Islamic Lifestyle

INTERVIEW-’Collaboration over competition’: ’Shapeshifter’ Arfah Farooq talks diversity, inclusion and the millennial mindset

Photo: Arfah Farooq at the Global Islamic Economy Summit (GIES) 2018 on Oct 31, 2018 in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Salaam Gateway/Emmy Abdul Alim

How do Muslim millennials view work? "I find with my generation, it’s collaboration over competition. We are more focused on how we can connect the dots," says Arfah Farooq, a self-proclaimed "shapeshifter" and creative business strategist, Winston Churchill Fellow and co-founder of UK's Muslamic Makers, a monthly meetup bringing Muslim and non-Muslim makers together. 

Listen to our interview with Arfah, or if you can't access audio, the full interview transcript is available below.


Emmy Abdul Alim (EAA): Thank you for listening to Salaam Gateway. You’re listening to our interviews with Islamic economy people from the Global Islamic Economy Summit that was on October 30 and 31 in Dubai.

Hello Arfah!

Arfah Farooq (AF): Hey, how’re you doing?

EAA: For people listening in, this is Arfah Farooq, and Arfah does a lot of things, she’s a very, very busy young person. So, firstly, thank you for coming and speaking with us at Salaam Gateway and welcome to the Global Islamic Economy Summit.

AF: Thank you for having me.

EAA: I think it’s your first time at the GIES, if I’m not wrong?

AF: Yes, it is. So it’s quite exciting to be here and see lots of different talks and yeah, it’s very hustling and bustling and there’s a lot of interesting insight.

EAA: What exactly are you here to speak about?

AF: Yeah, sure, so I had a session early on this afternoon and it was about what future skills are needed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the Islamic creative economy.

It was a really great session, each of us basically had about two to three minutes to share our insight.

My specific focus was on how do we get young people access to businesses, to build that, and then we did a session where people had to come up with lots of different ideas in terms of how to get people future-ready.

EAA: How did you come to be at the GIES?

AF: My experience is very random. But that has kind of been my strength and actually it’s something I would say is a future skill in terms of being adaptable and flexible.

Right now, I work as a creative business strategist – that’s my day job. I’ve been running a community over the last two years, a community of over 800 people back in the UK, which is for Muslims who work in technology, called Muslamic Makers.

That came from my experiences of basically often being the only woman, Muslim woman, brown – basically the minority of the minority in the UK.

Me and a co-founder came together because we wanted to raise aspirations, bring out role models, and I did a fellowship last year, which took me to America, Pakistan and the UAE, to explore Muslim women in technology and to look at interesting initiatives and tech companies doing really cool stuff.

EAA: So how do you help these people then, via Muslamic Makers, as well as after your fellowship? What are you doing now to help young people along?

AF: I’ll start off with Muslamic Makers: I am with Muslamic Makers, it’s basically an event series.

So what we do is we do events pretty much on an average of every six weeks, on different themes and topics – everything from tech for good, to funding, to… we did an event on podcasting.

What we’re in a sense doing is creating access, because a lot of the time, especially for Muslims in the UK, they don’t really want to go to tech events, because it’s very boozy, there’s a lot of alcohol, there is no safe space, there is no prayer – all that type of stuff.

So what we first do is basically create an introductory space for them to get access to this kind of network and community.

What we have recently started doing is that, even though in the beginning, all our speakers used to be from a Muslim background, as it was about raising aspirations and role models, as we have gone along we have made sure our panels are more diverse and come from different backgrounds, because I think it’s basically about developing the access.

So it doesn’t matter where the people come from, they’re an expert, right? And we want to bring those experts to our community.

And we take our community to different tech companies. So, all of a sudden, people from our communities are going to ThoughtWorks and TransferWise, these big tech companies in the UK.

For the tech companies, it’s great, because they want to attract diverse talent. So that is one way we help.

With the fellowship, I was really focused on Muslim women, being a Muslim woman myself and I really wanted to bring out role models and tell stories – tell stories because I think stories are so powerful.

For me, it was a very personal journey, going to America, Pakistan, the UAE… I had never stepped away from home, I had never left university, and just going on that journey was a massive growth point for me.

But also, at the same time, it raised my own aspirations. When I saw these women working at Facebook, when I met a lady called Reshma, a mother of six, balancing motherhood and life and doing her own start-up and funding, you know, investing in start-ups… it kind of made me think, ‘Oh, actually, I kind of can have it all and I can aspire to have it all!’

For me, that was very emotional and just, really, I guess it kind of really developed me more.

And I launched, which is basically a source of inspiration of all the cool things I did, and basically with videos and interviews of a lot of the women I interviewed on the journey and I v-logged my travels through it.

EAA: What else is it going to do? Is there a business model to it? Is this something you are going into?

AF: To be honest, right now, it’s just a labour of love.

Life gets really busy, so it’s kind of on hold right now. I do have more plans with it, maybe adding more stories on it as I go along.

I think for me, I am a bit of a storyteller, so I want to definitely do more talks, tell people’s stories. I want to change the perceptions around Muslim women, especially working within the technology field.

EAA: What are the perceptions you want to change?

AF: One of the really interesting things that I discovered, especially in Pakistan – I come from a Pakistani background, my parents are from Pakistan – is that there is a tech company there called VentureDive, who are the app developers behind IslamicFinder and Careem.

And the people behind that, a third of the company were women – which is bigger than a lot of Western tech companies.

The women there are given free Careem rides to and from work. So it’s a very small, subtle, inclusive move, but what it does is it enables more women.

Often, people would think Pakistan is backward, etc. And I came across really interesting things like that which made me think ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’

Two, a government program called Herself, which was basically a programme to help women learn freelancing skills so that they can manage life and marriages and kids, etc., and be able to work from home.

So I found that stuff to be very progressive, which I thought was really interesting.

EAA: With the women in the company, where a third of the company were women, were they developers or were they in other roles?

AF: Every department had some kind of… had a woman in it and the women were all sorts, from a niqabi, to a non-hijabi, women from all kinds of backgrounds.

And that was great: there were developers, there were data scientists; there were all sorts of women from very different backgrounds working in the company.

EAA: So going through Pakistan, is this the norm? Or was that company exceptional?

AF: In that specific company, I would say that the set-up was quite unique.

But even with the video games company that I met out there, again, male founders but they have created a very inclusive, safe environment for women around flexible working, etc. 

So I came across really interesting things from private companies to government initiatives that were really focusing on ‘How can we meet women where they are?’

And I think often, especially with Western feminism, often we try and project it on them – and actually the whole context of these countries is very different.

And I felt that the Western world can actually learn a lot from these Eastern countries, which I thought to be quite cool.

EAA: Name me 3 things.

AF: Go on.. What they can learn from?

Okay, so I think for me, it’s around flexibility. I think flexibility is key, being able to tap into the freelance economy, to looking at women beyond the kind of… ‘Actually, what are the other kinds of barriers can come into play, so let that be travelling, etc. What could a company do?’

And also the third one which I thought was really interesting? A lot of the women that I interviewed in the West, they basically accidentally ended up in technology, including myself.

Actually, what we need to start doing is actually make it a bit more of a conscious choice, where women are choosing to be part of the technology field, because, you know, things like AI, etc., if you think about it, Cortana, Alexa, if you think about it, why are they all female voices?

There’s an inherent bias in place.

So that’s why it’s really important is that women, people from all kinds of background are playing a part in this.

And you know, over the last couple of years, there has been a focus around the coders, the technical coders, but actually, in the future, we need people who have done philosophy degrees, we need people with ethics background to actually come in and actually make sure that the technology we are developing is basically human.

EAA: So you talked about future work just now. In terms of the Islamic economy, in terms of women and Muslim women in the Islamic economy, what would you say is a very important future work that we’d have to teach our young girls?

AF: I would say one of the things is that one, we don’t know what the jobs of the future are going to be like, right?

One of my first jobs was a social media internship – it didn’t exist 10 years ago and I had no idea when I was in school that I would be doing a social media job, right?

So I would say, for me, it’s collaboration.

I find with my generation, it’s collaboration over competition. We are more focused on how we can connect the dots. I would say it’s adaptability, being able to adapt and shape-shift.

I think I am a prime example of being able to do that. Being able to be flexible, flexible from the way you work – and this is specifically for companies, in terms of allowing them to work from home, allowing them… I’d say it’s less about work-life balance and it’s more about how we kind of complement each other.

And resilience, being able to bounce back. I think being able to bounce back is definitely a key, key skill that is definitely needed in the future. It is something that we definitely have to teach and allow people to be… allow them to be okay with failure.

EAA: I see a lot of that already happening now, with being flexible and being able to adapt. That’s at the worker level and the individual level. How are companies responding to that? Do you see them responding positively to this millennial mindset?

AF: I think it varies. I think smaller businesses, yes, there’s a bit more… I guess they are able to be a bit more flexible and stuff.

With corporations, I find that – and I have always had this issue – is like how do I even get my foot in the door with a corporation, right? Because, how do I even get my foot in the door in a corporation, because I don’t know what type of role to apply for because none of those roles, you know, fit with my CV, etc.

Once I’m through the door, it’s easy, right? Because then they need people like myself that are flexible and are shape-shifters.

So I think with corporations, they need to learn to change their recruitment processes so they can understand people as a whole being, whereas I think with small businesses, they are able to get a bit more of a flavour and be a bit more personal with them.

So that’s why I sometimes think small businesses kind of have a bit more of an edge over the corporations.

EAA: Do you consider any big corporation to already meet those standards?

AF: From what I’ve heard, I hear Facebook have an interesting recruitment process.

They have a traditional process in the sense where they have the whole phone screening interview, but then they do basically different Hangouts with people with the global team all over the world, etc.

And what I’ve also heard about Facebook in terms of the way they work, is even though it’s a really big company, the smaller teams operate as a start-up. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why Facebook is probably leading, just because of the way they’re doing business.

EAA: I asked this of another person, that if you were running either a country or perhaps in this case a very big multinational corporation, what is the most urgent thing for you to do, the first thing that you would do to make a positive change from what you see as being negative or backward?

AF: I think I would probably change the recruitment process because I feel like we are missing out on a lot of hidden talent.

I don’t know how I would quite go about changing that process but I think we are missing out on a very… I have always been in the middle – I’ve never been gifted and talented, never been right at the bottom of academics, I’ve always been in the middle. And I think because of that, I have… there have been times when I just haven’t been able to sell myself properly. So I think changing the way we attract talent and doing that is probably something I would do.

EAA: Fantastic. Thanks, Arfah!

AF: Thank you for having me!

(Interview by Emmy Abdul Alim

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