Farah Mohamed Reflects on Her Journey as a Social Entrepreneur
The Former CEO of Malala Fund Shares Her Story
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.”