Islamic Lifestyle

INTERVIEW-’They want to be part of a solution’: Productive Muslim helping millennials achieve impactful work

What are GUMMIES, or the global urban Muslim consumers, looking for in their jobs and careers? Mohammed Faris, founder of popular platform, designs and delivers faith-based training and coaching programmes for Muslims seeking work-life balance. He says: "The model has moved away from ‘I want to get a job ... I want to succeed' ... to ‘I want to live a meaningful life, I want to have impact’."

Listen to our interview with Mohammed. If you can't access audio the full interview transcript is provided 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.

As-salaamu alaikum!

Mohammed Faris (MF): Wa-alaikum salaam!

EAA: For those of you listening in, this is Mohammed Faris, perhaps better known to you as Abu Productive, and thank you for speaking to us at Salaam Gateway!

MF: Thank you so much for having me, really appreciate this.

EAA: We really like having you at the Global Islamic Economy Summit, so welcome back.

MF: Thank you. It’s my third time and I love coming back.

EAA: Third time lucky?

MF: Third time lucky! [Laughs] You’re awesome.

EAA: So what we want to hear from you today, Mohammed, is you work a lot with young people, and you see a lot of people around the world, young Muslims. This year, for the State of the Global Islamic Economy report, there is a focus on inclusive and ethical economy. What can you tell us about the aspirations of young Muslims around the world and how they view what they want in their lives in alignment or non-alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals?

MF: So I guess, first of all, I want to say that probably my answer would be a little biased in the sense that I talk mainly to what is now termed as ‘Gummies’, which is young, educated, global Muslims who speak English.

That is probably a very narrow definition, so I want to make sure that what I want to say relates to that kind of group, which is a big group. I mean, one of our partners did a study on this and there are 294 million of such Gummies around the world. So it’s not a small group.

I do workshops on training, productivity, life goals… A lot of them come, and you can hear them, that the model has moved away from ‘I want to get a job, I just want to make sure that… I want to succeed, I want to just do something’ to ‘I want to live a meaningful life, I want to have impact’.

So, from that perspective, I’d say that, yes, there is that alignment with SDGs in terms of making impact.

Now, whether they’re aware of SDGs, whether they feel like ‘I am part of this global conversation that’s going to make impact on SDGs’, some who are connected to the development community, who have some kind of… who work with the World Bank, or are part of the Global Change Makers, who are part of some kind of these major platforms, youth platforms, they are aware of it and they are working on that front.

But I would say the majority of the people are just… for them, that realisation that the Muslim world or the Islamic economy itself, it feels like it is almost like the bottom right now, there is a lot of negative stereotyping of Muslims.

They want to be part of a solution. They are tired of being looked down upon; they are tired of people saying, ‘Oh, Muslims this, Muslims that’. So they want to be part of a solution, so they are coming up with some amazing, creative ideas.

But the challenge for them is realising those ideas and making meaningful careers out of them.

And of course, there is always that generational gap between what their parents aspire for them to be, what they want to be, and it is a constant conversation. I have had numerous conversations from people around the world on people who want to make some amazing impactful work, meaningful, impactful work, but it’s just making that transition, you know, in the way that, ‘How will this look like? What will the career look like?’ All those, you know, classic questions coming up to them.

So I won’t say they are conscious of SDGs when they do this stuff, but they’re definitely trying to make meaningful, impactful work, it’s definitely there in what they’re looking for.

EAA: So where does faith come into that, with the meaningful impact and wanting to do that with their lives?
MF: A lot of times some of them would come and say that ‘I want to do this meaningful impact because I want to help my Muslim community itself, so I want to solve this by giving back to the community, by being part of the solution,’ as I mentioned.

But some of them would come and say, ‘You know what, I feel like this is… I don’t feel my role is just to go from 9 to 5 and just live a life and have zero solution on me. I feel like there is a purpose behind this life.’

So it’s almost driven by that faith, it gives them that purpose.  They use Quranic verses: “If I am here to worship God, if I am here to be a Khalifa, to be a viceregent on this earth, then that means that there is a responsibility upon me to do something beyond and above what I normally do, than just going 9 to 5.”

So there is that… I’ll say that the faith element in terms of the purpose and the meaning part only comes, for example, in terms of the way they do business. For example a lot of them will say that ‘I don’t feel comfortable working for some companies, which was traditionally the companies that employ the most people, because I don’t feel like it aligns with my values’ and they would just give away opportunities, leave their jobs.

Right now, I do a lot of coaching, and career transition coaching is actually becoming a big thing now. Like people are saying ‘I have been working 10 years in X company with X industry, and I want to move towards having my own business, I want to move towards serving my own community, I want to move towards making meaningful impact.’

So that sometimes starts almost like a spiritual crisis, like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I here? What am I doing?’ Especially with the people who are in their late 20s, early 30s, I am noticing…

EAA: Do you work only with Muslims?

MF: Mainly, I would say most of my clients have been Muslims, since, but I have done workshops with non-Muslim firms sometimes, in terms of faith-based, how the value of religion in the workplace, the value of religion in terms of mindsets, values and rituals. But in terms of coaching, so far, probably 100 percent of my clients have been Muslims, so far.

EAA: So how do they use faith to do business, to make money? Are they very conscious of the fact of how they can do that? We are here in the Global Islamic Economy Summit, and this is all that we talk about. Are the people that you work with aware of all these mechanisms and steps, for example?

MF: I won’t say they are aware, but it’s almost like once this thought, this journey, this getting connected to other people, who else is making money in the global Islamic economy, the whole ecosystem…

So, first of all, there are three stages. The first stage is ‘I want to serve the Ummah, do something good,’ right?

Second stage: ‘Okay, this will become a charitable, non-profit foundation, something to serve.’

Then they realise, ‘Oh, I need to make money’. Now they’re thinking, ‘How can I make this profitable but at the same time more like social entrepreneurship?’

And they say, ‘Okay, there’s something called social entrepreneurship’… It’s almost like it’s like a growing… it’s like, for them, it’s almost like discovering this one by one. It’s not like they go, ‘Oh this is social entrepreneurship’ from day one. They started by saying ‘I need to start with a purpose’ and then in the middle, it is more like, ‘Okay, how can I serve my community?’ but then they realise, ‘I can make money and serve my community and this can become my full-time thing.’

EAA: How can we shrink that process? If they are going to go through 3 stages, and not be profitable and not make money out of it, how do we help them make money in a shorter span of time?

MF: I think one is to showcase success stories.

A lot of times, if they see success, they’ll go, ‘Hey, if they are doing it, I must be able to do it!’

I think the success stories are not out there as much, that’s number one.

And number two is to have the mentoring, coaching process. That’s what I found from my work, where people, once they get the ropes… I mean, I do a six-week program called ‘Escape your 9 to 5 and serve the Ummah’. That’s my program. And they go for the six-work program, where, ‘Who are you serving? What’s your business model?’

Just the basics, nothing like rocket science! But it’s amazing, once they get that, they’re like ‘Oh, got it!’ and on their own they go ahead and pursue their goals. It’s just having that mentoring and coaching that actually transform them.  I feel like that’s what is needed now.

And to be honest with you, it is, for us who have been here for a while, we are ourselves at a stage where we are just getting comfortable. We are just saying, ‘Okay, now we know where we’re at, how we’re making money, what’s the business model.’

So we haven’t really thought about how we can mentor the next generation.

But I feel that for those who have been in this industry for at least five to ten years, it’s time for us to give back and say ‘Well, how can we do mentoring programs, coaching programs?’

Even things like working with schools. I feel like schools are the… you know, people are graduating from schools and they want to do something for the Ummah, and it’s amazing how many times – I heard the same statement from Nigeria to Indonesia – and it’s like, ‘but I just don’t know how or where to start’.

Or it’s like ‘I just want to do an app’ – it’s very sporadic, very random, it’s not structured like a program. That’s why maybe some kind of incubation program, some kind of mentorship program, would go a long way.

EAA: How do you, as a coach to these young people, measure your success?

MF: For me, personally, it’s getting them to a level where they get clarity.

So we actually begin by asking them: ‘What do you want out of this six-week program?’ They say: ‘I want clarity. What’s my plan?’ ‘So okay, fine, let’s work on your business model, let’s work on the audience, let’s work on your offer, let’s work on your funding, how will you get this started, let’s work on your revenue stream, how will you… cash flow, the basics, how will you get money to pay your bills for a while…’

And then one of the things is: ‘Let’s work on you personally and how you are going to manage your productivity’ – that’s what I focus on. ‘How will you manage your energy, focus and time? Because you will be stressed, you’ll be annoyed, you’ll be overwhelmed, you’ll be distracted. How will you make sure you stay focused for long periods of time so you make this a reality?’

And it’s after that six-week, seven-week program that they will go, ‘Okay, now I feel like I know how to manage myself, I have a clear idea of what my business is, maybe it’ll take a while to get it there, but at least I have clarity, an idea and the first steps to get it moving’.

And sometimes, some of them I connect with our like-hearted, like-minded community of entrepreneurs and say, ‘Hey, maybe you should talk to some of these people because they’ve been there before, they can help you more on the technical side or how to get your business started’. So that’s where I come in basically.

EAA: Coming back to you again, apart from the coaching that you do, what else are you doing right now that we can look out for?

MF: Absolutely. There are three work streams that I am on right now.

One is the personal productivity, where basically what I am doing now, helping, training and coaching individuals to boost their productivity or to get on this life of how to manage themselves.

The second work stream is working with organisations – for example, before the interview I mentioned to you, I work with the MUIS, which is the religious council of Singapore, where we work with them to… Basically, they have a madrasah curriculum which is impressive. And for the 15, 17 year olds, they want to bring in a faith-based productivity curriculum and train every madrasah student on that, because it will help them in life, careers, it will help them in developing and managing themselves. So that’s where I feel a lot of impact can happen, working with schools, working with organisations.

And the third work stream, which is what I am doing now in the US, is mainly partnering with religious… people who are working in the value of faith in the workplace. How do you build a case for religious diversity – we spoke about gender diversity, race diversity in the workplace, but religious diversity is like the biggest taboo in the workplace.

But at the same time, it’s the most important part of someone’s identity. You cannot expect people to come to work, bring their whole self to work, and they check out their spirituality at the door. So for them we try and build a case for organisations or companies to say, ‘Hey, I know that religion is taboo, but we need to talk about it’ – because it’s important.

How do you avoid the discrimination, the issues that come with religion, maybe negative judgement, and actually take the positives – the mindsets, the values, and the power of the rituals and the faith – to get the best out of the person, so they can live the best version of themselves.

That is my third work stream where I am focused on right now, especially in the US, because that’s where the market… it has people getting into that market. So those are the three work streams and it’s a journey. It’s a journey that I am just exploring, and making it happen.

EAA: Can we still follow what you do on or is there another platform?

MF: Absolutely! Right now, it’s; everything goes into, but of course, you know, some of the projects that I work on are more on the personal side, in terms of, you know, on LinkedIn and social media.

But yes, a lot of this work is focused on One project I want to mention is that one of the areas we realised that people are struggling with is professionals.

So imagine a professional who goes into the workplace and they want to learn about leadership or management or communication, or all these skills, but they also want the faith element towards it. So we come in now and through what we call our Academy – and actually, hopefully, our dream is to make it Barakah University; that’s part of my Wild Idea for tomorrow – is how can we teach these skills, professional skills from a faith perspective and from a scientific perspective.

So you really bring in, let’s say, communication – you can take on the prophetic model of communication, but also lay the latest work in communication. Talk about leadership, talk about stress management, talk about productivity – you know, there are so many amazing… Like, you know, just think of HBR (Harvard Business Review) or HBS, they run away from faith and religion. We embrace it. We say, ‘This is actually a powerful way of getting the best out of professionals’.

That target audience – not sure all of them are at work from right now – but I feel that’s the next target audience, 35 to 45 years old, who can really take, who see the value of saying: ‘I want to see how spirituality is relevant to me in the workplace and meaningful to me in the workplace’. That will be something that I am working on as well.

EAA: Sounds fantastic! Good luck!

MF: Thank you! Appreciate it!

EAA: Hope to see you soon!

MF: Thank you! Appreciate it! Thank you so much.

EAA: Thank you.

MF: Thank you.

(Interview by Emmy Abdul Alim

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