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Pursuing uncertainty: A path towards social impact for a 2012 Bush Fellow

An investment rooted in the belief that with support, courageous leaders can create broad impact for the communities in which they live and work defines the essence behind the Bush Fellowship Program. The depth of work planed by the second cohort of 2012 Bush Fellows promises an inspiring range of exploration including systems change, community engagement, and personal development.

Zahra AljabriWe take a behind-the-scenes look at one of the recently announced 2012 Bush Fellows. Zahra Aljabri, a COO of MuslimBuddy, mom, and fashion TV junkie, shares with us not only the path that brought her to this fellowship, but also gives us extended insight into her forward thinking idea that could change the face of community organizations’ engagement and governance strategies for decades to come.

What three adjectives would you use to describe your childhood self?

  • bold
  • curious
  • active

Any professions you idealized as a child?

Police officer

What’s the greatest takeaway from your educational experiences?

One of the most important lessons I learned during undergraduate, and was reinforced in law school, is the importance of developing meaningful, reciprocal relationships. Learning to be selective about who you closely associate with and not waste precious time or energy with people who bring you down or only take and never give. Sometimes it’s hard to realize, but people you surround yourself with have an immense impact on how you perceive yourself and what you do. It’s important to be mindful about the quality of those relationships.

Did you ever face a career crossroads?

I came to an important crossroads when I returned from extended stay overseas and was making a decision whether to work for an established organization or pursue MuslimBuddy full-time. On one hand, I had opportunities that were relatively secure positions with specific roles that would not utilize my full potential or stretch my comfort zone. On the other hand, I could purse an uncertain path that could potentially allow me to leave a significant social impact. I decided to pursue the riskier option. I felt it was a better use of my time, talent, and skills. Though it was a bit scary at the time, I’m confident that I’ve made the right decision to not stay safe in a limited role working for someone else.

Biggest career experiences that led you to apply for a Bush Fellow?

As an entrepreneur, I value creativity and autonomy. At the same time, in order to succeed I needed support and structure while maintaining control and autonomy. The Bush Fellowship offered exactly that! As a Bush Fellow, I will have a fellowship plan and access to innovators and change-makers in the nonprofit sector—while having the control to make choices that meet the needs of my community. I am comfortable with risks and uncertainty and the Bush Fellowship makes a perfect fit as they focus more on learning and execution rather than success and failure per se.

Biggest personal experience that led you to apply for a Bush Fellow?

The job search—talking with so many people who are dissatisfied with their job.

Has a failure ever lead to a success?

I believe that failure is only a shortsighted interpretation of a small chapter of someone’s life. So ultimately all failures lead to success. For instance, I was a finalist for a senior position at prestigious design college, but didn’t make the cut because of “lack of experience.” It is only natural to be disappointed but to think of that chapter as a failure would have been shortsighted. Taking that job would have come with extreme pressure and serious work-life imbalance. Instead, today I get to work with brilliant and passionate people at MuslimBuddy while maintaining a healthy family life and friendships.

So, what’s the dish on your Fellowship plans?

During my Fellowship, I will be bringing individuals together to review and develop a governing structure for community organizations that is more responsive and inclusive of all community voices. Community organizations that serve Minnesota Muslims often struggle to keep their constituents engaged and consistently deliver high-quality services. A big part of the problem is that community members do not feel that their voice and talents are valued in organizational decision making. Implementing a governing structure that moves away from a traditional board of directors model and provides greater openness and accountability with community members is where I believe significant impact can be made to improve the functioning of our community organizations. During my Fellowship, I will collaborate with a variety of stakeholders to find and implement a model that works for my community. It’s important to note that for practical purposes I am focusing on the Minnesota Muslim community, and it is my hope that the products and techniques that I will develop can be used by any community organization.

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