Four years after On Purpose - where are they now? With Rabia Abrar

Rabia Abrar blog post

Can you tell me about your background and your career prior to On Purpose?

Prior to joining On Purpose, I was working as a management trainee and marketing specialist at a large Canadian telecom company. After a few years, I decided to leave the job and pursue a purpose-led career. I moved to Rotterdam and started a master's degree in Sustainable Urban Management and Development and upon completion, I moved to London to work within the social impact space. 

How did you feel in your work before you decided to make a change?

I felt a bit restless. I had clarity on the goals and objectives I was working towards in my job and where I was going to move onto with regard to the position I held. I was productive in following that path. However, being aware of what was going on in the world, particularly the climate crisis, I began to feel that I needed to be productive in a ‘bigger’ way. This is what created a restlessness in me, which ultimately led me to On Purpose. 

It's been 4 years since you completed the Associate Programme. What are you doing now?

I very recently joined Export Development Canada as a Project Manager for the ESG Program. But before this, I worked as the Operations Lead at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll), a nonprofit which facilitates collaboration between changemakers from across the globe, who are working to transform the economic system. WEAll influences policy makers and business leaders to prioritise the wellbeing of people on the planet as the main goal for all of their decision making, as opposed to only working towards growth in GDP or money. We also work with individuals, like you and I, to first, better understand what the ‘economy’ means (it's simply a term to describe the ways we produce and provide for one another), to reimagine an economy that better serves all of our needs, and to find ways to participate in decision making so that we, as a society, move towards a more equitable and sustainable way of providing for one another.

WEAll is a small and growing organisation with a flat structure. We operate based on the values of autonomy, trust, and equality. As Operations Lead, I focused on creating and implementing policies and resources that offer structure and support for team members, and also created space for that autonomy. This included ensuring that how we approach our organisational culture and the way we work is anti-racist and anti-colonial, as we cannot change the system if we perpetuate a system that is based on racist and colonial structures.

I was also responsible for WEAll’s recruitment and onboarding process. Here, I worked on developing and delivering a supportive, comprehensive, and welcoming onboarding experience. I have been told by four team members that I’ve given them the best onboarding experience they’ve ever had! 

One of the more challenging areas of my work was recruitment. This is a difficult area since the nonprofit sector, globally, as well as in the UK, is a very white space. But if we really want to address some of the world’s most pressing issues in a sustainable, equitable, and inclusive way, we need to include and learn from different perspectives. So, to help reduce our unconscious bias and support the recruitment of more diverse applicants, I introduced a fully anonymised application process for the last two rounds of recruitment we ran. 

We agreed as a team that this approach was a step in the right direction, but that the issue of attracting more diverse talent into our team, our wider network, and into the nonprofit sector as a whole is very complex. 

One of the challenges we faced was attracting people from more diverse backgrounds to apply for the jobs we posted, in the first place! WEAll is continuing to investigate why folks were not interested in joining the organisation. Were they put off by the fact that we are a predominantly ‘white’ team? Did they not see themselves and their experiences being valued in the way we designed our job descriptions? Are the salaries offered by WEAll or most nonprofits, a barrier to applying for a role that focuses on “making impact”?

Changing these processes as part of our wider ambition to learn and be actively anti-racist (as well as sharing our learnings with our international network) made me feel that my work was meaningful.

Why did you join the On Purpose Associate Programme?

I felt that I needed to make a change in my career to address the restlessness I was feeling. But I didn’t think that on my own I would prioritise and successfully make a career transition while being committed to the work I was already doing full time and pursuing other goals in my personal life. 

At the time, there wasn't as much going on in Canada within the sustainability and social impact space, so I looked towards the UK, where there was a lot more activity in the sectors as a whole. 

I also really wanted to join a programme that held me accountable but also supported me in making this transition. The Associate Programme stuck out to me as an opportunity to be held accountable for the changes I wanted to make in my career, and to receive support while I made those changes. It made the change I wanted to make feel possible.  

Can you tell me more about your placements?

My first placement was with Systemiq, an environmental consultancy. They look to create positive systems change in the environment, with a focus on energy, circular economy & materials, and food & land use. During my time at Systemiq, I worked on two specific projects. One was with the Energy Transitions Commission, which brought together diverse stakeholders from the energy sector, from activists, to corporations like Shell, and sought a pathway forward for a just energy transition. 

I was tasked with creating a stakeholder engagement strategy and facilitating the running of a number of expert consultations for the Commission's report ‘Mission Possible: Reaching net-zero carbon emissions from harder-to-abate sectors’). The other project I was working on was with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the circular economy for food and cities. 

I loved not only getting exposure to climate action and sustainability-related topics that I had only read about to date, but also getting to work on them!

For my second placement, I worked at the Widening Participation Department at King’s College London (KCL). The department ran various programmes that did outreach to marginalised communities, focused on helping to get them into Russell Group universities. Here, I created a communications strategy for (and with) the team and provided training and guidance on various topics, like social media and media outreach, to reach more people in different ways. 

During my time at King’s, I learnt about the shocking correlation between life outcomes and one’s educational background - did you know that of all students in the UK, 7% are privately educated - and they are 12x more likely to progress to influential careers. The placement allowed me to apply my background in marketing and communications to support programmes that were literally changing people’s lives - and taught me a lot about British social and political issues. 

What’s the most important thing you learnt during your year as an Associate?

You can design your career - and your life - as you choose. There isn’t just one path you have to follow to have a ‘successful’ career. 

What support did you get along the way?

I really appreciated getting different streams of support along the way - one-to-one as well as group support. Because the work I was doing at my placements was new to me, I valued having mentors, people who were experts in their fields, challenging me to think differently in how I approached the tasks at hand was very insightful. My coach was amazing. He asked me deep questions that dug into why I was dissatisfied and restless in my career and interrogated what ‘success’ actually meant for me, and how my work might fit into the wider picture of my life.  

My cohort was incredible. They were some of the most caring people I’ve met - they cared about each other, about bettering the world and about being better people. They were helpful in very practical ways, like giving advice and sharing resources on which events to attend, where I could find certain pieces of research, or how to make the most of my On Purpose salary in London!

But most importantly, my cohort made me feel very seen, heard, and held during a period of transition and deep reflection for all of us, which often felt intense. 

Finally, the wider Fellows network was really generous with their time in sharing their experiences and advice on how to  imagine what your career could look like after the Associate Programme. They could relate to you as an Associate but also give you a window into what your career post-On Purpose could be like. One of the Fellows even turned out to be my manager at a later position.

How did you approach finding a job after the programme?

I’m particularly interested in sustainable diets - I actually conducted my master thesis research on the topic and stay on top of the news on developments in this space. One day, I came across the “Meat Your Match”  campaign run by Hubbub, which aimed to get young, male gym users to replace half of their animal-based protein with plant-based protein. I became very excited by the innovative, positive, and playful approaches Hubbub was taking to promote sustainable behaviour change.

I reached out to Alex Robinson, a Fellow who was working at Hubbub and who was hiring for a role on this team, to learn more. This conversation was the first step that led to me starting my first job after On Purpose with Hubbub. 

I’m glad that instead of applying to jobs en-masse, I started my job search from a place of identifying what area or skill or workplace I was most excited and curious to explore next - and then reaching out to people in those spaces to learn more. I would recommend that approach to anyone on the job search. 

What advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Everybody deserves a career that feels meaningful to them, if they want it. If you feel like you need a change in your career, prioritise making that change. Don't dismiss it in the name of ‘being practical’ or ‘too busy’.

The Associate Programme was life changing for me, so I would say do it if you get the chance. But, if you don't, a good place to start is finding a community of people that share your interests and passions. They’ll likely have advice or resources to share on how to incorporate more ‘purpose’ into your paid and unpaid work. You might find that even just through speaking about your passions out loud to someone else, that you already have some of the answers you’re looking for. 

What do you miss about your old career, and what don’t you miss?

Sometimes I miss feeling that I have a blueprint for what a ‘successful’ career looks like.

On Purpose made things a little more messy, but in a good way. 

One of our trainers talked about how, “your career is not a ladder, it is a jungle gym”. Charting your own path can make your career, and life, feel more purposeful - but it’s not as clear cut and I think it requires you to make some concessions and be more flexible and creative than you may otherwise have had to be.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The sense of purpose that comes from knowing that my work can help make a meaningful, positive change in how we run our global and local economies. But maybe more than that, I really appreciate the connections that I’ve found at work, which allow me to show up as a human first, rather than only as an employee.