Driven by a passion to figure out the very best way to use her experience to do something fulfilling and exercise her skills beyond the constraints of an organizational chart, Iris started Philstem as a communications and training agency with the potential to have a sweeping impact on organizational and business performance.
Here she provides an inside-out view of Philstem.
Tell us how the idea for Philstem Communications came about?
Well, I did what quite a few Zimbabwean kids do when they finish high school: I went to university abroad and then spent some time trying to find my place in the world – personally and professionally. I was lucky enough to find really enriching jobs in London, Shanghai and then Vienna and these experiences taught me a lot about working across different cultural contexts.
When I got my MBA, the logical step would’ve been to start my own business right away, but I was new in Austria and decided to take a little time to learn the lay of the land.
I decided to take the plunge and founded Philstem in 2016 because I’d spent two-and-a-half years learning about the local business market. And now, here I am.
So it’s important for you to work independently?
For me, it’s critical that I have a transformational effect on projects I take part in. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way. I mean that I need to feel that what I do, and how well I do it, really matters. That it is directly linked to the success of a project. That kind of responsibility … I thrive on that. Philstem plays a key role in supporting commercial interests and non-profit organizations with reaching goals, whether by helping them to create content that inspires, informs, and connects people or by identifying problem areas and developing effective strategies to help staff perform at their highest levels through training. I take my role in that very seriously.
What three adjectives and three verbs describe Philstem?
Excellent, reliable, “on the ball”. I know, I sort of cheated, but it works, right?
My verbs are work, learn and play.
Could you imagine doing all this anywhere else?
I can honestly say that each place I have worked has made me better. I’ve been lucky to work under empowering bosses, with smart colleagues and on matters of real substance. But for me, Philstem is unique because it allows me to tap into all of my skills. We get to work in different parts of the world, in the commercial sector as well as with non-profits, in English, Chinese, German and Arabic and on projects that are really diverse. I feel so lucky and excited by that prospect every single day that I step into the office. I can’t imagine having that feeling anywhere else.
It’s a long way from Harare to Vienna…
Not really. The world is so much smaller now. I have immediate family living on four continents, and I’ve worked on four of these. So in a way I have no choice but to be a global thinker. Borders aren’t barriers to me, they’re just new frontiers to explore. When I finished high school, I couldn’t wait to leave Zimbabwe to discover the big wide world out there. But as soon as I left, I realized how passionate I am about Africa, generally, and Zimbabwe, specifically. There is no place like home. We’re thinking very hard about how to amplify the Africa side of the business and hope to be able to play some small part in supporting the economic rebirth of Zimbabwe.
How did that passion turn into action?
There was no dramatic light bulb moment. I had always kept my foot in the business world, doing small consulting projects with clients in China, keeping up with economic developments there, as well as in Austria – and understanding how these would affect the needs of clients that I had already worked with, or planned to pitch some day.
I also have a voracious appetite for knowledge and am always signing up for skills-building courses on sites like Coursera, or reading excellent business blogs like Forbes or HBR, or even BA’s Business Life Magazine, which is particularly excellent. Every moment I wasn’t working, I was doing that, and imagining how I would turn what I had learned into practice, if I ran my own business. Then, I just decided to take the plunge.
What does the Philstem team look like?
Well, its small. We have skills experts and region experts. For the regions, I cover China and Austria (where the agency is based) and Kudzayi looks after the Africa market. In terms of skills, I take the lead on communications matters and Kudzayi is principal on all things related to employee performance optimization. We then work with trusted contractors to help us deliver our wide range of services. So we take a partnership approach that allows us to leverage a lot of expertise from really talented people we’ve worked with over the years, while still infusing everything we do with the Philstem DNA.
What means the most to you?
Well the word “Philstem” is an amalgamation of the first names of my parents: Philbert and Stembeni. Spending quality time with my family is more important to me than anything. Good health, lifelong friends and being able to help out other people round off that list.
On a professional level, there’s a song from the 90s, I think, by Heather Small, whose chorus is “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” For me, that’s the most important thing: getting home after a day in the office and feeling good about the work I did, and how I did it.