Learn How this Dynamic Leader Advocates for Women in Leadership

Sept 9, 2021
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Meet Hena Awan, one of our amazing mentors at AHF!

Hena is the Director, Operations and Strategy Enablement at KPMG in Canada and has over 13 years of experience in professional services. Previously, she developed and was head of the key client’s program at KPMG in Canada where she led a large diverse team dedicated across several industries.

Hena is an advocate of equity, diversity and inclusion and volunteers as the Managing Director of the Women in Leadership Pillar of the Muslim Awards of Excellence (MAX) organization. She is passionate about serving her community through providing a platform for professional development and networking, accessibility to leadership resources and championing the achievements of women. 

We had an opportunity to sit with Hena and learn more about her work, advocacy and mentorship!

What motivated you to apply for the AHF Fellowship Circle as a Mentor?

For many years now, I have been a proud advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion and the advancement of women at my own place of work. I have mentored many women and AHF was another opportunity to engage as a mentor outside of work. I also had the chance to connect with the AHF community for my own personal learning of the challenges and biases that BIWOC may face and navigate in their respective careers and industries.

Prior to COVID, I attended two events featuring the very amazing former First Lady, Michelle Obama. Among her many memorable lines, one that deeply resonated with me was, “Kids can’t be what they can’t see.” I am a firm believer of representation and this was a lynchpin moment for me to do more in addressing the inequities. The AHF program is an amazing accelerator for early-career BIWOC to start building and learning from a network of women with whom they can identify. Representation matters, and it’s empowering to see others that look like you in positions you hope to hold one day.

One of my most notable takeaways from the Fellowship Circle was just how determined and motivated so many of the Fellows (students and those transitioning from post-secondary into their careers) were in investing in their professional careers. As women, and especially women of colour, I find that we are not often recognized as being bold or career-driven, and often can feel invisible, unheard and unsupported in different spaces including work which can hold us back. I was extremely proud and impressed to see how prepared and determined the young women were, redefining power and stereotypes.

At AHF we believe in celebrating and amplifying those who have paid it forward in our lives and careers. Who has been a great mentor, ally or sponsor and why?

A few years ago I participated in an exercise in an EDI training session where we were asked to write down six people we considered to be our mentors or sponsors and six people whom we mentor or sponsor. While research shows that we tend to gravitate towards those who look like us in our mentoring and sponsoring relationships, my list was surprisingly different. I identified three individuals on my list, one a Pakistani Muslim woman like myself, and two white men. All three relationships grew organically out of my work with each individual. While I had the opportunity to work with and receive mentorship and sponsorship from each of these individuals helping me to advance in my career, I also witnessed their career evolution into more senior roles.

It is important to seek out a diverse and well rounded “board of advisors” for yourself, people who have shared and different lived experiences, backgrounds and perspectives than you. What I have observed from the three individuals are behaviours I try to emulate in the workplace. Sponsorship can include a variety of things from making connections to people in our network, sharing professional opportunities, and promoting individuals when they are not in the room for their excellence and for opportunities. The last point reminds me of a great quote I once read “Your name is in rooms your feet haven’t even entered yet.” 

I must thank all three leaders: Salma Salman (currently SVP, Chief Accountant and Controller at TD Bank), Greg Wiebe (currently Vice-Chair Digital and Senior Tax Partner, KPMG) and Peter Doyle (Retired Partner and former Vice-Chair and Managing Partner Audit, KPMG). Their advice, guidance, support and friendship throughout the years have made a difference in my career and life. I am determined to pay it forward.

Tell us about your experience as a Director in Operations and Strategy for a professional services firm. What does a typical day look like and what do you enjoy the most?

I have been with KPMG for the entirety of my career. I have been with the firm simply because I am learning and growing professionally, being treated fairly, and working with a firm that aligns with my values. I love my role because of the autonomy it affords and how varied each day can be. I work with different departments and individuals at all levels within the firm. My responsibilities include driving key strategic initiatives and projects, ensuring initiatives align with the firm’s strategic goals and working as a trusted advisor to the GTA managing partner, who is always open to new approaches and ways of doing things. More than anything, I feel supported and encouraged to make positive change.

On a more personal level, I call my present-day story “from depression to Director.” Following the loss of my father to pancreatic cancer in 2007, I found myself in a downward spiral. I was still in school. Back then, mental health was not a widely discussed topic and I was navigating grief in isolation. I applied for a summer internship that year at KPMG in their Research Department as a way of distracting myself during this very difficult time. Turning adversity into opportunity is not easy but necessary for growth. That was the beginning of my journey. Fourteen years later, I have found myself progressively moving into different roles.

What advice do you have for early-career BIWOC starting our in their careers?

My advice would be to go for it and map out your own unique path. I certainly did not start off my career thinking I’d end up in the current position I have today. Start with finding organizations that you admire and fit with your values. Look up roles that are of interest to you. Find your way in and then see what type of work really drives and motivates you.

We keep hearing that the “Future of Work is Human,” and any quick Google search will show you that the top skills most wanted by companies include creativity, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, agility etc. I’d also suggest growing your human skills (soft skills) and articulate them in such a way that you stand out in your resume, LinkedIn profile and different interaction with potential employers. While you may not have the direct experience noted on a job application, apply anyway. I have found as women and especially BIWOC we can be much harsher on ourselves about meeting all the listed criteria.

Also network, build genuine relationships with individuals working in organizations and roles of interest to you and stay connected. I was really pleased to see Fellows from AHF’s Fellowship Circle follow up with me after the program ended. Doing so shows their passion and drive, but keeps them top of mind. Networking comes in many forms so join external organizations, sign up for programs like AHF, reach out on LinkedIn to people in roles you aspire to – build your network so that you can one day reach out for support and advice.

And lastly, show up and speak up. You are your own biggest advocate and need to champion your own achievements and accomplishments loudly and proudly. Women are typically hesitant in this sort of humble brag, whereas men tend to do it more easily. Think about who knows of the big things and successes you have had at work other than perhaps your performance manager. I keep a running list throughout the year as a reminder to myself of my major work projects and the direct impact I made on the success of a larger goal.