“Every set back is an opportunity for a comeback” Saj Zafar, Leadership Psychologist, ex Prison Governor and IoD Kent Ambassador

Saj Zafar was the youngest ever female Muslim Prison Governor and a senior government advisor for Grenfell and Windrush. The daughter of first generation migrants she experienced a turbulent upbringing in 1970s Yorkshire. Today she is an award-winning leadership psychologist, keynote speaker and an ambassador for workplace equity.

I was born in Kashmir and raised in a small mining town in South Yorkshire during the 1970s. Unfortunately, my early years were marked by cultural clashes and racism. My first day at school turned into a nightmare as I couldn’t speak English, instantly setting me apart from the other children. This was the beginning of bullying by my peers and frustrations from my teachers.

By the time I was eleven, after-school detention became my norm, and one evening I was stabbed by school bullies. Life continued to worsen as I struggled to navigate two polarized cultures. By the age of fifteen, I had overdosed and was diagnosed with an identity crisis, prompting my parents to send me to Kashmir with a one-way ticket. I lived there for two years, four months, and fifteen days.

I negotiated a return to the UK to study forensic psychology at the University of Sheffield, with the understanding that I would go through with an arranged marriage upon completing my degree. However, when the time came, my tutor helped me run away. After six weeks, I emerged from hiding and met with my father. In hindsight, my father made one of the most difficult decisions of his life by agreeing to let me pursue independence, something unheard of in our culture. With immense courage, he chose to let me go. I fled to London and began a new chapter in my life.

I started my career as a Forensic Psychologist, setting up the first therapeutic sex offenders unit at Feltham Youth Offender Institution. I caught the attention of senior leaders who saw potential in me that I didn’t even know I had. The unit became recognized for its good practice, and a senior leader used his influence to enrol me in the HMPS Leadership Programme. Graduating from the fast-track leadership program in 2001, I became the youngest Asian, Muslim woman to become a UK prison governor.

My first appointment was at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, where I quickly realised that the leadership programme hadn’t fully prepared me for the unique challenges of being a young, female Muslim leader in a male prison. To navigate this environment, I learned to ‘edit’ myself. I didn’t dehumanize, but I did defeminise; anything that made me look pretty or attractive was edited out. I developed my signature look – grey and black trouser suits, polo necks, and sensible flat shoes.

I believe this helped me command respect and authority in a predominantly male environment. When I fell in love, got married and started a family, I realised that being a prison governor and having babies wasn’t compatible. I took the decision to leave the prison service and moved into central government. Recognised as someone who thrived in challenging areas of business, I took up engagement lead opportunities for both Grenfell and Windrush.

Through my various roles, I’ve discovered that following the textbook rarely leads to significant impact. It’s when I connect with my authentic, human self that I experience breakthroughs. By combining what’s in my heart and head, I’ve found a winning formula. This approach continues to serve me well as I run my own leadership business. I’ve made it a priority to distil all my learnings into my intensive training programmes, ensuring that others can benefit from my experiences.

As the founder and CEO of LeadHERship Academy I am on a mission to help women, particularly women of colour, position themselves strategically for career success. My programmes are based on three pillars; mindset, performance and results. I am proud that after four years we are now becoming the fastest growing personal and professional development platform for women in the UK.

I joined the IoD last year after meeting Kent Chair, Sweena Badham, at an event. I was pleasantly surprised to find an Asian woman in this role. It encouraged me to see myself as part of this esteemed institution. I am now the IoD Equality, Diversity and Inclusion ambassador for Kent and a member of the Glass Ceiling Special Interest Group. I am looking forward to getting more involved empowering more women and helping business leaders recognise the importance of creating inclusive cultures through the IoD.

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