Role Models

Role models series – inspiring stories from 10 winners and finalists of the British Muslim Awards

Learning from others’ career stories is a key part of our own decision making process and the journeys we experience. Who we learn from and how this takes place varies; it could be from specific role models, mentors, inspiring figures, or just from people we know and meet through our family, studies and work.

If we look at theory, modelling and the availability of examples to identify with was one of the five ways different social groups e.g. parents, family, teachers, peer and ethnic groups, could influence career choices in the classic ‘Community Interaction’ theory. This theory was presented in 1981 by the late Bill Law, a leading figure in careers education and counselling, and although is one perspective, still holds a great deal of relevance.

External influences of course may not always be beneficial. But what I do strongly believe is in this changing and competitive jobs market, and especially for our young people and groups who may face additional challenges, we need to look at positive ways of connecting them with professionals. Showcasing examples, stories, successes and achievements is a vital tool for raising aspirations, exploring a range of ideas and gaining insights and knowledge about different roles.

With this in mind, I decided to start this ‘Role Models’ series as a way of illustrating different career stories and experiences. My series starts with 10 finalists and winners from this year’s and previous British Muslim Awards, which as you will know from my previous blog post, I was honoured to be one of the winners in January.

These 10 men and women’s achievements speak for themselves. Working across a diverse range of sectors such as media, publishing, business, finance & law, to the police service, women’s rights, science, medicine and sports, they have been involved in ground breaking and innovative work, creating change locally, nationally and even globally. They have powerfully challenged stereotypes, cultural and community expectations and broken down barriers.

Each story is unique, with some candid accounts of overcoming personal trauma and difficulties, professional challenges, lessons learnt, role models and sources of inspiration ranging from faith, family, teachers and colleagues to public figures. And each one has also shared some valuable tips for getting into their respective fields.

It was such a pleasure to interview these individuals, and I personally gained a lot from completing this project. My hope is that whatever your background, there is something we can all learn and take away from these interviews.

Without any further ado, the interviews are presented below. My deepest thanks to each of these individuals for their time and valuable contribution, and I wish them the very best and further success in their careers and professional life.

Nasreen Ahmed is a Script Editor on BBC daytime drama ‘Doctors’, where she commissions writers to write episodes, giving guidance at every stage of the scripting process. She has been with the BBC for nearly 15 years, and has also spent a brief period on ‘Coronation Street’ as a Storyliner. Nasreen was winner of ‘Services to Media’ 2017. For full interview, please click here.

Naz Award
Nasreen Ahmed

Chief Superintendent Bas Javid is Commander for Solihull Police and as a senior police officer undertakes several force level roles covering the West Midlands area. He’s been with the police service for over 20 years, and prior to this served with the Royal Navy. In 2017, Bas was winner of ‘Uniformed Services of the Year.’ For full interview, please click here.

Chief Supt Bas Javid

Zlakha Ahmed MBE is Founder of Apna Haq, a leading women’s rights organisation tackling domestic/sexual violence facing black and ethnic minority women in Rotherham. In 2016, she was awarded an MBE for her services to women’s rights and community cohesion. Zlakha was a finalist for the ‘Noor Anayat Khan Muslim Woman of the Year’ 2017. For full interview, please click here.

Zlakha Ahmed

Dr Kal Karim is Associate Professor in Chemistry at the University of Leicester, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) and Deputy Head of the Leicester Biotechnology Group (LBG). His roles include teaching, research, careers support and entrepreneurship; in addition he is involved in extensive international activities with China. In 2017, Kal was winner for ‘Services to Science & Engineering.’ For full interview, please click here.

Dr Kal Karim

Nazia Khatun is a Body Transformational Coach, and founder of Fitness Reborn UK. Her love for sport began after meeting Laila Ali, daughter of the late Muhammed Ali, who inspired her to go into boxing. As a coach, she takes women, particularly from the South Asian and Arab community, on a journey to recreate habits and patterns so that they are able to have a better relationship with food and exercise. Nazia was a finalist for the ‘Noor Anayat Khan Muslim Woman of the Year’ 2017. For full interview, please click here.

Nazia Khatun

Sheikh Bilal Khan is Co-Chairman and Partner at Dome Advisory, a leading Islamic finance and Shariah advisory firm. In addition he holds a number of advisory roles, including for the UK government, and is uniquely positioned as both a Shariah Scholar and an English qualified lawyer with ‘magic circle’ law firm Linklaters. Bilal was winner of ‘Religious Advocate of the Year’ in 2013, and a finalist in 2014 and 2017. For full interview, please click here.

Sheikh Bilal Khan

Shahida Rahman is an author, writer, presenter and campaigner; she is director and co-founder of Perfect Publishers Ltd  an award winning print-on-demand book publishing company. Her works ranges from historical fiction, non-fiction and short stories. She is actively involved in her local community and has campaigned to tackle racism and other injustices. Shahida was a winner for ‘Arts & Cultural Awareness’ award in 2015. For full interview, please click here.

Shahida Rahman

Isa Mutlib works within the education and skills sector globally, having established an award winning international education company. He is Group Project Director for Pathway Group, a national workforce development solutions company and also is Executive Director for the BAME Apprenticeship Alliance. In 2017, Isa was a finalist for ‘Entrepreneur of the Year.’ For full interview, please click here.

Isa Mutlib

Dr Hina Shahid is a portfolio GP and also Chair of the Muslim Doctors Association, a voluntary organisation which delivers multidisciplinary health promotion and education to ethnic minorities in the UK. She is involved in teaching, research and humanitarian work, including strengthening family medicine in Palestine. In 2017, Hina was winner of the ‘Dr Abbas Khan Services to Medicine’ award. For full interview, please click here.

Dr Hina Shahid

Ibrahim Rahman is a presenter, blogger, filmmaker, and also web designer and developer for Perfect Publishers Ltd, an award winning print-on-demand book publishing company. Through his work he has been utilising digital media to engage and empower the youth within Bangladeshi and other communities. Ibrahim was ‘Services to Media’ finalist in 2016, and ‘Services to Creativity and Technology’ finalist in 2017. For full interview, please click here.

Ibrahim Rahman




Winning the British Muslim Award for Education and what it means for me

At the start of January, I had some general goals I wanted to achieve this year. I’d always been one of those people to try and create a sophisticated plan, only to then hit a brick wall in keeping the momentum going. But a theme that I kept in my mind was this idea of the ‘control for new.’ It’s something that really resonated with me after reading ‘The Charge’, a book by the world famous high performance coach and trainer, Brendon Burchard. In a nutshell, ‘The Charge’ talks about 10 human drives we need to activate in order to live a more fulfilled, productive and meaningful life. One area he talks about is the ‘drive for control.’ This is about taking control of our outlook and character, looking at ways we can introduce new experiences and opportunities, and controlling your workflow, including creating new projects. All of these definitely struck a chord with me.

In terms of new experiences and opportunities, I achieved this through a rather unexpected honour. Last Wednesday night, I attended the 5th British Muslim Awards held in Leicester’s Athena, having been shortlisted as a finalist for Services to Education. This glittering ceremony, organised by Oceanic Consulting, and presented by key sponsor Al Rayan Bank, celebrates the talents and successes of British Muslims from a diverse range of sectors and professions such as arts & culture, law, medicine, science & engineering, community work, sport and much more.

I was familiar with the initiative, as I had friends who had won before, but never imagined I would be there myself. So needless to say I was extremely nervous and excited! The calibre of finalists in my category was extremely high, and it was an honour to be included with such a group of esteemed academics, researchers and educators.

So when it came to announcing the winner of the Services to Education, and the presenter started to describe me, it was a total shock that I had won! With my mind all over the place, I made it onto the stage without any major disasters, and very humbly received the beautiful glass trophy. My dad was with me on the night, and it goes without saying he was beaming with pride. Lovely messages came flooding through from family, friends and colleagues. My Twitter feed was on fire – I felt like a celebrity!

Photo Credit: British Muslim Awards
Pictured with Fadi Itani of Qatar Charity UK, sponsors of Services to Education Award (Photo Credit: Qatar Charity UK)

In my acceptance speech, I spoke about the catalyst for my career in higher education – that nearly 20 years ago it was a university lecture on the challenges facing Muslims and BME groups in education and employment, that inspired me to serve disadvantaged groups and make a difference to their lives. So the fact that I was recognised as an example of a British Muslim Asian female dedicated to helping others, really meant a lot for me. I did feel very emotional at that point.

I am delighted on so many levels, but I am also pleased that this has highlighted the valuable role careers professionals play across the education sector. Hearing that I work in a university, people have asked me on numerous occasions, “So, you’re a lecturer, what do you teach?” I’ve tactfully had to say that it’s not just lecturers who work in a university! We all have a responsibility and role to play in the education and development of our young people, students and graduates. Careers information, advice and guidance is critical in helping people achieve their goals and ambitions, and I am very proud that once again, I’ve played a part in showcasing the work that we do.

I’ve been asked where do I go from here, how do I intend to use this award? I guess the simple answer is to continue to empower, inspire and support students and graduates but to also continue to be a role model for people in my own community.

But going back to what I said earlier on about ‘new’ experiences, opportunities and people, I think the evening was certainly the start of that. It was a pleasure to meet the sponsors of my award, Qatar Charity UK, represented by Fadi Itani (Deputy Director General) and Chris Goward (Communications Manager). Qatar Charity UK are a development and humanitarian charity committed to empowering disadvantaged people in the UK and abroad, and I am looking forward to being the first guest blogger on their new website. It was also great to meet so many inspiring and talented British Muslims, including fellow bloggers and some well known public figures. I will certainly be showcasing some of these successes in upcoming blog posts and future projects.

I want to congratulate everyone who was shortlisted and all the winners – it is fantastic to see people from the Muslim community challenging stereotypes and succeeding in such a diverse range of professions and roles. I hope their work continues to inspire many others.

You can see a full list of winners and further coverage of the event here.


Resilience, skills and employability through the ‘China experience’

For anyone looking to enrich their university education and gain a unique set of skills and experiences, China is definitely a place to visit.

China’s global education and economic influence is still continuing; it dominates the list of leading universities in the developing world, and it’s strategic importance for UK companies is well illustrated with the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative; launched by the Chinese president in 2013, it sets out to improve and create new trade routes, links and business opportunities between China and over 60 countries across Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa. As the report highlights, the ‘potential exists for powerful partnerships between British and Chinese companies.’

With a wide range of study and work experience programmes, China has become more accessible for today’s students and graduates. And the good news is that steps have been taken to provide opportunities for students who may not ordinarily consider going to the country.

One initiative has been the British Council Generation UK – China programme. Backed by the government, it aims to develop the global employability and prospects of UK students through funded internships and academic scholarships. By 2020, the hope is that 80,000 students will have benefited from the programme. The British Council have been working in partnership with a number of internship providers, one being InternChina.

Right now, the programme is being promoted across the UK, and this week, I attended a presentation where a couple of UCLan students spoke about their internships. What became apparent was how exposure to this fascinating culture, language and business world enabled students to gain some amazing skills and insights. Resilience, adaptability and cultural awareness were key themes, and all very much what graduate recruiters are looking for in today’s changing world of work.

Coral Simpson, a Business Management in China student, spent her year abroad working as a Marketing & Sales Intern in InternChina’s Zhuhai office, involved in a range of promotional and design activities. What struck me is her experience of seeing first hand the cultural differences, in particular the Chinese concept of Guanxi, which is about networking, and also the value given to the use of business cards. Knowing about these differences is vital in becoming a global graduate and working cross-culturally, whether in the UK or abroad. You can hear more about Coral’s experiences here on this video and also read on the InternChina blog.

Ross Simmons, a Law student, undertook an internship for a domestic law firm in Chengdu.

“During my two months in Chengdu, I provided research and advice on outbound transactions for a domestic Chinese law firm who had a roster of internationally focused clients. I also conducted weekly seminars for lawyers on legal issues in the UK; for example, the role of judicial review in respect of legal challenges to the recent EU referendum decision.

As a British Council Generation UK funding beneficiary, I was invited to attend a VIP meeting with Sir Martin Donnelly KCB CMG, where I was invited to give my opinion on how outward mobility benefits students like myself and the role it plays in bringing the UK and China closer together.

It took a lot for me to take the leap to China given that I had never travelled further than two time zones until now. The opportunity has tested my resilience when in a situation of adversity, and this is a quality that I can explain to prospective employers that makes me stand out from the crowd. I now have that international dimension that employers value in a time where globalisation is at its height.”

Thanks to Ross for sharing his story and photos; you can find out more on his personal blog as an aspiring lawyer.

Applications are still open for the 2017 Generation UK China programme with Intern China, and the deadline is 12th December 2016. For more information visit the website (there are also other options for anyone not eligible for the Generation UK funded programme).

Going abroad generally is a daunting experience, and there is lots to consider. My blog post on 5 common questions for going global helps to think through initial concerns and issues. But for anyone who has the chance and means to undertake an overseas experience – to China or elsewhere – then my advice is to go for it. It will be a fantastic investment in your future career whether you stay in the UK or take the leap internationally. And personally, you will learn so much more about yourself, giving you the confidence and motivation to achieve your goals and ambitions.

This is my last post for 2016 as I will be taking a little break, but I will be back in the New Year with lots more interesting articles and content. Thanks to everyone for their continued support in reading and sharing my blog, it has been amazing and I am truly grateful. In the meantime, do have a lovely Christmas break, or a well deserved general time off if you don’t celebrate, and best wishes for 2017!



Why the ‘international experience’ on our university campuses must not be sacrificed

I couldn’t leave 2016 without some reference to the events that really shook us this year – Brexit and the Trump presidency. The world was clearly taken aback by the respective decisions, and like many people, I’ve been shocked and saddened by the divisive and racist backlash that has occurred both in the UK and US following the votes. But I also take comfort from hearing and seeing millions of people stand up to promote values of tolerance, diversity, and unity within our communities and societies.

Whilst we continue to see fierce debates about the implications of the EU referendum and US elections, one area we must continue to focus on is the potential impact on universities and the global educational experience.

Here, the fallout over Brexit continues. People are angry about the threat to funding, research grants, overseas staff recruitment and collaborative projects, and the future uncertainty facing mobility programmes such as ERASMUS, which the government has been urged to protect.

But this is not just about safeguarding study and work abroad opportunities, but also ensuring the global experience for home students on university campuses is not underminedAnd this is where the future of the EU and wider international student population within UK higher education matters.

Some reassurances have been given for EU students in the short term. But is recruitment generally going to be an issue? Reports have shown that the vote to leave the European Union has sent a ‘negative message’ about the UK and how welcoming it is, with overseas students saying they would be less likely to want to come and study here. Brexit is only part of a wider problem though; the government’s policy towards international students and tightening of post study work visas has had a detrimental effect. India is one notable example, with data showing there has been a 50% drop in students from the country since 2010. Across the Atlantic, the States is also facing similar issues, with some surveys showing over 50% of international students are less inclined to study in the US under a Trump presidency.

Of course, some of this may be initial panic as can be seen immediately after a major event, and long term who knows what will happen in either countries. But it’s not a matter to be taken lightly or overlooked. In my interview with David Shindler’s Learning to Leap podcast a few months ago, I reinforced what many people have said – whilst the economic value of international students is clearly significant, we can’t just look at their contribution in financial terms alone. We need to continue to reinforce the social and cultural benefits they bring and the different ways they can enrich the home student experience.

Fortunately, many can see the benefits too; last year, a survey of UK university applicants believe studying alongside foreign students will help prepare them for work in a globalised economy. We also have some strong advocates and campaigns to champion the cause of international students. Lord Karan Bilimoria, the renowned businessman who founded Cobra Beers and, in addition to other roles, is also president of the UK Council of International Student Affairs (UKCISA), has called on the government to change it’s stance towards international students, highlighting that it will drive the students to study elsewhere. And the growing #WeAreInternational campaign, launched by Sheffield University, and with support from over 100 universities, educational institutions and organisations, is continuing to drive the message that international students add value to our UK higher education landscape, culture and wider economy.

I’ve been involved in and witnessed many fantastic examples of intercultural projects, events and forums for diverse groups to come together and learn. I’ve also led mock assessment centre workshops where UK, European and non-European students are working in teams and gaining an awareness of different leadership styles and cultural etiquettes. For students who have never been, and may not get an opportunity to go abroad, this is not just ‘a nice thing to learn,’ it’s about opening up minds and developing cross-cultural skills essential for our changing world of work.

Two decades ago, I was fortunate to study alongside globally minded, diverse students from all over the world. But I can’t help but feel that what I saw as a natural part of my university experience is now facing a grave threat. If international student recruitment continues to be further compromised, it will be a real shame for future students and their learning. This is why we need such campaigns and advocates more than ever before.

My simple call to action for current UK students – yes, make the most of opportunities to go abroad, whether that is through international exchange programmes, volunteering or internships. But take advantage of the real ‘global experience’ that is happening right now on your campus – not just in your classrooms, but through the wider university networks. Join language and cultural societies, clubs, and take part in forums with international students that will help you gain an awareness of diverse perspectives.

This is vital for your own personal development and also in shaping your future as a global graduate.





Finding a graduate job – what really works?

This week I attended a presentation on the graduate labour market by Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence at Graduate Prospects and well known for his expertise on employment destinations of graduates and postgraduates.

It was a really interesting overview of 2015 graduate destinations, the current and future graduate labour market, with a few myths challenged. Much of the information can be found on the latest Prospects and the HE careers services professional body, AGCAS What do graduates do? 2016 report, which presents findings from the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey (DLHE), examining first degree graduate destinations six months after they graduated.

One particular subject that Charlie touched upon and that really intrigued me was how 2015 graduates found their first jobs. There were some expected, but also surprising results. The top three sources were:

  • Employer websites (18.5%)
  • Personal contacts e.g. family and friends (17.3%)
  • Previous work experience/internships and placements (15.9%)

And which methods were not commonly used by these graduates? Interestingly, social media/professional networking sites featured at the lower end of the scale (only 2.8% of these graduates found their first job this way).

So we can conclude work experience and personal/professional networks are key, but is it always that easy? Is social media irrelevant and of little value? And what other job-search tips and advice can we offer to students and graduates in light of this?

We all know that having work experience and undertaking internships does make it infinitely easier to progress into a graduate job – there is evidence of this, one being the recent Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) annual survey, which showed how recruiters are using internships when hiring for their graduate positions; the survey showed ‘an average of 45% of 2015 interns went on to secure graduate jobs in the same company this year. One in ten employers convert more than 83% of their interns into graduate hires.’

But depending on a range of circumstances, finding the right kind of work experience and getting an internship isn’t always that simple, particularly where competition is high. Recruiters are certainly taking steps to make their vacancies more accessible and engaging with a wider pool of talent, but we do need to continue to look at how we best support students in obtaining relevant and quality experience.

I found it interesting how many graduates found their jobs through personal contacts e.g. family and friends. Networking and the right connections are vital, but if you come from a background where your family, friends or local community have limited links with certain professions and career areas, what happens then? It’s for this reason that career mentoring programmes can be crucial and enable these students and graduates to access networks and opportunities they wouldn’t normally be able to. And even when contacts are available, having the confidence to approach professionals and develop relationships can be hard. I know even something like making speculative calls and applications is really nerve wracking, so we need to do more to help students develop this skill.

The fact that very few graduates used social and professional media doesn’t make it irrelevant in my view, and again there is much out there to highlight its value and benefits. But how it helps can vary – in some cases, jobs may be directly advertised on Twitter or LinkedIn, in other cases, it might lead to a conversation with a recruiter, or the chance to attend a careers event. The relevance also depends on the sector and industry; I’ve done a lot of work with media and journalism students where social media is vital not just for personal branding and showcasing your portfolio, but hearing about jobs. In addition, I had an interesting conversation just this week with careers coach and expert David Shindler who shared with me a great example of one his business management students who got approached for a graduate job simply via his LinkedIn profile! So it can and does help.

From my own experience of job-searching, and from that of the students and graduates I’ve worked with over the many years, I would offer the following tips and advice to those job hunting:

  1. Spend time planning your job search and start to think about it early on so you can seek the right support, and ensure you’re not missing out on crucial deadlines.
  2. If you are looking to work in a particular sector or industry, do your research into how those types of employers promote their opportunities, the methods they use to advertise and recruit.
  3. Be creative particularly if you’re exploring a number of options. Don’t put all your eggs into one basket and try a range of different strategies.
  4. It’s not just paid work experience or internships that can lead you to a job – volunteering could open many doors.
  5. Make the most of any work experience opportunity – look at who you can speak to, projects you can get involved in, so that you are creating a path for future jobs.
  6. Expect the unexpected – I was reading about a Fashion graduate who was working in Top Shop and her customer happened to be the editor of a fashion magazine, and so this led to her lucky break into the media industry. You never know what is on the horizon, and I can vouch for this through my own career.
  7. Social media is not dying out – it is still relevant, but you do need to use it smartly and effectively, with a professional online presence. Have a look at my post on 10 tips for using social media for your career.
  8. Develop your confidence and communication skills, especially if you find it difficult to make speculative calls and applications, or panic at the thought of networking.
  9. Get a mentor – take advantage of any opportunity to have 1:1 support. Mentoring can help you make that transition from education to employment.
  10. Get advice from your Careers Service and other career professionals to help you review current and develop future job-search strategies.

What job-search tips and advice do you have? Have you used any different methods and tactics to find a job? What has or hasn’t worked for you or your clients? Please do comment and let me know!





Universal lessons for success from global Muslim ‘mumpreneurs’ defying the odds

Growing up, I would often see and hear about the Asian mums in our community running small businesses from home, usually in catering or making clothes. With no technology, social media or massive business networks, these women had to rely on word of mouth, community events or weddings to be able to promote and provide their services.

Fast forward to 2016, and we see a very different picture now particularly for Muslim women. Despite workplace disadvantage and the ongoing battle to challenge barriers, we are also witnessing a very interesting trend – the rise of global technologically savvy Muslim female entrepreneurs, and particularly mums, who are defying the odds and smashing all preconceptions.  And there was no better evidence of this phenomenon than the Muslim Lifestyle Expo (MLE) in Manchester which I attended last weekend, along with my good friend Gemma Somauroo, a writer, Muslim home educator and one of the official bloggers for MLE. 2016-10-29-14-56-10

Regardless of gender, faith, race and whether you’re in business or not, there were some universal lessons for success which I took away from the event.

For those not aware, MLE is a unique event that showcases the best of global Muslim lifestyle businesses. More than 100 exhibitors from 12 different countries were promoting a fabulous range of services, products and creative talent – halal food brands, toiletries and cosmetics, modest fashion, art, Islamic finance and greeting cards and toys. The event is a reflection of a rapidly growing global Muslim consumer market, which according to official research, will be worth a staggering £2 trillion by the end of the decade.

Photo credit: MLE and Khalid Moon

The influence of women at this event couldn’t be missed. The founder and CEO of MLE, Tahir Mirza, stated that 60% of the exhibitors were female entrepreneurs, adding that women represent 50% of the [Muslim] start-up business community, a figure which is set to grow further over the next few years.

I attended the Empowering Muslim businesswomen panel led by a group of inspiring mums who have juggled global, and often multiple, businesses with family life. Discussions focused on how they got into self-employment, breaking from conventional careers in science, their role models, tips and skills needed to succeed in enterprise, and even the impact of Brexit on their business.

The panel (from L – R), along with chair, journalist Saba Zaman were:


I caught up with one of the panelists, Zanib to talk about her journey into the world of writing and publishing. Zanib studied Molecular Biology at university and went on to become a science teacher. But she had always had a passion for writing and literature. It was after having her two boys, that she really noticed that often ethnic minority or other diverse characters would be linked to specific issues within books, and Zanib felt there needed to be better diversity in every day and ordinary stories in a fun and engaging manner that children could relate to. And so Sweet Apple Publishers was created, featured in CBeebies Bedtime stories and also praised in the Guardian for tackling lack of diversity in books. Her passion to promote diversity was further strengthened by the ugly racist backlash that followed the Brexit vote.

What I learnt from speaking to Zanib, and also the other panelists, are some golden lessons for success which I think are relevant for all:

  • Do what you enjoy and follow your passion
  • Build on your existing strengths and seek help for any areas of weakness
  • Have good people and roles models around to support and motivate
  • Don’t give up in the face of adversity and challenges
  • Be bold and open to unexpected opportunities through networking and social media
  • Being a parent isn’t a hindrance, and your skills and experiences can shape your business and career.

A huge thanks and congratulations to the organisers and all those involved in MLE – your stories and experiences are a source of inspiration to all.

Featured women panelists photo credit: MLE


Disadvantaged and disillusioned – why mentoring is the tool for creating change

Today we celebrate the annual National Mentoring Day to recognise and raise awareness of the enormous power and benefits of mentoring.  Here I will be talking about the importance of ‘early intervention’ to create successful personal and professional lives.  

It never ceases to amaze me how a parent can show such resilience and strength of character when their child’s life is cruelly cut short. Olympic sprinter Tyson Gay, showed just that after his 15 year-old daughter, Trinity, was shot and killed at a restaurant in the States earlier this month. Instead of calling for retribution, Tyson made it clear he didn’t want his daughter’s death to be in vain. His solution? More mentoring to address the problems and challenges young people face. In a touching statement, he said,

“We must come together as a community to protect each other, giving our young people the tools they need to resolve their conflicts and lead successful lives — the kind that Trinity was well on her way to living.”

And this is exactly what mentoring can provide.

Much of my work on mentoring programmes has focused specifically on improving career prospects of students and graduates, creating a more level playing field for those from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds. And I’ve seen the difference it can make, which I spoke about in a previous post on inequality and mentoring. This year, I am working on a project connecting BME students with alumni and professionals, so that the networks and opportunities exist for students to learn and be inspired by other success stories.

Career mentoring is no doubt powerful and has its place, and with the support of a professional and business mentor, I’ve witnessed university students turn their lives around and go on to achieve their full potential. But change can take time and early intervention is still desperately needed to empower, raise aspirations and give vulnerable young people in particular, a foundation for creating their own vision of success.

Mentoring provision for young people is well established, and I know there are many fantastic projects happening across the country.

One particular example is LifeLine Projects, a community-based training provider in East London which runs a programme called VIP mentoring – VIP stands for Vision, Identity and Purpose. They’ve worked with 1,300 young people in 50 schools, and their programme evaluation found that the students involved experience improvements in wellbeing, behaviour and school achievement. Group sessions also take place, and here are some of the young people they’ve worked with.

(Photo credit: LifeLine Projects)
(Photo credit: LifeLine Projects)


With the support of a mentor, a young person on one of their programmes was able to take a big step forward in his performance at school.

Here his mentor shares his thoughts,

“I have been working with the student on his attendance and motivation in school. In the beginning of our mentoring sessions he seemed very disengaged and unwilling and often said very little in our sessions. I started to use tools such as conversation cards to help prompt conversation. Towards the middle of our course of mentoring sessions, he started to open up more and disclose matters that he never confided to anyone. He told me that he is the main carer for his very poorly mother who is battling for her life from kidney failure and also the main carer to his older brother who is disabled and is in a wheelchair. He said this is the cause of his lack of motivation in his education, because he needs to be there for his mum and spend the time he has with her now before she dies. His dad is an alcoholic, and his sisters didn’t keep in touch with the family. After this he started coming to mentoring continuously, week after week, and used mentoring as a forum to talk about his issues.

Now he’s getting the help that he needs and his attendance and motivation have also improved. The school behavioural mentor has noticed a major difference in his motivation; he now makes intervention classes after school a priority and revises consistently for his GCSEs starting in May. His attendance at the beginning of the programme was 77% and now it is 90%.

In our last session he said to me:

Thank you soo much, you have no idea how much mentoring has helped me in my academics and even how to deal with my home life.  Having you to talk to has made me feel soo much better.’” [sic]

It’s exactly this kind of change and progression which I believe is crucial for enabling future career success.

For anyone who has a passion for making a difference and who has the time, please do get involved in any local or wider mentoring projects. Many schools, colleges, universities and community organisations run a range of schemes for different purposes. For the young person or adult struggling to cope, it’s the one thing that can put them back on track and give them a sense of hope for the future. Certainly LifeLine Projects is one opportunity and you can contact Nathan Singleton for more information or visit their website




Why we must continue to challenge the ‘success and failure’ mindset

Working in higher education always brings back many memories of my university days, and this is definitely a favourite time of the year for me, as the campuses are alive with the sound of students. Of course we now have the new cohort, and so I wanted to reflect on the experiences they are going through right now.

Making the transition from school/college to university life is one of the most dramatic and daunting experiences anyone can go through. Feeling like a fish out of water, and homesickness are inevitable. But for many it’s more than the initial case of missing parents and family; other factors come into play and this new chapter becomes characterised by fear, anxiety and depression with serious consequences on mental and physical health.

I’m no stranger to this, but one of the causes of extreme stress amongst students, is the deep rooted mindset when it comes to success and failure, well highlighted in a Guardian article ‘How to help a perfectionist student.’  It was quite an alarming read, especially the reflections of one student who admitted that, “Errors mean failure, and failure means disappointment.” This is not an isolated view, for some it’s been drummed into them from families and culture. You cannot be seen to be making a mistake or not ‘performing at the top.’ And the pressure to live up to such expectations has damaging and long term effects. With 1 in 10 students having a ‘diagnosable mental illness’, universities are facing increased demand for mental health services, adding strain on existing resources.

As a nation we’ve taken a huge step forward when it comes to raising awareness of and addressing mental health issues. It’s not perfect, but we can see more people willing to speak up about it, even in cultures and communities where it has been considered a taboo subject, and something to be ashamed of. Awareness-raising campaigns, such as this week’s annual World Mental Health Day, and the work of many specialist charities and organisations, have definitely put this matter high on the agenda. University careers services often work in close partnership with disability and mental health support teams, and this is an area I am going to be focusing on this year.

But we really must continue to challenge some of the underlying causes, especially when it comes to what success and failure really mean. It’s no point just addressing these issues at university level, more needs to be done with young people. And quite rightly, this week, there are calls by Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and mental health campaigner, for the well-being of children to be taken more seriously by schools.  However, as much as schools may do, it’s not an easy battle when you are dealing with family pressures and cultural norms. I’m an advocate of greater dialogue between families, communities, schools, educational institutes and professionals to discuss some of these issues and through, for example, the use of mentors, role models and influential people to show that success comes in all shapes and forms, and failure is not a weakness.

Challenging and changing unhealthy mindsets and habits can be tough, but not impossible. For those starting the university journey, here are three particular thoughts that I wanted to share:

  • Potential can be developed – there is the expectation that graduates need to “have it all” when they are hired, but the reality is different. Yes, certain skills and attributes are needed for the world of work, but many firms don’t expect graduates to be the finished product, and hence will work with them to develop their potential and skills such as commercial awareness. ‘Growth mindset’ appears to be the new buzz word used by giants such as Microsoft and Google in their recruitment. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, sums this up with this fantastic quote,

“It starts with a belief that everyone can grow and develop; that potential is nurtured, not predetermined; and that anyone can change their mindset. Leadership is about bringing out the best in people, where everyone is bringing their A game and finding deep meaning in their work. We need to be always learning and insatiably curious. We need to be willing to lean in to uncertainty, take risks and move quickly when we make mistakes, recognizing failure happens along the way to mastery. And we need to be open to the ideas of others, where the success of others does not diminish our own.”

  • Rejection can redirect you – I came across this inspirational video by motivational philosopher Jay Shetty, where he tells the story of some influential individuals who faced their share of setbacks on their journey to success. The key lesson was no matter how much we struggle and the difficulties we face, we will always keep our value. Through failure, we can often achieve far greater things than imagined. When one door closes, you can be sure another one is waiting to open!
  • Look at the positives and bigger picture – last month I attended the annual AGCAS conference for HE careers professionals, and it was a really thought provoking event. The highlight for me was the keynote speech by motivational presenter and coach, Steve Head. One tip that really stood out for me was reviewing how we perceive situations and experiences. So instead of focusing on the one thing that’s gone wrong or hasn’t worked out (in this case he gave an example of a mathematical quiz), look at the positives and what is actually right! It seems obvious, but a great strategy to try and incorporate into our daily personal and professional lives.

These tips are some food for thought, but not a replacement for professional help. If you’re really struggling to cope, please don’t suffer in silence. There are people and services out there to help you. Visit your University student support team or there are a number of dedicated organisations such as Mind and Mental Health Foundation who can provide support.


I’m a confused soon to be graduate.. get me out of here!

Just for the record, I’ve never watched the reality show, ‘I’m a Celebrity…. Get Me Out Of Here!’ in case anyone wondered about my taste in TV programmes. But it did strike me as an appropriate phrase to maybe sum up how many of you may be feeling right now as you approach the end of your university years, but haven’t quite figured out what to do career wise. You may well feel like you are trapped in a jungle – feelings of fear, anxiety and panic with many questions racing in your head.

Am I a failure because I haven’t got a ‘graduate job?’ 

What can I do with my degree? 

Is it too late to find anything? 

How can I move forward? 

Without sounding patronising, I know exactly how you feel. When I came to the end of my degree 17 years ago, I had no real clue as to where I was heading. But I had an interesting career journey to get to where I am now, which you can read about.

It’s completely understandable to feel lost and confused; after all the world of work is changing so rapidly and there are many options for learning and careers.

So here are 5 tips and advice which I want to share:

  • Seek clarity on options – getting professional careers advice and support would be a good starting point. Being able to discuss your ideas, plans and concerns with someone else can help you to focus your thoughts and look at practical solutions. You may want to consider making use of various self – awareness and careers tools to help you identify your strengths, weaknesses, interests, abilities. Perhaps you’re wondering, what do graduates with my degree actually do? There are a number of ways to find out – your Careers Service can give you an insight on destinations of graduates from your course, and there is the national picture in terms of the ‘What Do Graduates Do? 2015 Report. If you use LinkedIn (and I certainly hope you are using professional networking), then the Alumni pages for your university give you the chance to look at what graduates from your course are doing, and where they work in the world. You can even look at profiles to see how people have progressed in their careers.
  • Get inspired the WISER way – I came up with a formula, which was my first ever blog post, to help you find your career inspiration through various avenues. WISER stands for Work Experience, Industry Experts, Social Media, Education, Resources. My career inspiration happened at university whilst attending a talk by a guest speaker from the BBC World Service, but it can happen through many and often unexpected means. So keep an open mind, and think outside the box.
  • Weigh up pros and cons of postgraduate study –  I pursued postgraduate study for various (but not necessarily academic) reasons. Although I got my career inspiration during this time, it’s a route I would say needs careful consideration. It is huge investment in time and money, and being more qualified may not necessarily make you more employable, unless your chosen career path requires it or there is a strong benefit. Definitely do your research and speak to someone about your options. The TARGETPostgrad link provides some useful questions to consider.
  • Home and away – making the most of going global – at this stage you may be tempted to leave the UK and venture abroad to see if there are better prospects. Or perhaps you want to spend a short period of time in another country and develop new skills and experiences. Again, it’s very important to do your research, consider finances and other practicalities. You can read my post on 5 Common Questions for Going Global  (some of the programmes I mentioned at the time might not be available right now), but there are still plenty of resources to check out. Recently Guardian Careers hosted a live chat on making the most of a gap year, and you can check out the discussion, packed full of some useful advice and tips from various experts.
  • No linear path to career success – the final thing I would say is that you may be facing this pressure and expectation to have a well paid ‘graduate job’ secured after university and your entire career path to be planned out following a particular route. There is no such thing as a job for life, and everyone has a different and unique career journey. Some of you may have to go through a period of exploration to discover what you want to do. This is perfectly okay, and certainly what I had to do. The most important thing is to learn from your various experiences and look at the transferable skills you gain along the way. So don’t worry what others think – do what is right for you!

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!