Nadia is a passionate champion for empowering Muslim women and Muslim women, with nearly 10 years of experience as a leader in the non-profit sector. She is the Founder and Executive Director of ANNISAA Organization of Canada, a grassroots national non-profit organization working to make this the best place in the world for Muslim women to grow.
By Nadia Sayeh, Founder and Executive Director, ANNISAA Organization of Canada
I began my career in my early 30’s, with a passion to change the lives of Muslim women in GTA. Starting out on the streets of Toronto volunteering and helping others, my work has since taken me around the city and into the circles of power – from the city hall, to municipal government, and to corporate boardrooms.
I had recently graduated from College and was ready to embrace a new chapter of life. I was at a career peak when all of this happened, but I knew in my bones that it was time for a change, even if I didn’t know exactly what it would be. Some have called it crazy, others called it courageous.
In my moments of fear, I’ve learned on my experience of the flying trapeze, where the hardest part is climbing the ladder and standing on the platform. Once you take the leap, you’re flying. All of the fear is in your head, there’s always a safety net below you. The worst you can do is fall and get back up again.
So, I gave myself a couple of months to figure things out. I was itching to do something different, but rather than jumping immediately into a new full-time job, I deliberately pressed the “pause” button. I began meeting with leaders across the city, seeking advice on what the biggest needs were for Muslim women in our city, and how I could use my skills and experience to have the greatest impact.
I knew I wanted to focus on improving the lives of Muslim women in Canada.
While most Canadians tend to think of this as being one of the best places in the world for Muslim women to grow, that simply isn’t true. Canada ranks as the 5th most prosperous nation, but when it comes to the wellbeing of Muslim women, we drop to 17th place. On key measures for Muslim women’s health and safety, we rank 27th. As an advocate for Muslim women and as a Muslim woman myself, it makes me angry that a country as wealthy as ours is letting Muslim women fall through the cracks. We can and must do better.
There are lots of great charities and non-profit organizations delivering programs and services to Muslim women, but we haven’t seen progress on Canada’s Muslim women’s well-being ranking for over a decade. So, I sought advice from the major Muslim women’s charities, formed an advisory board, developed a plan of action, and launched ANNISAA Organization of Canada, a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for Muslim women to grow.
I’ve learned a lot on my journey so far. If you’re interested in a similar path – whether that means starting a non-profit, or making a major life change – these five lessons could help you along the way:
Be bold and unique. It’s hard to set yourself apart in a very crowded and competitive landscape. Rather than compete with existing Muslim women’s charities, I’m working in partnership with them to build awareness and mobilize the community to get involved in making a difference for Muslim women. Working together, we can achieve so much more. I’ve focused on building a brand that is bold and unique, and which adds value to the broader sector. Picture the Muslim women’s charities as the lifeboats that are keeping us afloat, and ANNISAA as the tide that will lift all boats.
Embrace the mindset of a social entrepreneur. Rather than using traditional approaches, I’ve created a new social enterprise, ANNISAA Organization of Canada, which is small, nimble, and able to take more risks. It has been a major adjustment going from graduation to running this new enterprise on my own. I’m on a steep learning curve and am learning to operate at a strategic level to set the vision and strategy, whilst being tactical and doing the hands-on work of fundraising, research, media, and PR, and so on.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not alone – I’ve got an incredible advisory board, I’ve got great partners to work with, and there is no shortage of people willing to step up and help.
Understand the nature of the journey. The task ahead is monumental and it will take years before we see widespread change, but this needs to be balanced with creating a sense of urgency to effect change for Muslim women today. I have to set short- and long-term milestones and persistently driving change day by day. Muslim women’s lives are at stake, and we can’t afford to be incremental in our approach.
Don’t let fear stop you. I’ve come to embrace the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
If you had asked me a few years ago whether I’d be leading my own organization, I would have laughed – it simply wasn’t on my horizon. There are days when this role is incredibly daunting – tackling this big, hairy, audacious goal with a very small start-up organization – but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. It’s much more than a job, it’s become my life’s mission.