Western Alumni

Empowering woman

Farah Mohamed, MA’96, LLD’18, lifts up a world of opportunity for millions

By Keri Ferguson

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In April 2017, Taliban assassination survivor, education activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai stood before the House of Commons and announced, “A Canadian will now lead the fight for girls’ education around the world.”

She was speaking of Farah Mohamed.

Mohamed, MA’96, LLD’18, became the CEO of the Malala Fund in July 2017, overseeing an organization co-founded by Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, to champion every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality education.

“All my life, I’ve been building up to this moment,” Mohamed said, referencing past roles in government, the social profit sector, and her most recent post serving as the Chief Empowerment Officer of G(irls)20, an enterprise that places girls and women at the centre of the G20 process.

“In my service to girls, I could have been any one of them.”

Mohamed was just two years old when her family fled Uganda under the expulsion order of dictator Idi Amin, who, in a mass ethnic cleansing, gave Indian Ugandans just 90 days to leave the country.

“How lucky am I they chose Canada?” she said of her parents, who instilled in her the importance of service.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Mohamed looked to get involved in a political campaign at her parent’s urging. She did – on her own terms – meeting with all the candidates, before deciding for whom she’d campaign. The winning candidate was Liberal Paddy Torsney, who, with Mohamed as her campaign aide, clinched the riding of Burlington, upsetting a 20-year Conservative stronghold.

Mohamed was quick upon the win to ask the new MP for a job.

“She said, ‘No.’ I wrote her a letter and told her why she was wrong. She then said, ‘I will hire you but you need to go do what you said you would do,’ which was to get my master’s,” Mohamed explained. “That’s how I came to Western.”

Torsney was true to her word, calling Mohamed half-way through her graduate degree in Political Science and International Relations, inviting her to join her team at school’s end. “If Paddy had given me that job initially, I would not have gotten my master’s, and I don’t know where I would have ended up,” Mohamed said.

After four years, Mohamed moved on, becoming Director of Communications for Anne McLellan in her role as Minister of Justice, Minister of Health, and Deputy Prime Minister of Canada.

“Paddy took a real chance on me, and really had my back. She understood what it meant for me to get a higher station of education. She created my first opportunity in politics, which I will never forget, and then encouraged me to seek out another opportunity. This goes to show how one person can make a difference in another’s life, why you should take time to invest in people. Mentorship matters. Women can lift other women. I really do believe Paddy, and Anne, set me up for this job.”

As did Belinda Stronach, who hired Mohamed on her reputation alone to serve as the Inaugural President of the Belinda Stronach Foundation. The opportunity came at the perfect time for Mohamed, who had been shaken after visiting Uganda following a fundraising climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in her role as Vice- President, Public Affairs and Community Engagement with VON Canada.

“I was pretty devastated by what I saw,” Mohamed said of the poverty of her birthplace. “I felt very grateful for Canada, but quite guilty. I came back and said to my boss at the VON, ‘I’m giving you my notice. I have to do something in the development world. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I can’t live in a condo on the water, drive a nice car, eat out all the time and not remember where I came from and not try to do something.’

Responsible for all aspects of the Stronach Foundation, Mohamed launched its flagship programs, including One Laptop Per Child Canada, an initiative that gives Indigenous youth access to educational technology and workshops, and the G(irls) 20.

“I was reading about the G20 Leaders’ Summit in the Toronto Star one night and at 4 a.m. I woke up and went, ‘Oh my god, we have to have a G(irls) 20.’ I pitched it to Belinda and six months later we had our very first summit in Toronto.”

“It was my first really big risk in life,” Mohamed said of the program that invests in the entrepreneurial passion and leadership skills of girls around the world, allowing them to present their ideas on the global empowerment of women to leaders of the G20 Summit.

Mohamed also started the associated Girls on Boards, which trains and places civic-minded Canadian women between the ages of 18-25 on non-profit governance boards in their communities.

Throughout her career, “I have been given an incredible opportunity to help people in the way I was helped,” Mohamed said, and that now includes the 130 million girls around the world missing out on an education.

While the 48-year-old Mohamed may quip about having a “21-year-old boss,” her respect for Yousafzai is serious.

“Malala’s incredibly wise, has incredible values, an incredible family. She never loses sight of what’s important. She doesn’t feel the struggle for education is her own. She really does feel she is there on behalf of 130 million girls, and she does not take that lightly.”

“She is very involved in a good way. We don’t do anything without her. Strategically, we have a good board that includes Malala, who has given direction to the Fund, and my job is to make sure we do the work. Her job is to be a student at Oxford, my job is to run the Fund. And I’m very clear about that.”

With Yousafzai in exams, that stance meant it was Mohamed delivering Malala’s message at the recent G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec.

“It is a global economic imperative that all girls, everywhere, are in school – that they stay there, they learn and they step out of school and into the workforce with 21st-Century skills and capabilities. Simply stated, girls are the economic game-changer you need,” Mohamed said on Yousafzai’s behalf.

The result of an appeal made by the Malala Fund and its many partners was a historic $1.3-million investment in girls’ education, and was more about economics than altruism, Mohamed explained.

“They have to create jobs, they have to make sure the economy works, they have to make sure their societies and their countries are safe. They have to make sure there is opportunity for all. Check, check, check. If you educate girls, you’ve really worked on the safety and security of the country.”

The first year working alongside Malala and her father, connecting with donors and expanding into Latin America has been “full of ‘wow’ moments for me,” Mohamed said, “because of the privilege of working on an issue I care so deeply about.”

Mohamed’s accomplishments have been recognized through both a Meritorious Decoration (2017) and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award (2012) from the Governor General of Canada, and on lists including the World’s 100 Most Inspiring Women, BBC’s Top 100 Women (2014), Top 25 Most Influential Women in Canada, and RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants.

In June 2018 she received an honorary degree from Western, a particularly poignant occasion, given it was also World Refugee Day.

“It is not lost on me that I, too, came here as a refugee,” Mohamed told the graduating class. “My parents had to flee a country where they were no longer welcome. Thank god they arrived in a country that did not assume they were criminals first, and human beings second. Every day I am thankful they chose Canada.”