Black History Month is a time to celebrate the incredible contributions of Black women who have left an indelible mark on the travel and tourism industry. Women in Travel CIC is proud to shine a spotlight on remarkable individuals in our community, whose journeys have not only shaped the world of travel but have also broken barriers, shattered glass ceilings, and inspired future generations.
Today, we share the story of Hafsa Gaher who joined our Male Allyship Network Programme in Cohort 2 2021. She is now finding her strong voice to help the industry understand Muslim-friendly options in the tourism sector, is growing her own business and acts as a Mentor herself to help others in her community to progress and gain knowledge and experience.
Can you share a bit about your personal journey and what inspired you as a leader in your industry?
Growing up in East Africa, the inspiration of strong female role models was all around me. I have always tried to forge my own path and could not ever really accept an alternative to shaping my own journey – working for someone else did not ever quite fit. My mother in particular was an incredible inspiration and remains so to this day. She has always been a go-getter and never took no for an answer in a culture and at a time when she may have been expected to lower her aspirations. I often wonder what difference she could have made in the world if she had had access to the opportunities that today’s generations sometimes take for granted. She worked hard for the success that she had despite the limitations of her time and she instilled that sense of hard work into all of us from a young age.
This is an inspirational time to be alive and I am often heartened by the successes of others in the travel industry. COVID was a devastating time for many in the industry but it also developed a tight-knit community and brought about examples of people who were able to embrace a new journey and have gone from strength to strength since then. It makes me smile to think that this sort of success is within our reach and gives me something to aim for moving forward.
What do you consider to be your most significant achievement and how do you feel that this achievement has impacted or influenced the broader black community?
A wise person said that the most significant achievement is always the next one. In my case, I am getting ready to speak at this year’s World Travel Market in London where I will be discussing niche travel as part of a panel and raising the profile of Muslim-friendly tourism. I am more than a little nervous about it but I know that the small steps I have taken to get here have put me in a good place.
There are a number of prominent people who have inspired me and I hope to inspire others with my actions. However, I am conscious that these will resonate differently with black individuals who have multiple identities (for example, their different religions, backgrounds, cultures, experiences and perspectives). Some individuals or groups may find it inspiring and empowering, while others may have a different perspective. I am therefore grateful for the chance to influence those around me and have made efforts to promote those communities who are often under-represented in the more senior levels of the Tourism Industry.
As a result, I am proud of the impact that I have had as a mentee; firstly, within Women in Travel CIC but also in a wider sense as I have recently started a programme of mentoring for the tourism sector in Malawi. Working with the Malawian High Commission and making connections with black-owned businesses in the country to promote the incredible culture and people that have so much potential is a very rewarding experience and one that I hope goes on to bring success to others.
Talk about some of the challenges you faced on your path to leadership and how you overcame them
The challenges I have faced will be relatable to so many black women in business. Some people have seen limitations in my being black and a woman, as though there is a ceiling on what I can achieve. This has sometimes placed barriers in front of what could have been, either delaying or preventing opportunities. It can be disheartening and should be unacceptable in this day and age. However, it is often a matter of pushing past those barriers that you can and going around those that you cannot move. Overall, it means that it can take longer to be successful, but that success is ultimately sweeter when it does arrive.
We all face challenges, regardless of the success we have achieved. Some of those challenges are fair while others are drawn from prejudices. I think it has got better than when I first started but there is still more work to be done to make things easier for those coming through. At least we are talking about it now, which is a great step forward!
What advice do you have for black individuals aspiring to become leaders, especially in the face of adversity?
With so many voices in your ears, it is sometimes difficult to find your own voice. My biggest piece of advice is to stay true to your identity and values but not be limited by them when you are searching for inspiration. Just because I am a black woman it doesn’t mean that those are the only opinions I should seek out. There is something to learn from everyone and you can see best with your eyes open.
I suggest taking on every opportunity that you can. Some of the paths will lead nowhere and that is always frustrating. But I have been amazed at how some of the opportunities that I thought had led nowhere then served to teach me something later.
Finally, it is a cliché, but we should always be the example that we want to see in the world. Try to be just as inclusive when inspiring others, the relationships you make can be your best allies down the road.
How do you think the conversation around diversity and inclusion has evolved during your time as a leader?
When I first entered the tourism industry, discussions about diversity and inclusion were more muted, and there was a noticeable lack of focus on the topic. It was often brushed aside or considered secondary to other business priorities.
There were also limited forums for addressing these issues. However, as time went on, I observed a growing awareness within the industry. More organisations began acknowledging the importance of diversity and inclusion, not just as a moral imperative but as a business necessity. The platform is now there for real progress but the polarised views of today’s society have created a ‘them and us’ attitude which hinders growth and inclusivity.
One significant change I’ve noticed is the increased transparency in discussions. Companies are now more open to self-evaluation and are willing to share their diversity and inclusion efforts, whether they’ve succeeded or faced setbacks. This transparency has brought about greater accountability and an expectation for real progress.
On the flip side, there have been challenges too. The polarisation of views on diversity and inclusion is a concern. In today’s society, they are even starting to be seen as opposites, so to help one is to hinder the other. As a leader, I believe that we need to emphasise that diversity and inclusion are not about favouring one group over another but creating opportunities and an environment where all can thrive.
What steps do you believe are crucial in promoting diversity and inclusion in your industry?
Communication is key! We need to get to the root of why promoting diversity and inclusion in the tourism industry is beneficial. Why will it benefit companies to promote leaders from diverse backgrounds and mentor those coming up the ranks? Why are we promoting the concept of expanding hiring pools and encouraging inclusivity in decision-making roles rather than just hiring people based on how it looks to those outside? Tourism is a small world and building that community is vital.
There is more work to be done to educate others on the actual benefits of diversity and inclusion. I have had many conversations with people in several industries who are “doing diversity” because they think that they should rather than because they understand why. It is therefore reduced to token-ism and there is no actual progress made. A “diversity hire” is then often side-lined until they leave the industry and the status quo is maintained. Change is difficult but in a world that is moving faster and faster, it is necessary.
Connect with Hafsa: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hafsa-gaher-a41b55163/
Archer & Gaher Adventures: https://www.archergaheradventures.co.uk/