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Q&A: Saadia Muzaffar talks responsible innovation, diversity, and the OpenText Women in Technology Summit

Prominent tech entrepreneur to be featured at Toronto conference

If you don’t already know her, it’s time you met Saadia Muzaffar. Saadia is an incredible tech entrepreneur, author, and passionate advocate of responsible innovation. In addition, Saadia is driving forward the agenda of decent work for everyone, prosperity of immigrant talent in STEM careers, and diversity and inclusion in the Canadian technology industry.
Saadia Muzaffar joins OpenText Women in Technology conference
Saadia is perhaps best known for founding TechGirls Canada, co-founding Tech Reset Canada, and for being an all-around passionate advocate for diversity in tech. She has gained recognition across Canada for her work, including being featured in Canada 150 Women in 2017 and being listed as one of Inspiring Fifty’s inspiring women in the Canadian tech and innovation sectors.

Saadia joins the speaker line-up for the upcoming OpenText Women in Technology Summit in Toronto on July 12, and I sat down with her to talk about her work on diversity and modern leadership, and what we can expect to hear from her at the conference.

You founded TechGirls Canada, the hub for Canadian women in science, technology, engineering, and math. Can you tell us more about your work with TechGirls Canada?

TechGirls Canada (TGC) is dedicated to Canadian women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) – with an emphasis on supporting immigrant and newcomer women, women of color, LGBTTQ+, variously-abled, and Indigenous women. TGC is committed to fostering collaboration in designing solutions to address the barriers for diversity and equity in the sectors of the future. We conduct research and outreach, create robust publicly-shareable community resources, advocate for private and public sector partnership opportunities, and help catalyze joint programs. We are also not afraid of getting shouty in the media about misogyny and institutional oppression sometimes.

You speak about responsible innovation and having decent work for everyone. What do those concepts mean to you, and why are they so important?

Responsible innovation at its core means paying attention to the distance and power balance between those who develop/commercialize technology solutions, and its impact on people in all parts of our society. I want us to imagine a future where we can be pro-growth, pro-innovation and support innovation’s important role in economic development, AND we prioritize working to improve its impact on the public good.

Decent work is something I am also very committed to, and it’s a fight that is directly adjacent to the diversity and inclusion fight. International Labour Organization (ILO) sums up decent work as the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all people. Doesn’t that sound good and fair and worth aspiring to? It would be irresponsible of us to ask for inclusion, when the environments diverse folks would be brought into are not built to be nurturing and safe and equitable. I am the perfect example of someone who is happy being “unreasonable” because I believe that we the people deserve better on all fronts, and I want us to make it so!

TechGirls Canada collaborated with TWG to create Change Together, a diversity guidebook for startups and scaleups. Why did you want to develop this guidebook? Did you draw inspiration from any of your personal experiences when developing the guide?

Change Together is the result of a year-long partnership between TGC and TWG. Essentially, this pilot project was designed to explore, test and report on a set of strategies for boosting gender and racial diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. We decided to take this approach to building a guidebook because the diversity numbers in Canada (as meagre as this dataset is) had not improved in the last 15 years, and as an alarming matter of fact, had slipped a few percentage points according to PwC’s report the year we launched. We wanted to take the startup framework of testing/iterating/implementing and continuous improvement, and find a way to produce a pathway for smaller science and technology firms, who don’t have well-staffed HR departments, to get started on the “diversity by design” journey. The project consisted of a set of 11 unique policies and initiatives that address hiring and retention, and works to support the success of underrepresented groups in tech.

One of my favorite things about Change Together is how beautiful it is—even Fortune Magazine noted that! It looks nothing like the prescriptive, stock-photo laden reports we saw in the sector. It is illustrated warmly by Andréa Crofts, it reads gentle and vulnerable…it’s very human. I am very proud of the team’s attention to that vision of hard truths and gentleness. And, in the spirit of openness, we shared our project’s ups and downs so that other employers may iterate on our experiences.

You were recently listed as one of Inspiring Fifty’s inspiring women in the Canadian tech and innovation sectors. How does that feel?

I am honored and delighted to be part of such accomplished company, and every time I’m on a list like this, the experience underscores my mission to open the door to many more women who deserve celebration, support, and recognition.

You will be giving a Lightning Talk and taking part in a panel at the inaugural OpenText Women in Technology Summit on July 12 in Toronto. Why was it important for you to participate in this event?

When Kasey Holman shared the ethos of the Summit with me, I was happy to hear that a lot of intention was going towards the kinds of conversations being curated on-stage, and also in who would be in attendance (by including students!). I share these values wholeheartedly and it sounded like a really good fit for us to collaborate.

At the Summit, you’ll be speaking about the STEM pipeline, and becoming an ally for others. Without giving too much away, can you let us know what attendees can expect from your talk?

A good hint about my views on the pipeline is what my message was to APEC economies for their inaugural Women in STEM report and framework in Lima—it’s actually not about the pipeline!

Do you have any advice for young women starting their careers in the tech industry?

Build a group of supporters around you who will lift you up when the realities in many of these sectors weighs you down. Stay focused on doing your best work. Keep your receipts. Ask for help. Don’t drink the Koolaid of “always be closing“—give your body the sleep it needs.

What’s next for you?

So many things! As you may know, I am also co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, and we just launched Digital Rights Now petition alongside Digital Justice Lab, and Centre for Digital Rights. It seeks to highlight the urgent need to have a national conversation about digital rights.

In addition to that, I am working with the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management’s Institute for Gender & the Economy on a research project titled Compounding Losses: Labour struggles of immigrant women in STEM. Many of us don’t know that among university graduates in Canada aged 25 to 34, immigrant women are twice as likely to have a STEM degree as Canadian-born women (23% versus 13%). Yet, immigrant women face some of the highest levels of labor market challenges in Canada across indicators, including: unemployment rate, wage gap, part-time employment, and low-income rate. We seek to document the complex gendered “work-finding” hurdles for immigrant women in STEM fields in order to begin examining the Loss on Investment (LOI) being absorbed by the Canadian economy due to this untapped talent.

Meet Saadia in person at the Women in Technology Summit

The Summit is happening on July 12 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre as part of OpenText Enterprise World 2018. You can check out the rest of our incredible speaker line-up in my recent blog post.

The WIT Summit is now sold out, but you can follow the conversation on Twitter and LinkedIn using the hashtag #WITSummit18!

Julie Millard

Julie is Vice President, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at OpenText. She has over 20 years experience driving engagement in impactful programs through CSR, corporate communications, and D&I initiatives.

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