I started as a receptionist – Zain Asher, CNN anchor
Zain Asher is a business and personal finance correspondent for CNN, where she appears across platforms covering the latest news on money and the economy. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, she advised women on how they can excel in journalism. She also spoke on how she built a successful career for herself. Excerpts:
Could you please, tell us how your journey in journalism has been and how you have excelled in your career?
I haven’t always excelled to be honest and really want young people in Nigeria to understand that success is not a straight line. There are always bumps along the way. There are always roadblocks and traffic lights on the way. I started off as a receptionist. That was my first job out of university. I was a receptionist for almost four years.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with being a receptionist but I did not want to remain a receptionist. I wanted to move up within this production company but that never happened, no matter how many times I asked for promotion, it never happened. If you are not meant to be doing a job, it is better that you find out sooner than later so that you can make the appropriate changes.
So, when I realised the job was not for me and the promotion was never going to happen, I sat down and asked myself what I wanted to do and what I really loved and that for me was journalism. I studied journalism in Grad school. It was hard for me to get a job when I graduated. So, I decided to try my luck with this production company. When that did not work, I went back to journalism. And I really worked hard.
I am a resourceful person. When I resigned, I got my roommate at the time to film me with a camera around California, basically pretending to be a reporter. I put together packages and visual stories, hoping that I could send it to a TV station and they would hire me. I didn’t have much experience then though but I had studied enough for what it took to put together an honest story and I could do it. So, I sent this to a station in the New York area. They agreed to bring me on an interview. I went to New York, did the interview and even when I didn’t have any experience, they were impressed that I had the tenacity and the drive to put together this tape myself, teach myself how to put together those stories and how to do stand-ups. So, they gave me a job on the spot.
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There are so many lessons in that for young people because I could have easily told myself that I didn’t have any experience, so it would be difficult to get a job at the station. But you don’t know unless you try. So my message is for people to just try.
Another piece of advice in journalism is, ‘Have a specialty.’ Find something that you can offer that few people can also offer. I got my start from Business Journalism. I studied Business news. I largely taught myself and that really helped me because I had something to offer besides just being a general assignment reporter.
There is this perception that journalism takes a lot of time, as people consistently have to break stories and stay on them. So, it’s difficult for a married woman to thrive in this field. What is your take on this?
In Nigeria I have heard a lot of stories among female journalists about how hard it is to break into leadership roles. Someone told me that in press conferences, they are not taken seriously; that rising through the ranks to be managers is difficult here. I am personally very lucky because at CNN I have been given a lot of opportunities. I became an anchor after joining the company for about a year and half; which is unheard of.
During the International Women’s Week, the whole point is ‘Breaking the Bias.’ This is what everyone is talking about. But I think that we need to see more women supporting women. Women who have managed to rise to the ranks, especially entrepreneurs; I love the idea of seeing more of those women take younger women under their wings to show them how they did it.
The entrepreneurial spirit is one thing that Nigeria has to offer the world. It is so amazing here. The talent and motivation among male and female entrepreneurs is amazing. Everyone knows Mo Abudu, she has done really well for herself. But I hope to see more female entrepreneurs in the media space. And I want to see more people who have managed to achieve a lot in the media space helping other women do the same.
Would you wish for your child to follow in this pathway of yours?
I want my children to be happy and to do what they love to do. As a mother, my job is to expose my children as much as possible to everything, even though they are very young so they can pick what they are going to fall in love with. Because there is no point forcing a child to do what a child doesn’t love; nobody wins in this particular situation. I am a journalist and I have done very well. My brother is an actor and he is doing very well. If my mother had forced him to become a doctor, it would not have worked out. It worked out because my mother was very supportive of our dreams and because I grew up in that kind of household, I am going to do the same for my children.
What motivates you to keep going on?
I am a spiritual person and I believe in God and I also believe that as someone who has been blessed so much, I have the responsibility to bless others. People reach out to me and if somebody has taken the time to track me down and find my email address and ask me for help and advice especially, I will do what I can. I think I have done that for a lot of people. That is what motivates me to keep going; knowing that I am here to share information but really to serve and that is what keeps me going.
How is it like being in an interracial marriage?
It is normal. It is the same as being in any other marriage. Obviously there are some challenges to it. After George Floyd, race really became a vocal point of discussion in the country. I think that was a great awakening in the United States because people really began to see that there were big race issues that we needed to wake up to address. I did notice that a lot of corporations and a lot of companies began to take racial representations and diversity much more seriously. Companies started dedicating a certain percentage of their space to black-owned businesses. It became that much important to lift up black owned businesses and black owned brands. In terms of my marriage to my husband, I assure you that the marriage is perfectly normal.
Were your parents in full support of your marriage?
My father passed on when I was young, so I just grew up with my mum. My mother was one hundred percent supportive. My mum loves my husband. My mother and my husband talk all the time. They have a really good relationship. My mother just saw that I was happy. My father died when I was five and my mother was about 36 years old. She never remarried, so it has been quite lonely for her. So, when she saw that I had met a man that I was in love with and really happy to be with, she supported us.
You wrote a new book. What is the book about?
The book is titled ‘Where the Children Take Us.’ This is about my mum’s resilience and courage. It is really a celebration of her because in September 1988, my mother got a phone call and she didn’t really know who the person was when she answered the phone. But the voice on the other end said to her that her husband and son were involved in a car crash and one of them was dead but they do not know which one. My mum went all the way to Nigeria not knowing if she was going to bury her husband or her son. My father and my brother were on a road trip in Nigeria during the car crash. So she got that phone call and it really shattered the family because it was so much pain and heart break.
So, the book is really about how this woman who was a single mother, widow and immigrant in the UK managed to raise four children who succeeded every possible expectation. I work at CNN, my brother is an actor, my sister is a doctor and my other brother is a successful entrepreneur. So, people are going to ask how she did it and they always ask. This book explains how she did it. The people who are going through hard times can draw some inspiration from it.