Leila Mohamed is a wordsmith, a loving soul and a force to reckon with in education, health care, and organizational leadership. She heads admissions and strategic partnerships for the Zawadi Africa Educational Fund; an organization that has sent brilliant African women to universities in the United States, across Africa and Europe for the past 15 years.
Leila has interacted with ambassadors, and rubbed shoulders with top business and humanitarian leaders including the serial entrepreneur Dr. Chris Kirubi, Eva Muraya (CEO Brand Strategy and Design Group), Connie Nielsen (Actress and Co-Founder of The Human Needs Project), Diana Ofwona (UN Women Regional Director for West and Central Africa), just to name a few, in a bid to create networks to help Zawadi Africa in its commitment to its scholars.
She graduated from St. Lawrence University and has a Master’s in Public Health Management from the University of Southern Maine in the United States. SLA contributor Kerubo Wall, also a Zawadi alumna, has known Leila for the past five years. She caught up with Leila to highlight the crucial work she does.
Who is Leila Mohamed?
I was born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya and I am the second born in a family of seven children. I enjoy running, creating value at work and for people I care about. Most importantly, I enjoy being authentic and braver every day.
I spent a significant part of my life in the US for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees through the Zawadi Africa Educational Fund – an organization that secures full scholarships for African high school graduates with leadership potential and coaches them throughout their academic and professional journeys.
What gets me out of bed every day is the allure of progress. Not only for personal and professional development but also for my immediate family, my Zawadi Africa family and the opportunity to be impacted by the powerful stories of the young girls we work with in our offices and in the high schools we visit.
You head alumnae relations for Zawadi Africa, what are the greatest aspects of this job? What are your fondest experiences?
Alumnae relations is a significant part of what I do at Zawadi Africa. We have an all women team running the program and my colleagues are passionate about women’s empowerment. I love to win, so it is exciting to work with other diligent women to create opportunities for our scholars. Shoutout to my colleagues, Eva Ntalami, Lilian Kwamboka, Hajara Musah and Rose Nyaondo.
As a Zawadi Africa alumna, I feel a special connection to this transformational program as it directly impacted my life for the better. As the alumni relations lead, I support a team of Zawadi Scholars to organize our annual US leadership conferences. I enjoy this role because it involves paying attention to the needs of our scholars and finding ways to amalgamate those needs into a theme and list of speakers who would speak to their current needs.As a Zawadi Africa alumna, I feel a special connection to this program as it impacted my life for the better Click To Tweet
At our leadership conferences, our scholars are inspired to discover and use their strengths and passions to invest economically, socially and academically in Africa. The opportunity to spend time interacting with, and asking questions of key leaders in various industries is often life-changing for these young women, many of whom are the first to attend college in their families.
Our past speakers have included Mr. John Pepper (Retired CEO of Procter and Gamble), Atsango Chesoni (Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission), PLO Lumumba (Former Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission Director), Patricia Ithau (Regional Director Stanford Seed – Stanford Graduate School of Business, Kenya), Suzan Kereere (Head of Global Merchant Client Group – Visa), and Peter Nduati (CEO – Resolution Health), just to name a few.
This year, Zawadi Africa celebrates 15 years of giving the gift of higher education to more than 350 incredible young female leaders across Africa and mentoring over 20,000 high school girls. To celebrate this landmark, Zawadi Africa is stepping up its fundraising to reach higher heights and I would like to take this opportunity to highlight our GoFundMe page as a convenient means that friends can support us through. Please do consider helping our noble cause of creating a pipeline of Africa’s next generation of women leaders. To the people who have supported us, we thank you.
You post a lot on your social media about authentic living. Could you speak to that?
Most of what I talk about in my social media can be summarized by a quote by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “… It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”
I am passionate about growth beyond the realities of our destruction -particularly the excellence an individual brings to their area of work and/or relationships. The Philosophy of Living intrigues me -how do we thrive despite life’s successes and turmoil. The separation of one’s worth from one’s gains or losses. Maintaining one’s sanctity of humanity and joy despite what it is you acquire or lose externally. Tough times shape us into stronger beings, and more importantly, the constant reflection and being connected to one’s own humanity helps us understand the ultra-complexity of people.
The beginning and end of living an authentic life is not only practicing being true to oneself, which is a moment to moment agenda, but also being humble and being open to feedback. This is what I reflect mostly about on social media with my family and friends. The things I analyze are simple, from random conversations with family members, a stranger in a bus or a colleague at work. Being true to oneself means to honor and trust your journey -the beautiful and the ugly.
You feel wholesome and at ease with the world you when you answer honestly to what makes the most sense to you. Life is short, make your own rules and your own definition of what success really means. But of course have a circle of advisors and mentors, because being pushed while you are comfortable in your skin can mean significant growth for an individual.Being true to oneself means to honor and trust your journey - Leila Mohamed Click To Tweet
I think of you as my older, wiser sister. Every time I got on a Skype call with you in undergrad, you oozed wisdom, love, and comfort. How do you achieve that?
That is very kind of you to say, thank you.
Wisdom, love, and comfort are good things to be associated with. The person I am today is a conglomeration of experiences I went through, and observations and recalibrations I had to make as a result of personal lessons from life and interactions with other people. I owe a lot of my humanity to my mother, for her strength in character and spirit is something not short of a dream and goal for me. Although I was raised in a low-income family, our household had immense joy and comfort. My Zawadi Africa sisters and family have also had a significant part in my growth.
I am unafraid of mistakes, in fact, I gauge my growth by how fast I make mistakes in a given week, I only make sure I do not repeat a mistake. Failing fast, failing forward. Philosophy blogs and books have helped my thinking. From spirituality to friendships, I have always been curious about how I could better my work and family relationships. I learned a great deal from my mother whom I consider one of wisest people I know of, she is down to earth and has immense faith in life in itself. She has seen it all but still works hard with an undeniable sense of hope and gratitude.
Do you have a blog where you write?
Yes, I do. I reflect a lot about my journey, and the opportunities life presents on my blog. I also include reflections on interesting TEDtalks. There is joy in creating and magic in putting yourself out there. I have struggled for a while even about sharing this link with people outside my circle of very close friends, less than five people actually know I am the author of the blog.
What are your sources of wisdom and encouragement?
Blogs I frequent:
- Productive Muslim – a blog by Mohamed Faris (Abu Productive) about meshing Islamic principles and habits with work ethics.
- Blood and Milk – A blog by the international development expert Allana Shaikh.
- Zen Habits – A blog by Leo Babauta that focuses on simplicity and productivity.
- The Lazy Yogi – A lifestyle blog by a wise 28-year-old meditation enthusiast who is currently a medical student.
- Shaping African Conversations – A blog by a good friend of mine, Martha Wakoli, seeking to inform and educate the public on the progress in her home country, Kenya.
- Tim – a blog by Tim Ferriss, an American author, entrepreneur and public speaker (One great book he wrote is the 4-Hour Work Week).
- Abba Anxiety – A cool blog by a close friend of mine, also a Zawadi Africa alumna, Abba Arunga, that uses comics to describe most of the authentic feels we have in work spaces and in life.
Any words of wisdom to the younger you, or younger women?
Do not be afraid of real hard work.
You are what you train yourself to be. Dr. Susan Mboya-Kidero, the Zawadi Africa founder, recently shared some advice on this. “…You will be overextended and overexert yourself especially in those first few years where you are trying to distinguish yourself from the pack. Don’t fear hard work. It is like exercise. It toughens you up. And enables you to do more.
And the more you build your muscles the less you sweat each time you face a mountain of work. So, go ahead. Overexert yourself. It’s the only way to build the stamina you will need to get to the top. Aim high. Be ambitious. And if you fail, don’t let that get you down. Pick yourself up. Learn life’s lessons and start again.”There's nothing more painful than lack of progress, whether you are a billionaire or the person who cleans the street Click To Tweet
No matter what is happening around you, do not stunt your introspection.
Certainty brings comfort, comfort brings about stagnation, and stagnation can be all dandy when you do not have deadlines and excellence in delivery at stake. There is nothing more painful than lack of progress, whether you are a billionaire or the person who cleans the street.
If you do not feel like you are advancing in some way or delivering your true potential (growing beyond your current comfortable confines), then it will be a wasted opportunity and you will feel frustrated and unhappy.
Sometimes we try to get motivated or regain drive and we get stuck…this can mean that you might need a “system reboot” -something to jolt your inside system, to fill your cup. So, try it out, go see your family, take time out and travel to someplace new, take on a new hobby that excites you etc.
Details are important, but when dealing with people, always seek to be a “big picture” person.
Be aware that you are not perfect, you can hurt people and when you do, be sincere and heal the situation. Humanity is ultra-complex and it is way too easy to get lost in our truths and narratives. Be gentle with people, you do not know what other people are battling.
It does not hurt to be kind at all times. You will not lose a thing. Be aware and tame your ego. Remember that humility does not mean you let people step on your toes, stand your ground, but also invest in keeping your heart soft and forgiving as easily and as often as possible.
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