Saiyyidah Zaidi. Saiyyidah Zaidi In 2010, Saiyyidah Zaidi was living in London, working as a program director for the government earning about £100,000 ($170,000) a year. At the time, she was responsible for a budget of £500 million and over 50 staffers.
“Senior jobs like that don’t come easy, and I spent my whole life with that ambition to be a Muslimah, hijab-wearing chief executive of a local authority in the UK,” she says. “I got within an inch of it and realized I didn’t want it anymore.”
Increasingly frustrated by the decisions being made around her, dismayed by the 12-hour days that kept her away from her two children, and spurred by budget cuts that “would affect the lives of millions of people,” the now 42-year-old decided to pursue a different path.
“I thought, ‘there is no other option,’” she says. “I knew I had to leave. I didn’t care what I was going to, I just knew I had to get out of there. For me, my well-being and happiness is the most important thing.”
Zaidi and her husband, a teacher at an independent school, had made a habit of living off one salary. When Zaidi, the primary earner in the family, decided to leave her job, the family income went from six figures to $25,000 overnight, she says. They had about six to nine months worth of living expenses saved, and Zaidi took half a year to reflect on what she’d do next.
“I had this informal arrangement where I’d coach up-and-coming managers if they would coach people on my team, and I realized that’s a skill set that I have, and that there was something I could do with it,” she says. She started learning more about her options and taking professional development classes, even traveling to Toronto in 2010 for a course on setting up an online business.
At first, Zaidi started one-on-one coaching individuals who wanted to change paths in their careers, and set up a blog on the side. “As I started to blog, and as my knowledge of the online business thing grew, I realized the easiest ways to make the difference I wanted to make and be home for my family was to put my business online,” she says.
“My first project was to create a practical dialogue between employers and the Muslim workforce,” she says. “Unfortunately there’s extremes on both sides, and I wanted to create something that was effective. People started to come to me for the last few years, but working with them one on one, there’s only so much I could do.” She set up her first online business, a site to help people leave their jobs to start their own businesses, in January 2011.
Zaidi and her family in Cairo. Saiyyidah Zaidi In April 2015, Zaidi’s mother told her of a friend who was offered an incredible job, but felt unable to take it because she couldn’t afford childcare. “I was so angry, because she is so talented and could crush it in that job,” Zaidi says. “I thought, ‘that’s enough.’”
Inspired by her friend’s challenges, Zaidi set up a new website: Millionaire Muslimah, where in addition to free content, she offers a “12-step millionaire MBA startup system” to guide Muslim women who want to start their own businesses. The system costs $1,997 and is meant to be taken over 12 weeks. Her own business broke the $1 million mark in 2015, and between her course and her coaching, Zaidi now earns around $10,000 a month.
She plans to use earnings from Millionaire Muslimah to offer over 10,000 microfinance loans to women in the developing world.
Zaidi and her family currently live in Cairo, Egypt, where they moved in 2014, driven by the desire to expose her children to a different lifestyle and for the family to learn Arabic. In a few years, the family – her children are currently 11 and 9 – will move again, probably to Malaysia.
“The quality of my life here is so much higher than it was in London,” Zaidi says. She says she spends a maximum of five hours a week talking to coaching clients. “I do it at 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. – the kids aren’t even aware I’m doing it. If I’m doing content creation or launching a product, it becomes more of a full-time job, but that only lasts for a few weeks.”
“I wish I’d known what I know now 20 years ago,” she says. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gone to university, but I might have approached life very differently. I think formal education is important, but if you don’t have business and life skills, you’ll have a lovely piece of paper but no job. It’s our responsibility to change that now.”
“No matter how much progress you’ve made in your career, your life, if you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it,” she advises. “We only live this life once, and I don’t want to wake up when I’m old with any regrets. I would never ever have imagined doing what I’m doing now, and the opportunities I’m able to offer to my kids are significantly more.”