Sep 26th, 2016, 08:33 PM

Women Who Lead: a Parisienne #Girlboss

By Nicole Hanley
An Interview with Nadia Soufi, Founder of Paris For Her

I still remember when Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In first came out. I was in University, feeling a little bit lost and in need of some sort of guidance – and not spiritual guidance, for that matter. In fact, I needed exactly the opposite. I wanted a career mentor, someone whose path I found inspirational and whose values closely aligned with my own. I found all of this, and more, in Sheryl Sandberg's empowering words. Lean In inspired me to pick up similar tomes, like Tina Fey's Bossypants and Sophia Amoruso's titular #Girlboss, and slowly but surely I found myself becoming obsessed by the inspiring stories of these businesswomen. When I moved to Paris to start my masters, I wondered if I'd be able to find similar sources of career inspiration in my new city. 

It didn't take long until I found just that. I learned about Nadia Soufi, founder of the networking community Paris For Her, through an expat magazine lying around in Starbucks (I am aware that is possibly the most cliche sentence ever written). Made up of over 1,000 international members, Paris For Her seeks to create a space where women of diversified professional and personal backgrounds can meet up to discuss ideas, network, and ultimately feel a part of a unique community comprised of other working women. At a fashionable yet understated (the perfect antidote to describe Nadia herself) cafe in Le Marais, we chatted about the importance of developing your own network, dispelling the myth of Queen Bees, and creating a beautiful life by mixing business with a little wine related pleasure.

Nadia Soufi, Founder, Paris for Her. Photo Credit: Nadia Soufi

Upon meeting, Nadia is instantly warm and welcoming, inviting me to sit in the booth where she is sipping a green juice (yes, a green juice in ParisI was shocked as well). After exchanging pleasantries, I ask Nadia just how the concept of Paris For Her came about.

"Well, I had started my own translation and interpretation agency in Germany in 2005, and in 2011 I moved to Paris, with no social or professional network here," she said. "My goal [in Paris] was to establish a new office, and I really had to do everything from the beginning. I had nothing, not even a Social Insurance Card. But I sensed a need in my industry."

I ask what it was like working in the translation industry, and she grimaces slightly.

"At that time, everything was very codified, very male-dominated," she said. "I would spend the evening talking to a man that I thought was interested in my business, but instead he was interested in taking me out to lunch or dinner the next day. I became quite fed up, and quite disappointed."

Nevertheless, Nadia saw this situation as an opportunity: an opportunity to bond with other women, to learn from them, and to eventually develop her business out of these connections. She describes how when many of her female clients from Germany or Austria would visit Paris, they wouldn't see anything but their hotel rooms.

"I realized there was an opportunity here for businesswomen to meet other women already in Paris, women who shared some of their personal and professional goals," she said. "I wanted to combine socialization and work. This was especially beneficial to women entrepreneurs, as they began to gain visibility and a sense of community at these meet-ups". From there, the business only continued to grow.

Photo Credit: Paris for Her

At this point, I am already impressed by Nadianot only with her entrepreneurial spirit, but with her willingness to candidly discuss feeling underestimated in her field. I'm curious: was that her biggest struggle in developing her goals? Without the slightest hesitation, she answers with a firm yes.

"Being taken seriously was the biggest challenge. It was a struggle to be heard, and it's not that I didn't have competencies," she said. "I had been working 12 years in Germany as an interpreter for businessmen, and many of them still didn't value my opinions or position. It was obvious. And this was only five years ago."

Photo Credit: Paris for Her

She asks me if things are different now, if in five years there has been a radical shift taking place in the business world. As I hesitate formulating an answer, it becomes clear just how valuable her network of women is in this cultural context.

I ask her about the events Paris for Her holds and how, for example, are they different from a TED talk I can get for free and watch on the bus? She explains that these events aren't one-sided, preachy affairs, but workshops meant to help women develop tangible skills and tools for navigating the workplace.

"We cover topics like leadership, how to elicit confidence with verbal and body language in front of an audience, time management, and how to combat the common fears that stop people from believing they deserve to achieve things," she said.

Photo Credit: Paris for Her

This instantly struck a chord. My (smart, beautiful, capable) female friends and I have often discussed how "imposter syndrome" makes us feel like we don't deserve the things we've achieved; that they were somehow handed over to us and we therefore lack the competency to meet our goals. Nadia nods along, like she's heard this sentiment reiterated many times. She explains that these workshops are designed to give women "that little push" towards success. She also stresses the mental and emotional health components of the workshops as many offer tips on navigating the city or organizing community outings like wine and cheese tastings. Nadia asserts these workshops are not frivolous affairs, but a way to feed the soul.

Photo Credit: Paris for Her

"It's so important to feel good, to feel well, in the city you're living in. If you feel that sense of community, you will thrive in your new location in each area of your life," she said.

While this type of Parisian sentiment is inspiring, the North American in me is also looking for practical tips for young women exploring entrepreneurship. I ask her how, as an expat, young women can dispel intimidation and break down barriers to create something of their own. Nadia is quick to quell my doubts with a dose of positive practicality.

"My best advice is to simply try. It's such an amazing time to be in Paristhere are a lot of administrations and authorities that help students specifically, and in terms of being a woman in the entrepreneur world, there are great opportunities to network in this city," she said. At this point, she grins mischievously, leaning in as if someone else is listening to us: "I think there's this old misconception – maybe invented by a man – that there is a Queen Bee ruling over everyone else, trying to prevent all the other smaller bees from climbing up the honeycomb. But that's not true. All the women that I know in the network and that I meet are very supportive, they give their time, they are interesting and enriching. With this kind of support network you really have nothing to lose."

Nadia is quiet for a moment, and the mood turns instantly more reflective.

"You know, I think that when you are completely focused on one person, even if it's your husband, it is not enough. You need to find a balance, be your own person," she said. "Through something like my network you don't have to rely on someone else's friends, their job, their life, you build your own environment. If you try new things and new affinities, through these hobbies you will find people to do things with and you will enrich your network. It's a really healthy, and really beautiful, way to live."

As we part ways, I can't help but think that it is this mix of both practicality and optimism, intelligence and warmth that has solidified Nadia's position in my eyes as the ultimate Parisian #Girlboss. I guess it wasn't so hard to find a new mentor after all.