Kanwal Jehan: From Law Firm Paralegal to Head of Community at Hayo
My choice meant experimenting and taking a risk. It was a huge risk to quit my job to enter into the program, not knowing what the results would be.
Kanwal Jehan decided at a young age that she would become a lawyer.
Daughter of a Pakistani family, she sought a role in which she could empower the women of her country to gain freedom, independence and security. Kanwal was ambitious and determined, and she held onto this goal as she grew, diligently studying to fulfill it.
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After graduation, Kanwal joined a law firm as a paralegal and was on track to fulfill her childhood dream, when her father's untimely death and a growing urge to be creative began to make her feel stuck.
Despite uncertainty and grief, Kanwal continued to work as a paralegal over the next three years. She filed paperwork, worked long hours, and felt like she was constantly checking emails. She gained transferable skills in the experience which taught her to work under pressure, project manage effectively, and remain patient and positive through difficult situations—in her own words, "get shit done." But it wasn't the empowering experience she had hoped for. Finally, her desire for creativity, autonomy, and a challenge that would truly stretch her led her to consider making a career transition.
Director of community at Hayo, Startup Institute digital marketing course alumna, and strong Pakistani woman and leader.
What changed for me was that, when I had finally woken up after the trauma of losing my father, I was ready to make the change happen. I was eager, hungry and willing to learn. I wanted something new, something different... However, I was very logical and reasonable. I thought, 'I have a good job that pays me really well.' I told myself to stick to the plan, because if I believed that if I went away from it, I was going to lose my momentum.
It was when her younger brother encouraged her to read Do Cool Sh*t, by Miki Agrawal, that she was inspired to explore the tech community. After attending many tech networking events, she stumbled on Startup Institute New York's Talent Expo. As our graduates were giving their 60-second pitches to an audience of CEOs, founders, and hiring managers, something clicked for her. She realized that she wanted to be on that stage—and that this was her moment to make change happen. After the event, she went back to her office and immediately applied for the upcoming cohort's digital marketing course.
"I knew something had changed... I used to be singularly focused on becoming a lawyer—being a good daughter—and being that one thing for the rest of my life," Kanwal told us. "This all changed in a matter of minutes because I made the decision to do something other than just sit at my desk at the firm."
On her first day, she realized that she loved being part of a community, and began telling everyone that community management was the career path she wanted to take. She didn't precisely know what this meant or what it would look like, but it felt natural to say out loud—it felt like a fit. Soon enough, she said, job opportunities, interesting events—anything relating to community—was falling into her lap.
I grew up in a Pakistani family with two amazing parents who taught me to be respectful, to care for my elders, love my family and friends, treat others as I would like to be treated, and much more. With a country full of so much culture and history, how could I not understand what a community is or means?
Two years after graduation, Kanwal now works as Head of Community at Hayo. The work is challenging, but she loves it. Every day is a new adventure. She gets to wear many hats—from community management and social media to event planning and business development. As a leader who loves problem-solving and the chance to add new skills to her repertoire, she says she was made for building community.
My goals are more adventurous now. I am open to newer opportunities and comfortable making career decisions by myself. I can see where I am going and, if along the way I get lost, I will find my way back. I know now it's okay to get lost and make mistakes.
Kanwal says that her career trajectory has always about been about being strong and helping others. It was only through joining the innovation sector and getting into marketing and community that she realized she could be a leader no matter what title, position, or responsibilities she held. Kanwal brings a unique and impassioned perspective to her community development because she firmly believes that how you treat and engage your members determines the success of that community.
When asked about her perspective on community management in tech, Kanwal said, "startups talk about creating communities, but they forget that communities don't grow on trees. They take time—," she told us,"—months to grow, but then years to retain people within the communities. A community is made up of people who have common interests and goals. When a community no longer fulfills the needs or wants of its members, they will leave it. And this is okay, because their time has come and someone new will need to join the community to bring value to it. "
Now, Kanwal believes opportunities come at the right time—when you are ready for them. In her case, she understands that she always had the makings of a strong leader, and cultivating community is a part of her heritage and DNA. But it took recognizing the right opportunity when it presented itself to ultimately bring her embrace these natural strengths. She had to be open when the opportunity arose, and self-aware enough to realize it was right. For her, choosing to learn marketing and pursue a new career path meant moving forward with something both frightening and exciting.
We can't move forward if we don't make a choice. The decisions you make, make you, YOU.
I took the leap, chose marketing and community building, and now it's a huge part of me. I have many other talents and skills, but I would have never discovered these if I didn't take the risk. Who knew I would enjoy digital marketing so much and that I was born to do community building? It just comes naturally to me.