Founder and CEO | Empowerment through Integration
What do you do?
I run a nonprofit organisation that I founded called Empowerment Through Integration (ETI). We focus on changing the narrative surrounding disability, moving from a charity-based perspective to a value-based perspective.
ETI is made-up of two legal entities: the headquarter, based in Boston, and ETI Lebanon.
In the US, we have five full-time employees; and around 50 committed volunteers in Boston. The, we have the board. In Lebanon, we also have a board and a growing team.
Why did you decide to set up your own non-profit organisation?
I fell into it. In undergrad, I was majoring in math and economics. I wanted to do a PhD. One summer in college, I did a project funded by the Clinton Foundation; it was to run an inclusive summer camp in northern Lebanon to bring together blind and sighted kids. Because I'm blind personally, I saw the amazing impact and outcome of this programme.
At the moment, disability rights tend to focus on the technical aspect, like accessibility. No one really focuses on the main causes of the marginalisation of people with disabilities, which is the social stigma, which is strong on the societal level, the parent level, and even the kid with disability level.
The idea for ETI was born from that project. Because of that, I actually changed paths. I went to Harvard Kennedy School for grad school to learn how to manage an organisation that runs and establishes programmes that can create systemic change.
What did you study at the Kennedy School?
I did my master in public policy. I loved it. From the people to the courses to the opportunities that I had, it was just wonderful. I learned so much and met some of my best friends there.
How did Harvard support your studying?
Thought university, I used a combination of technologies to support my studying. I have a screen reader software on my computer. I have had individuals who are readers for me in my math classes because math is not accessible, and I was a math major. I also got training to navigate the campus and training to be able to be independent on that level.
How do you feel that what you learned at the Kennedy School is helping you run your nonprofit?
In two ways: the soft skills and the perspective that I gained.
1/ On a higher level, any programme that we run should create change on a systemic level. That's the mark of a successful programme. You don't want to just create a programme that serves X number of people and that's it. You want to see a long-lasting impact: how can you move forward towards eliminating this issue from society. You only do that through systemic change. Before I went to the Kennedy School, I was thinking about programmes in a narrow perspective.
2/ Most of the classes I took were on topics like adaptive leadership, negotiations and arts of communication. Those soft skills are priceless because that's what you need to run an organisation: how to build a team and keep it motivated; how to connect and network.
What would your advice be to a young woman who's blind and looking into a career in foreign policy?
The network that you build is key. Everyone that you meet can be helpful to you.
As a blind person, things are going to be challenging. I am confident that any blind person can learn how to navigate the world around them, even in a developing country where it's not that accessible. It comes back to your network. For example, when I travel alone to a foreign country, I depend a lot on the people. But that willingness to meet people, depend on people, talk to people, gets me so far. Just because I depend on people doesn't mean that I’m not independent. We're all dependent on each other one way or another. Just like they're helping me, I help them change their perspective and their outlook on disability. The more people with disabilities work in foreign policy, the more that we'll move toward changing the narrative.
The second aspect is that if you are a blind person or a person with a disability, you are going to face on a daily, on an hourly basis the charity narrative, the “oh I'm so sorry for you” narrative. That's very common. That can get to you. That comes from ignorance rather than from trying to harm you. They just need to get to know you. It can get exhausting and tiresome but the only way to move forward and to change that is to have more people with disabilities out there interacting, engaging.
You're also a woman of colour and a visible Muslim. How do you think that's affected your career?
I have triple whammy: I'm blind. I'm Muslim, I'm a woman. In certain settings, one or all three can be an issue. On the other hand, it's made me stronger because I've faced stigma on these different identities.
A professor at the Kennedy School told me “Sara, people might judge you when they see you for the first time. But, if you don't feel proud and confident or feel like you have the right to be in the space, they're going to feel it. They're going to build off of it. But, if you come into a space and you are confident and you know that you belong here and this is your right to belong here and you can offer something to them, it will change their perception. They're going to see that confidence and it's going to affect them." His statement changed my perspective on things.
What's the biggest challenge for you running your own nonprofit?
There's so much to achieve in disability and so much change to do. Sometimes, I face this issue of mission drift because of how much I’d like to do.
My board reminds me to really focus. There's so much out there that needs to be done but because I'm so passionate and so connected to it on a personal level, sometimes it's hard to figure out what is needed, what we can we do as ETI and what we should leave to someone else.
How did you learn to work with your board and to listen to them?
It's a constant struggle. You need to trust that you brought on the right board members from the beginning. It doesn't mean that they will agree with what you say. The right board member has the organisation's interests at heart. They care about you as a person as well as a founder. You don't want an echo chamber.
When I go my board meetings, we brainstorm, we have a discussion. It's a negotiation. We go back and forth. On some things, I stand strong and I won’t budge on. In the end, it comes down to a vote. It's important to listen to each other’s perspective because I'm 28 years old. I haven't seen that much of the world. My career path is short, unlike my board members who've been working for years. They have so much life and professional experience to share. I have to remind myself about that.
What do you look for in either the volunteers or paid employees you hire?
Passion for the cause. We attract so many different people. Many have no disability experience, but they're drawn into the causes because it's about diversity and inclusion. We embody that within ETI. Being passionate about inclusion is key.
Every single time I go out and I meet people, I bring back in volunteers. I can see a value in every single person. Ultimately, as long as you're committed and passionate, you're welcome to the organisation.
You're 28. You've already set up your own organisation which is creating concrete change. You've got a degree from Harvard's Kennedy School. How do you see your career going forward?
I want to move towards doing policy change on a national, global level. I don't know what that looks like yet. My passion is on a very general level of inclusion and empowerment and whatever that looks like. I only know that the sky's the limit. I get so many job offers right now. They're very appealing in term of like salary base but that's not what attracts me. It's more about the work.
ETI works on inclusion with companies in the US. Tell us more about that programme.
We run two different types of programming. In Lebanon, we have six programmes that work directly with the blind and visually impaired youth, their parents, and the community.
In the US, we've established a new income-generating programme so that we can become more financially sustainable. It's a training for corporations, universities, and government entities and nonprofits. The training is about how to empower people to be blind to the labels of society. As a human, if I can see you, I will label you within the first seven seconds. Then to those labels, I will attach assumptions of who you are, what you are, what you do. That's where all these -isms come from, whether it's ableism, ageism, racism. It's society judging a person or a group of people based on labels.
But when you meet a person for the first time without being able to see them, most of these labels are removed. That forces you to get to know that person and to hear them for who they are. It changes how you perceive them. We run in-the-dark sessions: team building in the dark, networking in the dark, where we get participants to reflect on the -isms they embody that are preventing and tainting their lens when they see a person for the first time. When we're out in society, we know that society is looking at us so we tailor our behaviour because of these -ism. We are not always fully ourselves. That prevents us from tapping into our full potential.
It's been a growing programme. We did it for Airbnb, UA Embassy… We are slowly gaining traction.
What's the one thing that you've learned since graduation that you wished you'd known when you started your career?
There isn't one right path. Whatever you think is the path is usually not the path. Learn how to be flexible and let go. That's been a hard thing for me because I like to figure out things and plan. But nothing that I've planned is what ended up happening. As a blind person, you have to plan.You have to think: “if this doesn't work out what's option B”; “what's option C”. You have to think about backups because things do fall through the cracks.
In the beginning, I was trying to have everything planned out so I felt safe and I felt I knew where I was going. But, that's not the reality, especially in nonprofit or startup world. I wish someone told me “Sara, everything ends up working out just not the way you think it will”. Be flexible and let go. Trust in what will happen.
How did you work out your finances when you started out?
I founded the organisation when I was a senior in college. I fundraised through individuals and small grants. I had about $25,000 to start off with for the seed funds. Then I had a year in-between college and grad school. I stayed in my parents’ home because I didn't have an income because I was working full-time on ETI, trying to get it up and running.
When I went to grad school, I was still running the organisation but it was on a slower process. When I left grad school, I had three different jobs plus ETI. That was a hell of a year.
I learned how to become a multitasker and take advantage of every single minute whenever I had free for ETI. For instance, in grad school some of my classwork was doing a project for a nonprofit so I would make it for ETI. I found ways where I was always connecting ETI to my studies.
Then I got the Echoing Green fellowship, which transformed my life completely because the fellowship gave me a full-time salary for two years to work on my startup. That allowed me to transition into the organisation full-time. Then I faced another health issue, which kind of made things interesting. There are always things that come up.