Rejections forced me to work harder to make Sahar Speaks a reality

Amie Ferris-Rotman is a British-American journalist with more than a decade of foreign reporting experience. During her 2013-14 JSK Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, Amie developed Sahar Speaks, a new program offering training, mentoring and publishing opportunities for Afghan female correspondents. The inaugural round was completed in March of this year in Kabul. The 12 participants’ stories will soon be posted on the Huffington Post, in a collaboration that will give their work a consistent presence on a global news outlet. We spoke with Ferris-Rotman about her entrepreneurial journey with Sahar Speaks.

How did you come up with the idea for Sahar Speaks?

My motto has become “good things come out of anger.” As Reuters’ senior correspondent in Kabul between 2011 and 2013, I became increasingly appalled by the lack of Afghan female journalists at the global media outlets. I had tried in vain to hire them, but was met with fierce opposition by our local (male) staff. It soon became clear the entire system was flawed — that these women were not being hired across the board, and never had been. I couldn’t understand how we had come to this. For all the talk of female empowerment and the streams of stories on women’s rights, the international press didn’t go the extra step of actually hiring an Afghan woman. Rather hypocritical, right? As journalists, we are meant to cover every aspect of a country, not least half of the population. Without having Afghan female correspondents, access to some stories is near impossible for men, and difficult for foreign women. So Afghanistan is where an idea started brewing — the kernel of Sahar Speaks had been planted.  

What were you thinking about the concept before your year at Stanford?

It is funny because, in retrospect, it seems so simple because the concept for Sahar Speaks did not change much since I applied to the fellowship. The difference between then and now is that, pre-Stanford, I had not the slightest idea about how to make Sahar Speaks a reality. Not a clue! I entered Stanford pretty wide-eyed.

Did Stanford change your approach?

Stanford didn’t necessarily change my approach, but it certainly sharpened it. I realized, pretty early on, that I needed to be tougher. I needed to self-promote and appear firm in my beliefs. When I entered the fellowship, I had no personal website and zero public speaking under my belt. Cycling through the manicured campus, under the fronds of those magnificent palms, I was somewhat bewildered at having been chosen. By the end of the year, I had gained an enormous amount of confidence. I felt transformed. This was instrumental in my persistence — and therefore success — of Sahar Speaks.

What happened after you left Stanford?

I left Stanford on a high, which culminated in having a palm tree tattooed on my ankle (no regrets). But the warmth of being cocooned in an inspirational and supportive environment soon disappeared, and I found myself back in overcast London, wondering why I had quit my well-paid job to pursue a project that no one seemed interested in (or rather, no one had the money for). I’m a hard worker, and I never stopped believing in what I had dubbed “my poor project.” But neither of those attributes mean anything to one’s mental well-being if you don’t get somewhere. During the two years following the fellowship, I spent most of my time on Sahar Speaks, living off savings. I did some freelancing on the side, as my love for reporting did not diminish. For Sahar Speaks, I got rejected from just about every grant-giving body out there. The anxiety was immense. I had bouts of panic, and despair. I spent years trying to stay enthusiastic. This included meeting people most days to discuss my project, applying for grants and looking for partnerships. There were some dark times when I genuinely questioned my sanity.

How did those rejections affect your enthusiasm to continue? What has most surprised you in working to get support for your idea?

Those rejections actually forced me to work harder to make Sahar Speaks a reality. Albeit hard, I learned that rejection is intrinsic to innovation. During our class’ orientation, Jim Bettinger told us an anecdote about the founder of PayPal, of how he had failed repeatedly, literally scores of times. When I was really low, this sometimes replayed in my mind. But on the other hand, and I hate to admit this, there were also times when I almost gave up. There are only so many rejections and encounters with naysayers that a person can take.

On a more positive note, I was surprised by the sheer number of people who wanted to help. This was key to keeping the idea alive. All sorts of people from different walks of life — diplomats, fellow journalists, veterans, rights workers, businesses and friends — showed interest in Sahar Speaks and offered help. This was wonderful — an “ah-ha” moment when you realize your baby is not just your fantasy, but that it has the potential to grow. A massive external validation came when I won a British Press Award in March 2016 for creating Sahar Speaks.

What would you say was the biggest challenge in pulling this off?

Training session for female Afghan reporters

As part of Sahar Speaks, Amie Ferris-Rotman (left) provides training sessions for female Afghan reporters. photo: Joel van Houdt

Getting that initial seed funding. My god, it was hard. I knew there were mysterious and elusive pots of money out there, but however hard I tried, I could not access them. It was a tantalizing experience — I came close several times. When you harbor a dream for that long, it mutates into something else, into a beautiful, fragile impossibility. It is a cliché, but when my donor said he would fund Sahar Speaks, I pinched my forearm. Yup, he was real, and this was serious. After our meeting, I walked to London’s Soho Square, where I did a little jig in the October sunshine. I could not help myself. This homeless man winked at me and I felt so very alive.

Do you have any advice for people on how to build a successful journalism initiative?

Speak to everyone and listen to what they have to say. And I mean everyone. Help and support can come when you least expect it. I know it can be disheartening, tiring and — let’s admit it — boring at times to bang on about your project to just about anyone who’ll hear you out, but it can be serendipitous. The same goes for writing about your project. I penned dozens of stories about the need for Sahar Speaks, all written for free for various publications. I held onto the thought that maybe, somewhere out there, someone will read it and be intrigued. The world is pretty interconnected in terms of interests and possibilities. It will surprise you.

What would you do differently now that Sahar Speaks is up and running?

I was so keen to get Sahar Speaks off the ground, and had become so used to working for nothing, that I forgot the value of my own labor. If I were to do it again, I would have given myself more of a salary, for starters. I also would have established a board early on, or an advisory group of some sort. Sahar Speaks was a one-woman show. It still is, in many ways.

How did this work on Sahar Speaks change your perception of the future of journalism?

I always knew journalism needed more diversity and women, but now I believe it cannot survive without these changes. So many experienced, international female journalists reached out to become Sahar Speaks mentors. So many Afghan female journalists applied. The interest in Sahar Speaks has been significant. To me, this speaks volumes to the hunger for diversity in the global media landscape.

What’s the future of Sahar Speaks?

Go, go, go! Now Sahar Speaks is established, new opportunities and ideas are cropping up all over the place, from different people and organizations. There have been suggestions to replicate the program outside of Afghanistan, closer to Europe. There is interest in expanding within Afghanistan, reaching more women from areas outside of the capital, Kabul. Some collaborations — international and Afghan — are being discussed. We’ll see. One thing is for certain: Sahar Speaks is alive and well. My little baby has left the stroller.