Khoja entrepreneur Azra Kazim Kermali has won an Integrity Award from a New York organisation dedicated to revitalising neighbourhoods, breaking barriers and helping to further economic justice for all.
Azra is CEO of Plaques by Azra, which offers custom-made plaques, banners and signage. She took over her family business more than two decades ago and has shared her success story at numerous business mentoring opportunities, both to become a better small business owner herself and to inspire others to follow in her entrepreneurial footsteps.
The award was made by Accion at its Annual Access to Opportunity Awards Luncheon to recognise visionary small business owners.
“This event is a great opportunity to celebrate the individuals at the forefront of changing our economic landscape by championing small business ownership,” said Paul Quintero, CEO of Accion in New York.
“Minority women have a place in the business world”
In a powerful acceptance speech, Azra told how she had overcome daunting challenges to find her place as a Muslim businesswoman – and was dedicated to giving back to help others.
“I have had the opportunity to show the world who I am as a Muslim woman,” she said. “Minority women have a place in the business world. I was shown the importance of empowerment and made a promise to always give back.
“After finding my voice and realising the power it had, I was fuelled to help others find theirs. Fortunately, I have been able to travel to many different countries and work with under-served communities to try to give them hope, inspiration and support in any way I could. I believe we all have the capacity to do so and I urge everyone here to try. If anyone here feels even a little inspired to do something, donʼt hesitate before taking action. Let us commit and invest.”
Close to disaster
Azra told the audience how she had built up her family’s business, only to see it almost fail in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive in the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, causing nearly $70 billion of damage. It was at this point that Accion provided vital help, she said.
“My family immigrated to Queens, New York from Tanzania with a dream to build a better life,” she explained. “My parents founded Plaques by Azra when I was born and worked tremendously hard to grow the business. Growing up, the store became my second home. I did my homework there on a daily basis and realise that subconsciously I was learning many lessons on how to properly run a business.
“I was fortunate to see how their synergies came together and kept the business running throughout the years. Eventually I started working for them and a few years ago, I officially took over.
“As with any business, there are ups and downs, however. There was a point we were getting hit bad. We faced a bad economy, and were challenged with fast-changing technology. To add to this, our office was damaged by Hurricane Sandy and I didn’t know where to turn for help.”
Azra continued: “At this pivotal moment, I was introduced to Accion. I applied for a loan but I got so much more than that – the relationship we’ve been able to establish is truly unbelievable. Not only was it a monetary relief but a network and support.”
She told how she always took pride in her Tanzanian roots and how her favourite African quote was, “It takes a village”. Accion had expanded the “village” supporting her and taken her to new heights.
With encouragement from the Tory Burch Foundation, which advances women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship, she changed the way she operated her business and found new belief in herself. She was selected for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program and said: “It’s truly difficult for me to put into words how grateful I am.”
Inspiration from our Creator
She said: “My inspiration comes from many sources, our Creator, my parents, my son, my family and all my teachers and mentors, the people who have helped me understand our purpose in life.” And she dedicated her award to her husband Kazim, saying: “If any one individual has taught me about the importance of integrity, it is Kazim.”