Israa Nasir, Co-founder of Ammi Service and a Therapist

By Anam Abdulla | Stories

Feb 17
Israa Nasir is a Pakistani-Canadian, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and moved to Toronto when she was 13.  As a result, she has a really strong understanding of blended cultures and identities. As a therapist, she’s most interested in issues of identity and how they influence the decisions we make. She is a strong advocate for women’s issues and try to be involved in matters of education and healthcare for marginalized women. Currently, she splits her time between working as a therapist, and on Ammi Service as the healthcare lead. In between all of this, she makes sure to travel to a new destination every year, try new restaurants around the city, and is obsessed with marine mammals!


1.What inspired you to choose a career in psychotherapy? What has been the best part about your role as a psychotherapist? What have been some of the most challenging aspects and how have you dealt with these?

I became interested in mental health and south Asian culture after visiting a mental health ward in a hospital in Karachi. I became more passionate about increasing South Asian representation on the service-provider side for mental health. This topic is taboo in many places, which is why I think it is so important to make changes and start conversations from within the culture.

The best part is watching someone come into a realization about a change they need to make in their lives. It’s always a distinct moment and an honour to be a part of someone’s process of self-discovery.

The most challenging part of this job is recognizing when you need a break or mental distance from a client’s issues. Being in a helping profession, it is very easy to overlook yourself; however in the long term it really impacts your quality of work. Knowing the signs of burn out and then practicing self-care is necessary. I have a strong set of peers who know the same challenges well, and we support each other. Finding supportive peers helps a lot!

2. You recently transitioned to a new field and co-founded your start-up, Ammi Service. Can you tell us about it and how it all happened? Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Ammi Service was first pitched at Pakathon 2016. I was initially interested in post-partum depression in Pakistan, but the conversation in the room led to maternal health as a whole. There were other folks who were interested in the mHealth platform, specifically my co-founder Kamil Shafiq, and we formed a team. We won Pakathon Toronto, then the Global Finals, then got accepted into Invest 2 Innovate’s 2016-2017 cohort and went to Lahore, Pakistan to start building. The beginning has been strong, but there’s still a long way to go.

No I didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur, and to be honest I don’t actually identify with that label much. I tend to stay away from labels that can lead people to believe I’m a certain way, you know? I see myself as someone who wants to think and do beyond herself. My dad always says that “we should all aim to leave the world a slightly better place than we got it”, and I’ve made that my true north.

3. You have also had to move to Pakistan to take your start-up forward. What have been some of the initial challenges in moving to a new place and starting afresh? What are some of the exciting aspects?

Besides the logistics of navigating a new landscape, the biggest challenge for us was making the right connections. One thing we learnt very quickly is that Pakistan is a reference-based business. Knowing the right people and making connections with people who point you in the right direction is really important. Arming yourself with knowledge is imperative! Navigating the legal system was also tricky and I’d encourage everyone to know the legal system thoroughly before they make a move to a new place. It goes a long way!

The most exciting aspect about working in Pakistan is the level of resiliency and creativity in the people. People there are able to do a lot with very little. There is a lot of opportunity there; a lot of intellectual capital. You can see the changes starting to happen, with places like Amal Academy or apps like Patari. Things are shifting there and it is an exciting time for anyone wanting to make some change.

4. On a day to day basis, how do you keep yourself motivated to keep working on your goals?

Surrounding myself with positive energy and people who look beyond themselves. These don’t have to be people you know in real time, it can be an author or a speaker you admire. I try to stay inspired by watching people like Michelle Obama or Oprah, or a TED talk that uplifts me. I keep it short, 20 minutes, and it is a quick boost in energy.

Keeping your creative flow is also really important. I read a lot, mostly fiction (and some non-fiction). Reading doesn’t mean only books or novels; it can be articles, Op-Ed’s, anything that gets you thinking about the world in a different way. Recently, I’ve started listening to podcasts as well, which is really fun on my drive to work!

Finally – and most importantly – I take breaks when I need them, from everything, once in a while. It is really important to value yourself and invest in taking care of yourself.

5. Who (or what) has been your biggest source of support/encouragement during all your pursuits?

Not even trying to be a cliché – but my family! They are always behind what I’m doing, and even when they critique the choices, or tell me to do otherwise – it helps me see a different perspective. They are also really involved in the things I do, so having accountability helps keep me going some days!

6. In your opinion, what are the top three skills that are critical to be a successful entrepreneur?

  • Flexibility: having a plan and being comfortable with knowing it won’t go as you think.
  • Resilience: thick skin
  • Creativity: there are always MORE roads leading to Rome

 7. What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received? Do you have any advice for our viewers who are interested in entrepreneurship and social impact?

“Maximize your assets instead of focusing on what you’re lacking”.  If you only focus on what you aren’t good at, you’ll only know the things you “cannot” do. If you shift focus to what you’re good at and what your skills are, then you’ll see the things you are capable of doing, and also gain confidence in improving yourself.

When you decide to pursue something, make sure it is a cause or platform you really love. It gets rough and lonely, creating impact demands a lot of your time, resources, and sacrifice. Make sure your heart is all in. Secondly, there is no shame in accepting a mistake, switching gears from your original idea, or even walking away – if that’s what you need to do at that time.

 8. Finally, how do you define success?

Success means becoming your best self; knowing that you’re constantly learning and moving, in whichever direction you’ve chosen for yourself. I know it sounds very “eat-pray-love”, but nothing feels better than knowing that you are better than who you were yesterday.  The process of self-improvement will constantly bring you closer to your goals, whether they are professional, personal, financial, or academic.