Umra Omar kicks of the 2017 Top 40 under 40 women series, and deservedly so. When I approached her to be a part of this, she was more than willing to do it and she struck me as a very humble woman. She is bold and utterly phenomenal.
Umra Omar is the Founder of Safari Doctors, an organisation she started in 2014 to provide accessibility and mobility of health services to remote villages in Lamu, Kenya. Umra was last month nominated as the most influential person of African descent by the United Nations, under the humanitarian category, in recognition of her organization Safari Doctors. In 2016, she was listed among CNN Heroes and earlier this year nominated for the African Leaders for Change Awards in South Africa.
She has certainly set the tone for this interview series... Buckle up and enjoy! J
C: What do you consider as your greatest achievement to date?
U: Of course number one is the cliché but severely underrated - the earned title of Mama. This means the joy of building a roof over my children’s lives and a little schooling to go with that- being constantly on my toes to nurture healthy babies full of grit and joy. That aside, my greatest achievement to date is being able to sit down at the end of every day, stare into the endless sky and feel like I am making a difference in my world and get to fully engage with friends and family. It is both rewarding and scary to put together a committed team for whom work is more than a job, it is a purpose. All in all, it is more than an achievement - it is a major blessing!
C: What has your career path been like as you have navigated through your chosen field leading up to your current role/position?
U: My so-called career path has been super windy. I felt like I had to study the sciences to qualify as smart and have a job as a doctor yet I preferred swimming classes and hoped to be an 100m Breast Stroke Olympian. I had a hard time studying for my exams because I wanted to learn salsa dancing instead. Haha!
And not to mention, my best performing class in University was visual arts. What I was yet to discover deep down is that I am a creative at heart with a spirit that feeds on everything to do with serving humanity. This is something that a lot of the ‘prescribed/chosen fields’ do not offer at an early age. You can study medicine and become a doctor. Or go the legal route and become a lawyer - so on and so forth. A chosen field - begs the question of ‘chosen by whom?’ This is because you can only choose from a set of options set by someone/thing else.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience with a Masters in Social Justice and worked at the American Psychological Association. A couple of years later I moved from the United States to Kenya to work with the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa. These were both very promising jobs supporting societies to thrive. However, the biggest missing element in my previous jobs has been community connection. This is what led me to quit and a year later, I stumbled upon a conversation about a medical initiative in Lamu that had come to a halt. And that is how I founded Safari Doctors. I never studied medicine, but I now have the pleasure of sharing the pursuit of health with those that have limited access.
C: What advice would you offer to young people on figuring out the balance between work, family life and social life?
U: It is very easy to feel like you do not have the time for certain aspects of your life. The problem is that you are not making the time. I am yet to master this process (if there is anything like mastering time management). Haha! I have been fortunate to be living in a place and with a group of people with whom work, family and social life intersect rather well here in Lamu. I am sure once you add 2 hours of traffic in the equation then balancing that becomes a different beast all together. One of the best culprits in figuring out this mix is technology, aka the smart phone!
(Cant we all relate?)
I am working on a personal policy that if I am in the middle of something and the phone rings - if it would be inappropriate for the person calling to be right in front on me at that given time - then I should not be picking up right then. I should text if I can or call them back later.
C: What is your greatest piece of advice to the young upwardly mobile individual?
U: Animal biology is a class that is not on any school curriculum in Kenya where wildlife tourism contributes to more than 14% of our Gross Domestic Product. Moral of the story is my greatest piece of advice - don’t rely on choosing a field - create one. A lot of what we learn is not necessarily what we love, nor is it in some cases what our circumstances need. Dare to dream and fly out of the box!
C: What is the greatest lesson/ nugget that you have picked up in life?
U: Wow. Heavy question. In the 34 years of my life, the greatest lesson that I have learned is not to burn any bridge - keep creating them. You never know when or how your actions will either help you cash in or go bankrupt in the currency of life. However big or small. You will be very surprised how this trickles out to those around you even generations to come. A lot of what we are able to do with Safari Doctors today is thanks to my father’s role in Lamu before I was even born. Some of the villages that we visit are extra welcoming because of his connections with them decades ago. I have travelled to a meeting in New York only to sit in the same room as a visitor that I shared a boat ride with at Lamu Airport. I have learned that all connections count, from the fisherman to the senior executive, the young to the elderly, regardless of season or reason.
‘’No matter where you go, don’t lose who you are.’’ Leanne Caret, President and CEO of Defence, Space& Security, Boeing
See you next week Tuesday morning where I will share with you another phenomenal story. A story of a woman who is working to solve one of humanities BIGGEST challenges and who believes that“One can be beautiful, strong, confident, a great wife and mother while still being a kick-ass professional all in a day!’
Catch you then! J