Layla Shaikley is one a kind and we are thrilled to have her as our next Game Changer. She is the co-founder of software company, Wise Systems, that recently raised $7 million in a series A to transform delivery operations. An MIT and NASA alum, Layla is always pushing boundaries, advocating for the reclamation of our narrative as Muslim women, and inspiring us to reach higher. On top of all that she is the proud mama of IG cutie Kamila, and soon to be mama of two. Join us as we discuss being unapologetic, work-life balance and shattering misconceptions. How would you like to introduce yourself to the VELA community?
I am Layla, co-founder of a venture backed company called Wise Systems.
What has it been like to be female Muslim Arab, while also being a founder of a tech company that’s raised a series A?
I personally love the journey. I am a creative, and I have always been creative. And nothing has been more fulfilling for me than creating a company.
I wear hijab pretty unapologetically. If you grew up as a teenager post 9/11, you learned to be very resilient, because you were used to people making assumptions about who you are. So there is a level of resilience and grit that has come with growing up as a hijabi that has translated really well in the startup world.
The hijab is a relationship, a commitment and a belief all in one. There are some days you want to represent and others you don’t, but if you go back to your why, it builds purpose and commitment that focus you. And I find going back to your why as a founder does the same thing.
What would you tell someone who is hesitant to pursue a role or goal, where she hasn’t seen someone like herself in it before?
I would say that often it can be a huge opportunity. There has been a huge spotlight shone on the topic of diversity, and there are people wanting to fill a gap.There are increasingly more opportunities for women now. At the investor conference the other day, I was not only visibly in hijab but also visibly pregnant. I felt “this is who I am”, and I felt grateful. The tech world as we all know is a male dominated world, and there are lots of people on the younger side, so there is ageism as well. But I stand true to who I am, I am a mother and I’m a hijabi. I have nothing to hide.
Where have you gotten your unapologeticness from?
From having a really strong mother. My mom is a huge role model, she has such a strong sense of self. She trusted us in our decisions and lives - giving us that power of trust. My mom founded an Islamic school, and there you grew up where you didn't have to fight with external influences that would affect the formation of your identity. By the time I had gotten to college I had already built a back bone. I really credit my mom and the community she built. And I am a huge proponent of Islamic schools, especially academically rigorous ones.
So many women are hesitant to pursue their big dreams because they think they can’t do it all, or have it all. They can’t be a great mom and start a business or work in a demanding role. How do you handle being a mom and a founder?
Everything has to be done intentionally, And it comes down to two things: time management and a supportive community. Having a really supportive husband makes a difference too. You also have to remember: you can’t juggle it all. I have slimmed down my social life tremendously - which is natural when you have a 7 pm toddler bedtime. I still maintain my close friendships, and my close friends understand and support me during this period in my life. That’s generally how life is, everything comes in waves, and this particular period is a wave. We’re also fortunate and blessed to have a support system.
You often wear your VELA at high profile conferences. How does your VELA make you feel?
I am super picky about my clothes, which you can probably tell from my Instagram. Being really efficient at things, I trust the VELA recommendations seasonally for colors. VELA is my hijab color consultant, the colors are so impeccably done.
And when representing an image it’s important that it will be on my terms. Especially as a Muslim woman, your first line of defense is how you dress. We are responsible to shatter misconceptions about us, and this is the life we’ve chosen, and the beliefs we’ve decided to invest our existence in.
What does being a VELA Girl mean to you?
I think it represents an entrepreneurial female creating products for us, by us; which I am all for. Our narrative was previously hijacked. More recently we have begun to reclaim our narrative, by making things we love, building companies that solve our own problems, and serve who we are, rather than what others want to see us as. As Muslim women we start to develop our own narrative, and VELA has been a driver of that. I think VELA represents our narrative.
Thank you Layla for your courageous trailblazing. This interview has been edited for grammar, but are the thoughts and sentiments of Layla Shaikley. Follow @laylool to keep up with her work and see her stellar style. Stay tuned for more features from our inspiring community!