Helping worlds collide
This year – her 30th, no less – Rahaf Harfoush took a break from her birthday tradition of visualizing goals for herself. A break, though, would seem to be the one goal this woman can’t manage.
She’s spent the past two years researching and writing as a digital foresight strategist for a co-authored New York Times nonfiction bestseller, while also somehow squeezing in time to complete a murder mystery set in Boston. (She’s not decided yet whether that should see the light of day.)
You might be forgiven for not knowing what exactly a digital foresight strategist does. Rahaf did, after all, partly carve out this title. What may help is reading her latest book, The Decoded Company: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers. In it, the writing team advises companies on how best to use data to foster talent. World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab has called it “a management toolkit for the future.”
If that’s not your thing, you could read Yes We Did, Rahaf’s book about – yep, you guessed it – how social media changed everything in political campaigns after 2008, based on her insights while volunteering with President Barack Obama’s digital media team during his election campaign.
But if you don’t have that kind of time, you could look up one of Rahaf’s many appearances (including one Wall Street TEDx event) in which she speaks on the intersections between technology, politics and business.
Rahaf’s passion for tech started at an early age, an intimate bond shared with her tech-savvy, sci-fi-loving father. Her interest in strategy came a bit later, as she was pursuing her HBA from Western’s Ivey School of Business. “It demystifies success,” she explained. “It makes everything feel attainable – it’s just a plan.”
She may be a great strategist, but her career happened by discovery. She'd assumed she’d work in a multinational corporation but after several internships, discovered it wasn’t quite the right fit.
She also credits mentorship and a generous tech community in Toronto for tremendous support along the way. It was Don Tapscott, Canadian thought and business leader, for example, who encouraged Rahaf to go her own way and exposed her to a more global realm of possibility.
Still, it wasn’t always easy: she had to work long hours for free or little money to prove herself, and there was no steady paycheque or manager to depend on. But the path she took was a good fit for her curious, exploratory personality. As one of her mentors had told her, “You can ask people for their advice … but at the end of the day, you’re going to have to be the one to walk through that door.”
Scary, but if she’s not a little frightened, something is wrong. “Fear becomes a tool. If I’m not really scared then it just means I’m not really pushing myself enough to grow and to keep moving.”
While some people spend a lifetime seeking the success and accolades she’s already achieved, what Rahaf is most proud of is somewhat surprising.
“I’ve created a life by design ... in a way that’s very true to myself. I’ve been able to infuse balance.”
“The achievements themselves at the end of the day don’t mean anything to me ... Am I waking up feeling excited, am I feeling fulfilled, am I feeling healthy, am I feeling satisfied, am I feeling connected? Those to me are the more important priorities.”
It’s something she is immensely grateful for, particularly considering developments in her birth country of Syria. “Had my parents done one or two things differently, that could have been me. It could be me in the street, it could be me out there protesting and fighting and living through this incredibly chaotic time.” What they did do was leave Syria when Rahaf was just five, with two suitcases in hand and three months’ worth of money to live on. Her mother, a trained architect, had minimal English and took a job at Tim Horton’s. Her father, an engineer, started a family business from their basement.
After spending most of her life in Toronto, Rahaf moved to Paris, where she enjoys a great balance between work and fine wine, cheese and company with her husband and dog, Pixel. And about one to two books a week. Every once in awhile she stops by a Syrian shop just to hear the dialect.
And why France? Well, it started with a vision ...