Grace and Grit

Firestarters, I’m really excited to share more with you about someone who inspires me and someone I admire more than I can put into words — Fayruz Benyousef, who is a #MovementMaker extraordinaire.

She’s the head of her own nonprofit consultancy, with current and past clients that include Huston-Tillotson University, The Paramount Theatre, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Texas and Shalom Austin. Recently, you may have seen her being featured by the Kendra Scott brand, which said she “might just be the most inspiring woman we’ve ever met.”

Fayruz’s life of impact and meaning was forged by her earliest experiences and a family that valued learning and service. She’s honored their example in some remarkable ways.

Seeking a Better Life

Fayruz’s parents first moved to the U.S. from Tripoli, Libya, in 1973 when she was 18 months old. They moved back to Libya for a while but returned to the U.S. permanently when Fayruz was 8, settling in Pennsylvania. Fayruz’s parents came to the U.S. to pursue higher education, but also to escape the tyrannical regime of Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969 to 2011. Back home after their first stint in the U.S., they saw the chaos and hardship that now characterized the country that they loved. So they decided to return to the U.S.

Her parents’ experiences, and all they endured to give their family a better life made Fayruz a deeply grateful person even from a young age. She also appreciates what she has gained from being a part of two cultures. “I think it makes you more sensitive to a global outlook and frame of mind,” she says. She continues to hold a deep respect for what other immigrants have gone through.

Two Battles With Cancer

Soon after they moved back to the U.S., the family’s life was upended again. Her father was diagnosed with leukemia when he was only 35. Today, families affected by cancer can draw strength from support groups and online communities, but “back in the ’80s, there was nothing of that nature,” Fayruz says.

When she was 16, Fayruz herself was diagnosed with cancer — Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The illness was excruciating. Her spleen and lymph nodes from her heart to her ovaries were removed. And then there was the loneliness of being apart from other teenagers. She often felt that she was around only very young pediatric cancer patients or patients who were her parents’ or grandparents’ ages.

At the same time, though, Fayruz was discovering her own strength. A classmate once told her: “I don’t know how you’re doing this. I don’t how you could possibly keep it together.” All Fayruz could think was, “What other choice do I have?”

By her senior year, Fayruz was in remission. But around the same time, her father had a relapse. When she graduated from high school, Fayruz was a cancer survivor who had lost her own father to the disease.

Finding Her Calling

Despite all she had been through, Fayruz, like her parents, was determined to seek higher education. Through scholarships, financial aid and working three jobs, she was able to attend and graduate from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. She was considering law school or graduate school, but she also knew she needed a break after the intense years she had just lived through. So she decided to look for a job on campus. She interviewed for a position that didn’t work out. But it did put her in touch with the college’s leader of foundation and corporate relations, who had another opportunity for her in the office of annual giving.

Fayruz had discovered her calling. She loved that she could still be in an academic setting, and she relished the opportunity to learn the craft of fundraising from colleagues who mentored her.

When she moved to Texas a few years later, fate again intervened to guide Fayruz to the perfect opportunity. At a family friend’s Passover dinner in Houston, another guest told Fayruz about a role at a national consulting firm. Fayruz was just 25, but the firm wanted to cultivate a new wave of talent. She became a project manager at the firm’s Houston office and then helped launch the Austin branch.

In some ways, Fayruz says, her career path wasn’t intentional. But, at the same time, “Everything that I saw my family go through and everything that I went through yielded this sense of service — a desire to serve and help causes and people, and to teach,” she says.

Using Her Gifts to Teach Others

Fayruz began to carry the dream of starting her own business in the back of her mind, but she also had some fear and uncertainty about it. Her mom encouraged her and reassured her that she could do it. And she did: Fayruz Benyousef Consulting came into being seven years ago this November.

One of her favorite projects was working with the Junior League of Austin to establish a new community impact center. That’s how I first got to know Fayruz, and I’m grateful for how she encouraged me to live up to my potential. After I sat in a room with her for only one hour, Fayruz recommended that I serve on the Capital Campaign. She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself: the ability to inspire people to lead and to be generous. That led to me serving as the lead ambassador and eventually as the capital campaign chair for our League.

Because of this work, I was regularly asked to speak about the campaign in front of The Junior League of Austin. At the time, I didn’t really enjoy public speaking, but did it often. It was those opportunities that allowed me to improve my craft. “That was surface,” Fayruz told me after one speech at the Junior League. “You’ve done much better before.” And she was right! I’ve also started my own professional speaking career because of Fayruz asking me to step up.

Fayruz is a leader who turns moments into movements. A current project she’s especially excited about is helping the organization Muslims For Progressive Values create a fundraising program and train its board.  The group aims to “create a different narrative, other than the radicalism that you hear about.”

New Journeys

Outside of work, Fayruz and her husband, soccer coach Malek Ben-Musa, are raising their 13-year-old daughter, Yara. Weighing only 2 pounds when she was born prematurely, today Yara is a thriving teen who loves volleyball. (And who’s growing taller than Fayruz!)

Fayruz’s mother lives independently just a few minutes away from them. She has visual impairments and Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, diagnosed in May. The side effects of her treatment have been minimal and her latest scan results were promising, but Fayruz knows that the disease is part of the “new normal” of her mother’s life. It won’t go away, but doctors are helping her manage it.

Her mother’s illness makes Fayruz’s collaboration with Kendra Scott especially meaningful. She originally started working with the company to help it set up a foundation. In talking with the company’s namesake founder, Fayruz learned that she had lost her best friend to metastatic breast cancer and seen other lives devastated.

What Fayruz never expected was that she would become a face of Kendra Scott’s philanthropic work. The company launched a line of charms to support different causes, including metastatic breast cancer. And they asked Fayruz to be one of the women featured in video and photo shoots for the charms. You can see Fayruz’s campaign on the Kendra Scott website.

You Can Make a Difference, Too

If you’re inspired by Fayruz’s work, she encourages you to believe in your own ability to help the causes you’re passionate about. “Follow your heart, but do your homework,” she advises. If you want to start a nonprofit, think about questions like these first:

  •      Who else is in this space?
  •      What would I be adding?
  •      Should I offer to collaborate with an existing group instead?

To follow in Fayruz’s footsteps as a professional fundraiser, get the right training. “Know that this is a profession and this is something where there is actually academic study and certification,” she says. If you’re in Austin, you can participate in the Certificate for Effective Fundraising program where Fayruz serves as a professor.

And here’s one more piece of advice from Fayruz: Support other women. “We need to be better about having each other’s back, celebrating each other’s wins, lifting each other up,” she says.

P.S. #Firestarter, I want you to pick up your phone and text one friend and show her some love. That’s the #MovementMakerTribe way. You know the saying, “Behind every woman is a text message chain of women hyping her up.” And if you don’t text, let’s start an Instagram chain by commenting on one of my posts.

Keep reading my blog this November. In the spirit of showing thanks, we’ll feature someone who is doing something charitable, dynamic or risk-taking to help others in our community. It’s going to be an inspirational month.