CANADA – Mentorship program sees Muslim professionals mentor Muslim students

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SHAFAQNA – The initiative links learners with established workers in fields where minorities lack representation.

In one of the first jobs she had, Sabeen Saeed was told she would be the only woman on a team of 10 men and “asked if she could handle it.”

After a decade in the male-dominated field of finance, she says she has gotten used to being the only woman at the table. But Saeed, who identifies as Muslim, admits it’s been a challenge being a minority within a minority in the fast-paced industry.

“This isn’t a field where you see many women from diverse backgrounds,” said Saeed, who now works in a Toronto investment firm.

“When I started out, I didn’t really have access to any role models or mentors that I could relate to,” she said. “I think if I had women to talk to who had dealt with the same challenges I had faced, it would have been helpful.”

That’s why she was eager to give her time to a newly launched mentoring initiative called MAX Mentors — which aims to connect students and young professionals with established Muslim professionals in Toronto.

Saeed was recently paired up with Sara Raza, a first-year student at the Richard Ivey School of Business, who was quick to notice she stood out in her class.

“I recognized right away that there is a serious lack of representation in this field,” said Raza, a visible Muslim who wears the hijab.

She welcomes the knowledge Saeed has to share: “To get this insight as to how it is to be a woman in the business space is invaluable,” Raza said.

MAX mentors is the latest initiative of MAX (Muslim Awards for Excellence), an organization that made its debut last year with a flashy awards dinner, with the feel of a Muslim Oscars, to celebrate and encourage achievement in the Canadian Muslim community. It was established at a time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment locally and abroad.

The organization is the brainchild of Aazar Zafar, who says he launched MAX in 2015, in an effort to change the narrative around the Canadian Muslim community and show a counterpoint to the misconceptions that exist about Muslims, their faith and their contributions to Canada.

“This narrative of violence and terrorism is not the Islam the vast majority of Muslims have grown up with,” said Zafar, a portfolio manager for a pension fund. “Education and service are tenets of Islam, and are also central Canadian values. MAX honours that, and as proud Canadians, we aim to recognize and motivate high achievement in the country.”

The aim of the event is simple, and admittedly in part, a bit of a public relations push to “elevate the brand of Muslims in Canada.

In its first year, as its mandate suggested, MAX aimed high. The event took place at the glitzy Ritz-Carlton and was attended by Premier Kathleen Wynne, and Toronto Mayor John Tory. The keynote speakers included Ryerson University president Mohamed Lachemi, and City of Toronto Film Commissioner and actor Zaib Shaikh.

This year, the dinner and awards ceremony takes place at Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 14. They plan to present 14 awards to community members, including women of the year, and 21 scholarships to students — worth around $84,000.

Zafar says the mentorship program was initiated by a student who was awarded one of the 11 scholarships given out last year. So far, 100 people have signed up to be part of the program, and 35 pairs have been matched, including many of those outside the traditional realms of law and medicine.

It was this non-traditional outlook that drew entrepreneur Ibrahim Hyder to the program. “It was really unique to be connected with someone who has directly related to what I’m doing,” said Hyder, who runs a business called TruWood, which sells wooden watches online.

He was paired up with Saad Uddin, founder of Native Touch, a mobile advertising company, who says he got involved because he could have benefited from a similar initiative when he was starting out.

“I always thought it would be good to have a mentor who is going through building a business, but could understand some of our priorities and goals that take our faith into consideration as well.”

The mentorship program, which has had three events so far, has already ventured into topics not normally discussed in workplace settings — such as resiliency, and mental health. The hope is to expand the program beyond the GTA, in Ontario, and eventually across the country.

Saeed says for many professionals like herself, MAX is finally giving the Muslim community a platform to challenge stereotypes that exist.

“I think in the world we live in, it’s increasingly important to show Canadian Muslims who are giving back and contributing,” said Saeed. “I think in the past, we haven’t done the greatest job of highlighting our successes and achievements as a community … I think MAX brings something to the table that was sorely lacking.”

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