Athifa Ali - A Value-added Decision Maker

Monday 31st of August 2020

Athifa Ali - A Value-added Decision Maker

She has always had a flair to study. She was a bright student in school and has gotten double promotions to show for it. She also passed the final CIMA exam in the first sitting to become the first chartered management accountant in Maldives. Do you know that on an average, less than 30% of students achieve this? The cherry on top is the MBA that she completed while living alone with her two young sons in London.

Now you might think we are only going to talk about her academic achievements, but there's more. Athifa Ali shares with us her incredible journey of over 3 decades working in the corporate world.

"Growth and opportunities will come when you seek them." - Athifa

Athifa currently serves as the Director, Corporate Services at Dhiraagu, interestingly the only female member in the Senior Executive Management. With a focus on unmatched services, she contributes to the team's work towards providing a world-class digital services to the people of Maldives. She is also the Chairperson of the Board at the Pension Office, Athifa's 3rd term counting. Her managerial experience in key areas of finance, business development, strategic management and a strong focus on governance is put to effective use in adding value to the smooth running of the Pension Office.

We started with academics because it was fundamental in Athifa's upbringing and career. Athifa's parents moved to Male' from S. Hulhudhoo in the mid 1970s to pursue better education opportunities available in the capital city for the children. Her father who was also well educated and having served as island/atoll chief for many years, always considered education as priority and encouraged them to learn as much as they could.

"For me, family values are very important. They have been the most supportive people in my life." - Athifa

By nature, Athifa was well behaved and spent most of her time at home in a happy environment with her big family. School holidays were looked forward to eagerly because the family would travel back to the island. She thoroughly enjoyed studying and was recognized for her good scores in EPS with double promotions between grades. She finished O'level among the top students in her class. In the break of 6 months that followed, Athifa worked at a Bank for some initial work experience.

Athifa left to Bangalore, India afterwards for her A'level studies. The complete change in scenery from being with her family at home to suddenly having to adjust to life abroad in the hostel of Mount Carmel College was, looking back, an experience Athifa is thankful for. Living and studying abroad gives you an exposure to an international community with so many new learning experiences. It allows you to naturally work on your communication and relationship building skills. You gain a sense of understanding when you get to involve with people of different cultures in person.

"A journey abroad will open your mind to a lot of possibilities." - Athifa

In Athifa's words, she would encourage every one of you to have as much similar experiences as possible. Talking from experience, she noted the obvious difference among candidates with broad world views and those who lack the exposure when they walk into an interview. If youth are to succeed, Athifa says that working on how you present yourself is the first step.

As expected, Athifa completed pre-university certificate (A'level equivalent) focusing on Accounting and Commerce. She developed a special interest for accounting during her studies. After she returned back home in 1987, Athifa started applying for jobs for accounts related posts. Pretty quickly, she got a revert back from Dhiraagu but since there was no vacancy at the finance section at the time, she was offered an alternative post at customer services. Athifa took the job and is counting her 33rd year with the organization today.

The first year at work was an eventful year for Athifa. While working in customer services, she also got married and had a baby. By the end of the year, she had moved to the finance section. One thing Athifa loves about Dhiraagu is that staff are given numerous training and development opportunities. Her first opportunity presented as a Diploma in Accounting and Finance, a chance given to selected 3 staff from the section. Athifa considered it to be lucky as the most junior staff to get selected at the time.

The course was a distance learning program of 1 and a half years. Every 6 months, they had to attend a 1 week outstation training as part of the program. Athifa outperformed herself and came out on top of her batch which consisted of international participants. She was very proud of her achievement. It was only made possible with the support of her family and seniors.

Being a woman, handling work and home can be a tough thing. Luckily for Athifa, her family was her backbone. They encouraged her to work hard, allowing her to climb the ladder of success in her career. She was never made to feel like her role was to sit at home. Athifa worked in different areas in the finance department, from financial accounting, accounts payable to billing to credit control, management accounting and so on. The promotions were opportunities for her to learn new things in the field.

Athifa decided to go for further studies and planned to apply for a degree abroad. At this point, the senior management had noticed the genuine effort Athifa puts into her work. It was a good coincidence that she was offered a distance learning CIMA course along with a few other colleagues. Things were about to get very challenging after that.

"I like taking challenges and overcoming them." - Athifa

Athifa was full time working mother and studying at the same time again. She had to travel between London, Colombo and Singapore for classes and exams in addition to self-studying at home and working full time in a demanding job. Athifa is much grateful for her seniors at the office who were fully supportive and encouraged her all the way to completion of the studies at such challenging conditions. She was allowed to take study breaks to prepare for exams.

The friends Athifa made at work at that time are some of her most special friends now. Friends at work really do bond together for a lifetime. From tea room gossip and laughter to work trips abroad with colleagues, they became something no less than a family.

3 years later, Athifa completed CIMA in 2001. She considers it her biggest achievement and with good reason. Out of all the colleagues who participated initially in the course, Athifa was the only one who made it through. She also passed the final exam in the first attempt itself, something only few are able to do. She also became the first qualified chartered management accountant to qualify and be registered as an associate member of CIMA in 2001.The achievement was not only because Athifa was always good at studies. She is dedicated and focused on her work when need be.

Youth today sadly waste too much time not taking things seriously. Back in her day, distractions such as internet and mobile phones were not a common thing. According to Athifa, if young people spent more time focusing on what they can do outside their comfort zones rather than at coffee tables, we would see many self-made individuals in the society.

"Allocate some time every day to work productively on self development." - Athifa

Athifa thrived through a tough situation and the push to excel from her superiors and management only made her want to contribute more to the organization. She was already planning her career pathway and wanted to do an MBA. On a company funded scholarship, Athifa left to Bradford University School of Management in UK with her two sons. For nearly 1 and a half years duration of the course, she had managed between uni and taking care of her children mostly by herself. Who says women can't multitask and do it well?

When Athifa returned back to work after her MBA, a new offer was on the table for her. It was a promotion to a Senior Manager post at the newly formed corporate and legal services section at Dhiraagu. Athifa hesitated since it was a new field but with encouragement from her seniors, she took the challenge as another learning opportunity. This was the beginning of her work in the business strategy formulation, legal and regulatory area. She also led the international business development team, regional operations and legal and regulatory department in various capacities. In the present day, Athifa is leading the Corporate Services as the only female member of the Dhiraagu ExCom reporting directly to the CEO.

"Women bring balance to the work environment and make a big positive difference in the decision making process." - Athifa

One of Athifa's current priority areas include empowering women in the work environment. Many females join the work force at junior levels and as you move up the hierarchy, gender imbalance becomes more significant. Athifa has seen teams led by females perform better as they bring a more balanced, value-added decision making to the process. She is the head of Women Empowerment Committee in Dhiraagu.

In 2009, the Pension Office was formed under the Maldives Pension Act. Upon referral from a friend, Athifa applied to be a member of the Board. To her surprise, she was elected as the Chairperson of the Board. It was one of the first Boards where majority members - 6 out of 8 - were females and until now, this was one of the best Boards Athifa had worked with.

It was an insightful experience working with the professionals in setting up and establishing the Pension Office structure and operations. They also played a key role in implementing the regulations and systems of one of the most reputed state institutions in the country. Athifa completed two 3-year terms as the Chairperson of the Board and was appointed for another term last year. She is proud of her journey with the Pension Office and her contributions to make it a well-run established institution serving the nation. Athifa received recognition as the 'Best Woman Chairperson in the Public Sector' from Women on Boards in 2019.

We can see that Athifa has made paramount progress in her career. Focusing on the long term, Athifa aims to become an independent businesswoman. She has acquired professional knowledge of business management over the years and would love to share it and provide consultancy to upcoming businesses and the community. Athifa is a key decision maker and supports the running of family owned trading and F&B business together with her son and husband. Athifa considers community growth as an essential part of the social economic progress and wants to contribute what she has learnt over three decades to the community.

"I advice youth to explore non-traditional sectors of work. There is more potential in the future there." - Athifa

Getting to know about Athifa's journey, we realize that if you focus, you can overcome any challenge and achieve big. Athifa urges the young generation to have a goal in mind. Opportunities will present themselves when you get out and seek it. Too many of us get lost in the crowd doing things as they have been traditionally done. It is time to think outside the box. If we have learnt one thing from the pandemic, it is that the future is in the digital field and as Athifa says, girls and boys alike have ample potential to make a difference if they are willing to seek unique opportunities.

Our dreams are often inspired by iconic figures in the fields we are interested in. To Athifa, there are many. She follows and reads about billionaires like Warren Buffet, great leaders like Barack Obama and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins. Reading is a hobby she enjoys as much as morning bicycle rides. When you read about people's journeys, it opens up your mind and helps you in mapping out your pathway to success.

"Never stop learning; The best investment you can make is in yourself." - Athifa

Value the time you have now. Athifa feels like time flew in a blink since she joined work. If you love what you do, moments of victories will overpower what seems like ages of hardship. Are you ready for the challenges ahead?