Wardah Khalid, for lack of better words, absolutely kicks ass in all she does. She is a writer, speaker, and analyst on U.S. foreign policy and Islam. Based on her analytics, she has offered her consulting to Congress and the White House’s National Security Council. It’s with that in mind that The Tempest sat down for an interview with her.
The Tempest: Who are you, and what’s one thing people wouldn’t immediately know about you?
Wardah Khalid: I’m a writer, speaker, and analyst on Middle East policy and Islam. I love traveling, am a dessert aficionado, and proud Texan. People would probably be surprised to know that I’m a CPA and use to work as a corporate tax accountant!
You’ve had an unconventional path to where you are today – can you tell us a bit more about that, and why you decided to get out of accounting?
During my senior year in high school, I joined the school newspaper staff and loved it. That was the same year I took U.S. government and it quickly became my favorite class. I thought about pursuing a career working in government or policy in DC where I could continue to write, but I didn’t know anyone who was doing it or how to get there, so I set my mind on law school. And since law schools don’t care what your undergraduate major is, I decided to use my time in college to study business and accounting, which would be a good skill set to have. (I still kept up with my writing as a news writer and opinion columnist for the campus paper, though)!
Fast forward a few years and I was a CPA working in the number one accounting firm in the nation. On the side, I was writing my “Young American Muslim” blog for the Houston Chronicle, organizing youth civic engagement programs, teaching a current affairs class at my mosque, and serving as a MYNA camp counselor. It got to the point where it became clear these activities were truly my passion and I knew I had to pursue my original goals full time. So I enrolled in a Masters in International Affairs program at Columbia University and here we are!
You also write regularly. What’s a typical schedule for you like these days?
These days, I’m doing independent consulting work, so I don’t have a typical schedule. I may be traveling across the country to a speaking engagement, providing Middle East policy analysis on television, researching and writing op-eds and news pieces, working on side projects, attending lectures and conferences, or volunteering. One thing remains constant, though: I’m almost always tweeting!
How did your childhood influence your career decisions, and is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
Seeing my father, as an immigrant to this country, work so hard to establish himself and provide for his family made me realistic in my approach. I had lofty goals of working in policy, but I also wanted to be practical as well. I don’t regret pursuing accounting, because it allowed me to experience the corporate world and provided a valuable skill set that will serve me in the future. But I do wish I had taken more world affairs classes in college and been more civically engaged then.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
In five years, I see myself working in DC to create positive policy change in the field of international peace and security. I also hope to be using my knowledge and experience to help the Muslim American community become more involved in the policy-making process here at home.
What’s the importance of having more women like you in the work that you’re doing? Do you see women like you in the people you look up to?
It is SO important to have more women like me in my field. While there are several Muslim American female activists and policy professionals that I admire, I do feel like I’m charting my own path. When I’m in meetings at the White House, State Department, or on Capitol Hill, I’m often one of just a few women in the room (if any) and always the only hijabi.
And while all the issues I work on are not explicitly religious, it does help to have someone who is familiar with the region or culture that is being discussed to help provide a more nuanced perspective that could be overlooked otherwise. Muslims often complain that US policy marginalizes them at home and abroad. To that I would ask – so what are you doing about it? Protesting on the street is important, but it will only get you so far. You also have to be involved in those meetings where policies are being determined.
What’s some advice that young diverse women should keep in mind as they go through life?
You’re different. Own it. Don’t waste your time and energy trying to be like everyone else. Your diversity is a gift. Let your knowledge and experiences serve as inspiration for you to contribute to the world in your own unique way. Find supportive allies and ask for their guidance and assistance in accomplishing your goals. And keep pushing. Yes, it’s a lot harder for us, but every day, diverse women are breaking down walls and shattering glass ceilings. So go ahead and follow your passions and dreams and see how far they can take you.