After working as a criminal defence lawyer in London, Zahra Afshar (LLB 2005) is now in-house counsel for her family business, Ahmad Tea. In this role, Zahra works with charitable organisations all over the world as part of Ahmad Tea’s commitment to philanthropy.
As part of the company’s ethos of giving, Ahmad Tea have recently established a fully funded scholarship for a Black medical undergraduate student at the University of Bristol. This initiative complements the University’s recently launched Black Bristol Scholarship programme, which will create 130 scholarships for Black and mixed-Black heritage students over the next four years.
We speak to Zahra about what motivated Ahmad Tea to make this gift, her fascinating career journey and the other ways she gives back to Bristol.
Can you tell me the story of your family business, Ahmad Tea?
Ahmad Tea started out as a dream had by our Honorary Chairman, the late Professor A.H. Ganjavian. The company draws on four generations of experience in tea. We deliver 30 million cups of tea a day to over 80 countries. We are world experts and our driving factor is quality.
The founding fathers of the company were my grandad and my godfather, who were both philanthropists and always supported charities. They were inspired by a deep sense of spirituality and that has been reflected in each generation since. Social responsibility is rooted in our company, and our ‘inspiring kindness’ principle informs all areas of the business. For Ahmad Tea, giving back is a primary factor behind profit making, which is why we dedicate a percentage of our profits towards charity. Sharing our success with charities in the countries we work in is really important to us and allows Ahmad Tea to have a direct impact.
Your company have recently funded an undergraduate scholarship for a Black student in medicine. What inspired Ahmad Tea to make this gift?
Ahmad Tea were enormously moved by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. We wanted to take meaningful action and do something that would empower an individual to make their own life and career choices.
Ahmad Tea have a history of supporting students through Higher Education – we have been supporting young people in Russia and Ukraine for a long time – and with that experience and my links to the University, a student scholarship at Bristol seemed an obvious choice. I feel like the city of Bristol is, in some ways, more progressive than other places in the UK and in other ways still struggles with widening participation. If we could provide financial support to a student who might otherwise be concerned about money, we could alleviate that worry for them and allow them to focus their time on studying, dreaming and hoping.
Alongside your scholarship, the University recently launched the Black Bristol Scholarship programme which will support 130 Black students across four years. What impact do you think these scholarships will have on the University and the students who receive them?
The Black Bristol Scholarship programme will have a huge impact on the University. It will further enrich the culture of the University, and it will better reflect the spirit of the city of Bristol. Serendipitously, the moment I called the University to make this gift, they were in the process of establishing these scholarships for Black students
When I lived in Bristol, I often thought there was a bit of a discrepancy between how diverse and energetic Bristol city was and the perception of the University, which at times could feel unattainable or elitist. Scholarships are a big step towards widening participation and inclusivity and ensuring that a diverse cohort of students feel welcome.
This scholarship, and the other scholarship programmes available at the University, demonstrates that Bristol wants to teach students from all walks of life.
Do you have a favourite memory of Bristol?
I’ve got lots and lots of favourite memories. I loved my time at Bristol. I spent endless hours in the Wills Library and it was a safe and cosy place for me. I spent a lot of sunny days on Berkeley Square too. There was one early evening when I was with my friends and we looked up and saw a meteorite go across the sky. It was this big, orange meteorite and it looked like it was on fire! It was amazing. We looked in the newspapers the next day but no one seemed to say anything about it, so we were wondering, ‘did that really happen?!’
What made you want to get into law?
I was passionate about human rights and I felt law was the best foundation for that kind of work. When I was studying at Bristol, however, my perception of it was quite different to the reality. For my first few years in training and after qualifying I was working under Imran Khan QC, who taught me about the criminal justice system. I spent endless hours in some of the UK’s most well-known prisons, working with some of London’s most notorious criminals, mainly gangsters and terrorists.
Early on I was exposed to the reality of criminal defence law and legal aid. While I loved my work, it wasn’t what I expected when I went into human rights. When I was starting out, I was thinking about the voiceless, the people who don’t even know they have any rights. It was a hard decision to change direction and work in-house, but I realised I wasn’t going to get paid for the human rights I wanted to do. So helping raise profits to spend in charitable ways was, for me, the most direct way to have the impact I wanted to have.
What does your role on the University of Bristol’s Law School Alumni Board involve? What motivates you to volunteer with them?
The Law School Alumni Board draws a bridge between students, research and the professional world. As graduates working in law, the Board can feed back on the legal profession, ensure that the undergraduate courses are always relevant to the working world, and show students what their careers could look like and the possibilities open to them.
At Bristol, I was blown away by the support I got from my personal tutor and I had such inspirational professors. They inspired me to take action at a time when I still doubted myself. To have that older and more mature professional support at that age was so valuable. So being on the Board has been an amazing way for me to reconnect with my University and has offered me the opportunity to give back to an organisation that gave me so much and provided me with the foundation for my career.
Is there a specific piece of advice you have been given that has supported your life or career goals?
My advice would be, don’t get too fixated on the end goal. Enjoy the journey and allow things to unravel. A different door may open and it might not have been the one you wanted, but it could surpass what you had hoped.
Lastly, perhaps predictably, what is your tea of choice?
Ahmad Tea English Breakfast is the best that I have ever tried!
The University’s Black Bristol Scholarship Programme is a new initiative which will support around 130 Black and mixed-Black heritage students over the next four years. The programme relies on generous donations from alumni and friends. For more information or to support the programme, please click here.