By Polly Williams, Managing Director of TishTash Communications
When I relocated to Dubai in 2015, my main goal was to start a family. After a decade of working in a high-pressure job, managing multimillion-dollar revenues, and collaborating with top-level executives at major media agencies worldwide, I felt tired and uninspired by my career. With three years of marriage behind me, it felt like the right time to embark on the journey of motherhood. Three months into my new life in Dubai, I signed up for a gym, made a home, and binge-watched every episode of Grey’s Anatomy (I shudder to imagine the exact count), my initial lack of motivation transformed into a sense of isolation. It dawned on me that while starting a family was a priority, I couldn’t abandon my professional aspirations entirely—I wanted to achieve more.
Fast forward seven years, and I am now the Managing Director of TishTash, a proud mother of two daughters and two dogs, and happily married to my partner, whom I’ve been with since I was 20 years old. I am proud of how far I’ve come. But, juggling my roles as a boss, wife, mother, and friend presents challenges I never anticipated. What keeps me motivated and excited about work (most days) is knowing that I have the power to effect change within my organization. TishTash is dedicated to creating opportunities for women that can have a genuinely positive impact, showing them that they don’t have to compromise any part of themselves to build the career they desire.
The concept of how women can “have it all” worries me. Recent data has revealed that a staggering 2.4 million women have chosen to step away from the workforce, citing stress and a lack of work-life balance as significant contributing factors. This reinforces my determination to dismantle this societal construct and become a part of the movement that empowers women to prioritize their well-being and achieve their professional goals simultaneously.
During my interview at TishTash, I was three months pregnant, and I made it clear from the start. To my surprise, Natasha, the now-renowned CEO of TishTash, didn’t hesitate and simply asked, “Okay. When can you start?” At that moment, I realized that Natasha was building something truly different. She had created a business unlike any I had encountered before—a special one. TishTash was still a small team back then, with just eight members, led by a woman. This was a new experience for me, as every company I had worked for had several men in leadership positions.
TishTash was the first independently-owned organization led by a woman that I had come across. What made it even more exceptional was the compassionate and kind leadership. Many team members pursued passion projects on the side, which Natasha fully supported and even endorsed, all while respecting working hours. Late nights were a rarity. The women I had worked with and under before had quite honestly been mean and aggressive and naturally, I always gravitated towards my male bosses as mentors, because in truth, they seemed to have less of an agenda than the women who were so focused on their own careers that they neglected others on their way up. This may sound harsh, but it in all truth, was my experience. We may have been small back then, but since its inception, Natasha knew what she wanted to create, even if she hadn’t found the time to articulate it…just yet.
Less than six months into my role as Account Director, I found myself bouncing on a medicine ball during a phone call with my largest client— while in labor. My husband urged me to end the call, reminding me that having a baby was more important than dealing with difficult clients. I had gone into labor three weeks early and spent the initial hours responding to work emails and carrying on with my day as if nothing was happening. Then my baby girl was born and immediately rushed into intensive care. After five agonizing days of not being able to hold her, endless tears, and exhaustion, she started to recover, and a few days later, we brought her home.
It was then I had a realization, one that continues to stay with me. As women in the workforce, we cannot have it all. If we attempt to, without adequate support structures in place, we will stumble. But who will help us rebuild? My years in male-dominated corporations have conditioned me into believing that you can only be successful if you are seen to work harder than anyone else. Stay late, prioritize clients over all else, sacrifice your weekends, and then, maybe, you will get a raise, and maybe then, you will be recognized.
Soon after returning to work following the birth of my first daughter, I assumed the role of Managing Director at TishTash. The first thing I did was; put a formal flexible working policy for all employees. This task was relatively straightforward because Natasha and I bear sole responsibility for the fate of TishTash. This authority grants us the freedom to pursue initiatives that we believe will create a meaningful impact. Inspired by individuals like Anna Whitehouse, also known as @mother_pukka on social media, our flexible working policies foster both individual and collective accountability towards our clients and team members.
Building upon this foundation, we’ve developed additional initiatives to support our distinctive approach to work. These include hosting dedicated events for real mothers within the community and implementing initiatives to aid small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, our work has garnered attention from prominent global brands, while our profound understanding of the female consumer has allowed us to carve out a unique selling proposition (USP) in the market. This USP has propelled TishTash’s growth into a global agency with a strong presence across the GCC and the UK.
By prioritizing the empowerment of our workforce and fostering a thriving TishTash culture, we have achieved notable outcomes. These include heightened productivity, a significantly lower staff turnover compared to industry benchmarks, and remarkable improvements in performance and creativity. As a result, our work has been recognized with prestigious awards. Using our own experiences and the experiences of our team as the foundation, we have implemented a number of culture-led policies that I would argue are the primary reasons for TishTash’s success, alongside the collective hard work and passion of everyone in our teams.
Our most recent policy, which grants menstrual and menopause leave, has generated significant attention, stirring reactions from both men and surprisingly women alike. However, it has also shed light on the urgent need to address women’s health and well-being concerns seriously in order to prevent their forced exit from the workplace. By cultivating a culture of safety and trust within your organization, you can thrive in terms of both profitability and happiness. Remarkably, our staff turnover is less than 3%, with many team members having been with us for over six years. This achievement has translated into substantial business success, with a remarkable 50% year-on-year growth over the past three years. I take great pride in my accomplishments over the span of 39 years, and as a true feminist raising two daughters, I am committed to a cause.
Until we witness a greater number of female CEOs surpassing the count of CEOs named David (as reported by The New York Times), and until we address the persistent barriers that hinder women’s advancement in leadership positions (also known as the ‘broken rung’), and encourage women to take up leadership roles (considering the unfortunate trend where two women leave senior positions for every woman who ascends to a directorial role), I will continue to work from my little office in Dubai, supporting not only the women at TishTash but also those beyond our organization. As women at work, we cannot have it all, but we do have a responsibility to support each other to create an environment where we can have enough of all the things we want and deserve.
This piece was first published in Communicate's Women to Watch Issue 2023.