Aleena Mazhar: From fitting in, to standing out

Aleena Mazhar was 17 years old when she and her family arrived in Canada from Saudi Arabia. It was shortly after 9/11, and people from the Middle East were regarded with suspicion by many westerners. At an age when fitting in is so important, the teenage Mazhar responded by suppressing her true identity in an attempt to “westernize” her values.

This went on for a dozen or so years, all through university and into the early stages of her career. “The goal was always to fit in,” she says. “Anything that was different about me stopped me from fitting in, so I didn’t talk about the fact that I was an immigrant, or that I didn’t get the cultural references people were making. I never owned up to that, because I was trying so, so hard to fit in.”

But one day early in her career, while sitting in—and still “fitting in”—on a strategy session focusing on newcomers, where people with no firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to come to a new country were weighing in on the immigrant experience, she rediscovered the voice that had been dormant for so many years.

“I used it to express my background, experience, and the hardships we had to endure as newcomers,” she says. “It was a brave moment to stand out when you’re taught [as an immigrant] to blend in.”

That single action became something of a catalyst for Mazhar, providing her with the realization that her lived experience—and her voice—could help those who are following in her footsteps.

“She essentially hid herself for 12 years, and then decided one day that she was going to be brave enough to speak up and represent herself,” said one Mighty Women judge. “She found her power in that, which I think is just incredibly impressive.”

A lot of newcomers to Canada simply “want to fit in and not rock the boat,” said another. “It seems like she did what she had to do to [fit in], and then when she found her voice she started to exercise it… and celebrate other voices that were like hers.”

Another judge found the idea of Mazhar not being her true self particularly resonant, since it’s something women have done for so long in the traditionally male-dominated industry. “But this is on a whole other level,” they said.

Since finding her voice, Mazhar, who is now vice-president, managing director, partner of Toronto’s Fuse Create, has become a vocal supporter of immigrants and newcomers, and has taken an active role in groups like People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing.

The 2020 murder of George Floyd had a particularly galvanizing effect on Mazhar. “I took a hard look in the mirror to rethink my personal values and objectives and the impact I wanted to have,” she says. “While I was trying to fit in so much, I just avoided talking about the things that actually made my voice important and made me special, and that millions of other Canadian immigrants can relate to.”

One of her personal mantras is to leave the industry better than she found it, which means lifting up those around her and celebrating their accomplishments. “I get so much motivation and inspiration, and feel so much comfort from my team, and I love seeing our successes,” she says. “At the same time, I love teaching and making sure people know that I have their back and we’re all supported. There is something really powerful in that.”

Mazhar’s efforts around inclusion and celebration are also matched by her business acumen. Working with Fuse Create’s senior leadership, including CEO Stephen Brown and her counterpart, SVP, executive creative director, partner Steve Miller, she helped the agency navigate a perilous period when one of the agency’s key lines of business, experiential marketing, dried up during the pandemic.

Mazhar had already established her experiential marketing credentials when she joined Fuse Create in 2015 with a mandate to start its XM division. She came highly recommended, and Brown remembers being immediately impressed.

“It’s a hybrid of being both incredibly smart and effective at her job, but she also knows that to thrive as an agency you need to move at a quick pace while being nimble, agile and strategic, and she does all of those things,” he says. “I also like her personality and I like hanging out with her and working with her.”

Fuse’s XM practice would grow to represent roughly 40% of the agency’s revenue, although even before the pandemic, it was apparent that clients were seeking more integrated solutions.

But the XM side of the business dried up virtually overnight when the pandemic hit, leading the agency to undertake what Mazhar describes as a “fundamental shift.” It amalgamated the XM practice with the integrated practice, forming a single entity with what she describes as a “creative-first mindset.”

In many ways, it was a textbook example of how to transform a business during a crisis. The agency up-skilled existing staff to ensure it didn’t lose key employees, while maintaining its culture and people-first mentality. “We made big cultural changes, won some great new clients, and focused on being the best place to work for our people,” says Mazhar. The result: A 30% increase in business; several new clients, and nearly 30 new hires last year.

Growth, whether it be personal or professional, continues to remain important to Mazhar. “I love growth period, whether it’s personal, whether it’s within my role at the agency, or whether it’s Canadian marketing’s role in global marketing.

“As long as I keep growing, that’s all I’m focused on right now,” she adds. “What I’ve learned as I’ve grown in my career is that things can change on a dime, history can happen, so keep your eyes and ears open, and keep doing the things you love. And you know, it all works out in the end.”

It sounds a lot like the voice of reason.

Chris Powell