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Let’s #BreakTheBias and Hear from Today’s Female Leaders Across The UK

Did you know that International Women’s Day has been celebrated for over a century? Across a lifetime, we’ve have had the chance to celebrate, elevate and motivate incredible women being and doing incredible things across the world, throughout history, today and for the women of tomorrow. Each year, it also gifts us the opportunity to reflect on some of the ongoing challenges women continue to face across the world.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #BreakTheBias, which aims to spotlight issues such as gender bias, stereotypes, discrimination and the way they take shape – one area in particular that is affected by issues such as these, is leadership.

We saw this as a perfect opportunity to champion some of the amazing women leading Islamic Relief UK’s partner organisations, so, we reached out to 10 incredible women to share and provide our readers with evergreen advice on their experiences in leadership.

Here are some tips for future female leaders from the ones making a change on your doorstep:

Yasin Bojang, Co-Founder – Home Girls Unite

Can you tell us a bit about your role and Home Girls Unite?

My name is Yasin and I’m the co-founder of Home Girls Unite. Home Girls is an online and offline support group and safe space for the eldest daughters of immigrant homes. We discuss the experiences of childhood, teenage life, and adulthood in marginalised communities. We help people connect with their multiple identities in a complex world – the worlds of their parents, their peers, and the worlds’ young women envisage for themselves.

At Home Girls, I oversee the day-to-day operations of the organisation and also manage the online community platforms, working with women both in and out of the UK and making sure that their needs are met.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

Home Girls has helped me grow and gain more confidence in myself. I have learned a lot, and I’m pushed out of my comfort zone on a daily basis – from learning how to write the organisation’s safeguarding policies, fundraising bids, or listening to an eldest daughter cry on the other end of the line. This role constantly challenges me and pushes me to new heights that I honestly did not think I was capable of.  This has definitely made me a better leader as I’m prepared for whatever comes our way.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Focus on the why. The rationale for starting anything will always motivate you on those hard days. Whether this is starting a new business, setting up a social enterprise or managing a team; if you remember why you are doing something, it can act as a constant guide or invisible partner. Let your ‘why’ lead you. For me, the thought of meeting the needs of eldest daughters always pushes me.
  2. Have fun, enjoy whatever you’re doing. Laugh, cry, be stressed, but also have fun!
  3. Be good to your team. Without them, the organisation will probably not be a success. The saying goes “charity starts at home”, bring that to the organisation, make sure everyone is happy, prioritise their well-being and needs and everything else will follow.

Maaria Mahmood – Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

I am Maaria Mahmood, Director at Muslim Youth Helpline. MYH is a brilliant helpline operating daily to support young Muslims across the UK. The helpline provides young people with emotional support by listening to whatever they wish to talk about. MYH exists to provide an alternative space for young people to get faith and culturally sensitive support in a safe space.

As a helpline, we help de-escalate issues and worries young people may have, we help young people feel heard and give them the space to build confidence in their options. Beyond this, we signpost young people to other services, if needed, so our helpline is the springboard for young people to tap into additional support and get the help they need.

Some call our helpline once, others use our services a handful of times before they are ready to move on, and sometimes we get a few service users who need our services for a little longer to work through something challenging before they are prepared to leave.

My role is managing MYH’s overall operations. I direct the agenda and set the strategy and focus of MYH, both short and long term. I ensure MYH is running at its optimal level and that we are financially stable and have a robust sustainable plan to keep services running. I also manage partnerships and programmes so that MYH works collaboratively. No day is the same in my role, and it’s one of the parts of my position that I love.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

As a team, each member leads by example, and we’re very quick to encourage the values we promote on our helpline, to how we run MYH as a place of work. For me, this makes MYH the best place to develop both personally and professionally and for our team to keep a good healthy work-life balance.

I used to be someone who would be affected very quickly by a situation, like hearing of someone’s pain or grief. However, since working at MYH, I’ve learnt not to be impacted by the work that happens on the helpline – instead, I let the stories drive me to work harder to ensure the helpline is working to its optimal to serve all those who reach out to us.

At MYH, there is no room for judgment. You have to lead with empathy and compassion. My role helps me embody these core values at all times, and in that sense, maybe I am more indebted to the position and the organisation than anywhere else.

What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Be confident. Being confident is an essential trait of an effective leader because it means you can lead with self-assurance and put fears to the side. Take ownership of your skills, abilities, and decisions.
  2. Identify what type of leader you want to be. This could be through examples you have around you or how you want your team to feel. Hone-in on these leadership skills to get you to be that leader and begin working towards this. Observe the leadership skills of those around you to help you identify what works and what doesn’t.
  3. Be proud to stand out. To the females reading this, most have lived a life standing out from the crowd or not seeing themselves mirroring the past leaders in their places of work. I say be proud to stand out. Good leaders stand out from the crowd. Your diversity is an asset, your viewpoint can be innovative, and your differences make you the perfect candidate. So change the rulebook – whether it’s leading by compassion or incorporating new ways of working, you are inviting a new era to the workspace. Remember, you deserve your seat at the table!

And a sneaky 4th would be to take care of yourself and invest in your leadership journey by finding a mentor. Remember, every influential leader can have a group of mentors to support them to the top; it makes the journey less daunting.

Ayesha Tariq, Founder – All Ways Network (AWN)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation? 

I’m Ayesha, and I’m the Founder and Chair of All Ways Network (AWN). We support grassroots, not-for-profits working with the Muslim community living in the UK to become institutionally fundable. We offer a variety of training and networking events as well as signposting to help such organisations to work more effectively and efficiently.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you? 

I’m always in awe by the passion and dedication of staff and volunteers from grassroots organisations have when tackling the challenges we face locally.

When I have a chat with them about how they connect to our communities, it truly inspires me to carry on doing what I do and despite the hurdles that AWN experiences with our own limited resources, we try our best to work smart. Through our platform, I want the public to know who their local charities are and see the benefit of knowing them instead of only just looking at what is happening internationally. When we see what is happening on our doorstep, we have the opportunity to empower our communities.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Believe in yourself to do the work. The fear of growth can be overwhelming, but you’ve been blessed to be given the opportunity, so take advantage of it and take it at your own pace, you’re not expected to do everything all at once. Sometimes matters will be in your favour and sometimes it won’t but find solutions where you can.
  2. Have mentors in your life to help you along in your journey. Their encouragement and critical thinking of you and your work becomes the voice you want to hold on to. Find a mentor that matches your life aims.
  3. Hold yourself accountable. The work/decisions must be ‘just’, without harming yourself and others, even if it means you lose something – Allah (SWT) will truly give you something better in return.

Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu, CEO – Black Muslim Forum

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

I’m Soukeyna, I’m the CEO of Black Muslim Forum which I run with my colleague and COO Ikram Hirse. The organisation was founded to advocate for Black Muslims in the UK and internationally, especially within Muslim spaces. We run a black supplementary school, a black girls mentoring programme funded by Islamic Relief, an annual conference with Muslim Council of Britain and do other things, such as research and events to increase community cohesion, raise the black consciousness and discuss solutions.

My role is to oversee this and manage the day-to-day logistics with Ikram.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

Working at BMF has definitely been a privilege. I’ve been able to meet such sincere and dynamic people who are committed to the black cause. Challenges exist as with every job role, such as when working with other stakeholders to realise a vision. However, these challenges have helped to grow me in both a personal and professional capacity.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Renew your intentions, sometimes the ego can get in the way of serving the community, so it’s important to stay focused and grounded.
  2. Make time for yourself.
  3. Keep God at the centre of everything you do.

Katie Ellis Carrigg, Head of Sport & Inclusion – Liverpool Football Club (LFC)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

LFC Foundation are the official charity of Liverpool Football Club (LFC). Our mission is to harness the power of the LFC family to create life changing opportunities for the most underserved communities, home and away. Last year the LFC Foundation supported 50,400 people. The charity contributed £23 million of social value to the Liverpool City Region in 2021. My role as Head of Sport and Inclusion is to manage and grow our sport, health, and inclusion programmes. We run more than 50 programmes and I manage a fantastic and passionate team who deliver activities across Merseyside. I have 15 years of experience working in the sport, health and community sector and have worked at the LFC Foundation for four years. I have always worked in jobs where I know I can make a positive difference to people’s lives. I am passionate about using sport as a vehicle to empower communities and make positive change. A day at the LFC Foundation is never the same, I might be writing funding bids, coordinating new programmes, supporting staff, or presenting our programmes to partners. It is always busy, I love it.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

I am a big sports fan, so I was really interested to learn more about how a professional sports club operates. My previous roles were in local authorities, social enterprises or charities so working at the foundation has given me the opportunity to see how a global sports brand works. It is fascinating to see how the “team behind a team” works to create a successful organisation. I have learnt a lot about the business side of football, how sponsorship deals work and how to market and promote programmes under a global brand. I have also been lucky enough to learn from my colleagues at the foundation and be able to see how we can change people’s lives for the better. The job is really rewarding, and I know I am contributing to making people healthier and happier, and that makes me feel happy too! There are a lot of challenges though – this could be ensuring we can source funding to keep programmes running to supporting the team with safeguarding, health and safety and day to day problems that might occur. I have a growing team to manage so I need to ensure I am available to give everyone the help and support they need.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. The most important thing is to be true to yourself. Don’t change who you are for a job – always stick to your values. People will respect you more for doing that.
  2. Secondly, and this is easier said than done, but be confident and don’t be afraid to say how you feel or have an opinion. This is often hard if you are the only woman in the room, but male colleagues should value your thoughts. Be proud to be a woman and speak up!
  3. Finally, keep learning. As you move higher up an organisation there is sometimes an assumption you should know everything, which is never possible! Attend training courses, go to conferences and where opportunities become available, continue to study. It is important to always keep learning, knowledge is power!

Salma Ravat, Founder – One Roof Leicester (ORL)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

I am a founding member of the charity One Roof Leicester (ORL) which provides accommodation and support to single people who are homeless. As part of my day-to-day role, at the organisation, I develop and deliver projects such as ORL Homes, Winter Night Shelter and Permanent Night Shelter. We work to inspire people of different faiths and communities to support ORL projects and its residents.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

The Quran and Sunnah both teach us to help those in need without prejudice. My work at One Roof Leicester has been as much about supporting individuals who are homeless as well as educating our community that people in our communities have as much right to expect our help as those in other parts of the world.

Every day I have to remind myself to remain humble, I am only able to do this work because Allah (SWT) has given me this opportunity and responsibility, but it also reminds me to be grateful for all that I am blessed with.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Be a team player, as the saying goes, ‘no man (or woman) is an island’ therefore creating a strong, effective, and efficient team is vital to success.
  2. Listen to others and ask for advice, you don’t know everything and there is no shame in asking for help.
  3. Value your team, show appreciation for what they do and help them to develop and be the leaders of tomorrow.

Jennifer Tullett, Active Through Football Co-ordinator – Aston Villa Foundation (AFV)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

As Neighbourhood Engagement Officer (NEO) I work locally with grassroot organisations and residents to support communities. Aston Villa Foundation is the charitable arm of the football club, supporting all fans, local communities, and groups with a variety of services. The NEO supports grassroot groups with various funding opportunities, food drives, sports services, and other opportunities.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

Working for an inner-city organisation has helped me understand the different complexities that communities struggle with day to day. Birmingham is a multi-cultural community, with newly arrived immigrants, young people, and working-class residents, all of which require a variety of support. Although the Foundation and club has its limitations, it is our responsibility to support our communities to their full potential.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

    1. Speak up; make sure you are heard and prepared to push against resistance.
    2. Be strong where you can be without being offended – it’s okay for people to have different of opinions to you – we are all human after all!
    3. Work life balance is ok! It’s ok for you to need to leave work for a parents evening or a family meal, but it is equally ok for you to spend time networking at work and going above and beyond where needed.

Yasmin Ismail, Volunteer Coordinator – The Newham Community Project (NCP)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

The Newham Community Project (NCP) is a volunteer-run organisation established in 2008 to help those most underprivileged in our community. Whilst it has been involved in a number of different projects and initiatives, the main focus at the moment is the running of a food-bank that began in March 2020 to help families through lockdown and has since spiralled. We currently feed over 1000 people a week, the vast majority of whom are not UK citizens and so have no recourse to public funds, despite living in abject poverty. Other initiatives run by the NCP include the running of a Scouts group, Quran classes for children with Disabilities and Special Needs.

Within the organisation I am responsible for the day-to-day running of most of the projects – for the foodbank, that involves everything from sourcing and distributing food, and organising volunteers.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited you and challenged you?

It has been really humbling seeing the good will of people. On the other hand, it has been a real eye opener to see how much need that there is out there, and how we as a society are collectively failing so many people. On a personal level, it’s also been really rewarding just being able to feel like I am having an impact and able to make a tangible difference to improve some people’s lives. I also definitely feel more connected with the area I live in and with the community around me, which I think is sadly undervalued, but so important.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Be confident in what you have to say – your viewpoint does matter, and your voice should be heard. It can sometimes be hard when there aren’t many people at the table who look like you but that makes your opinion all the more important.
  2. Always have compassion and try to actively practice it – that goes for everyone from colleagues to families. Realise that the people around you are also trying hard and having individual struggles of their own, and your compassion to them can help bring out the best in them.
  3. Don’t underestimate the importance of working well within a team – the impact of anything you can do as an individual is dwarfed by what you can achieve with other people. Work with people who bring out the best in you and learn from them, and you will push each other on to bigger and better things.

Lucy Bushill-Matthews, Director of Operations – National Zakat Foundation (NZF)

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation? 

I’m Lucy and I’m the Director of Operations at National Zakat Foundation. NZF helps Muslims get their Zakat directly to those in need here in the UK. Rooted in our faith and reflective of our modern times, we are building a nationwide network of support. NZF works to help Muslims get through difficult situations by giving them cash transfers to cover essentials such as food and clothing. We also help Muslims get back on their feet with financial support for affordable accommodation and the work skills to find a job and sustain themselves and their families. The National Zakat foundation works to strengthen the community by investing in educating and developing Muslim scholars and other community champions, and helps people understand Zakat and its purpose. I make sure the organisation runs smoothly and has policies and processes in place to help decisions to get made well at all levels

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

Working at NZF has made me think much more deeply about the overall purpose of the pillars of faith, and Zakat in particular.

People talk generally about work and life balance. Yet I find the team at NZF are so engaged personally with the mission that work and life all get merged together!

I have learnt a lot about determination and humility from the Chief Executive. I am constantly challenged by my hands-on learning about both people dynamics and decision-making – and then find this learning benefits both me and NZF.

 What three tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. Have confidence in yourself. And if others you trust express confidence in you, use that to further your confidence.
  2. As a leader you will have to make decisions. Your role is to make the best decision you can. Not everyone is going to like every decision you take and that’s ok.
  3. Surround yourself with a strong team and be there for them

Rifhat Malik MBE, Co-Founder – Give A Gift

Can you tell us a bit about your role and the organisation?

I am the one of the Co-founders of Give A Gift charity. My role is Project Director and I oversee the different projects we run, such as the Emergency Food Hub, Cultural Food Hub, Mental Health, Social Wellbeing project for Vulnerable Females, Destitution Project, and Muslim Kitchen. We fill the gap in service provisions when all other avenues have been exhausted and we work in collaboration with the third sector and statutory sectors to help those who face financial hardship.

How has working in the organisation impacted you personally? How has it benefited and challenged you?

I gave up a professional job in Health to pursue my lifelong passion of doing charity work, as its one of the major fundamentals of our faith and existence (in Islam). I started out with Islamic Relief over 20 years ago as a volunteer and this filled me with a hunger and drive to pursue charity work to please Allah (SWT) and help humanity. Working in this sector has changed my outlook on life and have learned to appreciate what we have compared to those who have very little. I feel great contentment when we help anyone as Allah (SWT) has given us so much, which is his Amanat (gift) to be shared.

What two tips could you share with future female leaders?

  1. You need an understanding and supportive family beside you who also share your passion.
  2. You need to be resilient, passionate, and strong, as at times it can be overwhelming in this field- many of the other charities are traditionally male driven.

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