An evening of celebration, inspiration and the speech of my life

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of being the keynote speaker for a truly wonderful evening of celebration and inspiration organised by Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

The 3rd BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) event, held in Manchester, aimed to celebrate diversity by understanding and embracing individual differences in ways that drive innovation, connect them more fully to the wider communities and make the company a place that is welcoming to all. An inclusive culture is central to the company’s ethos, and enables them to attract and retain the best talent in the market.

I’ve witnessed first hand Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s passion for and commitment to such values through their tremendous support and involvement in the diversity projects and initiatives I’ve delivered since 2003.

The BAME forum and event had some serious messages and objectives: creating a better awareness of the different faiths and cultures of their colleagues and customers, and the number one objective of attracting, recruiting & retaining minority employees and assist them to develop to management level, and in particular minority females.

Their success so far has been pretty phenomenal, with several national awards and accolades in recognition of their achievements. And since 2014, there has been more than a 50% increase in BAME employees, 40% increase in BAME management and significant rise in BAME female management.

Saturday’s event was about real and very personal stories of a group of individuals on their careers, and experiences of being an ethnic minority employee in the company.  Stories of breaking cultural barriers, challenging stereotypes, parental and community expectations, and juggling a career with family life – all shared with much courage, emotion and humour. I personally felt an instant connection with many of the stories, as there was much in common with my own background.

And then came my moment of glory – a chance for me to share my own career journey and experiences as a British born Muslim Asian female. It was a candid account of the challenges I faced growing up, and my career to date, and I’ve shared some valuable lessons for anyone regardless of background, race and culture.

I know many people have been very keen to read my speech, so here it is! I hope you enjoy reading my story – I certainly enjoyed telling it!IMG-20160306-WA0000-1

“It’s a real honour to be here this evening, and to be the keynote speaker at this wonderful event. When Sham told me about this initiative last year, I was extremely interested, for as you will hear, diversity and equality has been an important part of my career. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend on the last occasion, but delighted to be here today.

As you will see from my biography, I am a careers professional, and I’ve spent nearly 14 years in the higher education sector. Hard to believe it’s been that long really.

For nearly 10 years, I worked at the University of Liverpool as a project manager delivering various employability projects. My biggest achievement was running a very successful diversity mentoring scheme to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups across four universities. It was in the early years of this project that I first met Sham and the team at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and I am still to this day extremely grateful for the support they gave to that project. For the last four years, I have been working at the University of Central Lancashire with a mainly international remit, supporting international students and those who want to work and study abroad.

I am also a writer and blogger, I run my own personal careers blog, but I have also written for national graduate careers websites, an Islamic finance recruitment company and Muslim community magazines.

So how did I become a careers professional and writer? It’s perhaps an unlikely career choice given my background and upbringing. My educational and career journey since I started high school 27 years ago, is a story of many themes and challenges: family and community expectations and their vision of success, a privileged education, family and cultural values, and the struggle to create an authentic career and identity as a Muslim woman growing up in the UK.

I grew up in a community of Asian doctors, so there are no prizes for guessing what career options I was faced with.  Educational and career success was defined in very specific terms: going to the best schools, universities and sailing into a high flying job preferably as a doctor, but at least a dentist, lawyer, accountant or a career with ‘status.’  As was the norm, I went to a private school for girls here in the North West. To be fair to my parents, they accepted early on science was not my forte and that I wouldn’t study Medicine. From a young age, I had a natural interest in and excelled in the Arts.

When I was 16, I wanted to be a journalist. A fashion journalist to be precise. I had this grand vision of becoming the Editor of Vogue magazine, travelling the world, and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. But two weeks of work experience with a local newspaper quickly made me realise that journalism wasn’t all that glamorous! At A-Level, I focused on subjects I had a passion for – English, French and Politics and soon developed a strong interest in the latter subject and current affairs.

So it came to university choices, and being a city person I opted to move away and study in London. My privileged education continued and I was offered a place to study International Relations at one of the top universities in the UK, the London School of Economics and Political Science. My university years were amazing. With its history and reputation, LSE definitely offered a unique educational experience.

But what did I want to do? To be honest, I had no idea; here I was studying at one of the best universities in the country, and I felt lost and confused. The greatest irony is that despite spending most of my professional life working in a careers service, I never visited one at university! Not a great example to follow.

Against all this, I had family to consider too. My parents valued education and wanted to see me excel academically. But culture, religion, family life were equally important to them too. It was their desire that I would return to the family nest once I had completed all my university education. This expectation was not the norm for my community, and pretty much nearly all the people I grew up with never returned home after university. I admit I struggled with this at the time, but felt I would return eventually.

Coming to the end of my time at LSE, and I wasn’t ready to go back to the North West. I needed more time to figure out what I wanted to do with my career and was enjoying the London life. So I did the obvious thing people seemed to do when putting off the job search, and that was to apply for a Masters (I applied to do International History at LSE).

Graduation from LSE, and life worked out differently for me. I ended up getting a 2:2 in my degree, which meant I didn’t get onto the Masters course at LSE.  This seems very dramatic, but I was devastated. What was I going to do now? I had no job plans and by this point had my heart set on doing postgraduate study. And nearly everyone around me had achieved top grades, and had their plans firmly secured.  My family were still so proud of what I achieved, and tried to console me, but looking back I was influenced by what others would think, and was very hard on myself at the time.  Anyhow, I decided to look for other courses and universities. So I ended up studying Middle Eastern Politics at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

I know we often hear the cliché when one door closes, another one opens, but this is exactly what happened to me. My year at SOAS changed me forever.

On a personal level, I really started to reflect on my life, faith and identity as a Muslim woman growing up in the UK. I didn’t wear the headscarf (hijab) at this point, but deep down I was really thinking about it. I was seeing a lot more women wear it. And I was so inspired. These female students were proudly and visibly expressing their religious identity but still pursuing their educational and career ambitions. They completely challenged the stereotypes people often have about women in hijab.  If they could do it, why couldn’t I? But it took me some time to make the change.

It was also whilst I was at SOAS that the seeds of my career inspiration were firmly planted. A BBC World Service Journalist came to talk to us about the work of The Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank.  He spoke about a report published in the late 90s on Islamophobia in the UK, and the discrimination that Muslims experienced across different areas. When I think back, it was ground breaking work, especially as it was pre 9/11. I was totally inspired by this work, and started to think about what I could do to make a difference. A career in promoting diversity and tackling discrimination totally resonated with me.

I went on to complete my Masters, but in line with family expectations returned home. But the next two years after graduation proved to be tough. In my heart, I wanted to pursue a career in diversity/race equality, but that kind of work was not easy to come by in my local area. I had to think practically and just get any job, but this was much harder than I thought. I was faced with that predicament of being too qualified, but with no work experience. I applied for graduate programmes, graduate level jobs, but didn’t get anywhere. So I joined a few agencies, and spent the next 2 years in endless low paid jobs with no prospects.

The hardest part of these two years was dealing with the attitudes of the ‘community’ and people looking down on me. My close friends were very supportive and encouraging, but I couldn’t help but feel inferior as friends and peers were in well paid and established jobs, travelling the globe. And here I was, a graduate from one of the best universities, doing nothing significant. It was a very dark period in my life.

But I didn’t give up. I heard about a graduate development programme being offered by the University of Liverpool to support local graduates. So I joined, and took part in their summer course. And it was whilst I was on this programme, I found out about a role to run a diversity mentoring scheme for BME and disabled students through the Careers Service. I was so excited, it was totally up my street. But I had very low self-confidence and doubted if I would get the job.

I went to apply, gave up, but then three days before the deadline I gave it another shot, completely not expecting anything to happen. I then got called for an interview (my worst nightmare hit me as I had to do a presentation in the interview), but I honestly thought I didn’t get the job.

But then around 4 pm that afternoon, I got the call to say “Monira, we would like to offer you the job.”

I just couldn’t believe it. After two years of struggling in horrendous jobs, I finally got my break.

So on the 23rd September 2002, I started my life as a careers professional in the higher education sector. What started off as an eight-month project developed into more than a decade long journey of the most fulfilling and amazing experiences and accomplishments.

It was a year later in October 2003, that I finally decided to wear the hijab. It wasn’t an overnight decision, it happened after much soul searching and reflection and encouragement from my sisters.

Of all the life-changing decisions I’ve ever made, wearing the hijab is probably there at the top. Everyone of course knew I was Muslim, but I was now publicly expressing my faith and identity in a way I never imagined I would. As a fresh graduate looking for work three years before, I thought long and hard about the hijab, but was always worried about the impact on my career. What would people think of me? Would I be able to get a job?

I never told anyone at work I was going to start wearing it. I just turned up one Monday morning wearing it, but feeling incredibly nervous. I hid in my office all morning, hoping no one would come in and speak to me! I didn’t feel ashamed, but just felt very self conscious as I looked totally different.

Naturally some people were curious and asked questions (many thought I was wearing it because of Ramadan), but not in an offensive manner; in any case it was an opportunity for me to share my faith with others. My colleagues were so amazing and it was never an issue.

How have I balanced my faith and religious identity with my professional life since then? To be honest, I’ve been very fortunate and blessed – wearing the hijab never posed any problems when it came to my career, and I always received total respect and support from colleagues. I always remained firm in my values and religious practice – praying, fasting during Ramadan, and I got to visit Makkah 3 times. Whenever I attended conferences, meetings, events, I always made sure there was a place for me to pray, and no one ever had a problem with this. But I also made a conscious decision that I was still going to be the same person – I was still Monira who could have a laugh and share the same jokes. I didn’t want people to feel that they couldn’t approach me or talk to me like before. So I behaved just normally with people. This is the balance anyone needs to strike and practising the faith doesn’t mean shutting ourselves off from people either. Being open to discussion and sharing our stories is vital in developing understanding and awareness. I continue to share my religion with others, and it gives me great joy.

It’s been 20 years since I left school and life has turned out very differently for me. I admit I was unhappy at first at having to return home after graduation, but I haven’t regretted that decision to do it. I came to really value being with my family again, having that support and being there for them when they needed me. Yes, I didn’t follow the typical career path of my community or friends, or have the six-figure salary, travelling around the world or reach the top of the corporate ladder. But I’ve ultimately been able to create an authentic career and my own vision of success where I have balanced my professional role with my faith and family life.

I want to leave you all with three key lessons that I’ve learnt and my hope is that you will share this with the younger generation too:

  • Defining your own vision of success and embracing your unique journey – we are still too often expected to conform to a particular view of success, but as individuals we need to take control, and create the life WE want to lead. We are all different with unique visions, talents and strengths. Who was anyone to tell me I haven’t been a success? At the end of the day, I’m leading a life that makes me happy and fulfilling my goals. And that’s what matters to me.
  • Setbacks and struggles are lessons and opportunities – getting that 2:2 was probably the best thing that happened to me; it took me down a totally different path, and opened up opportunities which has led me here today. I came to value my two-year struggle in finding a job after university; I developed a great deal of skills, resilience and strength of character, and learnt so much about myself.
  • Having the right people in your life – I’ve no doubt put in a lot of hard work and dedication with my career, but I’ve not done it alone. Support from family, friends, colleagues and others over the years has played an integral role too. We all need mentors, role models, people of inspiration to help us along the way.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my experiences and my career journey. I want to end by giving my heartfelt thanks to Enterprise Rent-A-Car for giving me this opportunity to speak today. I also want to particularly thank Sham. I’ve known Sham nearly all my career, he is extremely dedicated and motivated, and I’ve valued his support, enthusiasm, professionalism, and above all, his friendship over the many years.

Thanks for listening to my story, and here are some photos from the event!

Published by Monira Ahmed

Careers Professional & Blogger; passionate about International Careers, Diversity Matters and Mentoring.

One thought on “An evening of celebration, inspiration and the speech of my life

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