes outside and sits on the grass.
Women and This 'Other' Category
"I am tired of the tokenizing perspectives and narratives that are continuously being placed on women perceived as 'other' by mainstream media. Boiling down a woman to her 'feminism' and/or her 'hijab' or the fact that they're doing this right or fitting into the Western narrative is one of the most important things I am working hard to push The Tempest past, because it's a media company for all women, not just Muslim women. But when people look at our team and they see that they are predominately women that identify as Muslim women, people immediately assume it's a Muslim website and treat us as the 'other'. Just because you are one identity doesn't mean you can't work to amplify other identities. Right now 5-7% of media companies are owned by women. The rest of those media companies are owned by men including a lot of women interest media companies so the stories that are being amplified and shared by men who have deemed appropriate to talk about. I am tired of that! I don't think that's constructive in anyway. Yes, there are male allies out there but the reality is that the best way for her to tell her story is to give her the power and control to tell the story exactly how she sees it."
On Taking Ownership
"The work that I do is a marathon not a sprint. It's not about myself. It's about the mission I have set-up from the beginning and recognizing that this is going to be a very difficult experience specially as a woman and if one is not comfortable asking for things, one can face a very long slog ahead. Initially, I wasn't comfortable going out and fundraising and I was very afraid of labeling myself as a CEO or entrepreneur because nobody had given me those titles and I didn't want to go out and take them. But, one has to also recognize that if you're going out and putting in the work and gaining that traction, one needs to be taking the roles and responsibilities that are being placed upon us. On the contrary, if we don't, we're selling ourselves, the team, and the company short. So, go out and don't take 'no' for an answer."
What Keeps Her Going Forward
"Obviously, you can't base your life on anecdotal experiences, but seeing our writers flourish, grow, and continue to tell stories you wouldn't see anywhere else are experiences that continue to push me forward and remind me and my team why we continue to do what we do. We're not a radical type of platform, but we're radical in the form of letting people say what they want with a slight of edit."
Interview by Mariana Aguilera