Husband. Father. Visionary | A Conversation with Mohammed Ashour
It would be an understatement to say that the intelligent, charismatic and humble Mohammed Ashour has brilliant educational and professional qualifications for someone his age. As the Co-Founder and CEO of Aspire Food Group, he recently won the the prestigious million-dollar Hult Prize, awarded by Bill Clinton in New York City to business plans designed for social good. Through his organization, he utilizes his understanding of science and global food insecurity to help those who are suffering from malnourishment.
Academically, he is currently enrolled in the joint MD-MBA program at McGill University, working towards a Doctor of Medicine from the Faculty of Medicine and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Desautels Faculty of Management. He also holds an M.Sc. degree in Neuroscience from McGill University and a B.Sc. degree in Life Sciences from the University of Toronto.
However, apart from just being a scientific superman, Mohammed Ashour is a devoted husband to Yasmeen Khattab, Founder of Oils by Balance, and father to an adorable toddler. Having already written about Ashour’s success with The Hult Prize, The Link Canada wanted to know more about the man behind the plan. We were honoured to spend some time with him and his family, and in doing so learning more about his inspiring and humbling thoughts on faith, success and family.
The Link Canada: We’re curious: How did you balance everything at once — from married life, to school, to Aspire? What’s the secret?
Mohammed Ashour: Well, it did get to a point where it was difficult to do so many things at the same time and be successful in all. One has to be selective and disciplined. There is no shortage of good opportunities. And I think that is the difficulty that you have to face as a Muslim: that which of these great opportunities do you have to decline in order to selectively pursue, very rigorously, certain ones and do them well? I think that is a very important lesson that I learnt that being able to do. For most of my colleagues, Medicine is really more than a full time job — and to imagine running a start-up is more than a full time job, you can ask any entrepreneur who is running a start-up. To do both is insanity. And I learnt that the hard way of course, alhamdulillah (praise be to God). I was able to pull off to a degree but I mean (to make it very blunt) I reached a point where we had investors who were ready to support us in scaling the business and told me point blank: You will have to dedicate yourself to this in a full time capacity. It so worked out that the Faculty of Medicine at McGill are proud enough that they told me I could take a leave of absence, or a sabbatical, and complete my studies later. InshaAllah (God-willing) this project [Aspire] has tremendous potential to make massive global impact if it is pulled off and the intentions are right.
The Link Canada: How do you balance your religious commitments with your practical work life?
Mohammed Ashour: I think it is important to know why we do everything to begin with the question: “Why do I want to pursue what I am pursuing?” Ultimately, it is all for the sake of Allah. Not to be cynical, but the sum total of everything I am going to do is — at the end of the day — not going to add anything to God’s kingdom. It would be a disaster, if in the process of it all I forget the most important thing: my spiritual connection to Allah.
So that is my number one priority. I engage and interact in circles which are dominated by non-Muslims. A lot of people I engage with: investors, venture capitalists, other entrepreneurs, competitors, and collaborators are not Muslim, so how do I hold on my Muslim identity? I feel that a lot of Muslims when they get involved in these kinds of circles, tend to let their religious identity take a back seat. I, on the one hand, don’t feel the need to shove down people’s throats that I am a Muslim unnecessarily. On the other hand, I need to absolutely have you know that I am who I am not in spite of Islam but because of Islam. Because of the values in my faith, whether it is giving back as sadaqah (charity), thinking of humanity before thinking of yourself, thinking of your neighbour, etc. You know when you look at the Quran and the teachings of the Quran, ultimately, it is a book about service: service to mankind and to every non-human living thing.
I think a lot of people are fascinated by that and intrigued by that. The irony is that, you would be surprised that how many people don’t know what Islam is — besides what they see on the media. Often times when I talk to my friends and they ask me this and that and we have an interesting intellectual conversation about an aspect of Islam it suddenly does open up people’s eyes. They genuinely emerge with a certain new appreciation and respect for this faith and realize that if more Muslims are actually practising, the better they are. The media can suggest that to be a better Muslim you need to practice Islam less, you need to shave your beard, you need to look less of a Muslim and be less of a Muslim — maybe pray less and overall focus less on all the things which make you Muslim. Whereas, there is also a parallel narrative where the more practicing you are the more likely you are going to be someone who isolates himself from society and someone who would do harmful things to people. I think it is very important to disrupt that media narrative and to show others that their Muslim-Canadian neighbour is a practicing Muslim and therefore is a good Canadian — that they share a lot of the same good values which all Canadians aspire towards.
I talk to a lot of Muslims about this. Those who have, for lack of a better phrase, “watered down their faith” to fit in. I tell them all the time: you do not need to do that; you can still be a practicing Muslim and be successful, even if it’s a little more difficult it is still possible. Take a look back at the time of the Civil Rights Movement — where yes, the average black person had to work much harder than their white counterparts to prove themselves. The same is also true for us Muslims today. It was also true for Jews for a certain period of time. You may have to work a lot harder to prove yourself, but at the end of the day, you don’t have to fundamentally change yourself to do that.
Alhamdulillah, in high school I was very active both in extra-curricular activities and academically I was the top academic athlete in the school. I was eventually awarded as valedictorian and gave a speech in front of my graduating class as a Muslim, as Mohammed. Bill Clinton also called me up on the stage as Mohammed Ashour. These are the things you don’t need to hide.
This brings me to another point: we need to also get rid of a victim-narrative. We must pursue opportunities, and if you pursue it aggressively, you will get it with the help of God. We have to acknowledge that there is an unequal level playing field, but you can play and you must play. The solution is not to stop playing but it’s simply to play harder — and level the playing field by working harder and smarter. You have seen this in various communities, be it with Muslims, Blacks or the Jews. You have a community that is massively disadvantaged — literally playing tennis with their one hand tied behind their back (figuratively) — and yet they realize that either they play harder against their adversary or competitor or essentially accept the defeat.
We are a community of so many millions of people — there is a big pool of talent and a lot of ambition. We know that some of the most extraordinary ambition, innovation and fruitful contribution to the society has always happened under pressure. We have one of the most pressured communities across the globe; these are ironically both terrible conditions and also exceptionally good conditions to foster innovation. When does the best come out of people? Under pressure in the worst times. If we have hit rock bottom, we can only go up from here. That’s when you look at the cup half full as an infinite resource of possibilities.
This really inspires me: the extraordinary talent pool of young people in our community who have so much talent and are so capable. The same people who have unfortunately sold themselves to this somewhat limiting narrative that the best that you can do is go to school and then go to even more school, then earn a living that society dictates you to earn — and then you cap yourself there. And then you look others in the world and they don’t see the world that way, they see it as an ocean of possibilities. This is what I believe we need to inculcate in our community, with the young and the old.
The Link Canada: So, as someone with an MSc in Neuroscience, how did your road to becoming an entrepreneur start?
Mohammed Ashour: Everything happens for a reason: looking back getting a job at a start-up in between my Masters and MD/MBA program for a year gave me a chance to get out of my academic bubble and experience business and entrepreneurship. It was at that time I fell in love with being an entrepreneur. Looking back I realized I needed to have that experience, I needed to not be accepted in medical school earlier to understand that. Surely, Allah has a plan and you have a plan — but He always has a better plan.
So, I had a year in between when I had no choice but to do something to earn a living. I was rejected by so many jobs that I had to accept a job at a start-up. As far as I was concerned, earlier to me, business was just a numbers game; it was corporate and dirty — but little did I know. Although I worked there for only a year, I had contracted the entrepreneurship bug. I knew then that it would only be a matter of time that I would go back to business. In fact, I liked the fact I was in an MD/MBA program, as that would allow me to pursue my love for clinical medicine but also focus on the business and management side of things.
Six months later when I started my MBA, two months into the MBA program, a friend sent me a message saying, “Hey! Have you heard of the Hult prize, maybe you should go for it?” I looked at it and thought it was interesting as it offered the opportunity to start a business but also a million dollars as seed capital — something that wasn’t insignificant to get the idea off the ground. I had just come off the entrepreneurship boat and it was so risk-free to apply — all I had to do was to submit in an application and then see what happens. I could move on with life if it did or did not work out; I had nothing to lose.
Again, Allah facilitated a risk-free opportunity for me to undertake business. It was like God was training me little by little with my experiences and teaching me how to take risks. Eventually, alhamdulillah, we pursued the Hult Prize and that changed things considerably for Aspire Food Group.
The Link Canada: Tell us more about your family — how did you balance personal and professional life?
Mohammed Ashour: In my second year of undergrad I was the President of the MSA at UofT and got a chance to work on a project with students from McMaster University. This project was about Muslim families who had children with disabilities, and how to help and support them. This is where I was introduced to Yasmeen. I was inspired by the fact she was a strong-willed Muslim — who specifically intrigued me by the way she would speak up and not fear dissent. She had her opinion about ideas and would tell everything how it is. That push back was an interesting breath of fresh air. After my undergrad, I was going to Montreal for my graduate studies when subhanAllah (Glory be to God), I felt I was ready for marriage. I approached Yasmeen’s family and soon after, we were engaged and then married. We moved to Montreal together for my Master’s degree at McGill.
The point of sharing this part about my marriage is that a lot of times young people avoid marriage at a young age — as per the whole narrative of first establishing themselves, having the exact job they want, and so on.
My father told me when I graduated, “There is barakah (blessing) in marriage and children.” There are a lot of places in the Quran where it is mentioned how many people are afraid of having a family as they are afraid of rizq and providing for them — yet Allah promises that He will provide for them. For some reason, at that specific time, those verses of the Quran really spoke to me. It was then that all of a sudden it became a priority for me to look for a partner — someone who would work with me on these goals and support me through them. And alhamdulillah, when I approached my in-laws I did not have the baggage of questions regarding what my income was, etc. All they saw was that I was ambitious — and having seen my deen and character they agreed.
I promise you I would never have got into medical school or this MBA program without Yasmeen. Lina, my daughter, was born two months exactly after we were announced as being one of the six global finalists amongst 10,000 teams. When she was 6 months old, we were receiving the million-dollar prize from Bill Clinton.
I choose to look at all of these as indicators of barakah from Allah; it all perfectly aligned due to His blessings that He bestowed upon me in the shape of a family.
A lot of times one witnesses tensions in families of entrepreneurs or professionals, as a lot of guys find that it is hard to be married to a wife and a business at the same time. It can be challenging, their partner has not been part of the process of their struggles, so they can’t share the same feelings of how they got where they got to be; they are isolated from the process. That’s why it’s important to have your partner understand the process and be a part of that process — that way you are on the same page. As an entrepreneur, you really do need to stay centred — you need that balance in your life. I look at Yasmeen and she gives me that. She is not just my supportive and caring wife, but also my business partner. You have no idea how many times I come home in the middle of tough business decisions and she is my sounding board, giving me valuable advice. Otherwise I would have developed a tunnel vision as that is all I can see. In her perspective, she being involved in my work does not mean she is competing with my business for attention, but rather that we are building it together. Now that she has also recently started a business of her own, she is getting entrepreneurial experience firsthand; it is also giving me an opportunity to offer her that same support and attention that she was able to provide for me. In my case, marriage is a partnership that can actually multiply your productivity and success in ways that you possibly cannot do on your own (thus the barakah factor).
Currently visiting Ghana for research purposes, we wish Mohammed the best with Aspire Food Group, his further education, and family. His perspective on life is an inspiration to many.