Farah Mohamed, Founder G(irls)20 Summit & one of Canada's Top 25 Most Influential Women

This year's G(irls) 20 Summit delegation with the First Lady of MexicoThe NextWomen October Sustainability & Clean Tech Theme.

Farah Mohamed is the President & CEO of the G(irls)20 Summit, a not for profit organization that brings together 20 girls from the G20 countries and one girl from the African Union to debate, to discuss and devise innovative solutions for consideration by the G20 Leaders for how to address the economic challenges facing the world. The G(irls)20 Summit meets annually just before the G20 Leaders meet (Toronto 2010, Paris 2011 & Mexico City 2012). The next Summit will be held in Russia in the fall of 2013.

From 2008 to 2012, Farah was the Inaugural President of The Belinda Stronach Foundation (TBSF) which provides opportunities for girls and young women, aboriginal youth in Canada and youth in developing nations. Under Farah’s leadership, TBSF created and launched the Foundation’s flagship programs; The G(irls)20 Summit and One Laptop Per Child Canada. She also oversaw the Foundation’s work in Liberia with President Johnson Sirleaf and a humanitarian relief effort in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. 

Farah writes a weekly column for Canada’s leading national newspaper, The Globe & Mail and was recently chosen as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women in Canada by Women of Influence.  Earlier this year, Farah was chosen to participate in the Governor General’s Leadership Program 2012 with a focus on Nunavut.

Farah Mohamed

Farah has been featured on the front page of The Globe and Mail for her views on the rights of women in Afghanistan and has been called to speak on many occasions including International Women’s Day (Canada), The Impact of Empowering Girls & Women in an Emerging Democracy (Sudan), Creating Safe Spaces for Girls (G8/G20 Meeting of Parliamentarians in France), the Empowerment of Girls (Scotland) and was a 2011 Co-anchor of the Clinton Global Initiative’s Action Network on Investing in Girls and Women at home and abroad (New York). 

Prior to leading TBSF, Farah was the Vice President of Public Affairs and Community Engagement for VON Canada.

For 10 years, Farah worked closely with some of Canada’s most senior politicians. Farah began her political career in 1995 with The Honourable Paddy Torsney. From 1999 to 2004, Farah served as the Director of Communications for The Honourable Anne McLellan in her role as Minister of Justice, Minister of Health and Deputy Prime Minister of Canada.

We spoke to Farah about how she realised such a bold vision; what issue she would most like global governments to fix; and the lesson she'd like to pass on to other women leaders.

TNW: The G(irls)20 Summit is such a big idea requiring international co-operation from many organisations at many levels. Tell our community a little about how you came up with the idea, and then went on to realise such a bold vision.

FM: As the President of The Belinda Stronach Foundation (the incubator for the Summit), I had the latitude and resources to do things differently.  

In 2010, Canada was to hosting the next G8 and G20 meetings and as a former political aide I saw this as an opportunity to boost the message that economically and politically empowering girls and women can economically benefit a country. 

The idea was solidified over dinner with Belinda and other 6 other female leaders in December 2009 and by June 2010 we had a global summit.  It was an intense 6 months but with some amazing champions and incredible staff it came together.

TNW: How do you select the girls from each country to participate in the Summit?

FM: We work with more than 50 partners who have operations on the ground in the G20 countries and the African Union. We build the campaign and provide the partner organization with a tool kit which they disseminate.  This ensures that we get a cross section of applicants and that the opportunity is widely distributed.  We need to a variety of voices, experiences and socio-economic realities – much like the G20 Leaders. Of course we also have a terrific website courtesy of Macroblu and our Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Previous delegates (named Ambassadors post Summit participation) are also a source of dissemination and we take their recommendations very seriously.  Once the applications are in I have a team of readers – one for each country and they go through all the applications to narrow down to two candidates.  The readers are made up of partners, past delegates, the G(irls)20 Summit Advisory Board and volunteers.

TNW: The Summit culminates with a communique which provides a blue-print to the G20 Leaders on how best they can utilise one of the world's best and untapped resources: girls and women. Could you briefly summarise the output of this year's Summit? 

FM: This past Summit we focused on Opportunity Gained in terms of Women and Agriculture and Opportunity Lost in terms of Violence against Women.  The communique provided ideas on the investments needed to ensure women can be fully engaged in agriculture given that the majority of small farm holders are women. The Communique can be reviewed here.

We were pleased to see that for the first time, G20 Leaders acknowledged the importance of the economic inclusion of women in their own Declaration. 

TNW: If you could choose one issue for global governments to fix, what would it be?

FM: Food scarcity.

TNW: How could tapping into the potential of the world's girls and women contribute to solving this problem?

FM: We need to start by changing the structures so girls and women can indeed participate.  Start by including girls & women in country-level agricultural investment plans, change inheritance and land rights for girls and women so they can own and invest, increase access to financing and agricultural inputs.  Women are the majority of small hold farmers in the world and if we do not provide them with the right tools (financial, educational, regulatory), we cannot expect them to produce the results we need to feed 9B people in 2020.

TNW: As with every generation, the press loves to despair about "the youth of today". As someone who gets to see the female "youth of today" in action, how do you feel about Generation Y?  

FM: Simply put, I feel inspired by the youth I have met and worked with.

TNW: Very generally, what do you see as their key strengths and what concerns you about them?

FM: Their key strengths are their ability to communicate without limitation. 

They are creative and many of them are risk takers and this allows them to pursue their passions.  What concerns me about some youth is their sense of entitlement.

TNW: The girls who participate in The G(irls)20 Summit are encouraged to live up to their commitments and realise social change in their own country. Many wonderful things must have come out of this. Which social projects by G)irls)20 Summit alumni in particular have made you most proud? 

FM: It’s almost impossible to pick just one as they are all very successful because they are customized to the particular country and driven by the Ambassador behind it.  I will point to one though as it shows the importance of going full circle;   Tanvi, the 2010 delegate from India created jobs for former sex trade workers.  They created paper products (bags, envelopes, journals, etc.) and then approached me to provide these to the 2011 delegates for the Paris Summit for a fee.  Her actions got women working in a safe environment and we were pleased to be her first customer. 

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business? 

FM: Passion, creativity, accountability and common sense (not so common).  A sense of humour is a bonus.

TNW: Who are your customers and partners?  

We have about 30,000 people involved in some manner.  Our partners include Google, Nike Foundation, NoVo Foundation, Scotiabank, NortonRose and Nissan and of course the G20 Leaders.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

FM: Advertising or law.

TNW: Briefly describe your history in raising investment for your company. 

FM: I put a premium on partnership and don’t have time for the antiquated concept of chequebook philanthropy. People need to put their heads in the game not just their money.  Let me give you an example; when we seek a financial institution as a partner we want their investment dollars yes but we need them to provide content in the form of a business planning workshop for the delegates.  They have the expertise so we would be foolish not to utilize it.  This intellectual investment is as important as the financial investment.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?   

Do not be afraid to take a risk and always trust your gut.  The combination of the two can be amazing.

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