by Samra Zafar, leader at BMO and a WXN Top 100 Most Powerful Women Canada
Many companies are putting a lot of thought and effort these days into how to be “authentic.” What makes a company authentic can be interpreted in different ways, so it’s hard not to go down an existential wormhole when one asks the following question: What does authenticity look like when it’s done right? When it’s actually… well, real?
I’ll attempt to answer this by offering my “insider view” of what it looks like at BMO. Before I tackle the how though, I think it’s only fair that I answer why I think authenticity is important. Above all, I think it’s the single best way a company can provide a meaningful, sustainable career path for their employees. On a more personal level, I’m interested in authenticity because it’s my life’s work – and this is why I choose to work at BMO.
I’m an award-winning global advocate for equity, inclusion and human rights. I’m also an abuse survivor.
I have a very non-traditional background for a banker. At age 16, I was forced into an arranged marriage with a man 11 years my senior. My husband and I immediately moved to Canada where I found myself alone, abused and with few prospects for the future. Despite suffering from low self-esteem and depression, I knew that I was smart. I was motivated. And both those things pushed me to finish my education through correspondence, all while tutoring and babysitting in our house and raising our two children.
Over time, I saved enough money to enrol in U of T’s economics program and then found the courage and resources to leave my marriage – ultimately finishing my master’s degree in economics as a top student with multiple awards and scholarships. My success compelled me to advocate for others. I knew my story was one shared by millions of women and girls around the world who suffer in silence. I sought to break that silence and make a genuine difference. Today, I’m a leader at BMO, a bestselling author, international speaker, and WXN Top 100 Most Powerful Women Canada.
My life and my work are intertwined – I can’t separate the two.
The BMO Celebrating Women Vancouver awards ceremony
The road to where I am today wasn’t easy or traditional, but it was my road. And that road is part of who I am every single day. Living authentically means there’s no separation between my past and who I am today – they are one in the same., and nothing is more important to me than bringing all of my different “parts” – my whole self – into my job every day. That’s where BMO comes in.
What’s different about BMO is that here, they walk the walk. They don’t just talk about authenticity; they integrate it into everything they do. It leads to the how of authenticity: they don’t expect me to keep my advocacy work separate from my day job. In other words, they don’t treat it as an extracurricular hobby, like having to leave work early to play on a soccer team. Anyone who knows me knows that my advocacy work is my life’s mission and purpose. It’s the essence of who I am.
Today, I am lucky enough to not just have tremendous opportunities and support, but to have a work-family – a home. A place where the work that I do and the person who I am are completely interconnected. What I stand for and what my employer stands for are one and the same. It feels right. I can’t describe it any other way.
No self-censorship. No self-doubt. Just a common goal.
When I joined BMO, they told me to keep doing what I’m doing and that the entire organization is behind me. And it’s true – I feel that on a daily basis. There’s no self-censorship or self-doubt. At BMO, we improve our clients’ lives and to help communities prosper – it is exactly what I strive to do in my life every day. And nothing is more fulfilling than working towards this shared goal together.
Through sponsorships and donations, community giving, employee peer and board work, or the efforts we make to raise mental health awareness and – in particular – to pursue gender equity, I sincerely believe that BMO is ahead of the game compared to other organizations. But there’s still progress to be made and work to do, and along with my work-family, I’m more than ready to dig in my heels and help make it happen.
Samra Zafar is an award-winning international speaker, bestselling author, consultant, educator and social entrepreneur who advocates for equity, inclusion and human rights.