At the table with Khadija Gbla - Part Two
With the current focus on encouraging more women to consider working / studying in the Science Technology Engineering and Maths fields, what advice do you have for young women who are interested in the community services?
It is challenging. I’m not going to lie. Community work requires that you already evaluate who you are. Know who you are, what your values are, what you stand for. Because once you get into it, people will rip you apart. You need to go into it already having done the work in yourself. Check your biases. Check your motives. Why are you doing this? Why do you want to work with your community? Is it so you can look fancy? Is it so you can win some awards? Is it so you can be the saviour, are you going to think that you need to save people? Why?
Your motives should not be about you. It should be about addressing a gap. Every community has a gap. When I say community, I don’t just mean cultural community. The community could be your local suburb, your local council, that’s a community. It could be your religious community. It could be your LGBTIQ community because you identify as part of the LGBTIQ community. Whatever your community is, figure out what the gap is, what’s missing? Are young people’s voices being listened to? Is that’s what’s missing? Is there a lot of sexism? Do we need more education about gender equality? What is the gap?
In community work, you cannot do it by yourself. You have to collaborate with people. But you have to find people who have the same values as you. You have to find people who have the same vision as you. The reason I’ve been doing this community work for 18 years is because I knew who I was, I knew what I stood for, I knew what my values are, I knew what motivated me. I’m only motivated by one thing, when I wake up in the morning, what motivates me is ensuring that what I went through, nobody has to go through it. That’s what motivates me. Whether the cameras are on or off, whether people acknowledge my work or not, I do it.
How can we better support women to become leaders in their field?
We have to start young. We tell our little girls that they can be anything and everything. We don’t just buy them the cookware toy but doctor toys, lawyer toys, carpentry toys. We set them up to understand that they can be anything. We don’t box them in.
Stop telling them they’re too pretty. We should start telling them they’re intelligent. They’re smart. We start actually highlighting other characteristics beyond their physical looks. So we start early. We get them in primary school. We encourage them in maths and in the sciences. We actually support them.
We should provide mentors and role models for them. And we should provide mentors who have similar experiences as them. We need to celebrate women who are diverse. So that young girls can see themselves represented.
Did you have any mentors or any role models when you were growing up?
My mentors were Carmen and Renee. I had these women who were able to see the potential in me and they nurtured it.
Carmen had a mentoring style which we now call sponsorship mentoring. Like for example, say, I wanted a job. A sponsorship relationship is one where Carmen fixed my resume. She didn’t say to me, oh, there’s a job, Khadija, you apply! She literally has my resume so when there’s a job, she can send my resume. A sponsor literally opens the door for you. She doesn’t say, here’s the door, walk through. They open the door for you and walk you through. And it made a whole difference in my life to have that kind of relationship.
And that’s the same thing, that’s why I’m so passionate about mentoring myself because I saw what that did for my life. And that’s what my life is, to be able to pass on what I have learned and whatever advice I have. But also sometimes what I have found is that living my life has become a form of mentoring. I don’t even have to meet people but I get calls and emails from girls who say: “I saw you in that newsletter”, “I saw you in that magazine, and it let me know that I could become somebody because I could see another black girl”, or “I could see somebody who comes from a refugee background doing it”. Just living our lives sometimes can be inspiration for other people - as a guide.
What is your advice for women who find public speaking daunting?
I was a shy kid. So public speaking was not my thing. I was shy, I had no self-confidence. I wouldn’t have imagined in a hundred years that I would be somebody who actually now speaks in front of people for a living and even passionately loves speaking in front of people.
The advice I would give is that you have to find something important to talk about. I think that’s my secret. I didn’t want a microphone in my hand and I didn’t go seeking to be a public speaker or an advocate. It was through volunteering that I found my voice. But even then, in those early days, I’d literally be in a room, in a forum, at the back with my head bowed down. I used to be in those rooms and people used to talk about refugees as if we didn’t exist, as if we didn’t have a voice. People were talking about us while we were there as if we weren’t there. So that’s what made me, from my little corner in the room, start mumbling. I said: “we’re here, I’m sorry, you can’t speak for us!” That’s when I found my voice. I found something to actually talk about.
Even when you are so scared that you want to pass out, you will talk because you have something to talk about. Honestly, the first couple of speeches, I was standing there shaking. But I said what I had to say. Because I thought what I had to say needed to be heard. Nothing was going to stop me. Not even myself, not even my fear, not even my shyness was going to stop me from saying what I needed to say. Find something worth talking about. And the rest will fall into place. If it’s really that bad you can always get a therapist to help you work out why you’re shy. Because I find some of us have real phobias. If somebody thinks there’s something really holding them back, I will recommend counselling to find out what is holding you back, what is making you so scared to speak up and then deal with it. But everybody I know will speak up if they find something worth talking about.
What is your advice for women who are looking at setting up their own business?
This is not easy but I would say find a gap at the market. For most of us, the business starts with an idea. But I would say: find a gap in the market for something you think you can offer. Then get advice. Get business advice, get business counselling. Find a woman who is already in business. Get them to mentor you. And get them to support you and help walk you through the steps. And then take it from there. That’s the best way.
And don’t give up. If you think you have found something, don’t give up. Because there’ll be people who will tell you, oh, I don’t know about that, I’m not sure about that. Don’t listen to do that.
If you truly believe in something, if you have an idea, go for it! We need more small businesses. Go for it! Do it!
How do you balance the busy life of business with family/social time?
My faith helps, my faith as a Christian. My faith grounds me, it helps create a stability. It keeps me centred. And sometimes it’s very hard to take time out for myself. Because I’m so passionate about what I do. But self-care is so important when you run a business or you’re volunteering or whatever you’re doing. My faith always reminds me that I am important. And I am worth loving and I am worth looking after.
But honestly, self-care is something I struggled with on my journey. But these days, I put everything in my calendar which helps as a visual for how busy I am. When I’m taking anything on board, I first look at my calendar. If I see that I’ve put in too many things already, then I know that I can’t say yes to anything anymore.
I carve out time, I carve out Khadija-time. My calendar says Khadija-time. Which means that I can’t take any other bookings or appointments. If I’m not organised, then it’s easy for me to over-commit myself to things. But even when I over-commit, if I have to cancel, I cancel. I don’t feel bad anymore about cancelling. Because we don’t treat ourselves like actual people. If we treat ourselves the way we treat other people, we make time for them, we buy them presents. But we don’t do that for ourselves. I do that for myself. I buy myself presents. I reward myself, I take myself out to a nice dinner. We give to our families, we give to our partners, we give to our kids, we give and give. But I think the struggle for most women, it’s hard to give to ourselves, how do we love ourselves?
How many jobs did you have before launching your consultancy business?
I’d say about maybe six, seven paid jobs. But most of them actually were almost always with the same organisation, I just went through different roles in those organisations. And most of my jobs came out from volunteering for those organisations. Volunteering, you do it to make a difference but one of the benefits is that it builds up your resume and gives you skills and experience. Literally, what I’m doing now has nothing to do with what I studied. That’s the interesting thing. Because of my volunteering, my resume built up to the point where I can apply for jobs now where I have no qualifications but I have life experience, I have practical experience because of volunteering.
But I always had my consultancy. Just not in a formal sense, it wasn’t formalised until a couple of years ago. What is now my business was non-paid for a couple of years where I just did it for free, then at some point, I got wiser and I realised that for all the stuff I’m doing, I can get paid. Then I made it into an official business as well. But to me, money is not the focus because I do what I love. Honestly, I really just channelled my passion and did what I love and it provided jobs.
What is your biggest strength that makes you who you are?
Resilience. Passion. But most importantly, my faith. My faith as a Christian is where everything stems from. As a Christian, I believe that I’m not just here in this world for myself. My life should mean something. And one of the scriptures in the bible says that we’re meant to speak up for the voiceless. Fight for the marginalised. Bring hope to those who don’t have hope. It says that we’re meant to serve. We’re not just meant to live life for ourselves. We’re meant to serve and make a difference in our communities. We’re meant to give.
My faith is what makes me Khadija. My faith makes me be kind. My faith makes me serve. My faith is what makes me understand that the world is a broken place and we all need to do our part. I can’t just sit back and say, it’s not my problem. It is my problem. I need to work out what is my part to play in it. From my faith comes passion, from my faith comes my willingness to want to serve. My faith is my greatest strength. I’m a proud Christian.
Was there ever an ’OMG, I actually did it!!’ moment?
No. How can you ever just make it? I have so much I want to do. I want to do a podcast series. We’re going to do podcasts, diversity podcasts. I want to do a clothing line. I want to write a book. Start a foundation. I have so much I want to do! There’s so much more to do. There’s so many issues to fight for. So no, I haven’t made it. No! When I’m dead, then I made it!
To hear more about Khadija's inspiring story watch her Ted Talk "My mother's strange definition of empowerment" here.