In the self-help sections of bookstores, titles such as James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” or Stephen Covey’s, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” often line the shelves. Seldom do we see publications written by women of color who are immigrants from East Africa, single mothers, and members of the Ismaili community.
This will soon change with the June release of global empowerment speaker and former IBM Vice President, Shelmina Babai Abji’s own book: “Show Your Worth: 8 Intentional Strategies for Women to Emerge as Leaders at Work.”
Growing up in Mwanza, Tanzania, Shelmina came from humble beginnings. She and her three siblings shared a bedroom in their apartment, and her mother cooked and sold vitumbuas (fried rice cakes) to supplement her husband’s income and help raise their four children. Though the family did not have a disposable income, Shelmina fondly recalls that she was raised with love, laughter, and delicious food on the table.
“I grew up in a family that had deep values - the Ismaili values of integrity, generosity, respect, trust, seva, and giving back - and really that is what built my foundation,” recalls Shelmina.
Realizing the power and importance of education, another tenet of the Ismaili faith, was a crucial moment in Shelmina’s life. When she was in third grade, she brought home her report card. Printed on thin, peach-colored paper, her grades stood out as mostly D’s and F’s – Shelmina had ranked 27 out of 30 in her class. When her mother saw the report card, she began to cry, tears rolling down her face as she stood over a frying pan of vitumbuas.
It was the look of disappointment and sadness on her mother’s face that motivated Shelmina to change her priorities and focus on her studies. This moment not only made her realize the value of education but also the possibility that one can achieve different outcomes when they shift their priorities.
“That was the turning point of my life,” Shelmina writes in chapter one of her book. “I loved my mom so much. It pained me deeply to hurt her, and I promised myself that I’d get good grades to make her happy.”
It was Shelmina’s determination, perseverance, and hard work that enabled her to complete primary and secondary schooling, get a degree in Mathematics in India, and then travel across the world to obtain another Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (CS) from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Driven by her desire to lift herself and her family out of poverty, Shelmina was the first in her family to obtain a college degree. She worked 35-40 hours a week as an undergraduate in addition to carrying a full course load in CS.
Upon graduation, Shelmina realized that her credentials were not enough to earn her a high-paying job. Still on a student visa, she handed out her resume to nearly 300 companies at a New Orleans computer science conference and only received one interview - where she took the job. She remarks:
“I started looking around and saw that no one looked like me,” she described. “No
one talked like me with my accent. Everyone had more experience than I did.
Most of them had Master’s and PhD degrees or went to higher-ranked
universities than I went to. I never really thought about it until I came into my
workplace and started comparing myself to all these people.”
At first, Shelmina undermined her own capabilities and underestimated her worth, which bled into her actions and behaviors at work. With time, she realized that if she didn’t find a way to create unique value - not just value - then she would be out of a job and replaced by an American citizen.
In her book, talks and articles, TEDx Talk, “Can Fear Advance Your Career?” and https://the.ismaili/usa/what-it-takes-be-effective-woman-leader, Shelmina emphasizes the importance of believing in oneself and overcoming one’s fear of speaking up:
“When we don’t see people that look like us in a room - and also people that don’t
look like us in leadership ranks - we don’t envision ourselves there and we start
short-changing ourselves. I had to realize that what I considered my weakness -
the fact that I was different from everyone - was actually my strength because I
had a unique life journey,” she says.
Shelmina adds, “What I learned is I needed to lean into my uniqueness - I needed to be proud of where I was coming from and the way I solved problems.”
It was these experiences that shaped Shelmina to later coin a term called the” power quotient,” which she also describes in chapter four of her book. Similar to an intelligence or emotional quotient, the power quotient is the power one has to choose, an empowering response to a negative stimulus.
“How you show up and the response you pick to any situation is entirely in your power. No one can make you feel small unless you give them the power. No one can undermine your capabilities unless you give them the power,” Shelmina says. She continues: “The world takes you at your own estimate. If you start undermining your capabilities and underestimating your worth, the world will underestimate your worth.”
Over the years, Shelmina continued to rise in her ranks, serving as a sales executive, then director of sales, and eventually becoming one of the highest-ranking women of color as Vice President at IBM in 2011. In 2014, after reflecting on her career, she decided to leave IBM and focus her time on paying forward, considering how she could have a maximum impact on others.
“When you’re paying it forward, you have to look at - what is it that I can contribute
to the world that’s unique to me? Where I found my passion and my purpose and
what I could uniquely bring to the table [was] sharing my insights on how I moved
ahead,” she comments.
This led Shelmina to become a women’s empowerment speaker, speaking at conferences, corporations and universities, and serving on the advisory board of Girl Up, an organization founded by the United Nations to empower girls globally.
It also led her to write a book describing eight Intentional Strategies to help people advance their careers - particularly women of color and also written with Ismailis in mind. Riddled with anecdotes from Shelmina’s life, reflection questions, and intentional exercises, the book serves as a mentor and guide for the reader, while also putting ownership on them to take responsibility for their own success.
At the start of her book, Shelmina challenges readers to define long-term success, considering where the person wants to be in five years. At the same time, she acknowledges that failure does not exist when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone.
“It’s really important to recognize that we NEED to step outside of our comfort
zone because the outcome doesn’t matter. You will either grow your competence
or you will learn what you are not good at,” she notes. “Either way you will make
a better decision for future success.”
Each remaining chapter of the book focuses on an intentional strategy, chapter two dives deeper into intentional attention, or becoming more deliberate on where one focuses their time and priorities. Chapter three focuses on intentional work-life balance, setting boundaries to nurture and protect one’s inner well-being. Another chapter discusses intentional growth, deliberately seeking ways to grow and learn, step outside one’s comfort zone, build competence, and also reflect upon one’s growth.
Shelmina believes that all of her life experiences, personal hardships, and lessons learned have set her up to write this book. She concludes our conversation thus:
“This book is my Time and Knowledge Nazrana to the women of the world.” My
goal is to help women advance in their careers and rise up the ranks of
leadership so we can have gender equality in leadership roles at every level -
so we can be present in every room where decisions are made.”
For more information about Shelmina’s book, please visit www.shelmina.com.