x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When faith and profession mix

Farhan Syed's start date at Accenture fell during Ramadan, and as a Muslim he could not partake of any of the lavish, corporate-sponsored meals.

Religion and professional life can at times come into conflict.
Religion and professional life can at times come into conflict.

At age 21, Farhan Syed, then a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, started a new job at Accenture, the giant consulting firm. Almost immediately, he was confronted with an enviable problem. The enviable part: his superiors took him and his newly-hired colleagues out to lunch constantly over their orientation period. The problem: Mr Syed was fasting. His start date fell during Ramadan, and as a Muslim he could not partake of any of the lavish, corporate-sponsored meals.

"How was I going to explain this to the executive sitting next to me?" he remembers. "Here I was surrounded by people who not only didn't share my faith, but most of them knew nothing about it whatsoever. I promised myself that if I made it, I wouldn't let anyone else face that kind of awkwardness." Now 34, Mr Syed has made it. He works in Palo Alto, California, as a consultant at Bain and Co., a top-tier management consulting firm that accepts few of the legions of pedigreed hopefuls who apply. To his Berkeley degree, Mr Syed has added an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution. And he has succeeded in helping younger Muslims navigate the worlds of high finance and consulting through his involvement with Muslim Urban Professionals, a service organisation with a two-pronged mission: to help Muslims maintain their religious identities in these heavily Judeo-Christian professional environments, and to provide advice about the fiercely competitive schools and firms to which all ambitious business types - Muslim and otherwise - aspire.

Known by its absurdly endearing nickname of Muppies, the organisation was founded in 2006 by three men scarcely out of school themselves. Faisal Ghori, now 27, Hassan Jaffar, 28, and Umair Khan, 28, formed the group after comparing notes on experiences such as that which Mr Syed describes. "When I started at an investment bank" - where hours are notoriously long and the workload Sisyphean - "I found the culture to be really homogenous," recalls Mr Ghori, now an associate at Emerging Markets Management, an asset management firm based in the US capital. "Was I going to be able to leave in the middle of the day for Friday prayer?"

Mr Jaffar brings up another challenge, one he experienced as a young management consultant at McKinsey & Co. (he is now an associate at Seneca Capital, a hedge fund) "Drinking was a big deal," he says. "Whenever there was a social event, or if people from work went out on Friday nights, it was always at a drinking venue. As a practicing Muslim, I can't drink, and I can't be in a place where people are drinking. I didn't want to be antisocial, because I'm inherently friendly and I enjoy meeting people and going out."

Mr Jaffar says his choice to forego the social outing led to alienation and exclusion from the camaraderie of his colleagues. Then, he says, it occurred to him to "step in and be an organiser", and he started planning group brunches and daytime meet-ups in the park. Problem solved. These tactics, born of workplace anxiety, are just the kinds of solutions that Muppies offers its members, who now number more than 600. Mr Ghori points out that many Muslims in finance and consulting are the children of immigrants who have spent their careers in different professions. Parental guidance is therefore, he says, not helpful.

"My parents came to the US from Pakistan in the 1960s," he explains. "A lot of Pakistanis in that wave of immigration were engineers and physicians; they weren't in the professions that we are. If I were looking for a residency in dermatology, then I would be all set." Mr Ghori and his Muppies associates believe that there is "perhaps a half-generation" of Muslims ahead of them in their fields, but that Muslims are essentially new to the finance and consulting professions. He is hard-pressed to identify any well-known role models for Muslims in these fields, mentioning "the head of quantitative trading at Citigroup, and the head of strategy at Merrill Lynch", without naming them. Mr Syed self-deprecatingly calls himself "an elder statesman" at the age of 34. After cogitating, he does, however, nominate some Muslim stars on the US business scene: Omar Hamoui, the CEO and founder of AdMob (recently sold to Google for US$750 million), and Kamal Ahmed, a managing director of Morgan Stanley.

In addition to its US chapters, Muppies has recently launched a Gulf chapter in Dubai, a move Mr Jaffar, who is originally from Oman, attributes to the recent development of the United Arab Emirates as a business hub. "If you grew up Emirati, what do you or anyone in your family know about investment banking?" There is a similar lack of accumulated familial and cultural knowledge about finance and consulting in the Gulf as there is among Muslim families in the US, he maintains.

The Dubai chapter, which currently has between 20 and 30 members, will take its lead from the other chapters, says Mr Jaffar. "We have an informal presence in Dubai. However, we are planning on launching a formal chapter soon." The last Muppies "event" was the TEDxDubai conference, which was organised, supported and attended by Muppies members. The primary modality in which Muppies works reflects its post-millennial date of origin. Many of the organisation's activities take place virtually, either through its website and e-mail blasts, or on sprawling conference linking scores of members to a moderator who leads discussion. During a teleconference last year, the Muppies co-founder, Umair Khan, answered questions from young Muslims seeking admission to Harvard Business School (Mr Khan is a second-year MBA candidate at Harvard). Most queries could have come from believers of any faith: What is the best strategy for answering the essay questions on the application? How important is the interview portion of the screening process? But Mr Khan's answers sometimes took a distinctly Islamic twist, peppered with insha'Allahs.

A moderator of another Muppies teleconference, also regarding admission to Harvard, advised listeners that they should not shy away from referencing their faith in their application essays "if it's an important part of who you are as a person". The moderator, Sofina Anne Qureshi, an American who is studying at the Harvard, then recounted her own admission essays, in which she told the committee of her work as a chairperson of Ramadan dinners at her undergraduate university. "Just be careful of the Arabic-to-English translations," she cautioned.

"Give the essay to someone who isn't Muslim, and let them read it through. If they say, 'What the heck does that mean?' then you know you need to explain better." Although Muppies relies on female members such as Ms Qureshi to help conduct its operations, the founders concede that the leadership is, for now, entirely male. "At some of our events, the majority of participants are women," Mr Jaffar says, explaining the absence of women at the top by saying that Muppies came about as a collaboration between friends. One of Muppies' partner organisations, the Muslim Finance Professionals Association, is headed by a woman, Dahlia Mahmoud, and Mr Jaffar says that Muppies is actively seeking to place women in leadership positions.

As part of its goal to aid those seeking advice about professional opportunities, Muppies often visits universities, where the organisation is hosted by Muslim student associations. Information sessions offer students the chance to quiz accomplished bankers and consultants about their path to success. (All are welcome at these sessions, regardless of faith, Mr Ghori notes). Thus far Muppies has paid visits to Berkeley, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Texas.

In addition to the access to seminars, conference calls and job listings, Muppies members have a powerful tool at their fingertips - a database of all Muppies searchable by employer and alma mater. Mr Ghori encourages members interested in, say, Goldman Sachs to call up fellow Muslims with experience at the bank and ask for advice on applying. True to their ambitious natures, the founders of Muppies aren't content to be idle. They have recently expanded the group's outreach to include Muslim professionals in the governmental and non-profit sectors.

There is also talk of a Muppies capital fund, which Mr Jaffar says will take investment from interested members and channel it to community-level businesses relevant to the Islamic faith; he cites a start-up halal meat processing plant as an example. Investments would be sharia compliant, with investors seeking only their principal in return. That body would grant scholarships to Muslims seeking to study business and make a bid for success in the growing list of professions under Muppies' remit.

Although many American Muslims may feel the need to educate non-Muslims about the realities of Islam, Muppies does not concern itself with that particular task, though their "experiences are very much framed by September 11," Mr Ghori explains. He tells the story of one friend who was advised by an older Muslim to shave his beard when applying to an investment bank, while another used his middle name rather than his Muslim-sounding first name when seeking jobs. Mr Ghori himself was once asked in a job interview for his opinion about the Danish cartoon controversy. "Totally inappropriate," he says, shaking his head.

Yet if Muppies seeks in any way to control stereotypes, it is by advising members to remain true to themselves and visibly succeed in their chosen fields. "Be communicative about the functional things like taking Eid as a holiday and fasting during Ramadan," Mr Syed tells his patrons. "You don't need to explain the entire faith of Islam."