This year I was honored with acceptance into Muppies, an organization of over 2,500 Muslim professionals spanning 25 different countries. I started attending the Seattle chapter’s events last year and thought it would be an interesting experience to join it as my second professional association (my first one being the Association for Computing Machinery). As part of that experience, I decided to travel to Toronto to attend their annual conference. Over the past weekend, 300 Muslim professionals from 5 different countries gathered around the theme of “Beyond Borders”.
I found this topic particularly resonant for myself. Today’s world and political climate centers strongly around the concepts of nationalism and patriotism. Two topics that society deems for certain hyphenated populations inappropriate. I grew up at the intersection of American and Indonesian culture, and often my experiences were very different from not just my peers in age and geography, but also among my Muslim peers.
Most of my generational peers in the Muslim community typically were second-generation immigrants from Pakistan, Egypt, or a myriad of other cultures in the Muslim world. I found very few peers that had mixed backgrounds like my own. Add to that the experience of climbing through the social ladder and one finds a very unique (and perhaps strange) combination of experiences that didn’t quite mesh with the people around me.
It was with this mindset that I landed in Toronto for the conference. I arrived with several other like-minded professionals from industries as vast as Finance, Law, Business, Tech, and Social Work. The commonalities that bound us were our identification as being Muslims. Not in the typical theological sense all too common with these gatherings, but in the sense of a shared common identity. There was an understanding there that we all came from those same formative experiences, traumas, and values that came from this faith tradition.
This theme was reflected as the keynote sessions began. A reminder about how our faith defines us through the values of humility, service, and leadership set the tone for the conference. Specifically that we all had the capability and the blessings to be able to create change in our communities and across the world.
However, this optimistic view had a looming shadow over it. It’s no surprise the Muslim community faces challenges throughout the world. Haroon Ullah explained to us the playbook that was being leveraged against Muslims and placed this in the scope of the current discourse on information warfare. The narrative that exists currently is not something that was manufactured and beamed into people, but rather it’s an exploitation of woes and worries of the populace to incite an agenda. One point I appreciated from this discussion is that technology is not the end-all solution. Ullah argued that the platforms need to take a stance on the content they choose to allow on their platform.
Dr. Mehmood Khan talked about how the scope of problems facing our generation are growing. Problems like these and others are ones that are tackled by leveraging our leadership and influence. That leadership doesn’t come just from your “skill” or “field” but from your experience and passion. What you learn will become irrelevant within the next three to five years. Passion transcends the borders that knowledge typically imposes. Muslims used to be one of the most influential centers of knowledge and we should seize that tradition and the values from it. Using this passion and influence is how we can address problems like world hunger, access to food and water, and climate change. Our communities are the ones that will have to face this. We have a tradition of excellence and we should strive for that and divorce ourselves from the post-colonial minority mentality we’re all too prone to.
However this leadership will not come without challenge or effort. Qaisar Shareef shared a great story of his experience starting Proctor & Gamble in Pakistan. A large part of what leading in the 21st century entails is getting out of your comfort zone, meeting people where they are, and understanding cultures and bridging connections between them. Muslims and other hyphenated minorities are in the positions to be able to make those connections and we shouldn’t completely whitewash our ability to do so.
Our cultural experiences define who we are. Creating an inclusive environment is a critical part of that as Farzana Nayani explained. Leading our communities and generations through these problems involve building inclusion at every level and not just for a business case. Inclusion comes by leveraging three forces: Public pressure, employee advocacy, and leadership initiative. Each of these points have influence on how the others act in public. The recent #GoogleWalkout I and other participated in was an example of how public pressure and employee advocacy could cause pressure on leadership. A large part of this is looking at how unconscious bias affects our communities (even within our minority circles). Farzana challenged attendees to look at chairs next to them and ask themselves: Who is missing from that chair? Why are they not here? Could we have more women? More people of different genders? More Afro-Muslims? More mixed Muslims? Part of leadership is using the position you have to bring others to the table.
The challenge a lot of us faced was finding out how to apply those principles and concepts into the real world. Chris Blauvelt talked about his experience in creating LaunchGood, a crowdfunding site for Muslims. He talked about how we can solve our problems as communities and use that as a means of benefiting people around us. Islamic history was the center of the world for a long time and we need to capture that tradition and bring it back. LaunchGood, for Chris, was an example of how creating a high quality product for Muslims was a viable means to make a difference and create meaningful change. It was proof that we could move from having our own problems to being our own heroes. But it requires getting us out of the victimization mindset and moving to leverage our amazing skills and work in our communities.
Closing off the conference, Amughan Ahmad talked about what leadership really means in practice. One of the most important assets that we have as Muslims is our stories and experiences. When sharing those stories, it can help us to inspire ourselves and others through difficult times. As technology and especially Artificial Intelligence become more prevalent in our economy, the jobs of the future will require that empathy and storytelling to move the world forward. To lead in the next 50-100 years, we need servant leaders; people who put the priority of the people and organization above themselves. Leaders who give credit to people working hard to changing the status quo. Leaders who aren’t held hostage to their past and instead take it as a challenge to excel.
Over the two days and many sessions I couldn’t capture in just one post, I had three major takeaways for how moving our world beyond borders could happen.
First, we need to look at the problems that affect everyone. We will be facing some of the biggest challenges our civilization has ever faced, global problems require global effort to tackle and address them.
Second, you cannot create truly meaningful solutions unless they are meaningful for all. Inclusion and creating an environment where people can share what they bring to the table in a way that’s not just corporate talk is critical to addressing global problems.
Third, true leaders are ones that serve others. This is unfortunately a talent that seems to be lost or less visible in today’s world. Having leaders that are willing to serve the least advantaged of their population or community are the ones that will help create the solutions that carry our world forward.
What I learned during the conference was that we do have the capability to succeed, we just need to find ways to bring others on board in a way that they feel truly included in your solutions. That requires patience, service, and passion to change the world.