Ensure that more women hold board seats. The US has one of the lowest percentages of women who hold board seats. In 2019, the percentage of female board members in the US was only 26.1%, while France had a total of 44%. There are numerous studies further outlining this point, and one of the most comprehensive is Credit’s Suisse study in 2012 which cites, “We find clear evidence that companies with a higher proportion of women in decision-making roles continue to generate higher returns on equity, while running more conservative balance sheets. In fact, where women account for the majority in the top management, the businesses show superior sales growth, high cash flow returns on investments and lower leverage.” This further shows that having more female board members, and overall equality within leadership teams, is a win-win for all. Why not make it 50%?
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zahra Bahari. Bahari is a proven fashion industry veteran and CEO of The Powell Companies Real (TPCR), the leading diversified designer, manufacturer and distributor bringing fashion brands to life with its resources and experienced executive team of industry leaders.
Through her decades in the industry, she has repeatedly demonstrated her ability to create, and is on the front lines of establishing successful celebrity clothing lines, and repeatedly advancing them beyond the $100M level.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My mom was a maven in the business. She started a design house back in Iran in the 70’s and brought the business to the US in the 80’s. Her company took off and was one of the leading moderate dress manufacturers in the US. I always looked up to her and was inspired by her love of design and the business of the fashion industry, not just the creative aspects, so I followed in her footsteps. Coming right out of Parsons in the late 90’s, I joined my family business. After they sold their businesses and retired, my husband and I spun off into The Powell Companies Real, where we are today, and love every second of it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Meeting the inspiring business partner behind our newly launched activewear brand, PSK Collective, was the most interesting story that happened to me by far — Phaidra Knight. We were at a dinner when we first met Phaidra, who is an incredibly fascinating and warm woman who can kick anyone’s butt. Not only is she an attorney, social activist and philanthropist, but she’s also a legendary athlete who is in the Rugby Hall of Fame. I mean, come on! As accomplished as she is, she always talks about giving back to others and how many people we can help. It was an interesting notion to me that this inspiring overachiever with a type ‘A’ personality, is mostly involved so that she can give back, rather than personal ambition or gain. It is very rare to have that level of authenticity.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I saved Beyoncé’s Balenciaga dress from being given away. She left it in our showroom for a fitting for a big event, like The Grammy’s, who knows, and put it in a sample giveaway pile. She and her family are the salt of the earth, genuinely the kindest people you will ever meet and would not have even cared. Thankfully we caught it in time and returned it without any issue. What I learned from this experience was that in a very fast-paced environment like a fashion showroom, organization is KEY! From that day on, all items were catalogued and labeled as they should have been!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am fortunate to say that my family helped me start out and taught me everything in this business, so they are the obvious ones. However, my biggest Oscar’s-themed thank you goes to my husband, Steven Powell. He took on a big change with our business, The Powell Companies Real. Coming from Wall Street and being the founder of the world’s largest patent research online community, he is used to very sure-thing, analytic businesses, and fashion is definitely not that. However, he took a leap with me to start our business and I am so grateful he did.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
My number one stress reliever is exercise. Nothing helps me focus or mentally unwind like a good run or Peloton class. I have run three NYC marathons and I mostly do it because that’s the only time where I get a full day and night all to myself with my favorite person cheering me on and fawning all over me. What could be better? However, when I have a big meeting, I sometimes go for a brisk 15-minute walk around the block to clear my head, which helps me focus.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Not only is inclusivity important from a values and social justice standpoint, but plays a factor into overall success. Diverse companies are proven to attract the best candidates, and 67% of all candidates prefer a diverse work environment (Glassdoor). What’s more, is that inclusive companies enjoy a 2.3x higher cash flow than those that aren’t, and 70% of inclusive companies are more likely to capture new markets (Harvard Business Review). This information further drives the point that businesses must prioritize diversity and maintain an inclusive work environment and team.
Now more than ever, it is important for organizations to have a diverse executive team. Here at TPCR, we’ve always valued diversity and inclusion both within our team as well as across our client portfolio. We’re blessed to be working with a diverse range of designers, manufacturers, executives and partners that come from a variety of inspiring backgrounds.
We recently launched PSK Collective, the inclusive activewear brand created by World Rugby Hall of Famer and trail-blazing black female athlete Phaidra Knight, to further bring recognition to female athletes around the world. Partnering with Phaidra was a way for us to further carry out our mission of creating inspiring and meaningful designs that bring well-deserved recognition to women in both sports and life. The PSK Collective is a fusion of activewear and streetwear designed to push the boundaries of today’s fashion offerings, combining top trends with functional details to empower, inspire and unleash the inner athlete, as well as shift existing attitudes surrounding fashion, expression and equality. To further bring exposure and much needed recognition to female athletes around the world, the collection was launched in beneficiary partnership with the Women’s Sports Foundation.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
We have to start from the top down to set the examples.
1 . Ensure that more women hold board seats.
The US has one of the lowest percentages of women who hold board seats. In 2019, the percentage of female board members in the US was only 26.1%, while France had a total of 44%. There are numerous studies further outlining this point, and one of the most comprehensive is Credit’s Suisse study in 2012 which cites, “We find clear evidence that companies with a higher proportion of women in decision-making roles continue to generate higher returns on equity, while running more conservative balance sheets. In fact, where women account for the majority in the top management, the businesses show superior sales growth, high cash flow returns on investments and lower leverage.” This further shows that having more female board members, and overall equality within leadership teams, is a win-win for all. Why not make it 50%?
2. Encourage companies to hire diverse candidates. Include minorities into the WOTC program and extend it to make it very lucrative for companies to hire.
3. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a federal tax credit available to employers who hire and retain individuals from target groups with significant employment barriers (e.g., veterans, ex-felons, etc.). Employers can claim about $9,600 per employee in tax credits per year under the WOTC program.
4. American businesses and our way of life is built on credit and the ability to borrow funds. Currently, minorities are very discriminated against when it comes to lending funds and mortgages, and there has to be a better way of modeling a lending structure that allows more minorities to build businesses, buy homes, get the education they want and truly be able to compete and thrive in an inclusive society.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO is the person who shoulders all responsibility. If anything fails, even from the most remote position, it will have the CEO’s name stamped on it.
I personally believe the most important part of my job is building the right team. A CEO should build a team of leaders and leaders build team of doers. That’s the most succinct way to describe what I do.
My day-to-day responsibilities include setting strategies, creating and approving budgets and meeting with leadership members to ensure the total company is achieving its plans and goals. I like to ensure we have a little fun here and there, too.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The first myth is that a CEO doesn’t have anyone to answer to. In reality, CEO’s actually have to answer to everyone! From investors, to the board, to the chairman, the list goes on and on.
Next is that a CEO doesn’t need to know everyone in her company. I think one on one interaction is the most important and building that bond and connection.
Lastly and most importantly is the misconception that CEO’s know everything — that’s why they are the CEO, right? That is so not true. I learn every day, whether it be from my team or our clients, and many days I get hit with the thoughts of “What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge is that any emotion displayed can be misinterpreted. From my experience, female executives tend to be much less emotive due to common misconceptions, and often can come across as inauthentic.
Other challenges include work life balance. I fortunately don’t have that issue since my husband and I work together, but a woman with a family working long hours is much more of a taboo than a man doing so. This feeling of guilt can lead to many strong capable women to take themselves out of the workforce.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought that after working so long and hard all these years, there would be more vacations now that I am a CEO!
In all seriousness, the one thing I wasn’t counting on was how many people I, and our company, could actually help if we do our job right. Suddenly, you’re not just trying to make a better life for your family. When you take on social causes, you are up late at night coming up with strategies to strengthen the company, all for the people who your achievements will help. I wasn’t counting on that, or how good that would actually feel!
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Specific traits include patience, skill, compassion and the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes.
I think that everyone can and should strive to be an executive, if that’s what they want. In one of Stanford’s mathematics classes, they teach the fact that people inaccurately believe that some are ‘math people’ while others aren’t. This was proven to be false, as anyone can in fact be a ‘math person.’ It comes down to their ability and diligence to problem solve, which makes them better at math. I believe this theory can apply to anything. Managing and leading comes from learned skills, and anyone who wants to can learn those skills.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Allow leaders to lead. Allow them to have a voice, opinion and clear path to doing things their way. If you allow your team to strategize the work you hired them to perform, they will actually be more productive than simply laying out a plan and asking them to implement it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I think PSK Collective is the best example of how we will make the world a better place. We give back, with 15% of our profit benefiting the Women’s Sports Foundation. We will bring global attention to unequal pay when it comes to athletics, as well as help young women thrive and grow in all aspect of their lives. We will help make the world a more inclusive place, starting with women in sports.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t think of clients as clients — think of them as partners. Your success and their success is intertwined. Make them feel that.
- Be prepared for anything and everything. Expect the very worst case scenario and build your business around it. Consider anything, like a major tariff war, a global pandemic, and then civil unrest… you never know.
- Prepare your family to know that sometimes work will be priority. If you say otherwise, you are lying to both them and yourself. Explain all of the good things that can come from it as well as the cycles of your work, so that there is no surprise if you have to miss a play or two during market week.
- Surround yourself with likeminded individuals. If they are sympatico, it won’t work, no matter how good they are.
- Don’t make decisions on lack of sleep.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My husband and I are very strong supporters of gender equality in the workforce. We are dedicating the rest of our career to help right this wrong and start with equal number of men and women in the workforce, with equal pay and the same opportunities offered for all. This is our greatest passion and we are working toward this goal. PSK Collective will have a big hand in this movement as we are building the female powered Nike or Under Armour. We will focus our goal on equality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I am easily satisfied with the very best.” –Winston Churchill
I didn’t say I wasn’t a perfectionist.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I can name two: Melinda Gates and MacKenzie Scott for sure. They just started a drive for a $30 million grant for non-profit groups who foster gender equality. I would love to bring PSK Collective to their attention and talk about how we can expand that initiative to reach for profit organizations as well.
I also believe they have stepped out of the roles of being someone’s significant other to achieving strong personal successes and growth that helps millions of people.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.