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Farah Mohamed leverages 3.5 billion girls to change the world

How Farah Mohamed, President & CEO, G(irls)20 Summit, uses an entrepreneurial approach to making social media deliver.

BY REBECCA HARRIS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICK WONG

In a May 2012 blog on the Huffington Post, Kefei Wu said non-working rural Chinese women are more vulnerable to domestic violence, since they don’t “contribute” anything to the family.

“One simple way to change the situation could be engaging women more into the workforce, in say, agriculture,” wrote Wu, the 18-year-old Chinese delegate for last year’s G(irls)20 Summit, which brings together 20 young women from G20 countries, plus one from Africa, to discuss the economic case for empowering girls and women globally.

Wu’s article is the result of a smartly executed strategy created by trailblazer Farah Mohamed, president and CEO of G(irls)20 Summit. Innovative and not afraid to take risks, Mohamed has shone a light on girls and women through incredible partners and participants, while standing back and letting them tell their own stories. “We like to share the stage,” says Mohamed. “We have great partners, we have great delegates, why wouldn’t we?”

Through media partnerships with the Globe and Mail and the Huffington Post, delegates write about their roles with the Summit, as well as themes that parallel discussions happening at the G20. “Media partnerships come in such different ways now,” says Mohamed. “It’s not about buying an ad; it’s about providing meaningful, timely and relevant content, and in our case, international content.”

Most of the G(irls)20 I How Farah Mohamed, President & CEO, G(irls)20 Summit, uses an entrepreneurial approach to making social media deliver  3.5bwiallyiosn Summit’s media has been earned, and so far they have surpassed 250 million worldwide media impressions.

As mediums become more global, content is no longer only regionally focused, which is an advantage for G(irls)20, says Mohamed. “People want to hear about a girl in Indonesia or China or India. They want to know what their opinions are and what [their successes] are.”

Mohamed created the G(irls)20 Summit while in her role as the inaugural president of The Belinda Stronach Foundation (TBSF), just as Canada was preparing to host the 2010 G8/G20. With a background in communications and politics – she was a political aide for nearly a decade – Mohamed thought TBSF should have its own summit and it should be focused on girls. In June 2010, less than six months after the idea was born, the first G(irls)20 Summit was held in Toronto.

The G(irls)20 Summit has addressed very difficult issues, such as the eradication of child marriage, violence of women in the workplace and sex trafficking. But Mohamed stresses that the organization takes a positive approach. “Negative is not an option for our campaign,” she says. “It’s not about finger-pointing. We don’t look at [certain] governments or businesses and say ‘you’re doing this wrong.’ Rather, we say, ‘here is what you have to gain if you invest in girls and women.’”

Mohamed’s positive approach stems from her own upbringing. Born in Uganda, Mohamed, her sister and her parents came to Canada as refugees 40 years ago. “My parents grew up in very privileged backgrounds, walked into Canada with a couple hundred bucks, a couple kids and a couple suitcases and had to start over,” says Mohamed. “Negativity was not an option. Failure was not an option.”

Mohamed says if she didn’t fundamentally believe in that mantra, she wouldn’t have had the courage to take on the jobs that she’s had. “I didn’t know anything about working on Parliament Hill, or being a being a VP of public affairs, much less starting a foundation for Belinda Stronach. I certainly didn’t know anything about taking on a program on its own. It’s probably the biggest risk I’ve taken in my life.”

FOR A LEAN ORGANIZATION, OUR NUMBERS ARE QUITE IMPRESSIVE. WE BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF CROSS-PROMOTION AND IN SHARING OUR PLATFORMS, AS WELL AS HAVING TIMELY, AND, AT TIMES, PROVOCATIVE INFORMATION TO KEEP PEOPLE ENGAGED.

From the outset, the recipe for success was having great partners, says Mohamed. “They really believed in that innovative idea and taking a risk, combined with a common sense approach.” That approach comes down to numbers: “Fifty percent of your human resources are girls and women,” says Mohamed. “If you’re going to grow, you need to utilize all your resources, period.”

Aside from the Summit’s media partners, which also include Forbes.com and media outlets in Russia for the upcoming G20 in Moscow, G(irls)20 Summit has signed on dozens of corporate and non-profit partners, including Google, Norton Rose, NoVo Foundation, Caterpillar and Kinross. “As I don’t believe in chequebook philanthropy,” Mohamed adds, “our partners are chosen based on their relevance to what we are doing, the content they are able to offer and then the financial support they can give. Each partnership is unique.”

Mohamed says one of her biggest challenges is the difficultly of choosing just 21 delegates each year. “We get thousands of applications and there are some phenomenal young women and it’s hard not to include them all,” she says. To that end, the organization is now looking at how to engage all the applicants and use them as resources in the future.

To reach potential delegates and invite them to apply, G(irls)20 Summit goes where the girls are, and most often, it’s on social networking sites. The organization runs its own Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, some run by the delegates themselves.

Currently G(irls)20 has 8,000 Twitter followers and over 13,000 likes on Facebook.

“For a lean organization, our numbers are quite impressive, especially if you compare us to organizations 10 times our size,” says Mohamed. “We believe in the power of cross-promotion and in sharing our platforms, as well as having timely and, at times, provocative information [to] keep people engaged and eager to introduce us to their audiences.”

In some countries, traditional media is still the main source of information for people, so G(irls)20 Summit does media outreach to TV, radio and print outlets. “We’re very much about that octopus approach, where you put as many messages in different mediums as possible and then you utilize the voices of the people involved in your campaign,” says Mohamed.

To raise public awareness about the G(irls)20 Summit, Mohamed launched an impactful campaign with her inaugural event: visitors to the Summit website can claim their number among the 3.5 billion women on earth, with the idea that “there are 3.5 billion ways to change the world.” Toolkits included campaign material such as media messages, banner ads and text delegates and partners could use on Facebook – a branding technique pivotal to the campaign’s initial success, as Mohamed impressively influenced a variety of Canada’s women’s associations to post it to their pages. Its impact continues today, leading up to the 2013 Summit in Russia.

Using an innovative media approach fuelled by common sense is Mohamed’s special sauce, and investing in young women is her proudest achievement.

 Read more on Farah Mohamed in Women of Influence Magazine Winter 2011 Top 25 Special Issue at www.womenofinfluence.ca/magazine. The 2013 G(irls) 20 Summit is June 13. Learn more at www.girls20summit.com.