Zain Asher: Her Incredible Journey to the Top

The name Zain Asher will surely ring a bell if you are a frequent viewer of Cable News Network International. She’s a charming news anchor largely associated with some business programmes on the channel.  Asher, who is also the sister to the Oscar-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, was on The Morning Show on ARISE NEWS Channel to share her inspiring story and the strength of the Nigerian women in commemoration of International Women’s Day. Vanessa Obioha reports.

From a young age, Zain Asher understood the strength of a woman. Born to Nigerian parents based in the United Kingdom, the Cable News Network International (CNN) news anchor was surrounded by exemplary women whose lives played a critical role in becoming the woman she is today.

One of those women was her mother. She was the compass that guided her as she navigated the rocky roads of life. Appearing on The Morning Show on Arise News Channel, Asher spoke passionately about her mother whose impact on her life is detailed in her book ‘Where the Children Take Us.’

“My mother is a strong Nigerian woman. She was a single mother.”

She recalled how their lives were upended following the news of her father’s death.

“On September 3 1989, she got a call which I would say was the worst day in our lives, and the voice on the other end of the line basically said ‘your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead and we don’t know which one.’ That happened to my family and it turned out to have been my father who had passed away but initially they thought everybody in the car had been killed. It was only when they got to the morgue and began unloading the bodies that they realised my brother was still breathing and that brother went incredibly to be nominated as best actor at the Oscars,” she said.

That brother is Chiwetel Ejiofor who has starred in some Nollywood and Hollywood films such as the Biyi Bandele’s film adaptation of novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and the Netflix film ‘The Boy that Harnessed the Wind’.

Asher watched her mother overcome the challenges that came with widowhood, ensuring that they never lacked while instilling in them moral and Christian values.

“My mother raised us and thanks to her, we ended up surpassing all expectations. My sister is a medical doctor and my other brother is a very successful entrepreneur and it was only because of the kind of mother that we have. I really wanted to educate the rest of the audience about the special growth that Nigerians have. They are warriors, they are fighters and my mother is a queen.”

Beyond her motherly duties, Asher recalled that her mother was an advocate for successful black stories. Therefore, she was always pointing to personalities from the Black race, particularly Nigerians who were breaking away from the conventional mould.

One of such women is the journalist Femi Oke whom Asher disclosed was a role model in her journalism career.

“When I was growing up as a young girl in London,” she began, “I would see Femi Oke on the screen and as part of my mother’s desperation for images of black success, every time she came on, my mother would shout to us, ‘Nigerian on CNN’ and we would run downstairs and sit in front of the TV. So, as I grew older, Femi Oke moved around different media organizations in the UK. Eventually, I came to America and one day, I turned on my TV and I saw Femi Oke on CNN. I was so moved by how well this Nigerian woman had done. I sent her an email, just telling her what she meant to me, growing up and seeing her on TV some years ago.”

Asher must have wished upon a thousand stars that Oke replied and her prayers were answered.

“She replied, gave me her phone number and said I should call her at any time. I called her and we kept in touch over the years and eventually, maybe five to 10 years later when I had an interview at CNN, I reached out to her and she really indeed worked me through how the interview process at CNN was like, how to answer the questions and what a typical day at CNN is like, what they expect of me, taking me on what to say and what not to say. Obviously, it worked out perfectly and I owe a lot to Femi Oke.

“So, seeing a Nigerian woman in that role from the age of maybe 17 onwards, not only was it a beautiful representation of my culture but it changed my entire life. And that is, I hope something I can continue to do for other people. That is why when people reached out to me, I would always write them back because Femi Oke did that for me,” she said.

Still extolling her mother, Asher noted that there was a universal level of inspiration in what her mother did.

“She would find stories and articles about black success in The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, etc. She would carve out the news and paste it on our walls. She wanted to change our subconscious to believe in ourselves. So, anytime we came from school, the first thing we saw were images of Blacks’ success on our walls, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. That changed the image we had of ourselves and she told us that we could have what those people had.

“When my brother went into acting, my mother would each evening read Shakespeare in her shop. She was a chemist. She would read Othello, 12th Night and others just so she could push my brother better. Initially, she was like why don’t you become a doctor? But the teachers told her it would be crazy to not let him be an actor because he is very talented. She agreed and so she began studying Shakespeare on her own. She is a remarkable woman whose education was interrupted during the Biafran war.”

Born Zaina Ejiofor, Asher (she got the name from the Bible for what it represents) graduated from Oxford University where she studied French and Spanish and graduated with a distinction in oral Spanish.

In 2006, she earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is fluent in French, Spanish and Igbo (her native Nigerian dialect).

Before pursuing a career in journalism, Asher said that she worked as a receptionist with a production company and was keen on becoming a top echelon. The job was her first when she graduated from the university. However, providence already charted a better path for her. The experience however is still instructive to her.

“Because I was the receptionist, it was my job to serve water to anyone who was coming to apply for the job I wanted. I had to serve water to them. The message for the younger ones is that success is never in a straight line. You see me on CNN, but it was very difficult to get there. The hustle was real. Trust your struggles. You trust that despite all the pitfalls, that if you continue to push, and work hard – I really, really worked hard to get to where I am – that one day, the struggle will pay off. Whatever it is that you want to do, if there is a way now to start on the job that you have to do the job that you want, then start doing it.”

Based in New York, Asher regularly fills in on CNN’s premier business programmes such ‘Quest Means Business’, ‘The Express’ and ‘First Move with Julia Chatterley’. She currently anchors the network’s primetime, global news show ‘One World with Zain’.

In addition, she has anchored CNN’s special coverage around #MyFreedomDay, a global call to action that raised awareness on modern-day slavery all over the world, as well as the deaths of Fidel Castro, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and singer George Michael. Before joining CNN, Asher was a full-time reporter for Money, where she wrote personal finance articles. Asher also was a TV reporter at News 12 Brooklyn, reporting from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Connecticut.

Speaking on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day ‘Breaking the Bias’, Asher said it was important for women who are in positions of power to use their influences to uplift other women rather than engaging in unnecessary rivalry.

“Sometimes I get asked, what sort of bias hinders you the most? Is it being black or is it being a woman? Because in the US you have to contend with both and I think that when you are in a position of power, for me, the most important thing is that we all, as women, use our superior influence to lift other people. Yes, I have a platform, CNN but we all have platforms. It doesn’t matter where you are. We all need to use our spheres of influence to lift other women and stop competing with one another. We should use our positions of power to pass the baton to the younger generation”, she said.

She wishes to see a world where women’s achievements are not gendered but seen as regular exploits of human beings.  

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