Born and raised in Sadiqabad, Rahim Yar Khan, 31-year-old Shahla Lal was drawn to sports from a young age. The baseball team captain in school and a tennis player to boot, she often found her calling on the sports ground, participating in, and winning, a series of inter-school competitions.
In fact, once years ago, a teacher suggested that she ought to pursue tennis professionally; a compliment she remembers to this day. Walking up to her cubicle in the COLABS flagship in Gulberg, one is greeted by a soft-spoken, immaculately dressed woman with a shy smile.
There’s a grounded energy about her, a presence that is rooted in calm self-assurance that comes from an emotionally stable upbringing, the kind where parents don’t just give their children the right encouragement, but also the much-needed autonomy to spread their wings to survive in the world.
Currently working as the Business Development Manager at Khantastic Ventures – a platform that supports Pakistani startups – in Lahore, Lal’s career arc has been an interesting one.
From graduating with a BS (Hons) in Psychology from Forman Christian College (FCC), interning at psych wards at various hospitals, to heading schools, she laughs when she states; “I’ve explored everything!”
“What I learned on the job really helped me in my career,” Lal says, while reflecting about her previous role as Vice Principal in 2018. “It was an incredible experience. But you know, whenever you’re in a senior position, you’re either hated or liked. And perhaps there are two meanings to this; if you’re liked, you’re probably doing something wrong, and if you’re hated, you’re probably doing something right.”
Working in a department full of men didn’t deter her either. Lal’s self-confidence is unique, particularly in a society where it’s easy to feel intimidated by climbing the ladder of success in male-dominated environments.
“Women shouldn’t shy away from leadership positions,” she states, “I never gave a second thought to the gossiping here and there about me, because I was only concerned about doing a good job and giving it my one hundred percent. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but from day one I’ve always felt that you should do your job so well that no one should feel the need to complain about your lack of output. Everything else doesn’t matter, at the end of the day it’s solely about your work.”
In work cultures, there’s a misconception that one needs to ‘crack the whip’ often, primarily if one is in a leadership position. But over the past few years, an authoritarian approach in the workplace is fast losing its steam. Instead, empathetic leadership, one that is inclusive, seems to be a far more effective, long-term approach in both team-building and team-leading.
But Pakistan still seems a little far behind in its archaic work systems. And perhaps there’s a cultural aspect too, what with the skewed belief that one is only respected if one is feared. How then, does Lal deal with this, given her past and current leadership positions?
“I’ve often been told that I shouldn’t be too polite and should be a bit stern in the workplace. But I’ve always told people that I can’t change my nature. I am who I am. If I can delegate work, I can delegate it by being polite,” she says. “I never allow unsolicited advice to demotivate me. It’s not a necessity to be rude, you can say the same thing with kindness and respect.”
Having worked out of COLABS since April, this year, Lal reveals that it took her a few weeks to finally decide to make the Gulberg campus her place of work. In fact, in her first month alone, Lal established a network of peers and friends, stating that she found the ambiance nothing short of “courteous,” and a “feeling of community,” something that she hasn’t found elsewhere.
“Progressing in your career is not a bad thing,” states Lal, when speaking of women in the workplace, “Know your strengths and do everything you can to eliminate notions of self-doubt. No one can take your talents away from you. Also, never, ever stop bettering yourself and your skills. Don’t let fear make you remain in your comfort zone.”