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Five things that made me

How Az got to where she is now

Five things that made me’ shares stories of senior leaders at Deloitte. This time, Az Ajam-Hassani, our Equity Capital Markets partner, tells her remarkable journey – and relatable learnings.

Meet Az

This is Az. She was born in 1980s Iran and grew up in a war zone. Ambition wasn’t an option when she was little, but an inspiring grandmother and a new life in the UK changed that. There were lessons learnt the hard way, but also opportunities to grow – and people who helped. Here’s her story.

1. Women want more

I was born in Iran in the 1980s and spent the first ten years of my life in a war zone. It was quite an unusual way to grow up, deep in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. It was a very conservative time. Women were expected to cover up – and still are. Society’s expectations were for girls to be ‘good’ - be homemakers, look after the children. My mum played that role in our family but always encouraged me to push myself, be well educated and worldly. My brother never treated me differently because I was a girl, he expected me to run, climb and ride a bike as fast as the boys.

Dad was the career guy. He was the first in his family to go to university and went to Oxford and Boston for his master’s before taking a job at a big bank. His journey was vast and showed me it doesn’t matter where your starting point is, your potential is limitless.

As a girl in Iran, ambition wasn’t really an option. I didn’t have a clear career path, but I knew I wanted to be financially independent and have a positive impact in the world. And my grandmother played a huge role in that.

She was a writer and a poet, very much in the public eye. She was an unusual character in a very conservative Islamic environment. I accompanied her to speeches and lectures and office hours as she inspired the literary minds of the time. She inspired me to want more.”

“My grandmother was an unusual character in a conservative Islamic environment. She made me realise women can do more – and inspired me to want more.”

2. A ticket out

"When I was eleven, my father was sent to the UK on a secondment with his bank. Everything was new and different, and I ended up going to a very rough school in North London. I still remember when the person in front of me in the lunch queue was stabbed on my first day.

I spent my teens just trying to stay away from trouble and drugs, hanging out in the park with friends. Then I’d go home and study, in secret, into the early hours. Luckily, I had some academic ability, so I focused on getting to university and building a different life. I was good with numbers, so after a two-week work experience at a small accounting practice, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

The London School of Economics was the best university to study accounting at, so despite Dad trying to manage my expectations, I went for it – and I got in. At university, I found my people. They guided me and filled in my career knowledge gaps, encouraging me to do summer work placements. In my penultimate year, I met some lovely Deloitte people at a graduate event, who told me about the summer scheme, where I could work and be paid and, if I did well, get a job offer. And that’s how it went.

My first three years at Deloitte were during the aftermath of the Anderson–Deloitte merger. There was a lot of change – it was all quite challenging. As a newbie from a very different background, the concepts of networking and selling yourself were foreign to me. I assumed simply having my name on the availability schedule was enough for work to come my way. So, while my peers excelled and built their careers, my career felt over before it even started.”

“I spent my teens just like everybody else, playing in the park and messing about. Then I’d go home and study, in secret, into the early hours.”

3. Building a community

“By chance, a short-notice, an IPO project to take a company public in China came up – and I was the only person available. In China, I had a wonderful director who was incredibly patient with me. He gave me feedback and pushed me to improve and to learn. He didn’t give up on me. He gave me the experience I needed to become a credible expert in a specialist area many didn’t know about. He gave me my USP – he didn’t just change my career and build my confidence; he changed my life.

I was fast-tracked to senior manager and asked to pitch for director earlier than my peers. But I wanted to gather some industry experience and see the world beyond Deloitte. So, I worked as a private IPO consultant for a couple of years, and I had my daughter. It gave me time to reflect on what I value in a job and what I want from a career, beyond financial reward.

I realised the core thing that gives me a sense of achievement and success is helping people, and that led me back to Deloitte – the place I felt I could help the most people. The thing I value most about the firm is that there’s this amazing circle of investment. We’re investing in other people’s development and teaching them, building their experience – and somebody is doing the same for you. My sponsoring partner and mentor taught me the value of sending the lift back down for the next generation.

I also find a lot of meaning in the work itself. When I meet clients about to navigate really complex IPOs and M&A transactions – something most people face maybe once or twice in their life – I see their stress and uncertainty and it’s great to be able to say, ‘don't worry, I do this every day and I'm going to support you through it.’ Being that calming influence in a pressured situation gives me a huge sense of purpose.”

“He pushed me to improve and learn. He didn’t just change my career and build my confidence; he changed my life.”

4. Paving the way

“When I came back to Deloitte, life felt full of trade-offs between pushing my career towards being partner while being the type of parent I wanted to be. If I hadn’t become a mum, I probably would have continued to work every hour and say yes to everything instead of learning to trust my teams, giving them the space and opportunities to lead.

But having my daughter forced me to change how I worked, to prioritise and be selective with the roles and responsibilities I chose so I didn’t overload myself as well as to focus on building a strong network. Having her made me a better leader and paved the way for me to become partner.

Earlier in my career, I made a promise to myself that if I ever had a small opportunity or influence, I would dedicate some of my time in supporting the next generation and opening doors for them. That’s why it’s a huge honour to be the lead partner for Inclusion in our Financial Advisory business.

To me, that simply means that regardless of any type of diversity or background you have, you have an equal chance of success, and you can go as far as you want to at Deloitte. When I see junior colleagues who started out as graduates make director or partner, it’s like it’s happening to me all over again – I’m immensely proud. It’s everything I ever wanted, to make a positive impact and help people.”

“Without my daughter, I would have never made partner. Having her forced the change in me that I needed to take the next step in my career.”

5. In the moment

“Over the years, I’ve learnt that success to me is about doing right by others and being generous. But you also have to be generous with yourself. Give yourself downtime, rest and be well because no title is worth it if you don’t look out for yourself.

You also need to be there for your friends and family outside of work. There’s no point having the biggest pay cheque and the best title if you can’t connect with the people you love because you’re burnt out. Time with my loved ones is really important to me, but being physically and mentally present takes real practice, especially with the intense jobs we have.

My advice to anyone reading is to figure out what you want, what you need to get there and ask for help. We all have mental barriers and insecurities and believe we don’t fit the ‘mould’. We all have moments of believing we’re not good enough. It’s human. But we can control how it affects our actions. We can either let it debilitate us and stop us, or we can use it as fuel to push us forward to reach places we never thought was possible for a person like us.

Also, make sure you don’t stay stuck in your comfort zone and be protective of what you’ve built so far. You may be the go-to person in your arena, but turned inwards, you might not see the world changes and evolves around you. Keep challenging yourself to learn more, to develop, to expand your skillset – you’ve always got to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.”

“Don’t let your insecurities and mental barriers stop you. Use them to fuel your ambition and push you forward.”

Five things we learnt from Az

1. It doesn’t matter where you started. It’s where you want to go.

2. Life is about learning. Welcome every lesson.

3. Your career isn’t about the outcome – it’s about the journey. Enjoy it.

4. If you’re in a position to help, do.

5. Don’t let your insecurities and mental barriers stop you. Use them to fuel your ambition and push you forward.

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