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Cultivating leaders

by Carly Weeks, MA'04 | January 10, 2014

Cultivating Leaders

Farah Mohamed, MA’96, is on a mission to find the next generation of female leaders and equip them with the skills to take on the world.

And Mohamed is well on her way as president and CEO of the G(irls)20 Summit, an annual international event that brings together young women ahead of the G20 Summit to find ways to bring economic empowerment to women around the world.

But the seeds for her passion to mobilize young girls and women were planted in an unlikely place: her family’s expulsion from Uganda by then-President Idi Amin in 1972. Like tens of thousands of others of Indian heritage, Mohamed’s parents were forced to leave the place they called home and move to Canada, a country they had never laid eyes on, as a result of ethnic cleansing.

Mohamed was only two when her family uprooted and settled into a new life in Burlington, Ont. But the traumatic event had a profound impact on her parents and how they raised their daughters.

So while other girls her age were hanging out at the mall or going to sleepovers, Mohamed and her sister were volunteering at nursing homes and their local mosque. Newspapers were required reading for the teenaged Mohamed girls and Canadian politics was a regular staple of dinner table conversation.

“They grew us up to be pretty engaged in our country and I think it comes from the fact politics kicked them out of their own country,” Mohamed says. “Obviously, when I was a kid, I didn’t appreciate any of that stuff… But they knew that to make it here, you needed to do certain things, and education would be a part of it.”

Now, Mohamed credits her parents and their emphasis on political engagement and education for putting her on the path to success. After graduating from high school, she earned a scholarship to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. and took a year off to dip her toes in the national political scene before finishing a Master’s degree in political science and international relations at Western University.

“When you walk away with a degree from Western then you have accomplished something great,” she says. Mohamed’s gap year coincided with the 1993 federal election and she decided to volunteer for Patricia ‘Paddy’ Torsney, the Liberal candidate for her hometown of Burlington. Jean Chrétien would lead the party to victory.

Before long, Mohamed was working fulltime for Torsney in Ottawa, eventually being promoted to chief of staff. Mohamed’s reputation as an ambitious, hardworking and personable young women soon caught the attention of Anne McLellan, then Minister of Justice, who decided to hire her.

Mohamed was eventually named McLellan’s director of communications, a stressful position that required daily interactions with multiple media organizations. Mohamed’s grace under pressure not only impressed McLellan; it sparked a friendship that continues today.

“I don’t think there was anyone in the national press gallery who did not respect Farah and that is a huge asset for a minister,” recalls McLellan. “I listened to her advice and the thing I would say is every time I didn’t listen to her advice, I got myself in trouble.”

In 2007, Mohamed’s life changed. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for charity and took the opportunity to visit her home country of Uganda for the first time since she was a child. The devastating poverty she saw shook her.

“I’m not naïve. I’ve seen [poverty] before, but to see it in a country that you got to escape, it just jarred me.”

Returning to life in Canada, where she enjoyed the luxuries of driving a nice car, living in a well-appointed condominium and dining out regularly with friends prompted Mohamed to reevaluate her life’s goals.

She decided to dedicate her energy to giving back and helping younger generations, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged.

Serendipitously, former Liberal Member of Parliament Belinda Stronach phoned Mohamed, inviting her to help launch a foundation that would focus, in part, on the advancement of girls and women. And that’s how G(irls)20 Summit was born.

The summit provides a platform for one young woman from each G20 nation, plus a representative from the European Union and African Union, to learn important leadership skills and gain the confidence to speak on an international stage. In 2014, the summit will travel to Brisbane.

Mohamed gets emotional when she speaks about how the young delegates are transformed into confident, articulate young women who are making a difference in their communities back home.

“When I see those girls in action, it’s like being a proud parent,” Mohamed says. “You’re in awe.”

At 43, Mohamed has already earned significant success and honours, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. But she’s not finished yet. In the next few years, she plans on finding a successor who can continue the vision of G(irls)20 while she moves onto the next challenge.

McLellan says Mohamed should run for public office and that she would make “a great Member of Parliament.”

No matter where the future takes her, it’s a good bet Mohamed will find a way to keep alive her mission to cultivate the next generation of leaders.

“When I do think about my path, there have been many people who have invested in me… so I feel like that’s my give back.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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