The Freedom Interviews: Farah Mohamed

By Nicola Caon in conversation with Farah Mohamed | 04 Sep 14
During August and September, Right Now will be doing a series of interviews with guests of the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival. In Part Two of our interview series Right Now’s Nicola Caon spoke with social entrepreneur Farah Mohamed, founder and CEO of G(irls) 20, about the organisation’s recent summit and what it hopes to achieve.

The G(irls)20 Summit brings together one delegate from each G20 country, plus a representative from the European Union and African Union. The delegates debate, discuss and design innovative ideas necessary to improve the growth of communities, countries and companies by empowering girls and women globally and present these ideas to G20 Leaders. The participants are all girls, aged 18-20.

Right Now: You’ve been in Sydney where the fifth G(irls)20 Summit has just taken place. Could you give our readers an idea of what the summit is about?

Farah Mohamed: Sure. I guess the best way to describe what we do is that we’re a cool take on the G20, which puts girls and women at the very heart of the issues. So, G(irls)20 brings together one girl from each G20 country. She’s 18 – 20 years of age. I also added this year Afghanistan, Pakistan and the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region. And the reason I added them is because we often have conversations about these places and we don’t have them at the table to actually provide input that will make a difference between success and failure.

So essentially what we do is we take the G20 leaders’ agenda and we say look, if you are truly serious about reaching your growth targets, and this year Prime Minister Abbott and his colleagues have set a 2 per cent [of GDP] growth target, then you have to have all of your resources, it doesn’t matter what are your resources, but you have to have them all in play. In terms of human resources, 50 per cent are clearly girls and women. So we say let us take your agenda, give it back to you as a set of recommendations that will allow you to economically engage and advance women and girls.

Farah Mohamed. Credit: G(irls)20 Instagram

Photo: Farah Mohamed. G(irls)20 Instagram

What do you see, as a result of all the work you’ve been doing, are the present challenges to women’s economic freedoms globally?

I think there are three things. I really do see that there has been a change in the narrative. We don’t have people doing things, and by people I mean government, business, primarily, they’re not doing things because it’s the nice thing to do anymore. They’re actually doing it cause they have to. If they’re going to survive, if they’re going to compete, if they’re going to innovate, they understand that women need to be part of the equation. So the narrative has changed and that’s a really big issue, you’re not struggling for the air. And I’ll be general because in some countries, you still are.

The second thing I’m seeing, is – we bring these women together. You know in some circumstances they’ve never been on a plane, they’ve never met somebody from another country, and from the day they arrive to the day that they leave, there’s a massive change in the manner in which they see themselves. So we’re not asking them to change their personalities or what they think. We’re asking them to believe in themselves. It’s not a kumbaya message. If these girls don’t actually walk away with skills, like communications skills, technical skills, financial literacy skills, their opportunities will not be as great. So, the second thing I see is the importance of making direct investments in the girls so that they have additional skills when they leave the summit.

And then the third thing – so, if you’re changing the narrative, and you have the skills, then you want to see change in terms of actions by G20 leaders. So you know, we met with Josh Frydenberg [Parliamentary Secretary to the Australian Prime Minister] yesterday. Let me say this: he’s converted, he knows that his government needs to do something quite significant in terms of engaging girls. The G20 has now talked about the importance of engaging women – economically – twice. They know that the pressure is on now to actually show some serious action so that each country does their own thing.

So, for me the third thing I’m saying is: an expectancy is concrete action in terms of what needs to be done for women in these countries. We didn’t have that even two years ago. We had a, “we recognise the importance of women to the economic global growth.” That’s really nice, but what are you going to do about it? So let’s see some policies around parental leave so it’s not just women who are taking a break from their jobs, men want to do that too; let’s see some stuff around childcare; let’s look at some stuff around access to the internet because we know that changes your health, if you have health issues or you want to understand better health outcomes, or your educational possibilities. It is every single thing they do.

I don’t necessarily want them to say, you know, “what’s the gender lens on this?” I want them to say, “how do we maximise?” And so I’m seeing that and that’s really important.

I’ll actually add a fourth thing. One of the things we’ve actually done is we’ve dropped the word summit as of this particular summit.  We used to be called the G(irls) 20 Summit, now we’re called the G(irls) 20 and it might not sound important. But we used to only be a summit. Now what we do is we train the girls through the year, we then bring them to the host country. We invest in them all these different skills. We connect them with global experts. And what we expect from them at the end, is that we expect them to go back home and start their own social profit venture or UN initiative that will then, economically engage women and girls in their own home country. And we’ve had about 62 per cent, 72 per cent depending on the year, rate of return in terms of the level of engagement of the girls who are doing this. I would be shocked if we didn’t get 90 per cent engagement from this group of delegates this year.

“I feel very confident that we’ll see some forward movement in terms of the action that is taken by G20 leaders. I just don’t want to see a nod that is the sort of the nod we had in Russia or Mexico.”

Do you think these issues that you’ve just described are getting enough attention at the G20 level, and what confidence do you have that they will be taken up this year?

Well, I have a lot of confidence in that I think that, if you’ve got people like Prime Minister Abbott, even my own Prime Minister, Prime Minister Harper, and you’ve got other people around the table who are saying we’ve got to do something, I feel very confident that we’ll see some forward movement in terms of the action that is taken by G20 leaders, concrete action. I just don’t want to see a nod that is the sort of the nod we had in Russia or Mexico.

In terms of expectations, we have written the kind of communiqué that if you look at it, you can pick and choose what would be a total win in your own country. So we’re not saying every country needs to do this. We’re saying, we’re providing you 12 recommendations in the area of infrastructure and sustainability, and we’re providing you with 13 in the area of jobs and growth. There’s everything from recommendations in the form of tax incentives. There’s stuff around investing in technology. There’s also one about making high-school level education compulsory. The delegates have constructed an agenda that basically says, we’re giving you ideas, and we’re giving you a bit of flexibility, but we in return expect commitment in the form investment dollars, and change in the form of what you’re actually going to do to show concretely, how important women are in terms of economic participation.

At a higher level, how does women’s economic participation impact on a country’s economic prosperity?

Women put 90 per cent of their funding – so I make a dollar, I put 90 per cent of that into my family or my community. Compare it to a man who does 30 – 40 per cent. These are World Bank statistics, not Farah Mohamed statistics. So we already know that the impact of the dollar when given, the impact of the dollar is that much greater. We also know that if a woman, in different countries, if they’re part of the labour force the minimum that your GDP will go up is three per cent. So if you’re maximising the available women who are able to work in your workforce, your GDP could go up three per cent. That ridiculous. It might be one per cent, but who cares? It’s one per cent! So there are these economic benchmarks that we know that we can reach.

The other thing I would say (and I find that I’ve repeated this a thousand times, and I’m not sure if its getting traction) but think about the sheer number: one billion women will enter the workforce over the next decade. One billion. We currently have seven billion people in the world. So if you just think about the combination again, one billion women, they spend 90 per cent of their dollar on things other than themselves, that sheer impact as a consumer, for companies – they should be all over themselves trying to find out how to engage those women.

We also know, and this is something that corporations care about, it is shown that your percentage, your growth, your profit margin will go up if a woman is sitting at a table making a decision. Because they’re probably thinking about things differently so you’re different in terms of your competitive angle.

We had this company and we were talking about construction and the company said look, there’s less error, there are less accidents when women are on our trucks. Isn’t that interesting? They actually measured. They had a baseline and they measured what was happening in their company when women were on their construction. I mean we’re talking about big construction equipment, and they measured the level of error, the level of accidents, and they showed that it was lower. So there’s a safety issue, but there is also – you save money if you’re not fixing things. There’s always going to be issues of course. The best example I can give you is that there used to be only men on the floor space at certain industries. Now they have hydraulics, they’ve invested in systems so that a woman doesn’t have to be built like a man to do the job that a guys can. That’s progress. But you’ve got to incentivise sometimes companies to do that.

It would be easy to sideline men in these discussions, but how should men be included in the debate?

I think it is absolutely essential to have men included in the debate. You do not empower a woman by disempowering a man. That’s not the solution. So I think they have to be there. I think they want to be there.

We created a campaign this year called “Fathers Empowering Daughters.” We did it based on the relationship I have with my Dad. But I tell you it was not hard to have fathers step up. I mean if you look at the calibre of people we had in the video, we had Richard Branson. It’s not hard to have guys step up and say, “yeah I have vested interest in empowering my daughter. Of course I do.”

So, I think they have to be at the table. I think they want to be at the table. I think they understand the economic benefit of being at the table.  I think from a retention of women in the workforce [point of view] they are very interested. They don’t want to lose women to the competition. So, I feel like we’re in this amazing space. This really truly awesome space. So that even if you are not the converted, it’s imperative.

“If you are not firing on all cylinders with your human resources, you will not grow, you cannot sustain, you cannot compete.”

Obviously each country faces its own challenges. The issues in Russia are completely different to the issues in Australia or Saudi Arabia. How do culture and gender roles have an impact on women’s economic freedom and how do you deal with this in the debates that you’re having?

That’s a great question. I’m going to use child marriage as an example. So we know that if we don’t do anything, 142 million girls will get married under the age of 18 in the next ten years. So 14 million girls a year. In a place like Ethiopia in a place where you might not expect change, culturally they’ve actually done something quite different. So in Ethiopia they’re working at the grass roots level. They’re not working at the level of a leader. And that cultural challenge is not enormous, but it’s moving. We will expect massive change in terms of child marriage. Flip it over to the other side, you hear about women who are not allowed to work in places like Saudi Arabia, in some cases they can’t even drive. I think change will take longer in some areas. But culturally you cannot and should not take a solution that works in one country and plop it into the other. And I think there’s an awareness on that. It’s something that the delegates discussed at great length – well that’s going to work in your country, it’s not going to work in mine.

Again the list of recommendations that are coming from places like the B20, the C20, the Y20 and G(irls)20 allow for countries to choose what will work for them immediately and then short term, medium term and long term. I am African-born, Indian-heritage, raised in Canada with a Persian name and I’m Muslim. I am very aware that things that are cultural challenges exist in more countries than you ever wish would.

At the end of the day it’s the same argument no matter what country you’re in. If you are not firing on all cylinders with your human resources, you will not grow, you cannot sustain, you cannot compete.

Finally, can you leave us with an example of one of the delegates putting a project from the summit into practice?

One example of the past year is one of the women who went back and decided that literacy was the biggest hold-back. And so she went back, had a bus donated, ripped up the seats, put in the shelves and got books donated, recruited some volunteers and started to drive into the slums of Indonesia to read to girls. And what happened is boys came too. That’s right, they’re learning together.

An example of what I think what we’ll see this year is kind of cool. I don’t want to pre-empt the delegates and I won’t tell you which one, but one has recognised that taro chips, or sorry taro, you know these [vegetables] that we turn into chips? Taro is actually an amazing abundant resource in that country and so she’s going to try to find a way to make sure that women have, or understand of the value of, Taro.

She’s saying look, taro is something that we can all grow. Women are farmers in this country. If we can collectively organise ourselves so that we can actually make taro an amazing export, and women are the farmers of that land, there’s a direct impact. Understands fully, there’s a resource, there’s a need, if we get behind that need, and we sell that, women are at the heart of that.

But if you can’t own land and you’re farming and you have this great resource, guess what happens? When it becomes profitable, it’s not longer in the hands of a woman. A man will take it over. So she’s really identified with this issue. She has identified that there is sometimes a gender lens on crops. It’s incredible right? I would never have thought about that!

Is it amazing to work with young women, do they bring a different perspective that older women in business may not have?

Yup. They do. They are very, very creative. They do not see boundaries of any kind. They are very aware of gender, but it’s not something that ever holds them back. And I have to say, they think about the future, and I don’t mean next year. They’re thinking ten years out. It’s really remarkable. It’s actually kind of, after every summit I’m so tired. But it’s almost like – it sounds kind of weird – but I get a real high from the energy of the ideas.

We launched our new website this year, and it’s a direct result of the delegates. We started off as a summit, now we’re going to do something that’s called Boot Camp for Brains, which is for 15 – 17 year old girls. A two-week program teaching all the stuff I think we should be teaching in schools but we’re not. We’re going to have a Speakers’ Bureau because these girls have amazing things to say and they need a platform to say it.

So imagine, you’re 18 – 20, you’ve just come through 10 days in Australia, you’re leaving with an incredible international network, you’re being supported to go back and start something, how can you not see yourself as a complete and total champion?