Natasha D'Souza is an independent business journalist, strategist, and speaker based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A former strategy and investor relations professional with a 15-year career spanning the US and the Middle East; she reports on the interplay between business, technology, and culture in fast-moving Asian markets. She recently hosted a Take Five session on building your Resilience Quotient, which we dive deeper into here.
You've pivoted through some very interesting career options. What has this journey been like for you in terms of dealing with change? How have you managed to stay optimistic and confident during uncertain times?
I crave change. It's stasis that makes me uncomfortable. I'm a very instinctive person and know instantly when I've hit a plateau in any aspect of my life - professional or personal, If I don't address it or take some kind of action, create some kind of momentum, it becomes very detrimental to my self-starting nature. That being said, navigating change has never been easy. In my twenties, I was lucky that most of my career pivots were very serendipitous - being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right person, typically a decision-maker who saw my potential even if I didn't check every box off of their wish list. I was naturally proactive of course, which helped create opportunities, but it did not take too much hustle on my part for things to fall into place. It was a completely different ballgame figuring out a career segue when I was 30/31 because I literally couldn't "visualize" a path. I couldn't see people around me who had left corporate life and created an intersectional, multifaceted career. It was a long year, at times emotionally taxing, and there were points when my self-confidence took a hit. Even if you have the emotional support of friends and family - which offers some comfort - at the end of the day none of them had taken the path less trodden in their careers and so none of them could truly understand my situation.
What changed for me is remembering my trajectory, owning my accomplishments, and telling myself no one will decide my worth, no one will cap the value I bring to the table. Once that conviction crystallized in my mind, everything changed.
Speaking about resilience, can you share an experience where you've realized the importance of this skill?
I would say the period when I was undergoing a major internal and professional shift between mid-2014 to mid-2015. Despite diligently pursuing a career segue - doing a whole host of informational interviews, applying to roles in a variety of sectors and being lined up as a lead candidate for many of these opportunities - nothing was clicking. For the first time in my life, I was putting in the elbow grease - like I always do - but there were no solid results. It was unnerving. And I had days when I cracked. To be honest, it was simply resilience that got me through. Your degree, your networks, your negotiation or leadership skills...none of those come into play. It boils down to how resilient you are. Resilience is what makes you wake up the next day and try all over again.
What have been your biggest challenges during this pandemic and also your biggest wins or achievements?
I would say my experience during this pandemic sits somewhere in the middle. I didn't feel too unsettled professionally - because I deliberately designed a portfolio career so that I can ramp up different parts of my work in different seasons. As much as I was disenchanted to see live events go defunct because of Covid-19, on the flip side the pandemic has unleashed so much systemic change that I loved exploring as a journalist. I think one of my wins has been the "inner work." Especially refining my ethos as a storyteller, asking myself what I stand for. What is my message during this time? How do I create value for this emerging world? The other is connecting more deeply with my audience and finding different ways to serve them, whether it's helping them understand the science behind the virus and pandemics in particular to highlighting major macro-level changes happening in business and society in a simple, focused way.
How do you prepare yourself to interview someone like Vani Kola or John Sculley?
There are two kinds of preparation: one is long-term and the other short-term. Long term, you need to be a constant knowledge seeker. Read books on an array of subjects and especially more of the feature style, analytical journalism. The daily news churn is not where you get insights. That's purely informative. Consume the kind of knowledge that helps you connect the dots. In the short term, just before interviewing someone I really get to know them, almost in an obsessive kind of way. I read previous profiles that have been written about them and watch video interviews, going back sometimes ten or twenty years. This helps me get a sense for their personality so I can figure out whether they would prefer a formal or more casual kind of interview. What do they seem sensitive about? Did they have a certain worldview then that has changed now? I become very familiar not just with their career trajectory - the highs and lows - but also their growing up years. A lot of our adult choices are influenced by our childhood so I like to know more about where they grew up, their family life, socioeconomic status etc. When you finally get down to interviewing someone, it becomes a marriage of what you've learned both long-term and short-term.
What do you see brands focusing on most during these times in terms of their own business strategy?
Business strategy right now is in a massive state of flux. Not only has it been impacted by the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis but also more recently by the growing global call to end racism and uplift marginalised voices in society. We're seeing people like Alexis Ohanian step down from the board of Reddit - a company he co-founded himself - and ask to be replaced by a qualified black professional! We haven't arrived at a "new normal" yet...the pot is still simmering. Right now most brands are not executing major strategic moves, it's more tactical...almost week to week, month to month. In the long term, one thing is for certain, all brands are recognizing the need to be conscious and accountable to their consumers. How that plays out in their individual strategy remains to be seen.
Your advice to journalists who are just starting out?
Define and continue evolving your niche. It's good to have a specific set of topics that you explore and achieve solid expertise in. Be open to your niche changing over time. For instance, when I started out I focused on startups and tech in the Middle East and about six months expanded my regional focus to Asia. For the past two years or so I specifically focused on the interplay of business, technology and leadership in emerging markets, and now post-pandemic I have turned my lens to the practice of resilience and this concept of "resonant" leadership--leadership that is truly in harmony with the environment and with its stakeholders.
Establish your "voice" and by that, I don't just mean your writing style or tone, I mean your worldview. Your ethos. Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell have a very clear lens through which they tell their stories. Friedman, for example, is the one who brought the concept of "globalization" to the mainstream in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Be a multifaceted storyteller. I would say if you are a print journalist, refine your ability to tell a story through at least one or two other mediums, whether it is social media or video for example. This allows you to be versatile and also tap into different audiences.
Before you go... Describe yourself in three words.
Truth seeker, intuitive, passionate.
If you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Don't make me choose! I'd settle for Mediterranean cuisine… there's plenty of variety plus I generally find the food light and relatively easy to make at home.
Your most memorable professional achievement?
I don't feel I have a hallmark achievement as yet. I still have a long way to go!
What are the magazines, online portals and sites you get your news and views from?
The New York Times, Financial Times and Bloomberg for business and politics; The Information for original tech reportage; The Atlantic for more contemplative feature-length stories and The Swaddle and Juggernaut for intelligent critical analysis of news relevant to Indians/South Asians globally.
Favourite Instagram account?
I don't have a particular favorite. There are different accounts I turn to for different reasons but on any given day, I am partial to Elaine Welteroth and Mariana Atencio, because they are both women of color and former journalists who have now moved to work independently as storytellers, so there is some synchronicity in our world views!