Being awarded a 2019 Bush Foundation Fellowship is a momentous and exciting experience for any emerging leader. Like many recipients, I arrived with anxious thoughts –“What am I getting myself into?” and “Where will this opportunity take me?” With six months of being a fellow behind me, I can begin to see how this amazing opportunity has transformed me and opened doors for me.
When I began the Fellowship Program in August of 2019, I became instilled with a strong sense of servant leadership. As a community leader, business owner, and teacher with a focus on diversity and inclusion (D & I), I was always busy bridging every gap of understanding I came across in the community. I took calls from every person demanding the benefit of my expertise or wanting to pick my brain about the viability of their ideas. As a perfectionist accustomed to endless fine-tuning of my work, I was (and still am, to some extent) the type of leader who would work until I fell asleep in my business suit. I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way. Professionally, however, I was so keenly aware of my identity as a Black Muslim refugee woman that I held myself and my ideas back from revealing them in their most constructive and raw form, because of decorum. My belief was that professional expressions had to be palatable to everyone. However, many of the issues faced in my community needed to be presented in their most truthful form to my fellow leaders.
The first benefit I’ve gained from my Fellowship experience thus far has been authenticity. I frequently find myself being the only person of color in strategic meetings, a person with crucial knowledge of the issues most minority communities face. These are situations where authenticity is necessary for sharing with the group. My leadership coach has encouraged me to be my authentic self by practicing courageous leadership. It is OK to express truths that the majority of people might not understand. It is my responsibility to speak up as a leader of color who represents persons of color on issues that really matter, even if these are uncomfortable to address. This new approach to representing ALL takes a degree of authenticity, backed up by courage, a fact that I might not have realized so quickly outside of the Fellowship.
Winning a Bush Foundation Fellowship has also helped me connect with current and previous Bush alumni who work in different fields of endeavor. Their expertise and experience have widened my network and expanded my knowledge in many areas.
Within the last six months, I was featured on CNN’s “Great Big Story,” (available on YouTube and Great Big Story's Website) and chosen to be among a cohort who attended the Minnesota Young American Leaders Program. We gathered at the University of Minnesota November 20–22, 2019 for an intensive workshop to explore economic development challenges and opportunities. During the workshop, I personally learned ways our knowledge could usher in and stimulate prosperity in the country, and in the state of Minnesota in particular, and ways to share prosperity and conduct cross-sector collaboration. I not only met other rising leaders, but also Harvard Business School professors, Humphrey School of Public Affairs professors, researchers, and various business leaders. In the end, I managed to discover the many success stories of other participants and presenters.
Twin Cities Business Magazine chose me one of 100 people to know in 2020 and named me one of seven Pioneer honorees. The Minneapolis Star Tribune also chose me one of six Minnesotans who were “Voices of Inspiration” in 2019. The newspaper dubbed me “a uniter of Minnesotans of all backgrounds,” something to be proud of at this juncture. This has been a busy six months for me.
As a more authentic leader, I have learned to say “No, not now” rather than “Yes” for every opportunity that falls within the periphery of my interests. Having a more authentic approach to life, leadership, and work has given me more clarity about my core priorities, goals, and values. Authenticity and clarity were two missing pieces of my leadership style, pieces I have gained. But there is an even more tangible piece that I have since identified . . . My ultimate professional goal is to establish myself as an innovative thought leader in the diversity and inclusion industry. So, I asked myself, “What is it that will propel me to that coveted next level? What can I do to further my knowledge, skills, and mindset to successfully lead innovative efforts to better my community and equip myself with what I need to be truly skilled in my domain?” For me, that final missing piece has been the realization of the need and the decision to pursue higher education and earn an Educational Doctorate in Leadership. I have many years of experience, but during this Bush Foundation Fellowship, I have come to recognize that I must instill in myself the pertinent research skills and knowledge to navigate the consistent contributions, innovations, and impact that academia has on the field of diversity and inclusion. Having this deeper understanding keeps a person on par with, and maybe even ahead of, global trends in the D & I industry.
Finally, another skill I am currently learning – with the help of new mentors and role models - is self-care. I am striving to take more time for reflection, make a greater effort to balance my work and life, and delegate work to those I trust. A healthy servant leader sees herself as a part of the people she serves. Thus, if we servant leaders want to successfully build healthy communities, we must treat ourselves with the same care with which we treat others…. which also means no more sleeping through the night in my business suit.