Rimla Akhtar MBE CA on how sport can transform lives

Rimla Akhtar
robert-outram By Robert Outram, CA magazine

12 October 2016

One Young CA winner for 2016 Rimla Akhtar MBE CA speaks to Robert Outram on her decision to become a CA, and her work championing diversity through sport.

Rimla Akhtar's amazing journey has taken her from kickabouts in the street to the governing body of the Football Association, where her work promoting diversity and participation in sport earned her an MBE in 2015.

She is the first Muslim woman to sit on the FA Council and is Chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF). Her work spans from community groups, to the Government and as far afield as the US, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and across Europe.

From chemistry to sport

The power of sport to change people’s lives was something that became apparent very early on in her life.

“If you were born in the 1980s, as I was, it was difficult for people who weren’t white. We were the first non-white family on our street," Rimla recalls.

“There was a lot of racism; for me it was verbal. My two older brothers protected me and I used to do the things that they did, including sport, playing football with them on the street.

“In sport, no one cared about the colour of my skin or whether I wore a piece of cloth over my head. They just cared about how well I could play.”

She took part in her first five-a-side tournament in primary school, aged just 10, and football became a passion throughout her years in education. In 2005, the year she graduated with a chemistry degree from London’s Imperial College, she captained the British Muslim Women’s futsal team at the Women’s Islamic Games in Iran. 

No one cared about the colour of my skin or whether I wore a piece of cloth over my head.

“The Women’s Islamic Games provides an all-female environment, so women of all faith groups can feel comfortable there. Captaining the team was a huge honour,” she said.

Futsal, though not so well known in the UK, is an indoor variant of soccer popular around the world and it has been credited with honing the skills of young players in countries like Brazil.

Rimla’s role was not confined to leading on the pitch, however. She was also helping with key tasks like logistics, administration and securing sponsorship to get the team to the games with very little funding up front.

She came across the CA qualification during a year out from university, working with EY, and she had a strong feeling that the potential of business and management skills to help change the world would appeal to her more than a career in science. 

As she put it: “It challenged me as an individual. I found science was very literal while business involves long-term vision. I felt I could create a greater impact as a CA.”

'Doors started opening for me'

Rimla trained as a CA with PwC, eventually becoming a senior associate. At the same time her commitment to sport and to encouraging participation was as strong as ever.

She said: “If you are passionate about something, and you are motivated to get things done, things become easier. It’s a question of being organised. It was like doing two full-time jobs at the same time, but it was a defining period for me.”

Rimla got involved with the FA after the MSWF began to concentrate on a more grassroots strategy, focusing on participation rather than just on the national team. 

“Doors started opening, for me and for the Foundation. Organisations like the FA are also trying to embed this thinking into their own strategy, and there is a real desire for change," she commented.

Sport helps to bring people together. I'm optimistic.

Rimla believes she can already see a change in thinking in communities that haven’t traditionally accessed sport, but there is more to be done. 

She stressed that the barriers to girls getting involved in sport – like the need to build up confidence – are very similar, whatever the individual’s background. They are not unique to a particular community.

Last year she set up RimJhim Consulting to work with businesses and social enterprises.

“RimJhim is about celebrating diversity and working with strong values," she explained. "We’ve done a huge variety of work, from public speaking to strategic and practical work with UK and overseas governments, the English Premier League, Sport England and others.

“There is an underlying issue about community cohesion due to fear of the ‘other’, but sport helps to bring people together," she added.

"I’m optimistic, as an individual. I would rather look at solutions than problems.”

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