Farah Mohamed Reflects on Her Journey as a Social Entrepreneur

For Farah Mohamed, storytelling is a fundamental part of the human experience. “Stories help us understand, have compassion and see somebody else’s side; if we don’t share those stories all we will ever be faced with are facts and figures,” she says. “Sometimes I think that we’re in such a huge rush that we forget that everyone has their own story; everyone has their own path — no two people have experienced the same things and maybe that’s the most powerful way to learn, by learning other people’s stories.”

Globally recognized Canadian social entrepreneur, Farah has an impressive professional story. In 2009, she founded G(irls)20, an organization cultivating a new generation of leaders through education, entrepreneurship and global experiences — while working with G20 leaders to keep their commitment to create 100 million new jobs for women by 2025. Starting in 2017, she served two years as CEO of Malala Fund working alongside Malala Yousafzai, whose survival of an attempted assassination by the Taliban in 2012 for trying to go to school has blossomed into a global advocacy campaign for girls’ education. Now back in Toronto, Farah is Senior Vice President of the Toronto Board of Trade. 

Recognized for her service to Canada, she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. She has also been recognized for her work to empower girls and women as a Top 25 Women of Influence recipient, plus BBC Top 100 Women, SALT 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World, and an EY Nominee for Social Entrepreneur of the Year and Diversity 50.

While her professional accomplishments and extensive list of awards are enough to leave most in awe, Farah’s success story is multifaceted. Born in Uganda, her family moved to Canada in 1972 to seek refuge when she was two years old, after Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Indian Ugandans. Resultantly, political justice and human rights issues have been the key themes in Farah’s life since her family moved to Canada. “It was part of my DNA,” she says. “I was raised by two people who got the short end of the stick when they had to leave their own country, but never let that pull them back. It gave them an appreciation for the fact that they then ended up in a country that was welcoming and provided opportunities that were safe and secure.”

Farah also credits her parents for teaching her the importance of charity and giving back to the community “from a young age, my sister and I were volunteering. My parents were like, ‘you can’t sit around the house and watch TV,’” she laughs. “I actually followed my sister’s footsteps and we used to volunteer at a nursing home. The reason she chose a nursing home was because we didn’t have grandparents around us and it was just a place that you could go and give comfort to someone and it didn’t matter what language you spoke or how old you were — these were people who wanted connection.”

We forget that everyone has their own story; everyone has their own path — no two people have experienced the same things and maybe that’s the most powerful way to learn, by learning other people’s stories.

Growing up Farah never pictured herself working in the nonprofit sector. “I always thought that I was going to be a lawyer — that I would go into criminal law, but I fell in love with politics at university,” she says. Before becoming the social entrepreneur she is today, Farah made her name working closely with some of Canada’s most senior politicians. She credits her success to Former Burlington MP Paddy Torsney, who gave her that first start in politics. “Paddy has been a real connector for me and not even just a mentor — she’s part of my family now,” she explains.

In 1993, Farah volunteered on Paddy’s campaign, which she went on to win. “It’s not just crazy that she won, it’s crazy that she was young and she won in a very conservative majority. She was a liberal, and it’s even crazier that a year later, she offered me a job and I moved to Parliament Hill. It is because of Paddy that I worked in politics for ten years. If she had not taken that chance on me, I certainly would not be sitting here having this conversation with you,” she says.

“I think the combination of my schooling together with my upbringing and then seeing politics work first-hand, put me on that path to social profit and social justice,” Farah explains. In 2009, Farah founded G(irls)20. “When I launched it, I had certainly hoped it would have an impact, but I definitely admit that I am really excited about just how it’s taken off,” Farah says.

After founding G(irls)20 and serving as the CEO for eight years, in 2017 Farah stepped down to take a new role as the CEO of Malala Fund. “For me, I felt that I had done everything I could to bring G(irls)20 to the point it was and that it needed new leadership and new energy and new thinking,” says Farah, reflecting on her decision. “It’s never easy to leave something but when you are going to leave, if you leave it in strong hands with a very strong foundation then it’s not hard to step away from it.”

Becoming CEO at Malala Fund brought about a lot of change for Farah — a larger team working in multiple locations and time zones, a new area of focus, and a new home in London, United Kingdom. “It’s always an incredible challenge to have this type of opportunity; it doesn’t come without a cost and those costs are not seeing your family and your friends, but on the flip side it’s getting closer to the people that you know here and making new friends,” she explains. “More often than not the glass is half full, rather than the glass is half empty.”

If you forget who you are in service to and you don’t remember why you are doing what you’re doing; it makes all those other things that you are doing pointless.

Pinpointing the highlight of her time at Malala Fund was really easy for Farah. “People expect me to say my highlight was speaking to Malala every day. It was absolutely a highlight to work with Malala and Zia,” says Farah, speaking of Zia Yousafzai, Malala’s father and co-founder, “but the real privilege was seeing the girls.”

“I’d say to people all the time, I don’t work in service to Malala or Zia or my even my board,” Farah says. “I work in service to those girls and I fundamentally believe that. I don’t work in service to any government or any partner we have, I work in service to those girls.”

She reiterates how important it is for all organizations — charities, social enterprises and businesses alike to remember who they are serving and remain true to that through and through. “If you forget who you are in service to and you don’t remember why you are doing what you’re doing; it makes all those other things that you are doing pointless.”

In Malala’s new book We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World, Farah shares her story to transform the conversation around refugees in Canada and beyond. “Malala gave me the opportunity to say ‘Hang on, wait a minute, don’t villainize and dismiss the contributions that refugees who leave their countries can bring to the countries that welcome them,’” she asserts. “I didn’t actually think I would ever share my story because it’s not my story alone, it’s my parents story and my sisters story and when Malala first requested that I be part of our book I was really really hesitant,” she says. 

To tell her story for Malala’s book, Farah had to have some very open conversations with her parents that they had never had before. “I learnt a lot of stuff about my parents. [In the book] I talk about my mom being assaulted by arm guards, I didn’t know that until I was in preparation for this book and so it’s very personal,” she says. “I realized that I can be quite a private person – so this is probably the most open I have ever been. I allow myself to be vulnerable, but it’s a good vulnerability to share in the context of refugees, they are not a drain on our system. Refugees – many if not all of them contribute to their countries and that’s why I shared it.”

Meet Rogayeh Tabrizi, Co-founder and CEO of Theory+ Practice and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Rogayeh Tabrizi is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. In 2018 she Co-Founded Theory+Practice, an advanced data science company, where as CEO she has led the strategic growth of the self-funded private company that now employs 20 highly skilled people. 

My first job ever was… translating science articles for a university magazine geared towards highschoolers. Making knowledge accessible to those who previously didn’t have access to it was very fulfilling.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… it seemed like the natural path for me versus a conscious decision. I didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur as much as my desire to question the status quo and contribute to a better future led me to be an entrepreneur. It has been an iterative process.

My proudest accomplishment is… being at the ground-level of starting the African School of Physics (ASP) 10 years ago. ASP is an NGO dedicated to capacity development in fundamental physics in Africa and socialize learning on the continent. To date we have hosted 700 students from 17 countries, with 70% completing their PhDs or post-docs in North America and Europe, and 35% returning to their country of origin.

My boldest move to date was… switching from MSc Physics to PhD Economics with no background. I had worked to be a physicist for my entire life and it took a lot of soul searching and hard work to change paths. I went from being at the top of my class to having to basically start over. The move has paid many dividends and I am happy I had the courage to be bold at that time.

I surprise people when I tell them… I would jump the fence when I was in grade 9, walk a few kilometres by the highway and then jump the fence to sit in physics classes at the local university. I did that for two years and my poor parents were called to school often. Another funny surprise is that the Dalai Lama fell on my lap after he came down the stage! I had helped to organize his last visit to Vancouver.

I knew it was time to launch my business when… I left physics to pursue a career in economics as a way of applying my technical skills to more real-world problems. I was talking about this — with who would eventually become my co-founder — and it became clear that there was an opportunity to bridge the high-level theoretical knowledge and leading edge thinking researchers do in academia to the practical issues facing businesses and society today. It was then that Theory+Practice was born.

To constantly try to improve and that the journey is about working to make things better, but at the same time, you need to know when something is good enough for now.

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… don’t be idealistic about the monetary benefits of being an entrepreneur. Commit to working, particularly when you feel stuck. Ground your decisions on your values and principles. Being an entrepreneur will challenge you in ways you can’t imagine. Persevere and stick to it, but also ask for help. You won’t be able to succeed on your own. Get advice from everyone you can and find mentors to help you reflect on your progress. Dig deep and find the strength in our heart.

My best advice from a mentor… came in the form of a question. One mentor asked me “are you a perfectionist?” and I proudly responded with a yes. With a straight face, he said to me, “Quit now, you would never finish anything.” I realized then that it is more important to strive for excellence than perfection. To constantly try to improve and that the journey is about working to make things better, but at the same time, you need to know when something is good enough for now.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… “I am not playing two dimensional checkers, this is chess in Star Wars!” I focus on what is right here, right now in front of me and remember the goal. I remind myself of the positive moments and how grateful I am for all the resources around me and that I am not alone. I ask for help and remind myself that I am working for my team and together we can and do manage through tough times. It is actually very rewarding and fulfilling to deal with and manage adversity.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… paint more. I would just grab a canvas and let the creativity take control.

I stay inspired by… my team. Every day I am inspired by the power of teamwork with diverse thinking and perspectives that accompany it. There is truth in the cliche, “The sum is greater than the parts.” At Theory+Practice we are often trying to solve problems that have never been solved before. We deal with a lot of complexity, but focus on simplicity. There is a magical moment when clarity emerges and a team becomes radically aligned. I crave these moments for myself, and for my team. 

The future excites me because… even with the vast disruption and impacts of COVID-19, there are endless possibilities for a better future. Never before have we had such an opportunity — in so many ways — to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

My next step is… to continue the journey that Theory+Practice has put me on and find new and bigger opportunities to impact the world around me, while staying open to change. It is about showcasing — big or small — what is possible and questioning the status quo. I am excited to continue to learn and share my experiences with others, and mentor young people to help them on their own journeys as well.

Meet Nadine Chalati, owner of Chalati Lawyer and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award Winner

Nadine Chalati is a recipient of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Ones To Watch Award. She is a lawyer and the owner of the boutique law firm Chalati Lawyer, specializing in corporate and commercial law. As a firm advocate for accessibility in the legal system, Nadine regularly acts as an outside general counsel for small-to-medium sized businesses and assists not-for-profits and charities. Accentuating her practice on improving accessibility to justice and providing value to the community, Nadine also films daily legal segments on corporate and commercial law on Instagram. 

My first job ever was…  a lab technician at a pharmacy. It was my first experience in the service industry. It taught me how to communicate effectively with clients, provide outstanding service and resolve disputes. Additionally, as a lab technician, I learnt the importance of thoroughness, diligence, and revision of every action, even if they appear simple, such as counting pills. The skills I learnt then as a teenager are at the base of the skills I utilize today as a lawyer and entrepreneur.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I felt in me the desire to build something on my own. I was drawn to the idea of creating my own independence and relying on myself to make a living. Also, I craved the freedom to carve myself my own niche in law. I felt that I could only do that if I had total freedom to take the risks necessary to establish a practice that was totally customized to my interests.

My proudest accomplishment is… growing my business to the stage it is at now and consistently finding ways to leverage my skill set, my network and my drive to further its growth. I am endlessly grateful for it.

My boldest move to date was… starting from scratch. I was very young, fresh out of school, had no clients or a network. Looking back now, I am proud that I had the confidence to be so bold and take the risk!

I surprise people when I tell them… that I opened my firm at 23.

I knew it was time to launch my business when… I was at a crossroad. I was sworn into the Bar after an internship that was focused on litigation. Although I loved litigation, I discovered that it was a great source of stress in my life. I had to therefore decide if I wanted to continue pursuing the path of litigation, working in a firm, or if I wanted to shift towards building my own practice where I could tailor my business to suit my personality. 

My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Practice. Practice. Practice, with the objective of performing with excellence. You show your worth by being excellent. The ability to provide quality work will help you build a solid foundation of clients. In turn, this will give you the inspiration to consistently evolve your business and most importantly, it will give you pleasure to work.

When I am struggling with an issue that is not straightforward, I pause, I study and I evaluate the elements at hand.

My best advice from a mentor was… Just post it! It does not matter if it’s not perfect. My website, my first video, first ad, first blog… they were far from perfect, but they were good enough. That first “good enough” gives you just enough momentum to start landing your first clients, building a network, attracting attention. Eventually, you look back and notice you have a bank of clients, skills and content that came from that first, “not perfect but good enough.”.

When the going gets tough, I tell myself… that the business that I am trying to grow is not any kind of business. I am trying to grow a business as a lawyer within the boundaries of my professional order. When I am struggling with an issue that is not straightforward, I pause, I study and I evaluate the elements at hand. Often, I will go for a walk in nature or meditate to assess the issue at hand properly and in a sound mind.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… learn a new skill, kayak, paddle board, meditate, do yoga and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of life. I believe my creativity originates from the pause, from slowing down. Once I feel inspired and recharged, I can focus again on performance and development of my goals.

I stay inspired by… when I see a client leave my office with a smile and they are appeased by my work, it inspires me to keep doing good work and persevering. Seeing them happy brings joy to my day and is really the best part about the work I do.

The future excites me because… there is so much potential for change and transformation in the legal industry. Whether that be in the way that we service our clients, the products that we can create to better serve them or the platforms we can utilize to further disburse legal information to the public at no cost. The potential is limitless and I am truly excited to be able to play a part in this transformation. 

My next step is… to continue to grow Chalati Lawyer, to build an even stronger niche in corporate and commercial law and ultimately to be able to help more businesses with our services. Part of that process involves building new innovative products that both our clients and the community at large can use and to post more legal content on various social media platforms in order to make legal information widely accessible to the public at no cost.