In conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8th, we speak to a few women bosses who are fearlessly taking on the business world. Nikola Hassan is the founder and managing director of Avant-X, a boutique PR agency that specialises in brand experiences of select luxury brands in Kuala Lumpur.

At a time when feminism is a hot keyword, Nikola stands her ground with her differing opinion on the matter, with good cause and reason.

Nikola Hassan, managing director of Avant-X

As the wishes of ‘Happy International Women’s Day’, ‘Be bold for change’ and ‘We should all be feminists’ begin to fade off into the background in a hazy echo, Nikola Hassan has a very different sentiment to share.

“I can’t say I identify as a feminist,” tells the gregarious managing director of boutique PR firm Avant-X. But her statement carries not the implication that you think.

“If I say I am a feminist, I’m agreeing that there is a gender gap, that there is a disparity being male and female and that this is a man’s world,” she adds. “I’m the sort who feels that International Women’s Day should be everyday. I stand in a position where I don’t see gender, religion, colour or creed. From the start, I give everyone the same opportunities.”

At a time when feminism is a hot keyword and anyone with a differing opinion on the matter is antagonised, Nikola stands her ground, just as she had in many other aspects of her life.

She stands her ground, but does so with grace, a calculated balance of conviction and empathy and a smile, a formula that has seen her through some of her toughest crossroads on her life, one of them being the founding of Avant-X in 2014.

Niche-ing it out

Pooling her experience and skillsets from her PR career in Sydney, Australia, and then a stint with Pavilion KL where she handled the bulk of luxury fashion brands, Nikola decided to go ahead with her own brand Avant-X in 2014, solo.

A PR company that’s run by just one person may sound impossible, but Avant-X isn’t just your average agency.

“The X stands for experience. We call ourselves brand experience architects,” Nikola explains. “It’s not just PR that we do, we do anything that brings the brand to life and make it an integral part of the lifestyle of the target market. We find ways to market that are almost subversive so it’s not hard-selling, it becomes a natural decision of the target audience to think immediately of the brand.”

Therein lies the reason why she decided to focus in the niche market of luxury instead of taking on any brand that comes her way.

“I build my portfolio of clients consciously so that the brands are all like-minded,” she divulges. “That way you can do cross promotions so that adds values to brands. I can actually marry some brands together and work on a campaign together.”

This sees her taking on select names like Tiffany & Co and Sulwhasoo. On the dining front, which she admits has become Avant-X’s strong suite, she has names like the entire Troika Sky Dining, Skullduggery and kyō. Across the brands, one can easily see a pattern of her choice of clients and it isn’t by accident.

“Sometimes you do get tempted to work with certain brands because you love it but you got to think about the longevity – can you help as much as you can in helping it grow?” she prompts.

A people business

Brand message aside, the people behind said brands are equally as important.

“I learn so much by helping people who are adding to the fabric of society,” she says of her clients. The self-proclaimed foodie cannot ask for a job she’s happier doing, especially since she also likes to “understand more of chefs and how they think.”

“It may look like they’re just cooking food but they’re telling a story through cooking food. They’re doing it from their heart and soul and are putting it out there for you.”

She appreciates what these restaurateurs are doing in the bigger picture too: “They’re enhancing the KL cityscape, bringing something that we don’t have. I’m so thankful to be working with people like that, who inspire me everyday.”

Behind the scenes, her team matters just as much. The team has grown to be one of 6 since its heydays, a number Nikola feels is nice and healthy, although there are plans to grow. The trouble is getting like-minded and equally driven people.

“Many get enamoured by the glamour but they don’t realise it’s a lot of work,” she opens up. “My team was founded not through formal hiring – it was more me meeting them on the job and seeing that they have the personality and energy that I was after. I look to hire overachievers – that’s important because then everyone strives for their best, for themselves.”

As much as she tries to personally see to each client brand, she realises it’s not a possible feat. “My work involves a lot of meeting clients and I have to have a fresh mind to come up with ideas. You can’t have that when you’re always bogged down with the reports and emails,” she explains. “You need the clarity to see the bigger picture because clients also want ideas from us.”

“It’s about creating opportunities for yourself”

For both her professional and personal life, she believes in equality. She doesn’t like the idea of judging one’s capabilities based on gender or having a special day for one or the other, hence her not believing in International Women’s Day. Equality can only exist if we stopped seeing the world in divides.

“It’s about creating opportunities for yourself and that can be done in any phase of your life or circumstance you’re in,” she says. “It’s seizing the day.”

It’s the same way she runs Avant-X: she holds everyone to the same standards as she does herself, man or woman. “With the team, I don’t see myself as the boss. I do things alongside them. It’s more important to lead by example and produce results; then you don’t need to convince anyone that you’re committed or focused and capable.”

At the end of the day, she is guided by her moral compasses of her mother and grandmother, strong, highly-principled women who have taught her that it isn’t about her gender or title or even bank account balance.

“I’m not doing things because I want to be the next Bill Gates – I just want to be Nikola. I do things for myself,” she says. “A litmus test for me when I’m at a moral crossroad is to ask myself, would it be something that I’d be proud of, something that I can openly tell my grandmother and mother about?”

“You can always choose. You can be successful but it’s also about doing things the right way.”

Photography: Nic Chung