Women of the Year 2021: BlackNorth Initiative’s Dahabo Ahmed-Omer is Building a More Inclusive Corporate Canada
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Executive Director, BlackNorth Initiative
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Lightning makes no sound until it strikes.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: If you are not outraged, overwhelmed, and besieged by the injustices around us then justice has yet to come and as we know, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is my mantra. We need to be empowered by the prospect of equality and prosperity.
Every day is exciting for me; the work we are doing at the BlackNorth Initiative is all about creating generational change. We are creating programs and partnerships that will impact the current generation of Black and BIPOC Canadians, and the following generations. The work to reverse the systemic disadvantages that Black and all BIPOC groups have been facing for decades is what gets me energized. The challenge ahead of us is the most crucial part to this work of community development. We are changemakers in this space and, as leaders, we face adversity daily.
This summer, I was a victim of a racist attack. I was parked and sitting in my car outside my family members’ house, talking to a colleague on the phone when I was approached on two separate occasions. I was harassed and asked what I was doing in the area and if the vehicle I was in was mine. This experience shocked me to my core but further inspired me. It solidified my belief that we have so much more work to do. Incidents like this reaffirm the importance of our work. It makes me and all of us at the BlackNorth Initiative work that much harder.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Our most significant impact thus far has been the creation of opportunities for Black employees within our signatory organizations. 500 organizations all over Canada made a public Pledge to take specific actions to address anti-Black systemic racism by 2025. We’ve also partnered with countless partners in various areas like mentorship, sponsorship, supporting entrepreneurs, homeownership, and so many other areas.
For example, we’ve recently partnered with KidsHelp to offer North America’s first Black youth 24-hour crisis helpline. We’ve partnered with CivicAction to provide preparedness training for c-suite and board member candidates. We’ve already partnered with CIBC to provide a $1.5 million Youth Accelerator Program to Black youth from grade 10 to graduating university. We’ve recently launched our BNI Homeownership Bridge Program and got our first commitment from Peel region of $2.5 million. We’ve partnered with various others and cannot wait to launch more opportunities for Black communities.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Simply put, we are committed to the removal of anti-Black systemic barriers negatively affecting the lives of Black Canadians. This means creating access to opportunities. For far too long, Black communities have suffered. We want to be part of the echo of solutions. We want to bring a corporate lens because ultimately, this is a shared responsibility.
What does progress look like to you?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: The reality is that there isn’t a deficit in human resources, the deficit was always in human will.
We must persevere and break down these barriers. Progress is progressive. It won’t happen overnight but I believe with the power of our people, we have the will to create everlasting change, even if it’s in the awakening of others.
For example, progress is our Youth Accelerator Program we launched with CIBC, which allows Black students to reach their dreams through financial and mentorship support. Progress is the $2.5 million grant we received from the Peel region for the homeownership bridge program, which will provide housing for 50 Black families. Progress is our BlackNorth connect program that connects early-stage Black professionals to mentors that are in the later stage of their career for advice on a wide breadth of topics.
That is what progress looks like to me. Every day we are taking steps towards creating an equal society for all.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: We’ve done many firsts in Canada, starting with using a business mindset to address a social issue. We’ve tapped into the corporate world. We brought together over 500 signatories across Canada who all stood behind one message. We mobilized over 500 CEOs who represent small, medium, and large companies and who engage with hundreds of thousands of employees, which in turn means they serve millions of community members. The impact is immeasurable but that’s what transformative and innovative culture looks like.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: I’ve had various moments of awakening. Each moment has allowed me to grow and develop. A moment when my voice was silenced, my values were diminished, my capacity was minimized, and my light was dimmed.It taught me the true meaning of resilience. It’s also the moment I remembered what my dear father taught me: Lightning makes no sound until it strikes!
[There is also] the death of Abdirahman Abdi. I never met him, not once, but on July 24th, 2016, a stranger became my awakening.
This world can be a difficult place for people like us. Racism and discrimination dwell in every nook and cranny. Our children suffer, our mothers cry, our fathers weep, and our people shed. On July 24th, 2016, Abdirahman Abdi died unjustly. And on July 26th, a group of ordinary people came together to do something extraordinary. A small voice in a whisper said “This isn’t right.” And so was born the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition. This moment right here changed my trajectory entirely.
You see, I subject myself to self-cleansing and to boundless self-examination; I question and soul-search constantly to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I’m honouring those who created, shaped, and changed my person. But whatever my doubts and however heavy the burden, I feel that I must accept the task of helping to make this world a better place. Abdirahman Abdi was my awakening moment.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve helped build the company you work for?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: I’ve learned that human progress is neither a reflex nor foreseeable. Every stride toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless energies and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
The reality is this: the quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important. I understand that now more than ever. I understand that the dead cannot cry out for justice, it is the duty of the living to do it for them.
What has been the most challenging part of building the business?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Striving for equality! Life quickly teaches you that this is far more convoluted.
Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” So, I understood that I was personally responsible for becoming more ethical than that of the society I was growing up in. I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about this or that and then I realized that I was somebody.
Frankly, I’m impatient! I want change now. We deserve a better society. We need to survive. Prosperity must be within our reach. So, yes, the most challenging part is the time it takes. But I also know that we are getting there, step by step.
What has been the most rewarding part of building the business?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Dr. King said that it’s always the right time to do what is right. He also said that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.
I’m so proud of the BlackNorth Initiative team—small but so very mighty! They are humans who consistently sacrifice for the greater good. [They are] BIPOC, beautiful, resilient, kind, brilliant, funny, strong, and, most of all, have love in their hearts. They are the heart and soul of this organization. They recognize that it is necessary to love peace and to sacrifice for it. The power of a small group of dedicated people is immeasurable. I’m most proud of my team, they are soldiers in this war against racism. And by God, I cannot fathom how I became so fortunate to be bordered by such powerful humans!
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: There are so many questions you should ask yourself before building a successful company. Here are three of the many that I asked myself before I joined BlackNorth as employee number one:
- Why do I want to start this? Is there a gap in society or the market that I can fill?
- What are my goals going to be when I join? How can I create sustainable, attainable goals, and how will I reach them? Having a strategy is key to being successful and remaining organized.
- Am I motivated and passionate about it? By this, I mean, for an organization to be successful, I will have to dedicate the next number of years to ensure that we are successful in the long term. You must work through the highs and lows and persevere through the highs and lows.
In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: People need to believe in humanity. I truly believe that people must believe that Black Lives Matter, that Indigenous Lives Matter, that BIPOC Lives Matter. They must believe in equal opportunity, a world where prosperity is within our reach. The fastest way is to appeal to their humanity because equality is always the right thing. If we start there, we are halfway there already.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Our mission is to, of course, end anti-Black systemic racism and systemic racism. Systemic racism has disadvantaged underrepresented groups for far too long. They have been cut out of fully participating in society to the fullest in nearly all aspects of life.
We are on a mission to end this. We want to ensure that the following generations have the tools to create a better and just society. That’s why our work is so important. If we do not step up and act now, it will only delay the process, and it will be that much longer to create a more just society for all.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: How I define success may be different than how others define it. Success to me is reaching the goals I set out for myself. Success is believing in myself. It is measuring how happy I am not only in my professional life but also in my personal life. Success is not about how much money I make, it’s about the positive impact I can make in people’s lives. Making a positive and impactful difference in someone’s life is why I joined the BlackNorth Initiative.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing!
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: Be proud of who you are, be proud of your skin colour, be proud to wear a Hijab and be a Muslim. You should not have to conform to society to be accepted. Stand up tall, keep your head up, and never doubt yourself.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Dahabo Ahmed-Omer: They say that life doesn’t come with a manual, but it comes with a mother.
When they ask me who I am, I say I’m my mother’s daughter. My mother was the only girl in a family of eight. Her father was the tallest man in the tribe. Her seven brothers saw her as the other mother in the family. She cooked with her mother and wrote poetry. She sung at night and prayed in the morning. My mother married the love of her life and had five children. She escaped war to save the lives of her children. She left without her husband and came to Canada.
Her name is Fardusa Samater. She is my mother, the person who shaped me and gives me life every single day. I would not be here without her resiliency. She believed in me. She told me to stand tall and leave my mark. She always said: “Darajo, oo aan ku arko”, which meant you’re the height of my dreams and I see you.
Because of my mother:
My voice is roaring.
My value is increasing.
My capacity is maximizing.
My light is shining.
My beauty is beaming.
My intuition is thriving.
My love is adoring.
And my person is flourishing.