ANHBC’s Zahra Esmail wins Forty Under 40 Award

Zahra Esmail, Executive Director of both South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and Marpole Neighbourhood House, has been honoured for her outstanding achievements by Business In Vancouver.

We are thrilled to announce that Zahra Esmail, Executive Director of South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and Marpole Neighbourhood House, is being honoured by Business In Vancouver.  Every year, the business news journal highlights the achievements of 40 young entrepreneurs, executives, and professionals, aged under 40 years old.  This year, Zahra is among the winners being honoured for excellence in business, judgment, leadership, and community contribution.

Born in Calgary and raised in Burnaby, Zahra has had an exceptional career, spanning diverse countries, communities, and causes.  As Zahra explains, everything began when she first visited India, aged 17.  "It was my first time being in a place where I was not a visible minority. It really shifted something in me. It made me feel at home, included, and I felt a sense of belonging."

This visit sparked great interest for Zahra, and she returned to India at every opportunity, including a trip with Hope International in 2004.  "We were learning about international development work, watershed management, agricultural development, and educational and health programs," explains Zahra "The whole gamut of international development and microfinance in a nutshell. It sparked my interest in self-help groups and learning more about how microfinance works on the ground."

Back in Canada, Zahra worked at the YMCA, before embarking on a Master's in Globalization and International Development in Ottawa.  She later pursued a fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation, and was placed in Rajasthan at ARAVALI, the Association of Rural Advancement through Voluntary Action and Local Involvement.  "My fellowship was supposed to be in international microenterprise and microfinance, but at the last minute, I was sent on an international development management fellowship instead.  It's probably a good thing I didn't get to do the fellowship in microfinance. My time as a Community Development Fellow with ARAVALI influenced my career very much!"

Following her fellowship, Zahra completed a microfinance internship in Bangladesh with BRAC, which was soon opening a new office in post-earthquake Haiti.  Zahra was hired as Communication Manager there, so packed her bags and moved to Port-au-Prince. This was her first experience with a start-up organization.  A year later, Zahra went to work for Haven, an Irish housing, water, and sanitation non-profit in Haiti, as Community Development and Livelihoods Manager.  But the power dynamics between the non-profit sector and the Haitian people, particularly after the earthquake, began to bother Zahra.  "It seemed like a lot of projects and programs were being done to the Haitian people, instead of Haitians leading the development of their own communities."

Zahra returned to Canada and found work that aligned better with her values, as International Program Manager with Street Kids International.  "Street Kids International worked with organizations in the developing world that support youth to start up small businesses or enter the workforce," says Zahra "They had this really wonderful training curriculum—it was about empowering local organizations to best support their local youth, rather than doing the work for them."

Zahra managed and travelled to projects in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Columbia, and India.  "I learned a lot through my international development work. It was a lot of travel overseas, though, and I wanted to get back into working in Canada, with Canadian communities.  I feel, as a Canadian, home is the best place that I can respectfully use my skills and capacity in a positive way."

Zahra took a position as General Manager at Eva's Phoenix, a transitional shelter and training program for homeless and at-risk youth in Toronto.  "Phoenix provided a way for youth to build their life skills, learn how to navigate with roommates, all while pursuing education or training, and getting stable employment."

Working in a high stress environment with youth in crisis was difficult, but it was motivating for Zahra to see how many youth transitioned to independent living, leaving the shelter system behind.  However, when Zahra's father suffered a bad fall here in BC, she decided it was time to work closer to home—and that's when she found our neighbourhood houses.  In 2016, Zahra became Executive Director of South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, with a budget of $4 million and around 80 staff. At first, Zahra found it a challenge.  "When I got here, I was a bit overwhelmed, because neighbourhood houses are involved in so many aspects of communities.  There are childcare programs, adult day centres, a lot of community-based programs for youth, for seniors, for food-related issues, and a lot of newcomer support.  Each of the programs we run has a different set of funding and staff, and different targets and outcomes, all with community development at the core.  I took a long time to get the lay of the land and develop confidence, but having a wonderful, vibrant team who are very knowledgeable about all these topics helped immensely."

Zahra says she has learned to ask a lot of questions, built strong relationships with staff, partners and funders, and be as clear as possible about the difference SVNH makes.  "It can be really hard to articulate exactly what the impact of neighbourhood houses is, because what we are doing is upstream, it's preventative.  We're not putting roofs over people's heads or running soup kitchens. We're trying to invest in communities, so they never need to use a soup kitchen, and never become homeless.  We are helping people connect to one another and create neighbourhoods with social safety nets.  All of this improves quality of life and keeps people healthier, happier, and more engaged in the development of their own communities."

Conveying this message was especially important when Zahra was spearheading the opening of Marpole, the first new neighbourhood house in Vancouver in more than a decade.  For the first time, she found herself in the unique position of running an established organization in South Vancouver at the same time as the fledgling startup in Marpole.  "At South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, I focus on strategy and high-level work, while at Marpole Neighbourhood House, I was involved in the nuts and bolts for a long time, until we got the doors open and started building our team. I got a bit of mental whiplash!" explains Zahra "My personal growth and learning through the development of Marpole Neighbourhood House is something I will never take for granted. It's made me truly appreciate how much work is done by everybody at all neighbourhood houses."

"People who work at non-profits are not glorified volunteers. We're not just nice people who care about making a difference. Throughout my career, I have worked with extremely skilled, intelligent, hard working people who have a tremendous impact on the society we live in.  This Forty Under 40 recognition means a great deal to me. It’s always incredible to be acknowledged for my work, but this award is a nod to the entire non-profit sector.  It recognizes that non-profit organizations are professionally run, well-respected, and valued as businesses by the panel at Business in Vancouver. That is something to celebrate.”

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