My name is Azra Khalfan, and I'm the CEO of Plaques by Azra. Our company was started by my parents, AunAli and Shirin Khalfan, over 40 years ago. We basically digitally print and engrave awards and signs right here in New York City. Our facilities are over 35 years old; we try and update our machinery every so often, keep up with technology and new trends and innovative designs as well. I am someone who does not like to give up. I'm someone who's not afraid – I'm only afraid of God, really – and I will always try to respect people, but I'm not really easily scared.
Tell us about your career journey.
My career journey kind of just happened. I really chose a different path, growing up. I ended up getting married at a young age, moving to Tanzania, and became a housewife. And when I moved back to the USA, I went to school, I pursued an education. It was when my father needed help and my mom needed help in the office, that I started paying more attention to our company. And really it wasn't because I wanted to make anything out of it; I just really wanted to serve them. They were amazing parents and I felt an obligation. So realistically, that's how it began. Just someone trying to do good, and it wasn’t for growing the company or making a killing or anything like that. It was just to get by and to help them.
Over time, it took me about 15 years to just keep the company afloat. The economy was doing really bad, people did not need awards, our signage was interior and we would always get outbid. So I literally spent about 15 years just keeping the lights on. And I think that we were at such a low point during Hurricane Sandy, and our signs on the facade were literally ripped off the building. We needed some help, and I was so broke at that time, it was then that I actually approached New York City for a small business loan. I got the loan and I was referred to a micro lender who went more money to us, and put me in touch with the Tory Burch Foundation who then put me in touch with the Goldman Sachs Foundation. One thing led to another and I basically all-in-all got mentoring, I got funding, I got an education – it's almost like I completed an MBA with the Goldman Sachs Foundation program – and I also got a lot of free publicity.
So I would have people writing about us, and sharing that, and as people learned our story they found it really strong and compelling. Maybe because it was a family business. Maybe because we kept our lights on for so long – we kept our lights on for more than many corporations do. So I find that people found that a little interesting and so the success story starts there, when people became more and more interested. During my 10,000 Small Business Program, I made it a point – you know we had a little growth strategy – and I said, ‘you know what, I'm going to concentrate on being a minority woman owned business, and see how that's going to take off with corporations where I find it's going to be a more profitable.’ And hopefully our company after all these years again we'll chart and profit. And my focus has been, ever since that, just concentrating on these companies and it's getting somewhere now. So it's really good to see that whatever help that they put out there really worked.
What are your top accomplishments?
My first accomplishment that I find that makes me proud every day is my son. It's not what he does; it's why he does it. Which makes me really happy. He's graduating this year as a biomedical engineer. He hopes one day to help people in third-world countries that need prosthetic hands, or something to empower them and keep them mobile and not dependent on other people. We take for granted small things just like movement and hands and the freedom and the ability to get around, and many people have difficulties especially in the third-world countries. So that's something that really warms my heart. It makes me just so happy, and a proud mom.
Another accomplishment that I find makes me happy is knowing that I was able to keep my father and my mother's legacy alive. As I said, I spent a long time just keeping the company afloat and I know it meant the world to my father and my mother. So for them to see where this company is going now makes them really very happy. And I just think that that's why I started the business or that's why I got involved – for me to see them able to witness what's going on now it makes me really very happy. It makes everything all worth the while. And all these years that I just hung in there for the ride – it just makes me feel like I'm so glad I didn't give up.
How has your Background Influenced Your Success?
I find that my Muslim background plays a role. I think it brings to the table authenticity. I can’t hide who I am; it shows the second I walk into a door. They know exactly who I am, and I'm not here to hide it. I find people love the fact that I can be who I am, and not have to pretend to be someone else. My name is always Azra Khalfan, I am always covered, I love black – it's not because I have to wear it. And they appreciate that.
My background and my parents, the upbringing, has really shaped everything about my life. My moving to Tanzania and living there for six years; although it was really very difficult, a culture shock, you know rationing of water, electricity, I lived through it all. And it was really difficult as a 19 year old to have that type of environment to live in. But I find that that made me so much more of a better human being. It allowed me to realize that everything that we have here, we should be grateful for – whether it's education, whether it's freedom, whether it's something as simple as running water – I think it's important for us to be grateful for that and not take it for granted. And I think I find that with gratefulness comes an abundance. Always. So every small step of the way, I always turn back and remember, ‘be grateful, be thankful, and appreciate what you have, because it could be a lot worse.’ And it makes me a happier person on a daily basis, not to dwell on things that I don't have but to be grateful for the things that I do have.
We were brought up in New York City. I was never forced into wearing the hijab. They gave me that freedom. We had the freedom of education. But yes they did instill the love of community. It's more like they walked the talk, and they were good role models for me to look at. We were involved with the community, so we learned the importance of giving back from a very young age. My sister, my brother and I, we used to see the sacrifices that they used to make for people and we realized that they paved the way for us. And so I do appreciate their commitment.
With regards to our company in our business, they paved a good path for us there as well. They always conducted their business in a fair and just manner. Ethics was very important. Honesty. Integrity. And I find that people really appreciate that. And maybe there's not an immediate gain, but in the long term you retain your clients because they value that more than a lot of other things. And this also helped us to stay in business for so many years. I do believe in that.
Please share your thoughts on the P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles.
The P.O.L.I.N.G.® is actually a very inspiring model. I love the fact that it is the founder and of Inspiring Diversity’s mom who this idea came from. I personally look up to my mother so much for inspiration and guidance, and when I heard of this I was actually like, ‘wow this is beautiful and very well laid out.’
My two letters that I'm going to pick are (P)riorities and (I)nspiring. ‘Priorities’ because for me, I find that once I start putting priorities in my life, everything else seems to flow really well. For me faith and belief have been central. My Islamic faith instills in me the necessity to give back, to have respect, to be honest. All good things come from there. And once I start doing that, everything else falls in place in my belief. It's important to provide for my family. It's important to be independent. It's important to get up every morning and do something and not just wait for things to fall on my lap. It's actually part of my faith to get up and do something and to make a change.
I love the fact that the Prophet’s wife was such a successful businesswoman. And I think of her all the time – her name is Khadija – and how much more difficult it was for her at that time in a world where men were controlling everything, and this is like thousands of years ago. And I find that it's inspiring, how she was so successful and so honest and was able to partner up with one of the most respectable person in my life. So for me, she's an inspiration. And it makes me want to get up every day and do something and make a change like she did.
The second principle is ‘Inspiring’, and inspiration is something more like a flow - a give and a get. We get inspired by someone or something, and we inspire other people without even realizing. I wouldn't even think it's that I've actually inspired someone; it's only until they come and tell me that ‘hey, your being present at this event meant so much to me.’ And I say, ‘wow, it's something so small. Something that I didn't even think about that would impact someone.’ Or something that I may have said or done. And I find that when you open yourself up to be inspired, you will end up inspiring other people.
Tell us more about your beliefs.
There are times where, as a Muslim company, I choose not to do work with businesses or companies that are against or contrary to some of my belief systems. And so initially I was a little bit concerned about saying ‘no’ to people, but I think I'm very okay and candid about it now and I'm saying, ‘I'm sorry I would love to do this, but I can't because it involves alcohol so I'm going to have to pass.’ And people appreciate that. I'm being honest, and I think that's what everybody wants.
For many years in my career I stayed behind a desk and I was shy to put my face forward. You couldn't find any photos of me on the Internet, and I went out to meet clients. I would avoid going to events, literally. And I realized once I was on a flight going to Dubai and I was seated next to this executive. He stayed to himself pretty much the entire flight – it's a long flight – but a few hours before we landed, I started a conversation with him and we were immediately exchanging so much information. He told me what he did and I told him what I did. And he was an executive at PepsiCo, and he spoke about how amazing their CEO is and how her principles have really been a factor in the success of PepsiCo. It was at that time that I think he was trying to communicate with me that just because I'm different doesn't make me anything less. I can be who I am and my principles are really what makes me who I am; and not my outward appearance. And I appreciate him so much all the time. He didn't say it to me in plain black and white, but I think he planted a very important speed in me wanting to develop myself further. And now I go everywhere and do everything.
Who have been your greatest influences?
My greatest influencers have to be my parents. We were really close and we still are. I admire them, I see how people admire them, and it makes me want to be like them. I find what's amazing about my mom and what I love most about her is how she's always so well composed and puts her best foot forward. I obviously know when things are not good, but when she's faced with the world she's always positive and really upbeat, which I think is amazing. I love that energy that she gives and I want it all from her. Her perspective in life is so wonderful. She’s grateful for what she has and content and that makes her a very pleasant person to be around.
What I learned from my dad is that it doesn't matter if I'm a woman, I can still do what I want to do. And he always encouraged me and supported me in every which way possible. And never limited me because I was a young girl, which I find I'm really lucky for what he's done.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
My advice to my younger self would be, ‘don't be afraid to ask for anything.’ There's been so many times where I've asked for something and I got it and people just don't believe it. They come and ask me, ‘how did this happen,’ and I simply say, ‘I asked for it and I got it.’ And so that's one of my best things that I picked up during the Goldman Sachs Foundation. My advisor was really very helpful, and he said to me, ‘don't be afraid to ask. Ask and it shall be yours.’
Please share your thoughts on diversity and Inspiring Diversity.
Diversity is really important. There's this verse that we have in the Holy Quran – it's in chapter 49 and it's verse 13 – and it speaks about how God has created people from different nations and different tribes so that we may learn from another and not despise one another. And he says the best from all of these people are the ones that are rightful, which makes me realize how important diversity is and how important it is to not be self-righteous. To always look for goodness that we can get from other people, and we can adopt it into our lives and apply it. And I think when you open yourself up to accepting other people and their differences, you're opening yourself up to so much more. And improvement, really. I find that when people, diverse people, are going to get together and share their thoughts and bring their different expertise into a room or into a network, so much good can come from there because we all have a very different point of view. And we may not all agree with each other but I'm sure we can find a way to work together and make things better.
In terms of Inspiring Diversity and the community that we're building, if we all come together with our different expertise and our different backgrounds, I'm sure we can make a huge impact in making this world a better place.
Bonus: Surprising Fact
I don't think anybody would believe that I'm such a good engraver, especially the guys that that supply the machines. When I swing by they just think that ‘oh, she's probably just looking,’ not realizing I can probably engrave better than they do.