Student Leader Zakariya Ahmed talks Opportunities, Public Speaking & Youth Engagement

Zak, who I’ve known since high school, finds himself passionately advocating for youth engagement at conferences, doing research for the city on this topic, and working on social impact projects with the Boston Consulting Group. That is, when he’s not bingeing on Game of Thrones episodes.

Full disclosure: I resent him just a little (in the best way possible!) for having the ability to entertain himself with what he says. Our sit-down and interview questions, answers to which were wildly insightful, often flew on tangents because Zak became so engrossed in what he was talking about that he always delivered way more info than I asked for. I did my best to pass on to you as much value as I could.

There’s probably going to be a Part 2 to this.


I was going for candid, intense-speaker photography.

Dana Iskoldski: Zak, tell us about yourself!

Zakariya Ahmed: I’ve had an overarching passion for staying engaged and doing things that interest me, but I haven’t been doing things in a linear projection. Opportunities just come my way and I decide I want to get involved [Ed. Note: like SuperCouncil and researching youth engagement for the City of Toronto and internships with the Boston Consulting Group, and a thousand other things].

I just finished up my first year of studying economics at Western University. I’m hopefully going to progress into the Richard Ivey School of Business, but we’ll see what my average is. I know I want to go into business for a bit and then leave the industry to travel. After that I have no idea.

DI: You spoke at the Inforum recently on the topic of youth engagement. Can you tell us what the InForum is?

ZA: Inforum is a conference styled after tedx that focused a lot on urban issues and apathy, and how youth can get engaged. Its organizers invited a bunch of speakers to discuss big topics like urban issues, grassroots movements, youth participation in the economy, climate change and adaptation, and democratic reform.

They had a lot of cool stuff, like an MP Panel where they invited five members of parliament to the conversation, a bunch of reporters (like Mike De Souza from the Globe and Mail), and more. The crowd was made up of people who not only wanted to get engaged but were already at least a bit involved, so speakers spent most of their time highlighting their roads to getting engaged.

DI: What was your favourite part about it?

ZA: The MP Panel discussion. There was a member from each party, and they answered insightful questions very truthfully and open-endedly. For example, when the Conservative MP was asked whether he votes for his party or his leader (since increasingly people vote for the party instead of the candidate) he said we should vote for the candidate. And then he went on a tangent to say how power shouldn’t be concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office. We also asked him what the most surprising thing about getting to Parliament Hill is, and he told us about how they gave him a sheet that outlined who he had to vote for. Initially he didn’t think it was that strict, but apparently barely anyone ever breaks rank and doesn’t vote with the party. It was especially pointed coming from him, since he’s Conservative, but also because there was a consensus among all the other MPs about it. It was the most I got from the conference.

DI: What would you say to people your age about Youth Engagement, if you could?

ZA: Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods: 239 different communities exist within it who all have different opinions. Even if 238 of those communities get engaged, that’s still not enough. It’s not how democracy works. Every perspective, in and of itself, is valuable. So people need to look at engagement differently; it’s not a one-time, one-person thing, but a part of your life that grows with you.

Also, if your councillor doesn’t know you, it doesn’t affect him. But it affects how you live your life. So I would say, if you have a problem, take it to the city and don’t leave it up to someone else. Contact your city planners (Toronto actually has a program where it brings out planners to public places to answer peoples’ questions). A lot of times, if you pester the city enough, it will happen. If you get your friends out and become a physical presence when big discussions and changes are being made – in education, law enforcement, whatever – it will make a difference.

Finally, don’t say your voice doesn’t matter. The second you say your voice doesn’t matter, that’s when it doesn’t matter. Until then, even if it’s the one time you do get something changed, it’s all worth it. Like in SuperCouncil when the TDSB finally changed the Civics and Careers course; it made all the meetings and the money and the time spent bickering worth it.

DI: You’re a great public speaker, what’s your secret to engaging an audience?

ZA: I just try to write what I’d want to hear. But no matter what you talk about, as long as you say it with conviction, that’s what people respond to. You can talk passionately about how much you love cement and people will think oh wow, I don’t really care about that but I like how you care about that.

DI: Do opportunities really just come your way? Or is it hard work?

ZA: A lot of times it feels like luck. Like in the beginning of this year – I wasn’t trying to get involved with my city, but I got an email about an opportunity with them and it’s how I got involved in the youth engagement piece. It feels like opportunities come to me, but at the same time none of them happened to me in my previous years of life. Only once I started working with SuperCouncil did I get involved with the City Youth Council, the Toronto Police, and consequently BCG. It’s that first step – getting involved – that’s really important.

That, and growing your network. It’s one of the bigger reasons I tell people to get involved, because it can overall enhance your life. Once I got involved with SuperCouncil my network grew, I knew more people, and that’s how opportunities came to me.

Everything grows with what you do. It would be counterproductive to not look for opportunities and hope they come to you. I think I sent out 70 job applications this summer, and I got rejected a lot. So, yes, at the same time you do have to get lucky, but if you don’t try it’s not going to happen.

Opportunities are a two way thing: they will seek you out once you seek them out. And being tenacious and growing your network is, nine times out of ten, the better process. It’s the only thing I do.

DI: What does success mean to you?

ZA: Right now I don’t feel like I’m where I want to be but, from what I see as personal success, apart from just being healthy and blessed enough to do what you want to do on a regular basis, it’s to feel comfortable with yourself. The more you tie your success to yourself, the higher your chances of being happy. Because if you keep telling yourself “I’m going to be happy once I get this 100k/year job” you won’t be.

There you have it, folks. Eight coffees down, ninety two more to go. I hope you learned something. And to Zak, enjoy the ride.



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