FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT OF MWP
Sofia Haq is the founder and president of Muslim Women Professionals (MWP). MWP is an organization that promotes empowerment for professional Muslim women by educating, empowering, and mobilizing a global network of Muslim women professionals. Sofia started MWP in 2018, after noticing that in almost every networking event she attended she was the only Muslim woman there. Sofia realized that there really wasn’t any space for Muslim women to come together to network and build professional development, so she set her sights on creating her own network that would value collaboration over competition… long story short: MWP was born.
Sofia was chosen to be an Ambassador at the United State of Women (USOW), an organization whose missions it to convene, connect, and amplify the voices in the fight for full gender equity. I had the privilege of talking to Sofia and asking her some questions about what inspired her to start MWP, what were the first steps she took to make her vision a reality and how she wants MWP to evolve into more than just a professional networking space.
Firstly, what inspired you to start MWP?
So I think a few things really inspired me to start MWP. I had this idea since around 2016, at the time I was navigating graduating and not really having a lot of mentors. When trying to network in business spaces -- I just always found myself being the only Muslim woman in this spaces. And I found that a lot of my friends who were also Muslim women didn’t even know about these spaces.
I think I've always really been someone who’s a go-getter, trying to insert myself in spaces as much as possible, so that I could learn and grow. And I think a lot of that had to do with my upbringing. My mom is Latina and my dad is South Asian, so I definitely think they instilled in me that mentality growing up: If you want something you have to work for it. It’s a mentality where I have to really search for it on my own. If I want to --potentially-- go to business school one day, how would I get there? I needed to start networking, inserting myself in these spaces. So I started going to networking events and realized that I was always the only Muslim woman. A lot of the times I felt very out of place, I just didn’t feel really included in a lot of the conversations because I was Muslim. But then, aside from that, the political climate in the US was getting really bad. There was a lot of Islamophobia, sexism, racism… a lot of people were getting killed in the US, even more often for their identities, at that time specifically there were a lot of hate crimes against Muslims, which have since skyrocketed. And so, to be honest I was really scared and I didn’t know what the future would look like. There was one Muslim girl who got killed in Virginia in 2017 and I just remember not knowing what to do... For the first time in my life I felt so helpless, I didn’t know what to do about everything I was feeling. I realized that there really wasn’t any space for Muslim women to come together, to network, to build professional development, to help each other, because unfortunately I do think that within the Muslim community there is a lot of competition amongst women. And I think it’s a result of the ways in which a lot of us were brought up, our upbringing, which was seeing other women as competition as opposed to community. And so all of these ideas and all of these reasons were behind me ultimately taking the leap in early 2018, I started in January of 2018.
I love your mission of creating a space where Muslim women can come together. What were the first steps you took to make it a reality?
I started conducting research, trying to understand: what are the experiences of women right now in the US? What do they look like? What are women’s experiences in their professional lives? And I surveyed women and received a lot of responses. I found that only about 23% of Muslim women felt fully supported in their personal and professional lives, and most of them were talking about the lack of mentorship, the lack of resources, the lack of support that they had from their families in trying to pursue higher education or trying to pursue a specific career, a lot of them talked about how their families were trying to encourage them to get married but not really encouraging them to have a career... Unfortunately this is the norm in our community, so when I finally decided to really take the leap it was just recognizing that at this time I really have nothing to lose. I left my job, I ended on great terms but I wanted to do something for my community. I want to be able to look back on my life and feel like I did something for my community that positively impacted a lot of people. So that’s where it started. And by the end of 2018 I onboarded a team and we’ve been working since then...
What were some of the first obstacles you had to overcome when starting MWP?
I think one of the biggest obstacles was me being afraid to take the leap in the beginning. I was really scared. I kept thinking: am I making the right decision by doing this? I want to help my community but at the same time I want to help my family financially. I was applying to a ton of jobs and nothing was working out -- I kept thinking: I had a successful career, I did really well, how come all of a sudden I couldn't find a job? Then I realized --I think it was a few of my girlfriends that pointed it out-- maybe this was a sign that I needed to focus on MWP. And guess what? If I had gotten another job I probably wouldn't have been able to give MWP the amount of attention I gave it at that time. One of the biggest things I see many entrepreneurs face is anxiety and mental health issues. Because they’re going against the grain, against the norm, they’re taking a huge risk, leaving stability for something very unstable but that has the potential of being very, very successful. And so I think the first step was recognizing that one has to make sacrifices in order to potentially have something great. You can't have it all at once. So I think that it was really important for me to overcome that hurdle, and since then what it taught me was that I have to be mentally as strong as possible because at the end of the day I need to believe in this idea more than anyone else. I need to not doubt myself, because if I doubt myself everyone else will know. Even if I have moments of uncertainty, I can't allow uncertainty to define what I'm trying to do. Because, the truth is, a lot of people want to see you fail, and I think that’s one of the biggest things I've learnt: a lot of people say they want you to succeed but they don’t want you to. You have to believe in yourself and you have to believe in your ideas. You have to be the best saleswoman possible for this idea because if not then you will not succeed
How has the pandemic affected MWP? I know in the past you held a lot of in-person events with your community.
We had a few changes that happened with COVID because so much of what we were doing was in person. We were having in-person events every month or every other month. And having them online isn’t really an option. We’re an early organization, so when you look at how much zoom costs to have these online… So we had to really step back and pay attention to how things are going to change moving forward, what it is that people actually want to see now. We are not just trying to build professional development, especially because a lot of people lost their jobs and are unemployed now. More and more people are dealing with mental health issues, so how do we meet the needs of those people too? I think the pandemic has given us a great opportunity to step back and analyze the market, analyze people in general, and see what people are going through and how we can meet their needs. Clearly it’s not going to be just about professional development anymore, we constantly conduct surveys, and ask people what they want us to talk about and we realized that a lot of people recently have said that they want us to talk about social justice more, it needs to be a huge part of our organization. So here we thought we were just going to be professional development but now people are really being selective on who they follow because, with the resurgence of BLM for example, a lot of people are realizing that you can’t separate that from a company. And this is something that I have spoken about specifically in the fashion industry, because I have a retail background. People are being really selective on who they buy from, taking into account the diversity and inclusion of the company, whether it’s ethically sourced and sustainable and how they treat their employees (fair wages). I think for us, it’s made us realize that we can’t just talk about professional development without talking about inequity as a whole, without talking about social justice, without bringing awareness to all of these issues.
Yeah definitely. I also noticed how so many people are using their purchasing power and starting to hold brands accountable in terms of social responsibility (and sustainability). You’ve touched on this already, but building on that, how would you like MWP to evolve? What are you currently excited for?
I think the most important thing for me is that we are really impacting the lives of so many women, and hopefully setting the standards for what it truly means to bring awareness to a community that I feel has been left behind in so many ways. I think that islamophobia is still such a huge issue. We still see so many Muslim women dealing with hate crimes. We hear about Muslim women who wear a hijab, having their hijab pulled off their head. We hear about Muslim women in the workplace being subjected to harassment, especially Black Muslim women, who lie at the intersectionality of so many identities that have been oppressed: Muslim, Black, women… and they don’t get talked about enough, which is why it’s so important for us to continue speaking on these issues. I also hope that we bring awareness to the power of Muslim women, I think that it’s so important that we are creating a community that’s supportive of one another. I really want us to be able to be in a situation where Muslim women really stop competing with one another and start uplifting one another. I hope that there’s more Muslim women in organizations, not just one token Muslim woman but multiple women who are really supportive of one another. And I hope that our organization really brings awareness to the diversity within our community. I think that not many people are, like me, multi-ethnic, that lie at the intersectionality of multiple identities… I think that we need to be more inclusive as a community. I really want us to be able to set the standard and hold mosques accountable as well for being more diverse, hold companies accountable for being more diverse… I really want us to be able to create a better future for Muslim women. If we can say that we helped Muslim women have more confidence, feel more empowered, negotiate at work, speak up about injustices that they were feeling and truly feel powerful at all areas of their lives then I can say that we did our job.