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Spotlight Feature on Zahra Qureshi, Social Venture Circuit

Meet Zahra Qureshi – Founder at Social Venture Circuit and Optinum Professional Corporation. 

A serial entrepreneur, Zahra is on a mission to support changemakers across Canada to champion the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and positively impact people, communities and the planet. With this belief at the heart of her efforts, she uses her skills as a Chartered Professional Accountant to make seemingly scary or unfriendly topics like finance and funding easier and more fun to learn. 

“I love this mission because finance should not be an issue that holds back innovators and changemakers who want to make the world a better place and it is a key skill for them as leaders.”

Zahra’s journey to social entrepreneurship 

Zahra realized early on in her career how overwhelming terms like accounting systems, finance concepts, impact planning tools and due diligence are. So, with more than 12 years of experience, she set out on a mission to reduce this stress for entrepreneurs and equip them with strategic clarity for achieving financial sustainability, powerful growth, and positive social change. 

“Family has always been an inspiration for me. Growing up in an entrepreneurial household, becoming one was a natural choice for me.” 

When she started Optinum Professional Corporation to provide financial and accounting services, Zahra found her niche through client feedback and corresponding needs assessments. Creating impact is about helping others, and as such, one of Zahra’s biggest priorities is collecting and incorporating feedback into everything that she does. She describes it, however, as more than simply collecting customer feedback through surveys. While interacting with Zahra, one thing that will immediately strike you is her knack for turning challenges into opportunities. So, when she spends time going over feedback and strategic planning, she focuses carefully on the outputs and outcomes. “What am I spending time on? Why is it important? Is it actually working?” are just some of the questions at the top of her list. A lot of value comes from this framework to help make decisions and grow. This is also what created the inspiration to launch Social Venture Circuit in 2020 just after the pandemic started.

Social Venture Circuit is a not-for-profit social enterprise that provides social impact leaders and changemakers with support to learn how to better operate a social enterprise business model and also to share their mission with others. Zahra‘s aim is to make it easier for impact-focused leaders to balance purpose and profit while learning and growing together. 

Zahra’s own journey for entrepreneurship and social impact hasn’t been without its challenges. “The startup learning phase was really inspiring and I celebrated every win with a lot of excitement. Launching a business has been more than a full-time role, and sharing that journey with peers on the same path has kept me motivated,” says Zahra. Some weeks, rejuvenation was actually just about getting time to step back from the day-to-day operations to reflect and look at her big-picture vision again.

Mindful of how hard it is to build, sustain, and manage a business while achieving balance with personal life, Zahra wants to make it easier for social entrepreneurs to prioritize their values, sustainability, and impact throughout their journey. To that end, we asked Zahra about what motivates her, and her answers were the most humble. “The people I get to work with – I work with social entrepreneurs that bring so much passion into doing what they do, and helping others. It is so energizing and fulfilling.” Zahra also spoke about how proud she feels to hear back from participants on the value they get from Social Venture Circuit’s events and programs. 

When speaking about the impact Social Venture Circuit has on social entrepreneurs, she iterates how her community is able to learn new ideas to apply to their business, take back resources to add to their business leadership toolkit, and create new collaborations that enrich their work in the long term. Since April 2021, Zahra has also been the Community Leader for social enterprise with Startup Canada to create programming focused on social impact for its national community.

“After 2 years of operation, I love that Social Venture Circuit’s community continues to participate actively and comes back to share these stories with me.”

Along the way, Zahra is still mastering how to wear all of the hats that come with entrepreneurship, especially with social impact. Her mantra is to know her strengths, always keep learning, and collaborate! With that in mind, she is already looking for the next big mountain to climb. A perfectionist in everything she does, Zahra hopes to keep growing capacity to work with more Social Purpose Organizations without compromising on quality and results with any new programs or additions to the team. 

Social Venture Circuit’s mission aligns with targets and outcomes for better support and economic feasibility under Sustainable Development Goals 8 – ‘Decent work and economic growth’ and Sustainable Development Goal 9- ‘Industry innovation and infrastructure’.

Social Venture Circuit meets the Investment Readiness Program

The Investment Readiness Program, or IRP, was first launched as a pilot program between 2019-21. In 2020 when applying for the IRP, Social Venture Circuit was less than a year old, a team of two with some market research initiatives and one event under its belt. 

Being specifically designed for social enterprises and open to diversity in terms of the organization’s vision and legal setup, Zahra explained the IRP as a program that focuses on projects that drive mission and operations further, and grow internal capacity.  She viewed the IRP as something that gives clarity on assessing where a Social Purpose Organization is at and what the next steps for growth look like to become investment ready, and have sustainable operations. So, Zahra saw this as an opportunity to sit down and translate ideas into a business plan to apply for funding from the Investment Readiness Program. 

“We were ready with some market research. The IRP funding helped Social Venture Circuit take the market research we had done, go through a process of critical analysis, identify opportunities and plan next steps. We also put together our revenue model and a social impact blueprint.”

Zahra and Social Venture Circuit’s journey is inspirational. They attribute their stable and steady growth to their community and collaboration. Laser-focused on furthering their impact, Zahra has also taken on the role of an advisor, championing social entrepreneurs seeking funding and becoming investment ready. Needless to say, Zahra found extreme joy and contentment through this process. She works with social entrepreneurs to dig deeper into how to communicate a more detailed social impact blueprint and carefully consider the budget and project return on investment.

“I helped plan some potential projects that I would contribute to as a service provider and provided a proposal/quotation. This collaboration strengthened the application and project plan.”

We chatted with Zahra about what advice she would pass on to any new entrepreneurs seeking IRP funding to advance the SDGs. “First and foremost”, she says, “businesses need to use the SDGs effectively to drive change and define outputs and outcomes –the work you do in your organization, and the results that this work generates, respectively. You might have to use a combination of goals and targets from 2-3 SDGs to tell your complete story.” Zahra emphasizes on taking some time to understand the mission of the program, how it fits into your organization and carefully looking into who you want to work with and what the funds will be used for. It is very important to scope out potential projects and costs with consultants and service providers ahead of time.  As a reminder, she asserts that the program partners ultimately want you to succeed and have a lot of support to offer. Use that to get support for your application and project implementation after as well.

“I had a long to-do list of things to accomplish and resources to bring in. I prioritized what would bring the best value in our next steps and the outlook for the next 3 to 6 months that would allow us to make the most of that work.”

Keeping up with trends & mental health

We believe in and champion Zahra’s big vision for Canada and the world over the next 10 years. She hopes for advancement in the impact sector as more businesses are able to operate using social enterprise models that incorporate impact as a priority and are able to maintain that sustainably. 

“I am also seeing more entrepreneurs that are bringing ideas for social impact focused on prevention when it comes to systemic issues and seeking adoption of new ways to do things. I hope that we can create space for these ideas to gain traction and create transformation.”

To drive innovation and creation of products and services, Social Venture Circuit advocates for human-centred design thinking and systems thinking. To stay on track as an entrepreneur, it is important to have a network that can relate to and support your journey. They can provide a sounding board, advice and mental health support.

“I do like to get away from spreadsheets and the computer screen – and read a book, make a puzzle, or play board games with family. Catching up with friends over good food, especially Sunday brunch with coffee, are my version of a mental health break and rejuvenation.”

Footnote: Zahra Qureshi (she/her) is a Chartered Professional Accountant (CMA). She is the Principal and coach at Optimum Professional Corporation; and Executive Director at Social Venture Circuit. You can follow her on Linkedin as Zahra Qureshi , and learn more about Optinum and Social Venture Circuit.