By Jasmine Afnan Al-kholani

Sarah Hussain, CEO and founder of Bridge HR, sits at her desk, tired from her long stream of meetings. Though her responsibilities are never-ending, she likes being in charge and having control over her day—a far cry from the shift that inspired her to launch her human resources company.

Sarah Hussain
Sarah Hussain, CEO and founder of Bridge HR, highlights the importance of diversity in the workplace (Jasmine Afnan Al-kholani/T•)

It’s a cold and damp day in 2013, forcing most people indoors and crowding the mall. Hussain, a sales associate at a popular fast-fashion chain, runs around the store picking up clothes that can be found on the floor more often than the hangers. Customers are piling in, grabbing whatever catches their eye and buying whatever they can afford. Shirts are inside out, every fitting room is full, and the line for the cashier extends through the store. The latest shipment of merchandise came rolling in later than usual, pushing the schedule behind by hours and leaving no downtime.

Hussain is being pulled left and right by customers asking the same questions in different languages. Where’s the fitting room? How much does this cost? Do you have this in another size? Her long-sleeved shirt and headscarf keep her red in the face and sweaty. She is the only Muslim Hijabi at the store, which sets her apart from the mostly white team of coworkers and managers.

“I would help customers who were looking for a more modest look or those who couldn’t speak English fluently,” she remembers.

Although her differences helped her make connections and conversations with customers, they also led to workplace discrimination.

“I felt a sense of isolation and hostility and there was no one there to help me. There was no escape,” she explains.

It’s nearing the end of Hussain’s shift when her manager pulls her, and only her, aside. “You aren’t moving fast enough and you aren’t doing your tasks right,” the manager says.

Hussain anticipated this would happen; it had happened every shift since she started working at the store. Her manager would highlight her mistakes and criticize her work in front of other employees.

“There was no difference in pace or quality of work between me and the other associates, but the manager chose to only focus on my mistakes,” says Hussain.

Although she prided herself on providing the best customer service with a big smile and attentive support, management was never satisfied.

“If it’s your manager that’s acting this way towards you as an employee, who do you go to for help?” she asks now.

Hussain realized then and there that she wanted to change workplace environments and promote acceptance of diversity.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between being unemployed or facing discrimination,” she says. “They should have access to resources and support to ensure that you aren’t being discriminated against.”

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