Nejeed Kassam navigates his most important role yet: father
In a year when the world was upended and his entire customer base was on the brink of disaster, Kassam's company thrived and he started a family. Here's how he's managing it all.
Nejeed Kassam built his first business when he was 13 years old. It was a marketing company called NK Media. At first glance, it looks as though he named the company after himself, but that’s only one-third true. Yes, the ‘K’ stood for Kassam; however, the ‘N’ represented the first letter not only of his given name but also of his siblings. He has two brothers, Nasheel and Nadeem.
Keela, Nejeed’s latest company is also simple in name but not in ambition. It’s a CRM for non-profit organizations, helping them optimize donor management, email marketing, and reporting. Keela is an iteration of the Swahili word “kila”, which means “every” or “all”. Kassam says it serves as a reminder of their mission to serve and support every organization that’s building community and civil society.
A trained lawyer, Kassam started the company off the side of his desk while he was still practicing law. The product formally launched the week before he got married. “Don’t do that,” he told me a couple of years ago. “You cannot get married and release a product in the same two weeks.”
While he wouldn’t recommend that experience to anyone else, it’s possible that it prepared him to maneuver through 2020, a historically crazy period in many of our lives. In a year when the world was upended and his customer base was on the brink of disaster, Kassam’s company has thrived—and he started a family. He was a lawyer, CEO, author and husband. Now, Nejeed Kassam is nearly a year into navigating his most important role yet: father.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Last year, what changed the most in your life?
I became a dad last April, and perhaps in contrast to many people, 2020 was the best year of my life. Becoming a parent has affected everything about me, from the way I work to the amount I work—although not in the way that I thought—to my goals, my foci and to how I see my life growing.
It's been incredible. Everyone says that, but it’s true. Sometimes I tear up when my little boy has to go to sleep because I’m going to miss him. I’m back to work full time. So, the five minutes between meetings that I get with my son literally makes me well up. And it happens like five times a day, and I have to ask myself, “Who is this guy … crying all the time?” Being a Dad is amazing, but it’s a big change.
You said becoming a parent affected things, but not in the way you thought.
I thought being a dad would make me less ambitious. My wife and I have good jobs. She’s a lawyer, I’m a CEO. We do well enough to be okay, for lack of a better word. I thought this: Have a kid. Keep the same life. Don't worry too much. Spend a ton of time with him. What changed though is that I’m more ambitious. I have bigger goals and bigger plans. I want to achieve more.
I thought the opposite would happen. I thought it would be all about how I can keep the same lifestyle or income for our family and spend as much time with them. What I’ve realized now is that I want to be an exemplar for my son. I want him to see me as the ultimate role model. He doesn’t need to model his life off of me because I want him to do whatever the hell he wants to do, but I want him to be so proud to be my son. Not just for what he sees at home, but also what he sees out there. This definitely shook me up a little. I didn't expect that response from myself.
What do you think about the world you’ve brought your son into?
We've been basically on house arrest for the pandemic. It's been a tough year. This world has been weird. To see my family, they had to quarantine––that's a weird world, right? It's not something I ever expected or imagined. What I think, though, is that this too shall pass, and we will get over it. Science has expedited the vaccine, and I have faith that however slow our current government is rolling it out, things will get better. I think that the world he's going to grow up in is going to be very different from the world that I grew up in, but for the pandemic.
Are you happy or sad about that?
I think sentimentality is a funny thing, right? Because it doesn't have any positive or negative benefits. It's just, you know, I'm the kind of guy who's like, give me a situation, and I'm going to do everything I can to find the best possible solution that drives the most value and creates the most justice, right? That's like kind of my M.O.
I'm sad about the pandemic’s negative economic impact. But at the same time, you got to look at the opportunities it's created. It's allowed us to reimagine our economies, it's allowed to reimagine our work cultures, it's allowed companies, especially Canadian companies, to think more globally.
It's brought to the forefront the climate change discussion, it's got a lot of us thinking about how we want to live, and what our cities in our country should look like. It’s maybe brought to the forefront the challenges of international cooperation in a way that nothing since the last World War has. This has been an exercise for humanity to get better. And for that, I'm hopeful. I'm scared. But I'm hopeful.
How have you been managing your company?
Keela has a lot of people under 41. Most of them, like many millennials, take public transportation and live in apartment buildings. That's what a modern city looks like. It's something that I've strongly advocated for. But of course, nobody wanted to take the bus during a pandemic.
Very quickly, folks started to state they were uncomfortable coming in. Nobody knew what this was going to be. Some people thought it would be a month or two, right? Like, that's what we all thought. I am not smart enough to know this is going to last a year, so I decided to shut the office down and see what happens.
We said to everybody, “Don't come in if you don't want to.” After a few weeks, we decided to close everything down. We did a poll and like 90% of people said they didn't want an office at all during the pandemic, so what's the point?
It’s caused us to adapt our communication styles and mechanisms and how we operate between teams. There were a lot of growing pains as well, but I think we've come out of it pretty strong.
Tell me about specific areas you struggled with.
Firstly, I want to say something. Today is “Bell, Let's Talk.” I think mental health has never been put to the test more than it has in this pandemic. We’ve been challenged because our employees have small apartments. They're young, and some of them have roommates, and some of them live with their spouses or whatever it might be. Those are cramped quarters. So, it has been important to just have empathy and visibility into the fact that this was hard for them.
Imagine two people working from a 600 square foot apartment. That's the reality that millions of Canadians are facing right now. If you're lucky enough to have a job and you're lucky enough to have a home, you're probably stuck in it with your spouse trying to coexist. The situation has caused serious mental health challenges. I've personally seen the effects of it. I was an office guy. I was a put-your-blazer-on-and-wear-cufflinks-to-my-startup-everyday kind of guy.
I had to adapt to getting up at 8:40 am for an 8:55 am meeting because I didn't sleep all night because my son was crying. I think the mental health aspect of all this is something that certainly has been a challenge among other areas.
For instance, in the company, we didn't realize how much collaboration happened by accident... bumping into each other and overhearing conversations and comments. I can't speak for other staff, but I didn’t appreciate how much collaboration happens like that. You can’t recreate that.
You don’t think there’s a digital version of that?
No, I don't.
Actually, I don't know, I'm not smart enough to answer that question. But I can tell you that we've had to be more purposeful with meetings and check-ins. We’re having to communicate across teams in new ways. Cross-team communication and collaboration was honestly a lot easier when you could throw a piece of paper at somebody and say, “We're launching this a week late,” or “There's a bug, can you help me?” Of course, there's slack. But you have to be more conscious about communications in a way that I and the team never had to think about before. That's hard.
How has the actual business fared?
We've absolutely crushed it. We have an amazing team that despite the challenges we're talking about, has resiliency and innovation and flair. We doubled our revenue last year.
Not many companies can say that they doubled their revenue through the pandemic.
What is that reflective of?
Like all sectors, there’s digital transformation happening in the nonprofit sector. And I'm really excited because I think we have an opportunity to lead that. But I also think we put in a few hard years before that.
It feels like some of the seeds of our labour are starting to bear fruit. I think we learned a lot over the past three years as a business, and 2020 became our coming-out party. I think the year would have been better if there hadn't been a pandemic, I think we would have even more sales. But despite the pandemic, we were able to do remarkable things.
What's prepared you to handle everything that’s happened over the last 12 months?
I have the ability to work really really hard—to put my head down, grind, and push myself. This really prepared me for what I did last year. There isn’t a week that I didn’t work less than 60 hours since my son Kiyan was born. And I’m very proud to be a present dad. I see him, and I change diapers, I'm with him. During the first four months of his life, I did the night shifts, so I would actually feed him in the middle of the night. He'd go to sleep, I’d work, then he’d wake up, and I’d feed him and put him back to sleep, and then I'd come down and I'd work more. Then at two-whatever in the morning, I’d stop and make a plate of nachos. Then I would go to sleep until my first meeting that day. Rinse and repeat.
What prepared me for that was a lifetime dedicated to pushing myself and a lifetime dedicated to problem-solving—my legal training and my years in corporate law. I think it was like a summation of all of that.
It’s also being humble enough to know you’re going to screw things up all the time. Having screwed up so many things in my life actually prepared me to know that we're not going to figure everything out right away. Knowing you're going to screw things up and be able to recover from the mess-ups was actually part of why we were able to thrive.
Have you been going to anyone for advice? Your team needs you, but who do you, as an executive, go to for support?
I'll be a bit vulnerable for a second and say this: I have never been lonelier in my life. I have the greatest wife that man has ever seen. I have a badass son. I have the best team in the world. This star team has literally won awards for being the best team. But it's been lonely. Especially because I've been isolated into this like forty-five-square foot office. It's been lonely and it's been hard, and it's pushed my mental health.
I'm really blessed though because I've got an incredible board of directors and mentors that I can reach out to. I have turned to them. Many of them are former executives, CEOs, leaders, and investors. Obviously, I’ve also turned to my wife. I always have an ear and a support structure with her. I’m really, really blessed. But it's a lonely job. Being a CEO is a lonely job.
I know you're into politics and policy.
Policy more than politics, yes.
There is no shortage of policy discussions to have right now—the government’s handling of the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine, for instance.
It's hard to know what kind of agency our governments have had, right? How do you stimulate an economy from avoiding collapse, while at the same keeping our public healthy and safe? Where I've been disappointed, it hasn't been with the government, but with people.
Governments can only distribute as many vaccines as they’re given, right? Sure, we could have been more proactive in this now. But ultimately, the reality is these are the cards we were dealt, and they've played them. I don't know how well because it's hard for me to know, but I'm going to choose to be a little bit more critical of people who have flaunted and broken the rules, people that have had a disregard for vulnerable people and old people, people who have acted selfishly.
One thing that I am grateful for is that my wife and my team care more about people's lives than their own social life.
You know, so many people have said, “Oh, it’s my life!” Yeah, but it's everyone's lives. And that's the point that I'm trying to make. The only comment I'll make on the pandemic is that I think we as a society need to come together for the public good more than we do.
My wife and I have this philosophy: To have the freedom we have, we have to give up some freedom. Our Constitution is based on that principle. The way our laws are written are based on that principle. And I think we, without killing the economy, we could have been better in this society.
As this pandemic pushes on past a year, how do you keep getting the best out of your people?
I think it's a couple of things. It's like being tuned in, responsive and just listening to the challenges that they're facing, and then working hard to fix them as best as we can. Providing the kind of support we can. At Keela, we bought a mental health app for everyone on our staff. You know, we've been trying to do stuff that helps even a little bit. But ultimately, I think listening and iterating on challenges that they're facing that’s within our power is the only way to do it.
That's not like some revolutionary answer. I don't have the golden key to open anything in terms of wisdom. I think it's just listening and being humble as leaders—knowing you’re going to make mistakes along the way and have to make changes.