TEDxToronto Women: Zahra Ebrahim Principal, archiTEXT

In anticipation for the TEDxToronto 2015 Conference (October 22nd), each day this week Shedoesthecity will post top-notch career and life advice from some of the powerhouse women that will be speaking at the conference this year. Innovative, gutsy, groundbreaking: a lot can be learned from these phenomenal women.

For this installment, we spoke to Zahra Ebrahim, founder and principal of the design think tank archiTEXT that is working with Canada’s largest charities, governing bodies, and philanthropic organizations to introduce design and design process to their change-making efforts. Ebrahim has taught at OCAD University, the Museum of Modern Art, and is currently a faculty member at the University of Toronto.

SDTC: What life lesson learned as a young adult do you often refer to now?

ZE: Don’t ask, don’t get. Sometimes we wait too long for an opportunity to emerge, and we don’t realize it already exists.

What have you recently learned about yourself?

Most people would say I’m an extrovert, myself included. However, I’ve always had tendencies towards introversion that I never accept or give space to, even rejecting that part of myself. My recent discovery is that I’m equal parts both, and it is because of that that I’m able to do the work I do.

What motivates you?

I’m motivated by people who are convinced that things can’t/won’t work. Not to convince them, but rather, when I hear “no,” it makes me incredibly curious about all of the moments before it was said. I’m motivated by understanding how others experience the world – to understand how to best work alongside them and with them.

When/where do you do your best thinking?

In the hallway of the yoga studio I go to, before class. There’s a gorgeous old pew where everyone quietly waits before class. I use it as an opportunity to release from my thoughts, and in that process I find so much clarity. I often find myself jogging up to the front desk for a pen and scrap paper to write everything down! (A significant portion of my TED talk was written on scrap paper while sitting in that hallway!)

Do you remember the moment where you recognized that you were on the right path? How did you know?

There wasn’t a single moment, but rather a handful of signals of things happening that most people told us (explicitly) wouldn’t happen. Not so much in the case of projects, but more in our process. Most people never believed that design process could transform institutions. Now we have the federal government talking about design process for innovating how they work. The movement we seeded is growing.

What change do you hope to bring to the world?

I want to bring processes that consider and empathize with where people are at (not just where we want them to be at), and invite them to participate in the creation of things that matter most to them and decisions that matter to their community. I want people who think they can’t be involved in ____(insert elite/inaccessible system here) to understand that they can, and they must.

What are you proud of?

I spend a lot of my days working on problems that no one else is interested in because they seem small, or niche, or for a particular community. What I’m proud of is how those tiny problems and challenges have created broad-reaching social impact, and in some cases have transformed how systems work. I’m proud to have developed the courage to look at tiny (big) problems.

What’s your best advice for individuals who are feeling uncertain of their next step?

I always tell my students when they’re unsure of what they want to do to look at their search history. When they have all the time in the world, sit down on their computer and wander the Internet, what do they seek out? What are they curious about? What do they read? You can learn so much about yourself by looking at what you read and explore, even when you only have a short amount of time.

Professionally speaking, what impresses you? What qualities in a colleague or boss do you admire most?

Great listeners impress me. So do people who consider small details (that are often transformative). Most of all, I’m impressed with people who can be present to what’s in front of them and commit to focusing and thinking about the present moment – not what came before, or what comes next.

What are you striving for right now?

I’m about to take on some very big systems to shift and change, and I’m not sure I even fully understand them yet. I’m working really hard to remind myself that my role is not to be the expert; my role is to ask questions. If I can do that, I think we can have a real impact.

TEDxToronto is Canada’s largest TEDx event, a platform for exceptional ideas, and a catalyst for profound change.

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