Zahra Esmail

Forty under 40 winner 2019: Executive director, South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and Marpole Neighbourhood House, Age 37

Rob Kruyt photo

In this hectic, fast-changing world, many of us tend to lose our broad perspective, focusing narrowly on the bottom line. That’s not the case for Zahra Esmail, who has staked her career on creating an impact that goes beyond the income statement to having a positive influence on her community and the people in it.

Esmail left her first job as an administrative assistant to study international development at the University of Ottawa because she felt she wasn’t contributing anything valuable at her office job. Usually when people assess value in the context of their career, they’re referring to shareholder value or their personal level of compensation, but that is not the value that she is necessarily trying to achieve.

For Esmail, money has never been the biggest motivator. The value she is looking to create can’t necessarily be quantified in dollars and cents. To her, helping a community thrive is in a way much more tangible than money.

“All the money in the bank wouldn’t be enough for me to feel like I was spending my time in the way that I want to,” Esmail said.

Currently, Esmail serves as executive director of South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and Marpole Neighbourhood House, where she has revamped the formula for what neighbourhood-house charities can accomplish. Esmail has a long history of helping others, and the vision she has for Vancouver has evolved from her work around the world including in Haiti, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Her experiences made her realize the importance of contributing to her community – and also of ensuring that the people in that community have a say in the work being done.

“When I was overseas, I was very uncomfortable with the power I held because I could see that me having that power was disempowering people in the community,” she said. “If change is going to be sustainable, there has to be buy-in, engagement and leadership from local communities, and that’s what led me to the neighbourhood-house movement.”

The neighbourhood-house association aims to gain input from the local community on how best to build healthy and engaged neighbourhoods.


Birthplace: Calgary

Where you live now: Vancouver

Highest level of education: Master’s in globalization and international development

Currently reading: The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

Currently listening to: “Mere Rashke Qamar” by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan

When you were a kid, what you wanted to be when you grew up: Dancer

Profession you would most like to try: Pilot

Toughest business or professional decision: Dealing with decreases in funding

Advice you would give the younger you: Try everything once

What’s left to do: Stabilize Marpole Neighbourhood House and make it shine


Join us to celebrate the 2019 Forty under 40 Awards on January 30, 2020, at the Westin Bayshore. For tickets and event information visit