Meet Zabeen Hirji, Strategic Advisor and Diversity Advocate Passionate About Creating Social Impact
As an advisor to several organizations, she helps them recruit and promote a more diverse workforce.
Zabeen Hirji is an award-winning trailblazer, change-maker, mentor, and a woman of “firsts” in the corporate world. After a distinguished career at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and 10 years spent as Chief Human Resources Officer, Zabeen retired in 2017, but not in the traditional sense. As a strategic advisor to a number of organizations, Zabeen leverages her expertise to help these companies hire a more diverse, skilled, and resilient workforce. She has created a “Purposeful Third Act” for this phase of her life where she is intentional with how she invests her time to have impact. Zabeen brings to life her purpose to help others — particularly women and people of colour — unlock their own potential in order to build inclusive, collective prosperity. She has twice been named a Top 25 Women of Influence. To learn more about Zabeen, keep reading.
My first job ever was… a few months after arriving in Canada, working part-time at McDonald’s at age 14, selling burgers and making fries and asking, ”would you like an apple pie with that?” I developed transferable skills like teamwork, communication, and customer service, and most importantly, the confidence to apply for my next job. I hated the baggy uniform, but my cool Roots inverted shoes partly made up for that.
Before launching my Purposeful Third Act… I had a very rewarding career at RBC across many divisions of the Bank. I was Chief HR Officer (CHRO) for ten years until 2017, covering 80,000 employees across 40 countries and was also responsible for Brand, Communications and Corporate Citizenship.
My Purposeful Third Act is… I’ve built a portfolio of carefully selected work and activities that bring my purpose to life, which is to unlock the potential of people and build inclusive prosperity. I spend about a third of my time on business/commercial activities and two thirds on social impact and prosperity. I pick activities where I can also learn from the people and the work, and that are fun and enjoyable.
My current portfolio includes Executive Advisor, Future of Work at Deloitte, Board Director for Sleep Country Canada, and Senior Advisor to Knockri, an AI-powered HR start-up that helps organizations recruit and promote a more diverse workforce. I am also Executive-in-Residence at Simon Fraser University (SFU) Beedie School of Business (my alma mater), member of the Board of Governors, Junior Achievement Worldwide, visiting professor at the Public Policy Institute at King’s College, London, UK, and a Director on the Board of the Public Policy Forum.
I was motivated to launch my Purposeful Third Act because… I realized that my third act could be 25+ years, and I had the opportunity to live my best life by contributing to building a better Canada (and beyond) for the next generations. In short, where I could “be Zabeen” all the time.
I am energized by… the conversations I have with people from all walks of life, ages, and backgrounds who tell me their stories about their hopes and dreams, and their successes and challenges. It feels even better when I am able to help them dig deeper to uncover their barriers and identify some actions they can take. The best part is when I hear from them later about how the conversations inspired them to take steps to achieve their hopes and dreams.
My proudest accomplishment is… personally, my son and daughter, now in their late 20s, who have the courage to pursue work at the intersection of their passion, talent, and market opportunity, and judge success by their own standards. This is not easy, particularly in this age of hyper-peer pressure, amplified by social media.
Professionally, pushing myself outside my comfort zone to lead big win-win initiatives for both RBC and its employees. My highlights include articulating and embedding the Bank’s core values, creating a holistic diversity strategy that covered the workforce, customers, and communities, and leading the work to become a purpose-led company. These initiatives have stood the test of time, unifying people across businesses and geographies, and helped unlock the potential of employees, communities, and driven performance (more details can be found here).
Big career risks I have taken… advocating for myself early in my career and bypassing my manager to earn a spot in RBC Bank’s Management Training Program in 1979 at the age of 19. Mid-career, I accepted jobs both at a lower level and two lateral moves (most would call that a demotion) for the learning opportunities they provided, even though I knew colleagues would wonder if I had been pushed off the career track.
I took jobs in unfamiliar areas, like Regional Manager for the Bank’s Credit Cards Business in Ontario. At 34, I was the first woman, and youngest ever in that role. It felt like being in a fishbowl with all eyes on me to see if I would succeed, with some even viewing me as a “diversity hire.” I declined my first executive position offer because my children were still very young and I wasn’t prepared to make the requisite trade-offs. I learnt that it is important to make choices aligned to your values and be confident in making decisions that are right for me at a certain point in time, and to dispel the “what if?” thoughts once the decision was made. I learnt to define success on my own terms, versus what others might think.
The Advice I would give to my 30–something-year-old self and mother of two young ones is… make self-care and wellbeing non-negotiable. Whether it’s exercise, sleep, friendships, or simply doing nothing — we all need “me” time. You have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… my learning agility. My love of learning is not work for me. My learning has been both formal and informal; I held many roles at RBC, starting as a teller, and ultimately became known as someone who could learn quickly and connect the dots. Even today, I thrive on learning.
The leadership behaviours the pandemic shone a light on are… empathy, compassion, authenticity, and vulnerability. The future of leadership is human. As Jacinda Arden said, “you can be strong and empathetic.” My twist is, you can’t be strong if you’re not empathetic.
If I could have dinner with anyone it would be… my late papa (father) who died when I was 11. He’s had an enduring influence on my life by instilling in me the belief that I should not limit my ambitions just because I was a girl. Thank you, papa!
The future excites me because… of the opportunity to inspire and enable thousands of people to create their Purposeful Third Acts by unlocking their full potential to build inclusive prosperity.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I can bring out the child in me to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, and that I feel at peace when I am with my children, and closest friends, and we are just being rather than doing. This requires being vulnerable and going with the flow.
A quote that inspires me is… “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same as making a life.” – Maya Angelou.
To keep up with Zabeen, connect with her on LinkedIn where she was recently recognized as a LinkedIn Top Voice.