Dalia Mogahed ’97 doesn’t have a simple answer for what she wanted to be when she grew up. She has an answer — a great one — just not a childlike one: “I always wanted to do something that would help massive numbers of people live dignified lives,” she says. “As far as what I remember wanting to do was a pursuit of justice.” She thought the justice would come by way of science — engineering, specifically — which she studied at UW–Madison. Her parents were professors in the College of Engineering, making it a “natural development” in her trajectory. Before her winter 1997 commencement, Mogahed already had a job lined up with Procter & Gamble, where she had interned for three summers. From 1998 to 2001, she worked at P&G’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, doing products research. Then, in 2001, she decided to leave the company and pursue an MBA in Pittsburgh. Her plans changed on the day she intended to hit the road and make the move. That day was September 11, 2001.
Here are 10 questions with Dalia Mogahed, covering everything from how 9/11 sent her career down an unexpected path to the advice she’s learned along the way.
The day you were set to move from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh was September 11, 2001. What was that like?
It was horrible. It was a horrible day, so we decided to wait one day before we drove. Everything was packed, and we were about to leave that morning. The horrible events of that day made us stay one more day and move the next day. That was kind of a turning point in my life.
All through college, even though I was an engineer, I was very involved in work that has to do with educating the campus community about Muslims and Islam and raising awareness about the suffering of people around the world. When 9/11 happened, that activist in me got reactivated. I felt like I needed to do more to build bridges between people of different backgrounds. As I started my MBA, I also began a program in the local Islamic center in Pittsburgh to do outreach and education on Muslims and Islam. I did that during my grad school days and grew that program quite a bit.
After grad school, you went to work at Gallup as a management consultant but got involved in the company’s inaugural and now-famous World Poll. What drew you to that?
I started to analyze the surveys from Muslim-majority countries to find answers to these questions people were always asking about what Muslims thought and who they were. I said, finally, we actually have data. Now we can democratize that debate and give people a voice, allow them to speak for themselves. It was really exciting for me to be able to analyze that data. On my evenings and weekends, I was poring over that data, bringing the skills I learned as an engineer to this work, and I created a presentation from that telling a story about who these people really were and what they believed.
That work led to you becoming the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies — what an incredible journey!
It really was! It was incredible. I got to write a book [Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think], which then was eventually sent to every member of Congress. One of those was a senator in Illinois named Senator Barack Obama. He was one of, like, two or three Congress members who wrote back and thanked us for the book. I had his letter, and I was, like, oh, that’s an interesting name: Barack Obama. I had never heard of him at the time. Eventually I was appointed as an adviser to him on the topic, I think as a result of the book. And the rest is history. It was a wonderful honor.
Now you head up research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. What’s your day-to-day like?
We do research on the American Muslim community, and we educate policymakers and the public on the community. We also serve the community by sharing research and recommendations on how the community can develop as well. My day-to-day work is overseeing large research projects, writing papers, reviewing documents, speaking to the media, doing a lot of public speaking about our discoveries. I love my work. I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.
That seems very different from chemical engineering. Has any of that education been helpful in your current work?
I’m really grateful to have had a science background … because what I get to do is apply the tools of the scientific method, objective inquiry, research, to a highly contested, emotional topic. It’s very valuable to have that science background, to have those skills of inquiry to put aside your bias and look at the data objectively.
What was it like to turn your passion for social justice into a career?
It was both exhilarating and completely terrifying. The stakes got so high, and I was so afraid of failure. It was at once crippling and very motivating. I had to break out of that sense of being frozen with fear — what if I mess up? what if I let everybody down? — to allow that terror to propel me forward. It really felt like a dream in many ways. I never thought I’d get to work with that kind of platform and at that level.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your career so far?
Something that was really satisfying was to see our research inform the historic speech that Obama gave in Cairo in 2009. So many of the themes were really informed from our research. [We found that] more than anything, people wanted to feel respected. That was a very dominant theme in his remarks. People wanted partnerships over paternalism. They didn’t want aid, they wanted empowerment and partnerships. They wanted exchange. They wanted to feel like they were being seen as equals. I was really proud of the fact that so many of those themes were directly translated into the speech. I was really, really honored by that because I got to actually experience the speech in real time, in Cairo, which is where I was born. It was a really special moment for me.
Your career has followed kind of an unconventional path. Do you think that’s becoming the norm now?
I think jobs just aren’t what they used to be. At Procter & Gamble, people would start there when they were 22 and leave when they were 65 and a millionaire. Those jobs just don’t exist anymore. It’s also the reality of what corporate America looks like now.
With that in mind, what advice do you have for current Badgers?
I think you should think about what you want to do in the next five years. What do you want your first job to be? It’s not going to be your job forever. Pick something, frankly, that is practical and that there is a demand for. I’m going to be a real parent right now! Something that’s going to help you pay off your student loans, get an okay apartment, and [buy] a car. I guess my advice is, be both practical and passionate at the same time. Practical in the short term, passionate in the long term. What you do in college does not define the rest of your life. You can always make change.
A version of this interview originally appeared in On Wisconsin magazine.