Arfah Farooq — The best communities always start with just two amazing people

arfah farooq

We’re so excited to welcome Arfah Farooq as our latest Tech Sister! Tech Sisters Stories is a series that profiles Muslim women in tech and brings attention to the incredible personalities and work we have in our community. 

Arfah is a collaborator who loves connecting unique ideas to create one big vision that will positively impact the world. Her passion for the promotion and influence of the progression of minorities in the technology sector led her to co-found Muslamic Makers. She is also a 2017 fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and was awarded a prestigious fellowship exploring Muslim Women in Technology in the USA, UAE, and Pakistan.

Can you describe how you first got into tech? 

I grew up on the internet and loved using tools like MSN messenger and MySpace to make lots of new friends. But I never considered making a career from the internet until a mentor at my youth charity program, Spark and Mettle, said I had the energy to be a great social media manager. We applied for a bit of money to build a website and scale our charity program. That program became Discoverables, and we focused on helping companies develop soft skills in young people. Before I knew what was happening, I co-founded a startup. I was a director at 22!

That was back in 2012, at the start of the startup scene. I even used to call myself the Startup Kid! In terms of a job and platform, that was my entry into tech. One thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself in a whole new world. It was all a big accident, really. 

Would you like to describe your career journey so far?

With Discoverables, we successfully applied for further funding and were in a tech accelerator called Wayra. That experience lasted for about one year. It was fantastic exposure and really grew me as a person. I wore so many hats and was doing all sorts of work, like product management, UX, prototyping, and market research. Unfortunately, we weren’t very business savvy. I remember texting my co-founder to ask if he knew how PAYE works, and we realized we never accounted for taxes! Alhamdulillah, everything happens for a reason. 

I knew about Makers Academy through my developer, and I pitched myself to them. They brought me on, and I spent about two and a half years there heading up their marketing and focusing on getting more students through the doors. While there, I was really interested in diversity in tech, mainly because I wanted to see more people like me. I felt like I was ticking so many boxes. I’m a woman, Muslim, Pakastani, and woman of color. It was so frustrating never seeing myself reflected back in the community. 

I got a random message on Twitter from someone interested in setting up a community for Muslims who work in tech. Funnily enough, I had the exact same idea when I was working on Discoverables. But I imagined it as just five people in a coffee shop. And that was the start of Muslamic Makers! This taught me that we should never hoard ideas, we should always share them. If you share your ideas, you’ll find someone who’s just as passionate as you, and they will come to fruition really quickly. 

We should never hoard ideas, we should always share them. Click To Tweet

After two years at Makers, I was in a position where I was hiring people better than myself and couldn’t see where I fit in anymore. I successfully applied for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship, which gives British citizens money to travel the world and research anything. I wanted to meet and interview Muslim women in tech in the USA, Pakistan, and Dubai. I left Makers and basically spent a year of random marketing freelancing work while doing my fellowship. I spent about five weeks in America, came back to the UK for a bit, then did another five weeks in Pakistan and Dubai. That year was absolutely amazing. It exposed me to a lot, inspired me, and grew me as a person. You can read the stories I captured at Inclusive Tech World.

Over the last year, I’ve been part of Government Digital Service, the people behind Gov.uk. I finally feel like I have a role that suits my personality. Officially, I’m a community development manager for the product and delivery communities. It’s a really long title that means I manage the internal communities at GDS. After all the community work I did with Muslamic Makers, it was nice to have a role in community development and get paid for it! My career has been a real jungle gym, as Sheryl Sandberg says. It hasn’t been linear at all, but alhamdulillah, it led me to where I am today.

When you have an idea, you go after it and make things work. Do you think that has to do with your personality?

I had a relatively sheltered upbringing, I never left home, and traveling for fellowship by myself was a big deal. At that time of my life, I really needed a change in my life and to shake things up. I never told my parents that I applied and was nervous about how they would react. By the qadr of Allah, just before I opened my letter of acceptance, my Dad was watching someone on Pakistani TV who advised parents to expose their kids to all sorts of fields. God had set that moment for me perfectly! I opened the letter in front of him and braced myself for all hell to break loose. But instead, my Dad turned around and just said, “Oh, mashAllah, well done!” I was so shocked!

It took some bravery, but my relationship with my parents had a high level of trust. Sometimes, young girls tell me that they can’t wait to move out and leave their parents. But the truth is that you won’t find happiness that way; you need to meet your parents halfway.

Taking a year away from my career wasn’t as risky as it could have been for me then. I was living at home and didn’t have to worry about bills. I had a lot of flexibility where it was ok to not have a permanent job and just make a bit of money on the side to focus on my fellowship. I have to recognize the different things at play. 

You have a lot of experience in building healthy communities that benefit members and the broader community outside it. What are the key things you need for a thriving community?

A community starts with two. Someone else always needs to be there to push the community forward. Muslims at GDS is a great example. There wasn’t a Muslim community at GDS when I started, and I wanted to set up a Slack channel like our Christian colleagues. However, I didn’t know very many people there yet. So I reached out to a colleague who had been at GDS for two years and knew which brothers were in the prayer room. 

One key ingredient is having a holding place for people to chat, whether it’s on Slack, WhatsApp, or whatever. But the next step is doing something face to face. For Muslamic Makers, we had an in-person event. Fifty people turned up and told us it was great. For Muslims at GDS, it was a lunch that allowed us to come together and create a working group that put together events like Ramadan talks and an Eid event. It really comes down to finding and connecting with those key people who are just as passionate as you. 

I’ve been on a mission over the last year to transition Muslamic Makers from founder driven to more community-driven. A lot of people would rely on me to make things happen, and that’s not healthy. If something happens to me, the community doesn’t move forward. I need this community to sustain itself without me. It’s essential to have established foundations where people take ownership and not always look to you. Sometimes, I purposefully hold back to let someone else step forward to lead the project. As much as I love community work, it can sometimes be very tiring. At the same time, I would feel so sad if it didn’t live beyond myself. Even though we’ve been doing Muslamic Makers for four years and helped so many people, I would feel like a failure if no one stepped up to take it forward beyond. 

What’s your favorite memory that happened as a result of the communities you built

My favorite memory with Muslimic Makers occurred during one of our first events. We already had two events that were conversations with Muslim men, and I really wanted to hold something similar, but with Muslim women. After struggling a bit to find some, we had a conversation event with Zohra Khaku, the founder of Halal Gems, and Nafisa Bakkar, one of Amaliah’s co-founders. This was very early on before Amaliah was a media platform and was still a fashion shop. The memory I’m thinking of actually happened a year ago when Amaliah bought out Halal Gems. I asked Nafisa if that happened because of the Muslamic Makers event. She said that that was the first time she and Zohra properly met. For me, that was a real moment where I could see that our community had a role to play in that.

My favorite memory with Muslims at GDS was an Eid event we did. We had lots of food and packed out the office social space. It felt like we arrived and people knew who we were – because we gave them free food! And even now, with everyone working remotely, I feel so happy seeing them still join up for (virtual) coffee chats and seeing the friendships that came from it. With any community work I do, those lasting connections are definitely my favorite.

As a result of your Inclusive Tech World project, what did you find were the common traits of successful Muslim women in tech?

There were a few things I noticed. The first is cliche, but very important to mention. Of the women who were married, all of their husbands were very supportive of their careers. I was single when I was doing this fellowship, and I was scared that I would end up marrying someone who wouldn’t support me. It was so lovely to meet these women who, mashAllah, had great Muslim husbands who were very supportive of their wives. 

The second thing is accidental careers. I mentioned that my tech career was very unexpected, and a lot of the women I met had a similar experience. We didn’t intend to go into tech, but we were in the right time and place for a career to just happen. 

Having supportive parents was the third common factor. These parents were educated and recognized the importance of their daughters having an education and a career. It’s important to not fight against your culture or family but engage with them. Aspirations can’t just be about your job; they need to include the full picture of your life. 

The differences between countries were especially interesting. In Pakistan, a lot of women went into technology anyway, because it’s seen as a good career. But once they get married, women would entirely fall out of the workforce. To counteract that, Pakistan had a lot of government-led programs to get women into freelancing. I spent a week in a government-led tech incubator that focused on getting these women independent and feeding their skills into the economy rather than letting them go to waste. These women are earning lots of good money without compromising their life commitments. 

It was interesting to see so many programs from the government, and some private companies there are doing incredible work as well. Careem is a ride-sharing company developed by Venture Dive that gives its female employees free car rides to and from work. They recognize that public transport in Pakistan isn’t necessarily safe for women. One-third of their workforce is women, and they want to take care of their employees. I came away from my time in Pakistan with a newfound love and respect for my home country. Of course, it has its bad sides, but it’s not as backward as we might think it is. With regards to women in technical fields, it’s doing better than the west because there’s not as much cultural baggage there. 

Why is it so important to identify role models for Muslim women in tech? 

I think it simply comes down to believing you can do it when you see other people doing the same thing. If she did it, I can do it too. Even though I have all this experience and have done so much research, I still have days where I struggle with believing in myself. The stories of other women like me are what I draw on for inspiration. 

Through their stories, I saw that it’s possible to have it all – with the right structures in place. I remember meeting a mother of six in America who was doing tech investing and coding while caring for her husband, who was passing away from cancer. Stories like hers give me hope and help me remember that I can have a successful career without leaving my family, culture, or religion. Seeing yourself represented in your role models show us that it’s possible to succeed by being proud and true in yourself and in your faith.

What advice do you have for women considering getting into tech?

I think my biggest advice is: give but don’t be exploited. If you’re going to do work for free, go help a project or charity that you care about. Don’t just let someone take advantage of you for free. 

If you're going to do work for free, go help a project or charity that you care about. Don't just someone take advantage of you for free! Click To Tweet

Giving has a lot of power behind it. When I look back on my career and life, I realize that there are a lot of crucial moments that came from me being generous with my time. When someone contacts you years later to thank you for something you did to help them, it fills you with real pride. 

Also, social media is incredibly powerful, as annoying as it can sometimes be. If someone inspires you and you want to talk to them, find them on social media. I get lots of messages from people asking for a quick chat, and I’m 100% happy to give them my time if it comes in a way that doesn’t inconvenience me, like a call or come meet me for lunch. If you’re nervous about sliding into a stranger’s DMs, build a rapport with them by commenting on their posts, so they get used to seeing you on their feed. Once you try this, you’ll realize that people are more than happy to help.

What’s the thing that you’re most proud of, and why is it so special to you?

I guess Muslamic Makers is one of my greatest achievements. It is what it is because of the community, but kickstarting that project and being consistent with it for four years is a significant accomplishment. I’m just really proud that we’ve kept it going for so long, and it’s not been one of those random things that start and then just die. Alhamdulillah, it’s been really fulfilling in a lot of ways. 

What is something in your journey that you regret or wish you did differently?

The regrets I have aren’t really “regrets” because I know you have to be on the journey you’re on to get where you are today. I just wish I knew better most of the time! My biggest regret is that I don’t tend to think long term, and we didn’t have a clear idea of what the end game would be when we started Muslamic Makers. Trying to make it more self-sustaining is making me zoom out a bit and work on my strategic thinking. 

What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?

Oh, Allah, obviously. There’s no one that you can really be more grateful for honestly. Everything that I’ve achieved has come through Him. It’s Him that’s given me opportunities, like the fellowship, that I could never imagine doing on my own. He paved the way.

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Arfah. Jazakallahu Khair! You can keep up with the incredible things Arfah Farooq is doing on her Twitter. And be sure to join the Muslamic Makers Slack channel to connect with other Muslims in tech. If you liked this, be sure to check our other Tech Sisters Stories and get to know the amazing talent we have in our community.

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