A role model for women in the retail trade

Noor Ali is regarded by her colleagues as a “true inspiration”. Noor, who is 45 and from Leeds, became Morrisons’ World Foods Manager and was named one of the 2014 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Ambassadors at a ceremony in London. Here she talks to Workingmums.co.uk about her life and career.

Blurry image of people shopping carrying bags


How long have you worked in the retail trade?

I have been involved in the retail sector since 1992 – when I opened a family independent supermarket. I then went on to work for various retailers – 12 years in ASDA and I have been with Morrisons for seven years, now as World Foods Manager.

How did you start?

I did not attend University so my working career started early at the age of 16 – working for various businesses (I started out on the YTS scheme) and then opening our family shop – a great experience!

After eight years, we successfully sold the business, moving home from Bradford to Leeds. To continue working, I took a role with ASDA as a checkout operator, which was a massive change from being an owner of my own business.

I had several roles there before joining trading as a trainee buyer for world foods. I went on to land 1,200 new lines in 2007. I was then promoted to buyer level and over five years we had a growth in sales of over 300% in the category.

How did you get your current role as World Foods Manager?

In May 2012 I joined Morrisons with the exciting opportunity to launch World Foods in early 2013. I partnered with 85 suppliers to grow the category from just 500 lines to over 1,350 and increased year on year sales by over 145%. I was then promoted to World Foods Manager a year later.

What was the greatest challenge in re-launching and growing the ethnic food range?

My key challenges have been:

  • This market is a very male-dominated sector so at first many suppliers found it unusual to be dealing with a female.
  • Balancing work and home, and looking after my mum – ensuring all family priorities are met.

What do you consider among your greatest career successes?

Personally, it has been completing the Hajj Pilgrimage and on a business level, it would be achieving both the Everywoman Retail Ambassador Award (last week) and being the Businesswoman of the Year 2011 at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards

What is your average day like?

I am up early to read morning prayers… and I like to start work early. Once in, I check my category sales….and start to manage my workload for the day (I have a list of key actions for the day/week) and ensure I support my team.

An average day will include internal meetings / supplier meetings / responding to emails and calls / responding to any queries received…etc…all good fun! I leave around 6pm and ring round on the way home (husband, mum and both children!….bluetooth is amazing!).

Once home, I complete any missed prayers for the day and start cooking! We eat as a family around 7.30pm….I then complete any evening prayers, and if I have time, I watch snippets of the famous evening soaps! I watch news and TV, catch up with the children and am in bed by 10pm. Eating as a family and catching up in the evening with my children is so important for me.

Having face to face conversations, where I can see their facial expressions, signs of any concerns or worries they may have (which you cannot see on the phone!), and just providing them with my full attention, providing any advice, and just listening and showing interest in whatever they have to say is vital.

How many children do you have and what ages are they?

I have two children, all grown up now: Faisal and Zainab. I don’t need childcare now. However, when the children were younger my mum was a great support and I utilised local children’s play groups etc.

WM: What kind of hours do you work?

I would say I do more than my official hours Monday to Friday. I love my work and I am a little bit of a workaholic. However, I am very clear on my family priorities and ensure they are also met.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing women in the retail industry?

Reaching higher levels within businesses as it can be tough for women taking time out for maternity and balancing part-time vs full time. But it is possible!

How important is mentoring?

I have a strong passion to coach and develop both individuals and businesses, mentoring and supporting them to achieve their goals. I have been involved in mentoring for Race for Opportunity – especially mentoring women from the ethnic minorities.

I also became a regional Board Member for Mosaic and have led the Mosaic Women’s Action Group which encourages female role models to visit schools and inspire the young women of today. I have also mentored students at schools as part of the Business Enterprise Challenge.

Finally, I have mentored colleagues at the HMRC office in Bradford to help them develop their personal and professional skills, including confidence and presentation.

Many of my mentees have advanced their careers and developed key skills as a result.Mentoring is key and free of charge and allows anyone to share their skills, knowledge and experience and just simply listen and advise.

It’s a great way to develop not only yourself, but develop others and help them achieve their potential.

How important is external recognition of the kind of work you and other women do?

It is extremely important as we become role models for others. At the Everywoman Awards, I was approached by a manager and her colleague.

The manager was telling me how she wants to help her colleague to become a manager, but the colleague was just not confident to move up the ladder. My response to the colleague was…you have a manager here who believes in you and you should take this as an opportunity to develop your career. And once you succeed, you can help others to then also follow, making you a role model for others.

How important are positive role models to encourage other Asian women to succeed?

Research shows that women from an ethnic background are less likely to develop their careers than the average women in the UK. I am hoping that I can play a part in helping these women to believe it is possible to develop yourself and your career – as long as you get the support around you… and my top tips for all women are:

  • Know your goals and get the support you need to achieve them (from family, mentors, sponsors etc.
  • Challenges are key for development…we need to learn from them.
  • Network as much as possible
  • Be brave, innovative and tenacious
  • Self promote / talk about your achievements
  • Make time to mentor others – this is great for your own development too.
  • Finally…..Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win and achieve is!

What kind of outreach work do you do with girls and what inspires you to do this?

I have mentored and held assemblies at secondary schools. I have also attended International Women’s Day events for girls where I have been able to share my stories, my experiences and the many challenges I have faced through my life and career. These girls are just starting out on their journey, finding jobs, attending university, etc. It’s a time in their life to make key decisions for their future.

Hopefully through listening to others they can understand how competitive it is today, get the support they need and know how they need to ‘stand out’ from the crowd as they embark on their future journeys.

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