Meet Syeda Zaki, co-founder of 141 Schools, a Toronto-based nonprofit whose mission is to build 141 schools in Pakistan to honor the lives of the 141 children and teachers who lost their lives in the terrorist attack on December 16, 2014
Give us your “elevator speech” – a snapshot of who you are, what you do, and how we should “know” you. Please tell us about the path you took to get where you are today
I was born and brought up in Karachi, and pursued my undergraduate degree in London, England in finance and management. Having chosen a degree in finance, the natural path for me back in Pakistan was to work in the safe, cushy environment as a financial analyst in a large multinational, and I pursued that path relentlessly!
I started studying for the CFA designation, worked for a large mutual fund, followed by a stint as an oil & gas equity analyst at a brokerage house, and realized after 5 years in the race that something was seriously amiss. The idea of using my skills in a profession which simply enables the wealthy to amass even more wealth, without having any positive impact on society just didn’t sit well with me. So I took a leap of faith and got an amazing opportunity to work as a health & education consultant with Acumen Fund, an organization that raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders, and ideas that are changing the way poverty is tackled in selected countries, including Pakistan.
This is where my journey working with social enterprises started. For those of you who may not have heard of this term before, a social enterprise is a venture, either for profit or not-for-profit, that sells goods or services for the blended purpose of generating income and achieving social, cultural, and/or environmental benefit.
Having migrated to Canada less than 3 years ago, I was extremely fortunate to be able to continue working with social enterprises in a variety of sectors including education, the aboriginal economy, real estate, social justice and sustainable food - so no shortage of variety and learning experiences there! I am now working alongside my husband on a non-profit we founded in Dec 2014 called 141schools.org. Our mission is to build 141 schools in Pakistan; each school will be dedicated to the more than 141 children and teachers who lost their life in the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014.
Besides your daily work, what are you passionate about?
Living in Canada, I’ve become far more aware of how simple, everyday actions play a critical role in benefiting people and the planet. Whether its through the businesses I support, the produce I consume, the clothes I wear, the people I choose to interact with, the kind of organization I work for/with - all of these action have a cumulative positive or negative effect on my life. As you can see, I find it hard to pin down the one or two things I’m passionate about and tend to look at things holistically.
If there is a ‘hobby’ that I have to identify, I’d say conjuring up wonderful Pakistani dishes would be top of the list!
What does being a “Canadian Muslim woman mean to you?
I have a huge appreciation for what Canada has to offer to people from diverse backgrounds, religions, cultures. Having lived here for a few years now, I strongly believe being truly Canadian means being integrated. I feel fortunate to live here - in a society that is harmonious, and its multi-cultural qualities are embraced rather than seen as a barrier to progress.
Many of us have migrated to Canada from far less tolerant, and very male-centric communities, and we should embrace & leverage the fact we have the opportunity to pursue our passion, and excel in whatever field we desire - the sky is truly the limit!
Please share 1 – 3 dreams/ goals you hope to achieve in the future. What can be changed to make the world a better place? How can we contribute?
My foremost goal is to see that the mission of 141schools, the non-profit I co-founded, fulfilled - As a Canadian not-for-profit, we’ve partnered with The Citizens Foundation (TCF), one of the largest education-based non-profits in Pakistan, on their global initiative “141 Schools for Peace" - and together we have a shared mission to build 141 TCF school units across Pakistan, in memory of the children and teachers who perished in the Peshawar tragedy. Our hope is that our efforts today will serve as a beacon of light resisting the advance of extremism in our society and help in the fight to educate the children of Pakistan.
The community in Toronto has been amazingly supportive, and after a few months in Pakistan, we are focused on activating the community here to get involved and support the mission in various ways. CCMW's Toronto chapter is an network of amazing women who are leaders in their community. If you’d like to get involved in any way and support the mission, please do reach out!
What “rules” do you live by? What is your personal motto or mission statement?
- Waste not, want not - probably the most ‘un-glamorous’ motto to live by, but I am a stickler for ridding my life of excess (except when it comes to food :) ! I would never want to be weighed down by the ‘things’ I own, rather I aim to fill my life with experiences rather then possessions.
- Progress, evolution, expansion is inevitable, that is the law of the universe - so embrace change, grow with it, aim to constantly become a better person than you were the day before. To me, that is the core of being a true Muslim.
Fun Question! If you were stranded on an island, what three things would you want with you? (Serious responses are not expected!)
- My precious box of desi masalas - that way I’d never have to risk starvation since I’d be able to make anything taste delicious
- Can my husband, Zaki, be a considered a ‘thing’? If so, I’d definitely make sure he’s stranded right alongside me!
- Some form of comedic entertainment (perhaps that’s where Zaki can serve a dual purpose!), since a good laugh can truly drown any and every sorrow
Share your favorite quote:
Most fitting quote for my life at the moment:
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ Margaret Mead